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Technology moves rapidly, constantly introducing new platforms and new features. Our expectations of what makes great intranets evolves alongside this.
This leads to the perennial challenge of working out how best to deliver modern intranets. In an ideal world, the costs are low, the pace of delivery is fast, and risks are small. (Oh, and you get a great intranet in the end.)
This often comes down to the question: should we build the functionality we need, or should we buy it?
This decision can be guided by a simple principle:
If the #intranet functionality is common across organisations, buy it; if your needs are unique, then build it.
This article will dig into this principle further, exploring what it means in the real world.
Intranets have been around for 20 years, and there has been the steady development of out-of-the-box intranet products over that time (including more recently, an explosion of SharePoint-based intranet products).
These promise to deploy in hours or days, taking a what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach: if you see it on the vendor’s website, or in a product demo, then you’ll get it on day one.
The vast bulk of common intranet functionality is covered by these solutions, including:
- publishing and editing pages
- publishing documents
- publishing intranet news
- homepage news widgets such as carousels
- intranet branding and design
- global navigation, including point-and-click site management
- staff directory
- organisational charts (organograms)
- simple collaboration and social features
- simple online forms
There are many advantages of these solutions, not least their low cost (some are as cheap as a few thousand dollars). They also provide upgrades and bug fixes, and in many cases, a large selection of additional modules and features.
Of course, the flipside of the what-you-see-is-what-you-get model is that you’re potentially stuck with what’s offered. There may be few recommended ways of customising or extending these products, leading the organisation to outgrow the solution in the future.
Out-of-the-box #intranet products are what-you-see-is-what-you get, and they are up and running in hours or days
The ambitions of today’s intranet and digital workplace teams are a hundred times greater than a decade ago. Teams are now seeking to play a transformational role in organisations, particularly relating to delivering a modern digital workplace.
These ambitions may exceed the capabilities of pre-built intranet products. There may also be considerations, needs or challanges that are unique to the organisation.
In both these cases, the answer is to build solutions. This decision should be guided by a number of considerations:
- Restrict any customisation or development to the smallest possible scope, thus mitigating risks of costs and time overruns.
- Take a fully agile approach to development, allowing solutions to be quickly delivered and iterated.
- Make use of out-of-the-box solutions wherever possible, using web services and APIs to deliver seamless integration.
- Carefully choose the development team, based on their current skills and past successes.
- Target customisation and development work to areas of direct business benefits.
While there are many risks in developing features, the benefits can be great. As shown in the yearly winners of the /iia, remarkable intranet and digital workplace solutions can be a game-changer for businesses.
It is often the case that the greatest business benefits are delivered by custom solutions, rather than pre-built products. The key is to draw the right lines between what is built, and what is bought.
The most valuable #intranet solutions are often custom-built, to match unique business needs
Look before you leap
Just because everyone else you’ve talked to has custom-built their solution, doesn’t mean you should too. Knowledge of out-of-the-box solutions is often patchy, and the state-of-the-art is constantly changing.
Similarly, a given intranet product may continue to have dominance (particularly in a vertical market), long after it’s been superseded by its competitors.
Intranet and digital workplace teams should therefore always conduct a marketplace assessment before deciding on a route. Wherever possible, aim to buy rather than build, but carefully choose which product to implement.
Where ambitions are high, target customisation and development efforts to just the areas that will deliver tangible business benefits.
Over time, this should help organisations to chart a practical course through an ever-changing technology landscape, spending just what is needed at any given point.