The Failure of the Corporate Intranet

Businessman with red umbrella under huge wave of documentsAround 10 years ago, corporate intranets were seen by many as the potential solution to the problem of keeping employees informed. These days it is often said that intranets are “where knowledge goes to die”. That is probably a little unfair in most cases, but it is certainly true that few intranets have delivered a knowledge management nirvana. So what went wrong?

Firstly, it would be wrong to suggest that all intranets have failed. The degrees of success have varied significantly between organizations – some intranets continue to be valuable, if imperfect, tools; others have become stale and underused, overwhelmed by the clutter of out-of-date documents. It is not uncommon to hear that the most viewed page on the intranet is the office restaurant menu.

But almost all suffer from the fundamental problem that the intranet is built around documents and processes, not around people. It is best perceived as a big electronic filing cabinet, and its success or failure depends how good the filing procedures are, how diligent people are at filing, and how easy it is to use the retrieval mechanisms. Many intranets become the domain of a small number of expert users who know where everything is, while everyone else becomes increasingly disengaged. Common complaints are:

  • poor usability
  • difficulty in creating content
  • not knowing where to categorize content
  • insufficiently powerful search capabilities to find content
  • (and most common of all) the observation that the intranet is primarily a broadcast mechanism for a few people to present information to everyone else, rather than everyone being able to contribute equally.

These result in the intranet becoming an incomplete filing system, as disengaged users get out of the habit of posting their content. Eventually, the intranet is no longer the definitive source of truth for corporate knowledge – it is yet another information silo to check.

Just as with email, it is easy to blame the software, but again, we need to take more responsibility for our communication habits. OK, so the form for uploading a file might be slow and awkward to use. The categorization of the content may make it hard to work out where you should put your document. But these are often excuses. Yes, it might take you 5 or 10 minutes to upload a document, and that might be inconvenient for you, but consider the potential benefit to other people who will then have access to the content. Maybe the category structure was based on someone else’s view of how information should be organized, but it’s almost always better to put content in the wrong place rather than not put it anywhere. This should be fairly obvious to anyone who is motivated to share their content more widely and understands the benefits of pull-based information flows. But to anyone still stuck with a “knowledge is power” mentality, most intranets provide ready-made excuses to justify their behaviour.

The intranet software market has become increasingly dominated by Microsoft Sharepoint, due to its low price and integration with Microsoft Office. This is perhaps the perfect example of “good enough” computing – few people love Sharepoint, but it works just well enough to make it hard to justify an alternative. While Sharepoint may have proved to be a valuable tool for some organisations, it has almost certainly held many others back from moving to the logical successor to the intranet – the enterprise social network (ESN). Later in the series we will consider how ESNs address many of the problems of intranets, but have also faced challenges in becoming established that have so far prevented the full potential benefits being achieved.


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