The return of the intranet: old-school tech complements the cloud

Dr Peter Chadha is CEO of DrPete Technology Experts and
Dr Peter Chadha is CEO of DrPete Technology Experts and

Way back when – well, as long ago as the late 1990s – before "the cloud" was a smudge on the digital horizon, corporate intranets were "the thing". These internal networks offered the flexibility of online access to files, documents, images and so on to everyone within the company. As the cloud has developed, web-based document storage and project management tools such as Dropbox and Basecamp became the norm, condemning intranets to a dusty corner of legacy IT architecture.

But, like everything else in life, what goes around comes around, although usually with a fresh new outlook on the world around it. Take, for example, a small recruitment company. Based in the UK, it starts out with just a couple of employees and, through good management and a bit of luck, grows to around 40 staff. During that time the usual company policies have been created, expense sheets have come and gone, agenda and job description templates have been changed.

Filing nightmare

Being a reasonably progressive outfit, the company has used digital storage since it first started and has been reasonably careful about curating its online filing systems. However, with staff turnover and a continual increase in the number of documents being stored and shared, navigating the filing system to find the latest, most accurate or – in some cases – legally correct documents soon becomes a nightmare task.

Even with automated versioning available on many cloud-based storage and collaboration systems, it is not always clear which document is the final version. For smaller organisations, expenses forms are a prime example of this, where there may be different templates depending on the level of seniority or role within the company.

The complexity for our recruitment company becomes further compounded when the organisation goes global, with offices in Germany, Dubai, Singapore and New Zealand. Not only are there final documents, there may also be a number of versions in different languages, or that are country or region-specific. Often, while the original documents may be curated centrally, the regional versions are held and updated locally. In some cases, staff will resort to visiting the company website to see the latest published information and work backwards to help them locate the document or other content they are looking for.

Intranet 2.0

So, in the age of cloud, how do you know what is 'true' in a distributed environment? How do those people in charge of projects or knowledge management ensure consistent versioning and filtering of documents or project activity? Welcome back to intranet 2.0.

Today's company intranets take the very best of the old tech and add it to the flexibility of the cloud. The result is an environment that remains internal, is centrally controlled and moderated where required, and offers sophisticated permissioning to ensure clarity of access to allow amendment of company or project-critical documents.

For example it can be more static and less dynamic, (so you are looking at the published version of the truth), there are human readable URLs (unlike cloud storage systems with unintelligible document references), you can extend the systems for workflow and automation easily and changes can be simply audited. In some ways it's a step backwards to move forwards; maintaining control in an era when access to information and information overload is prevalent.

Taking the intranet one stage further, the extranet is also making a comeback. This retains the elements of control, but extends access to clients and suppliers. A perfect example is during a tender process. The ability for the purchaser to update briefing documents is balanced by potential suppliers being able to respond to changes and amend proposals accordingly, while maintaining complete privacy from competitors.

However, questions and answers that may have relevance for all potential bidders can be openly available to anyone given access to the extranet, safe in the knowledge that they will be viewing the very latest version of the information. In essence, the likes of Microsoft SharePoint or Google Sites creates a level playing field in this context.

While the cloud continues to scud across the IT skies at a rapid rate, it sometimes pays to take a look at what has gone before. Sometimes it pays to think old-school in a new age.