Friday, February 4, 2011

Intranet is a Misnomer

On paper, intranets make sense: a private computer network that uses Internet Protocol to securely share any part of an organization's information or network operating system within that organization (from Wikipedia). However, despite using the same protocols and user interface (a web browser) they are incredibly different. Looking at the disparity between the Internet and intranets one can't help but come to the conclusion that they have followed two divergent evolutionary paths. I suppose it makes sense given that one has had the benefit of trillions of hours of cognitive surplus, while the other has been limited by whatever resources the organization has allotted to it.

Here's the Rub

Corporate intranets are largely a collection of static information about the organization and not a dynamic collection of information for use by the organization.

Intranets are where we house our HR forms, mission statements, and org charts. They are usually not all that searchable, are often out of date, incorrect, or simply inconsequential. In fact, the very term "intranet" may be a misnomer, we have failed to link the organization's knowledge base in a meaningful digital way. Thus I am of the opinion that aside from accessing the intranet via a web browser there is nothing "web-like" about them. Perhaps this is why our organizations are struggling to understand the social web. The social web is built on complex and interrelated connections between ideas, actors, and services, things we have yet to connect within our organizations.

A New Vision for Intranets

When I think about what intranets could be, I can't help but feel that perhaps our records and document management systems are to blame. Record keeping is important but doing so in isolation doesn't seem to make sense. How can we build an ongoing knowledge-based narrative when we lock away each page in separate file, with different permissions, and filenames?

Anyone looking at intranet renewal shouldn't be looking at simply modernizing the existing intranet infrastructure or updating out of date content, rather they should be looking at how to weave together a digital narrative of the otherwise siloed and fragmented knowledge that is already being stored within the organization. In short, we need our intranets to be less concerned with the static information about our business and far more concerned with the information we use to conduct our business.

There are a couple of ways in which we can do this:

  1. encourage new public servants to take up govblogging so that we may immediately start contextualizing what is happening right now and
  2. refocus the energies of our archivists, researchers, policy wonks, and any other story tellers to weaving a digital narrative from the abundant amounts of raw materials sitting idle within our organizations.

Much like open data, digital curation must be done in consultation with stakeholders as we work towards understanding what part of the narrative is of the most value to our citizens.

Final Thought

This type of work should most likely be entrusted to those who understand and have grown up on the web for it is our best chance at passing along a digital narrative that is meaningful to those living on the web today, and in the end, that is what is important.

[image credit: cackhanded]

This was originally published by Nick Charney at

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