Are these really the 10 best intranets of 2012?

This month saw the publication of Neilsen Norman Group’s intranet design annual. Over the past 12 years, this annual snapshot has charted the evolution of intranets from the unloved stepchild of the web family to business-critical tool.

Intranetizen takes a look at some of the key findings in this year’s publication and finds the conclusions challenging.

Continuous improvement

One of this year’s winners, Staples, brings home the award for the second time, joining an elite band of multi-award winners.  NNg argues these organizations recognise that intranet design is never “set and forget”… Instead of perpetually sustaining their first winning designs, these companies continued to progress”.

However, I don’t entirely agree with NNg’s conclusion. Staples won in 2006 and  hasn’t troubled the top ten in the intervening six years, while each of the other multi-award winners had a gap of four years or more between wins.

This doesn’t demonstrate continuous improvement at all, but is instead indicative of the ‘intranet as a project’ problem. That is, that the intranet is seen as a tool to be developed over the course of a few months, then left to stagnate for years until it becomes such a problem that something needs to be done about it, when it gets an upgrade, and the cycle starts again.

While Staples are to be congratulated for their efforts to make their intranet world-class, it’s only when we see winners retaining a top spot in successive years that they can truly say they strive to remain the best.

NNg do provide some great advice: Firstly, that your business is continuously experiencing change, and so the intranet needs to change too. Secondly, that intranets are perceived in the context of employees’ experience of other websites. The continuous and noticeable improvement of websites which employees use all the time creates expectations of the digital workplace, which all too often leaves employees disappointed.


The 2012 annual finds a growth in enterprise social networking. This is hardly a surprise, since it’s been the focus of pretty much everything written about intranets in the past year and many predict it will be on intranet wishlists in 2012.

But just what does social mean on an intranet? This year’s winners seem to have as widely varying ideas on this as the rest of us.

The annual gives well-deserved props to winners for making co-worker information richer and easier to find. Examples include mouse-overs on names; people information appearing before you’ve even finished typing a name in the search box; and advanced knowledge and people maps. People are the heart of (almost) every business, and connecting them is vital to success. Profiles are increasingly being integrated with Facebook style wall feeds, and these in turn are becoming more sophisticated.

What would be useful to know is what this social information and functionality actually delivers for the business. Does it result in less silo working? Do employees feel more engaged?  Has it got a measurable impact on, say, R&D? Social intranets need to prove their worth and there’s little in the report to demonstrate their real value to the company.

There’s some useful food for thought here and we’ll write more on social intranets in a future intranetizen post.

Mobile isn’t gaining traction

Optimistic predictions that this would be the year mobile really gained ground turned out to be incorrect; just 10 per cent of this year’s winners have a mobile version.

NNg put this down to budget and resourcing, particularly the difficulties in designing for multiple devices.  As Intranetizen’s Luke found recently, many organisations are stuck on the intranet mobile roadmap. We find this a hard conclusion to support. Many enterprises have in-built mobile intranet support through content management tools such as SharePoint and mobile intranets need not be hugely complex or costly. Getting a mobile intranet site right is hard work and that, combined with the availability of fully paid-for, ubiquitous enterprise smartphones are probably the real reason that we’re not seeing a greater incidence of mobile intranets amongst this year’s winners.

As people increasingly switch to smartphones and tablets as their primary device for accessing the web at home, they’ll start to demand the same at work. We’ll wait and see what 2013 brings.

Smaller companies = better intranets?

One of the more controversial findings in this year’s annual is the pronouncement that “smaller organisations are designing better intranets this year, and have been for the past 3 years.”

Criticism from intranet specialists has been vocal, with many questioning NNg’s methodology.  This finding, like all the others in the report, is based not on all entries, but on the ten winners alone. Is it possible to draw any meaningful conclusion from such a small sample size?

It would be interesting, then, to compare findings with that in NetJMC’s Digital Workplace Trends, or the Worldwide Intranet Challenge, both of which base their findings on hundreds of entries.

But questionable methodology aside, the conclusions are believable. As I argued in my earlier post on scalability, form-fit tools designed for specific tasks and audiences make for better intranets. It’s far easier to do this in a small company with a clear mission that in is in a large, complex and diverse organisation.

But if smaller organisations have better intranets, is it fair to conclude that if you work in a big organisation, your intranet destined to be rubbish?

This is one area which is ripe for further study. If smaller companies are able to better fit their intranet to the needs of their business, perhaps bigger organisations should think like smaller ones, and start diversifying their intranets. Moving away from the one-size-fits-all monolithic intranet towards an ecosystem of sites and tools which more closely meet user need could be the answer. It’s certainly an area I’d like to see explored in future editions of the annual.

Team Size

The annual found team size, relative to company size, is up. The average winning team includes 15 employees, or roughly one for every thousand employees. Again, the methodology is open to criticism because it’s based on such a small sample size. As Andrew Wright remarked on LinkedIn: Considering there are probably over a million intranets in the world, using only a sample size of 10 to draw any conclusions about the changing size of intranet teams is ridiculous.”

