Why Your Intranet Sucks (and how to fix it)

Admit it. You can’t find a thing on your company intranet. The search sucks. The navigation sucks. Anything you can find you don’t trust. It is all out of date, incomplete, wrong, or worst of all — you’re not sure. The only way to communicate is by email. When you have a question, you ask somebody. When you tell people, you are going to post a file to the intranet, they laugh at you. “Why not just bury it in your backyard?” they ask.

You’re not alone — everyone’s intranet sucks.

I’ve been studying and organizing intranets for 17 years. Believe it or not, what you’re experiencing is the normal state of most intranets. Even today in our self-service world where cars can drive themselves and Watson won Jeopardy, the average employee can not find their pay check, dress code, or even the safety guidelines for a machine they use every day without calling or emailing someone for help. Even at the largest, most successful companies in the world it’s a fact — all intranets suck. In fact, the bigger your organization is, the more likely this the case. The reason is simple: It’s no one’s job to make it not suck. But tens of thousands of hours are wasted each year, employees are constantly frustrated, confused and delayed.

Here’s a joke: what do you call a library without a librarian? A warehouse. A more apt description is a storage unit. 

Here are two buildings:

Most intranets are run like a storage facility. Someone is in charge of keeping the facade clean, the content safe and secure, and the common areas navigable. When you need a space for a team or project, they gladly hand over the keys, perhaps provide a little how-to training, then let you loose. You try to keep it organized, but since most of the other storage units are locked, you can’t really learn from other people’s example. Eventually, you get promoted or change teams, and someone else inherits your storage unit full of content. They know that some of it is out of date garbage, but they are unsure if anyone might need that old file some day. Better to leave it, they think — just in case. Here is the scary thing: At no point in the future will anyone ever have both the knowledge and the authority to sort truth from fiction, trash from treasure. 

I review the health and usability of intranets all the time. It’s one of the simplest ways to get started working with my firm — Base22. One of my favorite things to tell people is they have a gold mine. “It’s a gold mine!” I tell them, and they nod uncertainly and say something like, “I know — there is a lot of great stuff in there….” Then I ask: “Have you ever seen a gold mine? It’s a giant hole in the ground. Every ounce of gold is buried under tons of rock and debris.”


A gold mine. As the mine gets bigger, it takes more and more effort to extract value. Most people are not equipped to extract the gold themselves. 

What you want is a jewelry store.

In a jewelry store, VALUE is highlighted, protected, promoted. An expert is on hand to help you evaluate fit and answer questions. A jewelry store and a gold mine are not opposites. They are part of the same value chain. The jewelry store can not exist without the goldmine. The jewelry story NEEDS the goldmine. But the typical user is not equipped to get gold out of a gold mine. In fact, most people can hold an uncut diamond in their hand and think it’s a rock. They do not know it has value until you tell it has value. But when you find a document on your intranet, how do you communicate the fact that something has value? This is the meaning of the phrase: the medium is the message. A diamond has value BECAUSE it’s in a jewelry store. The user NEEDS the jewelry store.


Uncut diamonds. If you found these in your flower bed, would you know they had value?

What is the solution?

You need to build a jewelry store. It will not replace but rather complement your wild west, overgrown, social wilderness of an intranet. You need to create a safe, well organized and curated place for value to be collected, protected, and organized. The Internet (with a big I) has Wikipedia to do this. Anytime hard earned knowledge is won — someone updates Wikipedia. When NASA lands a rover on a distant space rock — someone updates Wikipedia. When scientists discover a new species of bacteria — someone updates Wikipedia. When Pokemon Go introduces a new Pokemon — someone updates Wikipedia. When Kim Kardashian launches her next publicity stunt…well, you get the idea. If it is notable and verifiable — someone will update Wikipedia. 

Wikipedia is not the source of any truth. In fact, it has a policy against that. Instead, it is a map to the knowledge that exists somewhere else — in a book, in a journal, newspaper, or other publication. Your intranet needs this map. 


In a jewelry store, VALUE is highlighted, protected, promoted. An expert is on hand to help you evaluate fit and answer questions.

But why can’t we just use search?

“Don’t you already have a search engine?” I ask. “Yes, but our search engine sucks. We need X-Brand search.” Sigh…the most common misunderstanding about intranets is that, by some miracle a different search will make it better. It won’t. If you search through garbage, you will only find garbage. 

The other common misunderstanding is that a different content management system or portal platform will make it better.

This post was originally published as a medium.com post here

475 316 Ben Shoemate
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