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Debunking Five Common Intranet Myths

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (10-Jun-2005)

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Does the Loch Ness monster exist? Were all those crop circles really the work of some drunken college students? How about that whole "aliens helped the Egyptians build the Pyramids of Giza" thing? Myths abound; some are passed down from generation to generation while others are more suited to the tabloids.

There's no shortage of myths in the corporate world either—most of which are based on a lack of understanding. Over the years I've received many e-mails from readers with some pretty wild, and even dangerous, misconceptions about intranet development and management. In this article I'll take a look at five of these common intranet myths.


Myth 1: Intranets and Corporate Web Sites Should Use the Same Brand

There's no reason why an intranet should share the same brand as an external, corporate Internet site. In fact, it's the opposite: An intranet should have an explicitly distinct brand that separates its identity from the corporate site. Why? Different purpose, different design.

Corporate Internet sites cater to a wide, external audience that has little knowledge of the organization. They visit a company Web site to get information about its services, its products, or the company itself. An intranet, on the other hand, caters to internal employees who are already familiar with the organization and contains large volumes of business, project, and industry-specific content.

Employees of an organization will rarely visit their own corporate Web site for more than a few minutes; they have little interest in reading marketing information. It's always useful to give an intranet a distinct brand and identity in order to separate it from the external site.

Even though an organization's intranet and Internet Web site serve two very distinct purposes, intranet owners and developers seem to have this misconception that they need to look the same simply because they're both Web-based. But this similarity is the only one that ties the two together. An intranet shouldn't look any more like its external counterpart than Microsoft Outlook should.

The table below illustrates the core differences between external, corporate Web sites and internal intranet applications:

  Internet Site Intranet Application
Purpose Marketing: Corporate visibility and product/service promotion Productivity: Content management, online collaboration, company-specific applications
Audience Casual visitors with little knowledge of organization Heavy, function-oriented users who are already familiar with the organization
Content Life Fairly static with occasional updates Highly variable with daily updates
Design High wow factor; must catch users' attention to maintain interest and increase exposure High functionality; must cater to both quick content retrieval and long-term usage

Myth 2: Internal Security Is Not as Important as External Security

While it's vital to protect an organization's network resources from unauthorized access by external threats—hackers, viruses, spyware—you can't ignore the possibilities of internal threats either. Intranet owners can be lulled into a false sense of security by believing that there's no threat to corporate data simply because all personnel are part of the same organization. But you can't rely solely on the assumption that every employee will handle sensitive internal information with proper care and discretion.

A complete intranet security solution isn't a matter of either/or. Internal security is just as important as the firewalls, proxy servers, and anti-virus components put into place to keep outside threats from corrupting an organization's IT infrastructure. But unlike these external measures, internal intranet security involves procedural as well as technological components:

Procedural

Technological

An intranet houses enormous amounts of strategic information—most of which isn't available to the public. Internal corporate information can become compromised—either through carelessness or malicious intent—if proper internal security measures aren't put into place and enforced. If this information does happen to fall into the wrong hands, the consequences can be extensive including the loss of competitive advantage, costly and time-consuming litigation, or the divulging of trade secrets.

(Related articles: Managing the Keys to Your Intranet, Intranet Security Begins With Education)


Myth 3: Building is Easier and Cheaper Than Buying... or Vice Versa

There are proponents on both sides of the build or buy issue who are convinced that they're right. But the blanket assumption that one is simpler and more cost-effective than the other can't be proven without first considering two factors:

The final decision as to whether to build or buy is really dependent on the availability of in-house expertise as well as the status of exiting IT infrastructure and resources.

Every organization and solution is different. Organizations with an experienced IT staff and stable infrastructure—Web and application servers, internal and external security components, disaster recovery and business continuity procedures, a defined development path—may find it more cost effective to keep everything in-house. Since commercial intranet suites can't be everything to everyone, you may end up paying for features you don't need. In-house development affords developers the luxury of building exactly what's required, while still giving themselves the flexibility for future upgrades and enhancements.

But smaller businesses or non-profit organizations—those unlikely to have dedicated IT staff—might find it more feasible to buy an off-the-shelf turnkey solution or to host it through a third-party service provider. These types of organizations will probably not have the time and resources to undergo a development process. Commercial intranet solutions allow them to hit the ground running and to focus attention on their core activities rather than development, which isn't their primary business function.

(Related articles: Making a Home for Your Intranet, Building in-house, Outsourcing Your Intranet, Buying a Solution)


Myth 4: More Features Means More Value

Overdevelopment already plagues commercial software. Consumers spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on bloated software packages with long lists of features that will most likely never be used. When you have the opportunity to build an in-house application from scratch, don't go overboard. More isn't always better.

An intranet must be developed to meet a business requirement, not to impress users with a huge featureset—a popular technique among commercial software vendors. But unlike commercial packages, an intranet isn't built for the software market, it's built for internal corporate users that demand function over flash. Superfluous features will only create system bloat and make the intranet unnecessarily complicated. This can dissuade users from using it and even take away from the system's core functionality.

Overdevelopment can be caused by:

You never want to compromise the integrity of must-haves with the inclusion of nice-to-haves. Piling on unnecessary features makes an intranet top heavy—and when things get top heavy, they tip over. So build the system you need, not the system you think users should want.

(Related articles: Beware the Bleeding Edge and Feature Creep, The Problem With Jack-Of-All Trades Intranets)


Myth 5: An Intranet Will Improve Collaboration

Yes and no. Some intranet owners like to use "improve corporate collaboration" as the justification for the development and maintenance of an intranet, but intranets don't always succeed at this. The extent to which an intranet can improve collaboration will depend on the quality and state of the organization's social-based collaboration. If employees don't cooperate at the basic human level, adding a layer of technology won't fix that—in some cases, it will even drive people further apart.

Intranet developers must have an understanding of the collective mindset and habits of their user community before trying to implement an intranet. Unlike many other IT systems, intranets are user and community driven. A successful intranet involves much more than the technology used to build it. It's the cooperative community around it and the content they contribute that gives an intranet its true worth. But if the majority of employees hoard information for personal gain, job security, or they simply can't be bothered, then an intranet will go unused and the community fails.

Developers tend to forget that technology is an enabler; it can only improve collaboration if there's already a solid foundation of social interaction and knowledge sharing. In these environments, an intranet can be an invaluable tool, providing users with an alternative means of collaboration.

(Related articles: Knowledge Sharing: The Facts and the Myths, Part 1 and Part 2.)


Closing Thoughts

Even though intranets have been around since the '90s, there still seem to be a lot of misunderstanding and uncertainty surrounding them. But many of these misconceptions arise because those holding them as truths fail to take the time to ask questions—to challenge the myths and their accuracy. And the greatest mistake here is in allowing these loosely based myths to become some sort of self-created false reality. Next thing you know, you're going to start believing in all those Elvis sightings too.


Copyright © 2005 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.