What Is An Intranet and What Can It Do For My Institution?

Posted: November 18, 2014

Tony Poillucci Vice President & Creative Director

The world of higher education marketing is ever-evolving and maturing.

  • Over the years, we’ve seen websites grow from small, static brochureware presences to huge, complex beasts sharing marketing intelligence across multiple platforms and databases.
  • Content creation has become one small piece of the larger, bonafide field of Content Strategy.
  • We’ve developed sophisticated methodologies for combining what used to be siloed marketing channels into strategic Integrated Marketing Plans that bring these channels together in a way that leads to efficiencies, and ultimately better results.

The latest twist on this rise in higher ed marketing sophistication revolves around internal communication and, dare we say, internal branding.

Give the people what they want

We hear it over and over during stakeholder interviews and focus groups on campuses across the country.

  • Your current students, faculty and staff are desperately crying out for easier ways to access policies, documents, forms and training materials.
  • They’re frustrated with having to call a string of colleagues to find out if they can perform the most basic business functions online.
  • They’re eager to share what they know and what they’re doing with their peers.

It’s not okay to simply post PDF versions of your employee handbook on your website. It’s not okay to send loooooong email blasts to your entire student body … every … single …  day (p.s. They’re not reading the emails.). It’s not okay that large chunks of your staff’s time is spent answering phone calls about things that should be easily found online.

The bottom line is that satisfying your internal audiences current students, faculty and staff is becoming just as important as clearly communicating with your external audiences.

Enter the “Intranet” (whatever that is)

For the past two to three years our clients have been dipping their toes into the murky waters of higher ed intranets. I say murky for a few reasons:

  • There seems to be no clear understanding, nor agreed upon definition of what an intranet is or can do.
  • Many institutions begin (and far too often end) with a technology solution as their way of trying to solve their internal communications challenges (Sharepoint anyone?). This is simply the wrong way to go and it eventually leads to confusion and institutional frustration.
  • Hardly anyone seems to have a clear understanding as to what it takes to build and maintain an intranet, especially in terms of process, ongoing financial support and dedicated internal resources.

To go into depth in addressing the above bullet points will require multiple blog posts, so for now, we’re going to stick with addressing the first bullet. In this post we’ll attempt to answer the following question …

What is an intranet and what can it do for my institution?

Intranets come in many different shapes and sizes, from a simple folder structure to a very robust and interactive experience. Either way, an intranet is often viewed as a communication network that requires users to log-in to access specific content and functionalities.

Some examples of the different types of intranet experience are:

  1. Basic: A basic intranet is more of a file structure where you have access to documents and information (from policies to forms and helpful hints), as well as a place where users sign on to securely access various services (anything from email to payroll information). Typically, access to specific information is based on the user’s roles, group assignments and permission levels.
  2. Middle Ground: In addition to file structure and service access, users also have two-way communication tools; collaboration and document sharing tools; one-way communications on things like brand and culture; and the ability to contribute content in areas aligned with their permission levels.
  3. Modern and Cutting-edge: A modern and more complex intranet allows for the above capabilities but also allows for social interaction, robust ad hoc community building and collaboration, and many more bells and whistles. This type of intranet approach can serve as a catalyst for either building new service applications or improving existing applications (think room reservation system, or even creating a better version of Blackboard.) The sky – and budget – is the limit. Cutting-edge intranets typically take a lot of time, money and dedication to create, in addition to needing a large, dedicated team to manage them during and after creation.

Intranet capabilities are practically endless. The above models are very high-level categorizations and are in no way meant to be comprehensive.

Establishing a Vision

Before deciding on which model, or variation thereof, is best for your institution, you’ll want to first lay the groundwork and create a clear vision. To do this you’ll want to do some research, get the right people in the room and find the right partner.

More specifically, you’ll need to understand your institution’s goals for an intranet. These could include things like fostering university culture and building internal pride. Another example of a goal might be to increase work productivity and efficiency across campus.

You’ll also need to clearly define and understand the goals of your user groups. These will include current students, faculty, staff and perhaps other groups like close corporate partners or alumni.

Functionality: What can/should an intranet do?

Once you have a clear understanding as to WHY you need an intranet and whom that intranet will serve, you’ll need to dive into defining its specific features and functionalities. This is where it can get tricky because there is so much that an intranet CAN do.

To get the ball rolling, you might want to think in terms of these categories of functionalities or services that are common among higher education intranet solutions.

  • Finding what you need: A robust directory is one of the most widely used tools within an intranet. Great directories allow users to add to their own profile including the ability for faculty to build their own sites / published sections. Beyond the directory, an intranet should be designed to categorize information in a way that makes it easy for the end-user to find. Creating a user-friendly model of content categories allows for ease of use and better searchability.
  • Knowledge sharing: There is boundless knowledge in the minds of your community members. Everything from best practices for specific job functions to the best place to take an important visitor to dinner. An intranet can provide tools that allow this vast sea of knowledge to be harnessed in a number of ways from posting on message boards to using the directory to finding the right subject matter expert to help with a research project.
  • Increasing efficiency: An intranet can house and automate many business processes. It can also aid in document creation by standardizing templates. Consider the efficiencies that can be gained by putting a process that crosses departmental lines (having a replacement key made for a room, reserving a classroom for a committee meeting, etc.).
  • Building brand and fostering culture: An intranet can power your brand and foster your culture and community by unifying current students, faculty and staff and engaging them with the university and each other through compelling, interactive tools and content. For example, users could provide input via surveys, vote in on-campus elections, and participate in fundraising efforts.
  • Onboarding / training new employees: Typically it takes months – sometimes years – for a new employee to know all the tricks of more tenured staff. New employees need significant guidance in accessing knowledge and process. An intranet can systematically integrate onboarding into the culture, the department, the role and the university as a whole by presenting information and training materials in a way that can be easily absorbed and referenced, all specific to the new employee’s role.
  • Collaboration: An intranet can foster collaboration across a broad spectrum of functionality. For example, based on their specific group or role, the intranet may give a user access to view certain information and edit and post other information. More robust intranet functionality would allow users to set up adhoc groups and build their own online collaboration community. Imagine being assigned to a committee with members scattered across campus. Within hours, your committee could publish your goals, have a directory of all group members and their contact info, post all of your information to share with each other, and have a project timeline integrated with its member’s calendars.
  • Customization and personalization: Not only will the content presented to a user vary based on their role and group(s), an intranet can also give the user the ability to personalize their own experience by manipulating how they want to see information, the ability to manage their own profile, create their own groups and build and communicate with their own network similar to the way social networking channels allow.
  • Access and integration: At most higher ed institutions, users log in to various services and third party applications. An intranet can bring all those tools (third party services, etc.) under one log in.
  • Security: An intranet allows only secure access to various services and information based on a user’s role and group assignments. It lets authorized users in and keeps unauthorized users out.

Again, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Customizing an intranet to the specific needs of your institution requires quite a bit of effort. Feel free to drop us a line if you’d like to pick our collective brain about all things intranets.