Muddying the waters still further is that the report doesn’t clarify what’s meant by ‘intranet team’. People with some intranet responsibility seem to be included, but it’s hard to define what that means; IT support? Testing? Or just those managing site structure and content?

Comparison with previous editions again shows some kind of trend upwards, but to make any real conclusions about team size a quantitative study would be better.  Look out for the forthcoming Intranetizen series on intranet teams.


NNg notes, as we all do, the difficulty in measuring return on investment on intranet developments.

The report lists different metrics which the winners use to demonstrate ROI. The problem is, very many of them are contradictory. A couple of winners measure decrease in page views while hunting (which indicates better IA), while other winners claim increased use shows ROI.

All too often, statistics show what you want them to. Increased page views either means your content is hard to find, or that people are using it more. Increased on-page time either means people are engaged with your content, or they can’t understand it.

It is all too easy to selectively pick statistics to demonstrate to stakeholders that your project was a success. But ROI, as Jonathan points out, is about outcomes, not outputs.

What would be useful (perhaps from a future NNg report) is a comprehensive and standardised ROI measurement method for stats which enables people to compare apples with apples (and less able to bullshit their budget-holders).


Much of the criticism of the NNg design annual is based on its methodology; results are presented as if it were a scientific, quantitative study, when in fact the findings are based on the small sample of ten winners.

This is unfortunate, as the findings are actually very useful. It provides a snapshot of emerging trends in functionality, design and management of intranet sites, giving intranet professionals some inspiration for the year ahead.

There are a number of quantitative studies out there, and perhaps NNg would do well to set themselves apart from these; this report uses meticulous study of a small number of intranets, looking particularly at usability, in order to deliver detailed recommendations. The methodology is different, but still valid. No one doubts the selected winners are really good intranets. With the thorough analysis provided by their report, NNg give us all some great examples to learn from, and the knowledge we need to implement changes on our own intranets.

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  1. Mark Morrell

    I really liked your analysis of Nn/g’s annual awards. I sometimes felt the winners didn’t always have the best intranets but had made the best improvements in that year.

    Have you made Nn/g aware of this opost? It would really help to hear their views as it is important to many intranet professionals.


  2. @DigitalJonathan

    Thanks for your comments, Mark. I know NNg have picked up on this post via Twitter but we might be a little more direct.

  3. mike

    Great summary of the report. What I find particularly interesting is the argument for social collaboration, which is of course at the forefront of every Intranet conversation, and whether it does indeed result in less silo working. A key question is whether silo working is such a bad thing (I can hear everyone shout ‘what!?!?’). But….by trying to cross every cultural, geographical or business divide is an intranet or similar platform not ‘taking on too much’? Or become too ‘big’. Do silo teams actually work more efficiently and lead to more innovation thanks to the more focussed and dedicated approach. Does engagement actual decrease by removing these boundaries. Anyway, probably a conversation for another post. Thought the mobile observation was also interesting. I am a great fan of the mobile digital workspace and interesting to see that the uptake is so low. Thank you for summary. Very useful!

    • @sharonodea

      Mike: You make an excellent point, and one I largely agree with. I am something of a naysayer when it comes to social and collaborative intranets; quite often, people don’t want to collaborate on much of what they do, and to do so would slow down the process of actually getting stuff done.

      As I’ve argued elsewhere, social is not an outcome, but should be a means of achieving business objectives. What some call silos others call focused business units. If value can be gained from getting input from elsewhere, then good, but it’s certainly not the case everywhere. It depends on the environment, industry and culture (and much else besides…).

      Stuart Murdoch gives the example of engineers, who are trained to constantly test their work with peers and gain feedback. In that instance, an intranet which facilitates collaboration could at the end lead to better products. The real test is how (or whether) social/collaboration adds business value and helps people to do their jobs more effectively.

  4. @DigitalJonathan

    I wrote about silos in social intranets some time ago (Post Here). I agree with you – I think we’re expecting too much of social intranets to remove silos that exist in our companies and, in fact, I think social intranets will create different silos.

    You raise a fine question — are silos actually a problem? The lazy choice is to assume that they are! Fine challenge, Mike.

  5. Patrick Callaghan

    This is a very well-thought-out article. I can’t argue with your reservations about the NNg awards, but I don’t think we need worry ourselves too much in the intranet community about the contradictions and other issues you have identified in the findings. Any intranet manager worth their money should take the NNg findings with a pinch of salt. Used appropriately and scalably, however, the report can be very useful indeed.

    I took the full report last year and found it important in garnering management support for changes my team (which is small, it appears) had, largely, already worked up. What we didn’t do was lay out all of the differences between our intranet and NNg’s top 10 and try to fill the gaps; rather we looked at the differences and used the ones our users, and the core intranet team, thought could help improve the intranet as a catalyst to generate support and resources. And we’re moving forward on that basis in a positive way.

    Any intranet manager who bases their change programme on a blind following of NNg’s annual awards is asking for trouble.

