How to Build the Perfect IntranetIs it possible to build the perfect intranet? Like any project, there will be a unique set of requirements that dictate the exact nature of the solution -- things like integrating with line of business systems or mimicking a corporate website look and feel. But intranet design is now a mature enough discipline that I think it is possible to break down the "perfect" intranet into a number of key areas.

1. Content

The World Wide Web gave us the first versions of HTML, and ways to link pages of information together. The browser wars of the early 90's added audio, video and more advanced formatting courtesy of the emerging CSS standard. Pretty soon the web was a platform for content rich websites, anything from online magazines to more interactive "nu-media" destinations. Inevitably the world of enterprise IT followed, and the Content Intranet was born.

Content intranets are very similar to content managed websites. They consist of pages of nicely laid out content, often include video and audio, and are intended to be browsed and read by users. Content intranets contain useful information about the company that built them: Things like how the business started, who runs it, where to find the various offices and what's on the lunch menu. More useful examples include "how to" guides for common process and training materials.

SharePoint has worked hard in recent years to improved its CMS features, but tools like Sitecore and Atlassian’s Confluence (which is at heart a wiki) offer alternative approaches.

2. Documents

The intranet has always been tied to documents, and many intranet projects are first brought into being when users finally get sick of confusing and outdated file shares. The Document Intranet is an example of the enterprise market addressing its own needs, rather than mirroring the web.

A document management system improves on the file share (or the dreaded "My documents") in a number of ways. A good version history feature is now accepted as standard, as is some kind of formal "check in/out" process. Metadata and search tend to go hand in hand on many feature lists. With the advent of cloud computing many document management systems often win over businesses simply because files are backed up off site and available to users anytime on a number of different devices.

SharePoint is again strong in this area, but finds itself under increasing pressure from the likes of Huddle and Box. Google Docs offers persuasive experience, and clearly inspired Microsoft's own cloud offering -- Office 365. Dropbox, who have recently moved into the enterprise market, are attempting to reinvent the file share by marrying it with the best of modern technology.

3. Social

Back to mirroring the web, and the final key intranet area. The Social Intranet is all about users. Just like Facebook, LinkedIn and even Twitter, social features put users and the content they generate front and center of everything. These types of intranet are about interactions, messages and status updates. Taking a different tack to the first two elements we have looked at, which deal with very precisely defined content, the social intranet deals in tacit knowledge.

Yammer is attempting to drive the agenda for social intranets, and Microsoft liked what they were doing enough to buy them. Huddle recently teamed with Tibbr to do something similar, and companies like Jive Software offer their own dedicated social platform.

The Right Blend

So back to building the perfect intranet. A system needs to consider each of the three areas we have examined, and apply just the right amount for its own user base.

Some organizations will scale back on social. It might not be a good fit culturally, or their small size might make it redundant. They may want to go all in, but need to phase it in to avoid scaring off those less used to such features and functions. This all comes back to fine tuning and specific requirements.

But experience teaches me that content and documents will play a huge role in any incarnation of the perfect intranet. Get those components right, and sprinkle in enough social magic to top things off, and there you have it -- a recipe for the perfect intranet.

Title image by iluistrator (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Chris has tackled the topic of intranets before in 3 Steps to a Great SharePoint Intranet