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In the early days of intranets, life was simple from a technology standpoint.
The role of intranets was to act as a repository for corporate content, and to provide a channel for all-staff news. These were not demanding requirements, and intranets could be easily managed using any of the web content management systems on the market. Little or no customisation or development was required.
Many intranets — even some of the large ones! — were managed using tools as simple as Dreamweaver or FrontPage.
Our whitepaper Putting information to work: the five purposes of modern intranets explores the new, much greater, role of intranets. Alongside content and communication, intranets now foster collaboration, and provide platforms for business solutions.
This requires much more sophisticated technology capabilities, prompting the question: what is the best way to meet the technology needs of modern sites?
The answer might be a surprising one: intranet-in-a-box solutions. Often discounted in the past as simplistic offerings, these are now a viable choice worth serious consideration.
Emerging from the age of development
When intranets evolved from being a simple publishing platform to a richer enterprise solution, technology capabilities lagged behind. It became necessary to close this gap by conducting extensive development or customisation.
This development work added the necessary functionality to products such as content management systems, or built the required integration between systems that wasn’t provided as standard.
Many wonderful and inspiring intranets have been delivered this way, but the costs were often high – with development routinely costing between $100,000 and $1 mil, it put sophisticated intranets out of reach for many organisations.
We’re starting to emerge from this ‘age of development’ for intranets, with the growth of pre-built intranet solutions.
Why spend money to custom build the same #intranet features that everyone already has?
Enter stage left: pre-built solutions
Intranet-in-a-box solutions (or whatever they are called, see below) offer a pre-built set of intranet capabilities. They generally cover the full spread of typical intranet needs, including:
- content publishing
- internal news
- staff directory
- online forms
- collaboration and social
- corporate calendar
- productivity tools, such as room bookings, etc
These products may be built in a variety of ways, such as:
- Stand-alone solutions, built from the ground up, offering a ‘black box’ product that can be deployed on any server.
- Solutions that are an extension of web CMS offerings, typically provided as a set of modules alongside core web publishing capabilities.
- Products that sit on top of an enterprise platform, such as SharePoint (these are the newest players in the market).
- Cloud-based offerings, providing an entirely hosted solution with no on-premises impact.
Some of the out-of-the-box solutions have been around for more than a decade, but were often considered second-class offerings. With a flush of new entrants, and a renewal of existing products, these offerings should now be viewed as serious contenders.
There are plenty of products that offer an instant #intranet, with all the common features and elements.
What’s in a name?
With the rapidly evolving nature of these pre-built products, everyone — including the vendors themselves — have struggled to name their solutions. This has lead to a dizzying diversity of descriptions in the marketplace, often describing the same type of thing.
Consider the following the following descriptions when seeking products in the marketplace:
- Intranet in a box
- Out of the box intranet
- Intranet software
- Intranet solution
- Simple intranet
- Intelligent intranet
- Social intranet
- Digital workplace solution
Pros and cons of intranet-in-a-box products
Pre-built intranet solutions offer a number of key benefits, including:
- Good coverage of common needs, with solutions offering a wide range of pre-built functionality.
- Rapid deployment, with solutions capable of being ‘spun up’ in a matter of hours (although put in the content is a much slower process!).
- Lower cost, with some solutions providing a complete intranet at a fraction of the cost of custom coding.
- Focusing on things that count the most, effectively ‘taking technology off the table’ so efforts can be devoted to intranet strategy, design, structure, content and governance.
These solutions are not, however, without their weaknesses:
- Breadth rather than depth, with many solutions offering a very wide range of capabilities, but with simpler functionality in each area.
- Compromises may need to be made, where specific needs may need to be traded off against the breadth of coverage.
- Limited ability to customise, with many aspects of the solutions being locked down, as a natural consequence of their out-of-the-box nature.
- Potential to be outgrown, with future needs exceeding the product offerings.
Buy an out-of-the-box #intranet solution, and spend the time on more important stuff, like strategy, #UX, #IA and governance.
Are you an innovator?
There is still a role for customisation and development in the world of intranets. While the majority of ‘typical’ intranets may be met by simpler technology platforms, innovators are constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. As shown in the Intranet Innovation Awards, the results can be spectacular.
This type of innovation is to be encouraged, and leading-edge organisations can benefit significantly from further investment in their intranet platform (a growing number of out-of-the-box intranets encourage this type of innovation, by providing APIs and points of integration).
How to choose the right product
There are many intranet products and platforms in the market, with widely varying capabilities and price points.
(In case your’e wondering, we haven’t listed any products in this article due to our vendor-neutral status. While we closely track the solutions, we’ll only ever talk about products behind closed doors, as it’s not our role to promote vendors or pick winners.)
When considering your next intranet technology platform, take the following steps:
- Understand where you’re at in your intranet journey. Are you wanting to cover core business and staff needs, or are you ready to innovate?
- Document clear business and functional needs. Robust and carefully considered requirements are the bedrock of any selection process (see Requirements-focused CMS selection for more on this).
- Identify your short list of products. Choose which segment of the marketplace to consider based on your business needs (see Use the five purposes to guide intranet technology selection for more on this).
- See the products in practice. Take a structured approach to vendor demonstrations, to get beyond the usual sales pitch (see Using scenarios to select a CMS for more on this).
- Choose the product with the ‘best fit’. Consider how well the product will match the way your organisation operates, beyond meeting functional requirements.
Picking an #intranet-in-a-box solution still starts with a clear strategy and concrete requirements.
We’ve been helping organisations select intranet technology platforms for almost 15 years. See how our technology services can help you. Or get in touch straight away for a friendly chat about the marketplace, and how to make sense of it.