The Three Types of Intranets

By Deane Barker on October 11, 2006

I was having a conversation with a client the other day, and I articulated something I’ve felt for a long time, but have never really written down.

There are three types of intranets. They’re very different, and when someone thinks “intranet,” they’re no doubt thinking of one of the three types. Intranets can overlap from one type to another, but they tend to fall along these lines:

  1. The collaboration platform. This type is very big on two-way publishing. Users publish just as much as they consume. This type of intranet is big on discussion forums and other ways to people to connect with each other. Information tends to be less formal, more conversational.

  2. The internal Web site. This type is based on one-way publishing. People who interact with it are divided into two groups: consumers and publishers.

There is a defined “admin side” to it which comparitively few people have access. Information is reviewed before it’s published, and it’s often subject to workflow and approvals. The intranet is structured just like a public Web site, it just happens to be behind the firewall.

  1. The distributed intranet. In larger organizations, your intranet very quickly becomes decentralized. You end up not with a single, definable “intranet,” but with dozens or even hundreds of small applications (e.g. - a phone directory, an announcements system, a document library) that you group around common infrastructure, like a centralized user database (often LDAP or Active Directory), and a centralized store of design elements so all the mini-applications can look the same.

When discussing an intranet with a client or within your own organization, you need to first figure out what people think when the word “intranet” comes up.

When you hear the boss say, “We need an intranet,” does he want Microsoft Sharepoint, or a Business Communications intern with a copy of Contribute standing by ready to write down what he says? There’s a huge difference, and you’re just as likely to head down the opposite road of where people think you should be.

But is this a false choice? Can people have both a collboaration platform and internal Web site? Sure, but then you drift into the third option – distributed.

Say you have a copy of Sharepoint, plus a traditional content management system churning out news, birth announcements, and policies and procedures. You hook all these systems up to an LDAP store, and you skin them all to look somewhat alike. You now have a distributed intranet – disparate applications talking to the same user database and sharing the same design and navigation elements.

I’ve worked on three big, enterprise-scale intranets. In the end, they all evolved into distributed architectures. So no matter where you start, keep that ending in mind. If you plan for it, you can handle it better when it happens.

Comments (4)

Tomas says:

I think the answer to this may be SPS2007. It’s core is still collaboration and document management, but with a skilled SPS developer you can get your distributed system with your own brand dumped in on top of SPS, and you can hand out the updates to your departments without have to worry about flashing text and crappy color schemes.

I’m not speaking from experience, just from live demos with MS, but I hope to be speaking from experience in the coming months.

Deane says:

I don’t think there’s really an “answer” to this. I know that Sharepoint can be both a collaboration platform and a publishing platform. But eventually, you’re going to end up distributed, unless every piece of software you buy or build is designed to integrate into Sharepoint.

Will says:

I agree with Deane. There is not one answer, but if there is I would say that it does not reside within technology but the culture of the company. I have worked on many intranet projects at various companies with a multitude of technology solutions. The most successful efforts I worked on started with the culture of the company and its willingness to allow the information to grow from the bottom up. Having seen this first hand I have started to let the culture of the company help select the type of tool we purchase, rather than leaving it up to the ivory tower of management.

playbunbas says:

i agree with willy and deane