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Internet vs. intranet: They sound similar, but they're different

By Gabe Scorgie

6 min read

Internet vs. intranet: They sound similar, but they're different
Illustration by Maya Ramadhina

Internet and intranet – two very similar terms, but though there is some crossover, they couldn’t be more different. 

We all know what the internet is. If you’re reading this article, you’re on it right now! The internet, the information super-highway, the worldwide web, whatever you want to call it, is how the world connects to people, services, news, and information. Almost everything lives on the internet, from search engines like Google to streaming channels and the apps on our mobile devices. 

But what about intranets? 

Intranets are closed networks businesses, governments, and educational institutions use to connect employees, students, volunteers, and constituents to information and services relevant only to the organization. 

Simply put, while the internet is a public network that anyone can connect to, an intranet is a closed, private network dedicated only to select people, such as a company’s workforce. 

Today, we’ll discuss the internet vs. intranets question and drill down on how and why intranets are used, the pros and cons of intranets, and why the intranet concept matters to organizations today.  

Intranet vs. Internet

The world is becoming increasingly connected and globalized, thanks mainly to the ubiquitous nature of the internet. 

However, while most of us are familiar with the internet—that vast network of public servers and websites accessible from connected devices anywhere in the world—fewer of us may be familiar with its lesser-known cousin: the intranet. 

When you think about the internet, the amount of data one can access is a bit mind-boggling. Search engines help us organize it so that if we know what keywords and phrases to search, we can usually find what we’re looking for. That being said, there is no guarantee that information is of any helpful quality or relevance. We must be discerning about our internet sources to be sure we’re going down the right path. 

Intranets, on the other hand, are more specified. Depending on the organization’s size, they may be pretty vast, but they will never approach the size and scope of the internet. Intranet content and features are wholly controlled by system admins, who publish content and ensure the databases are relevant to the needs of one specific audience. 

For example, a university intranet may enable students to enroll, apply for financial aid, download course material, join study groups, take proctored exams, or attend online classes. 

A company intranet offers content, a communication platform, job boards, and even departmental or company-wide social feeds so employees can stay connected to business happenings, wins, and shared goals. 

Bring your people together

Understanding intranets

Companies that manage intranets have specific goals in mind. With the recent trend toward remote work and distributed workforces, intranets have taken on new significance, allowing workers to connect to company resources from anywhere in the world. From this standpoint, especially considering the disruption most businesses experienced during the pandemic, intranets have enabled many organizations to stay productive. 

Some examples and benefits of common intranet uses include:

  • A central hub for employee communication. Intranets offer myriad internal communication options, including email, SMS, and video conferencing. 
  • Collaboration and project management. Using project management modules or integrations with apps like Slack, intranets support teams through project lifecycles and help them stay connected to shared objectives.
  • Shared calendars. Central calendars keep employees current on meetings, upcoming reviews, and deadlines relevant to teams and individuals. 
  • File sharing. Files like contracts, marketing collateral, sell sheets, manuals, company policies, product knowledge, and general information on relevant subject matter are stored and pushed out quickly through the intranet.
  • Company-wide announcements and news updates keep employees apprised of goings-on, promotions, new hires, leadership decisions, and company events. 
  • Employee onboarding gains consistency, ensuring HR compliance and improving new employee orientation. 
  • Training and upskilling can be offered via the intranet through courses, videos, or other content, with access tracked at the administrative level. 
  • Employee reviews and surveys can be conducted contextually, improving responses and alerting managers to potential issues. 
  • HR functions like time off requests, benefits information, and payroll can be self-managed within the intranet, reducing HR hours and improving employee happiness.

On the downside, legacy intranets may have security concerns. Ongoing maintenance is essential to ensure data privacy. Role-based access to files, multi-factor logins, and providing connected third-party apps are kept up to date is a constant concern and must be undertaken diligently to mitigate risk. 

Intranets also tend to become overly congested with outdated content and unused features, which may slow down workflows to the point where employees hesitate to use the intranet. 

Without a dedicated team to manage these functions, the intranet may fail. Consistency is critical, and a fully managed system or SaaS may be the best alternative if companies don’t have in-house talent.

Disadvantages of intranets

Intranets, as we have come to understand them, are not functional for how we work today. 

Digital workplace transformation has replaced legacy intranets as companies streamline workflows, enable remote work, and reduce the complexities and time spent on mundane daily tasks. 

Modern approaches prioritize subscription-based software (SaaS), with many large companies using more than 200 different apps for things like accounting, scheduling, project management, time management, customer service, point of sale, customer relationship management (CRM), security, HR functions, and more. SaaS makes it easy and affordable for companies to benefit. Since the technical aspects of the app are managed by the provider, organizations can add or remove apps with minimal risk or investment. 

The problem with legacy intranets is that they don’t accommodate these advanced tools, which may limit the organization’s ability to advance and compete. 

Intranets are not suited for modern work. Information becomes outdated quickly, and the intranet will lose relevance without significant effort to maintain content libraries and associated systems. 

The decision to build and deploy an intranet is not one taken lightly. Intranets represent a considerable expense at the outset and require a long-term maintenance strategy. Plus, it can take time to customize, set up systems and workflows, and train employees to use it to its fullest advantage. Cumbersome workflows result in pushback, impacting success and reducing value. 

As companies prioritize cost-efficiency and lean operations, wasting money and time is not an option. In this light, investing in an intranet may not be the smartest business decision. 

How modern intranets are used

Modern intranets combine the concept of legacy intranets with today’s SaaS-leaning strategic thinking. Popular productivity apps like Slack and Microsoft Office integrate with modern intranets, extending functionality with software employees already love to use. 

A modern intranet makes it easy for all stakeholders, putting every business tool needed into a single platform so users don’t have to jump from app to app to get their work done. 

HR may use the intranet to manage performance reviews and employee benefits or push out documents needed for compliance. Other departments will rely on the intranet for the content they need to communicate product knowledge, drive sales, or support marketing promotions. Employees will use the intranet to access company news and information, share with their colleagues, and organize content they need to do their jobs. Remote employees need the intranet to connect to internal systems and collaborate with their teams. 

In conclusion, a functional modern intranet can be beautiful, providing employees with a digital workspace that helps them succeed and employers with a way to connect their workforce to the overarching mission. 

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