    • @sharonodea

      Patrick: thanks for your comment. I’d like to emphasise that despite the reservations I’ve set out here, this is intended to be a generally positive review of NNg’s report. It’s not a scientific study, and its conclusions are based on a small sample size, but it is nonetheless one of the most important and useful publications on intranets there is. It provides some great inspiration and ideas for intranet managers, and charts the changing trends in the industry year after year.

      I don’t think anyone should follow it (or indeed any other report) alone. It’s intended to help others make the business case for investment and development on their intranets, and I think it does that well. But that change should be led by the business itself – what works for one won’t work for another. The job of the intranet manager is to look at objectives and organisational culture, and implement the technology that works for both.

      NNg’s annual shows how innovation been done elsewhere, but it does not show how it can be done in our own organisational contexts – we all need to work that out for ourselves.

  6. Andrew Wright

    Hi sharon – congratulations on an intelligent and well thought out article. I agree the NNG top ten report is a useful addition to any intranet manager’s library – particularly the large number of screen shots – but I also think that the ‘bible like’ status given to it by many people is over the top. It’s refreshing to read an article challenging some of the conclusions of the report, many of which people simply assume are true.

    Also as a side note, the NNG report actually lists the 10 best DESIGNED intranets – not the 10 best intranets – a subtle difference. See Martin White’s comment in the following article:

  7. William Amurgis

    Sharon — For your first observation, about continuous improvement, I may have a relevant perspective. My organization was honored in the 2007 NN/g report, but chose not to submit an entry in the subsequent years. Although our intranet continued to evolve during that time, it simply wasn’t worth the effort to vie for honors in consecutive years.

    For comparison, I was reading an article in Fortune magazine last night about the “100 Best Companies to Work For in America.” Although 100 companies are indeed honored, what I found interesting is that *only* 280 companies competed for the honor.

    For the NN/g awards, I suspect that the judges look more at dramatic transformations, not incremental improvements. (I guess that means our intranet was relatively awful in 2006!)

    For me, the true value of such awards is threefold: (1) Respect from leaders at my organization, who appreciate the positive publicity (leading to the acquisition of additional resources); (2) A sense of pride within the intranet team for having their efforts appreciated; and (3) Wonderful opportunities to speak and write about our experiences around the globe, thereby extending my professional network and getting to meet brilliant people like you.

  8. Jane McConnell

    Love your article, Sharon!
    Not many people have the guts to question the NN awards, even in a positive way as you did.
    I have never believed in the idea of “best intranet”. That has no meaning for me. Best for who? Why? At what point in time?
    One of my clients won an NN award many years ago, and told me at the time that they had entered the awards in order to (hopefully) win and get internal management support for their intranet budgets, which they did.
    They basically told NN what NN wanted to hear. That’s sad and not necessarily the fault of NN. However, NN never sees the intranet nor interviews users nor management (according to what my client told me at that time) and makes their decisions based completely on what the intranet team tells them.
    That’s one of the reasons I feel it is more realistic to look at the Step Two Intranet Innovations awards (disclaimer: I am one of the judges) because they recognize specific innovations, not entire intranets (which has little meaning these days).
    Also in my own research, I have defined the “leadership class” in Digital Workplace Trends to be broad enough to represent a realistic sampling of what’s happening today. And that cannot be resumed in the “best 10”. (
    That said, NN was revolutionary in their usability work, and deserve our full thanks for that!

  9. brent kreischer

    Hi Sharon, I have been using the Nielsen Norman Group’s opinions for a great deal of my research and your article makes me realize I need to branch out. However, I’m finding it difficult to locate good resources. We are building a new Intranet at Panasonic and the technology is a serious concern. Initially, we planned to use DotNetNuke, but we found many difficulties with the various developers’ code; then, we tried Orchard and found issues with the speed, even when small amounts of content and users. Do you have an opinion on the technology, or can you direct me to someone or somewhere I can get help?

    • @DigitalJonathan

      Brent — thanks for your comments.

      We work hard to understand the vendor marketplace for intranets, but will stop short of providing any recommendations or critiques. However, you may be interested to hear that we are planning a series of posts in August in which we will give software providers the opportunity to discuss their products.

      Drop one of us an email/tweet for more info. We’d love to hear about your project.


    • @sharonodea

      Just to add to Jon’s point – I have plenty of opinions on intranet technology, but they probably wouldn’t be much use in helping you choose what works for you. Every organisation is different, their needs are different and therefore so too is the technology, services and content needed to meet those user needs.

      So my advice is this: Have a clear understanding what it is you need. Will an off-the-shelf product do, or do you need something which will require a lot of bespoke development work? What do you expect your intranet to do for your organisation now? Next year? In five years? Then run a procurement exercise in which you can fairly assess the relative merits of different products and how they will meet your organisational needs. If you’re finding the landscape difficult to navigate, you could consider bringing in an intranet consultant to help you make the decision – there are some incredibly knowledgable practitioners out there who have far more experience than any of us at working with a wide variety of products and systems.

      We are planning to run a series on software products in the coming months. But perhaps we ought to proceed that with one which gives our tips on how to choose the right platform/products.

  10. sam

    I work at staples home office, the intranet is incredibly clumsy and relatively a pain in the ass to use. Quite honestly it stinks.

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