The lessons of history – the evolution of intranets

by | May 24, 2017 | Intranets

When I was discussing a possible contribution I could make to the Intranets handbook now published by Kristian Norling at Intranatverk we quickly agreed that a history of intranet development might be a good way to start the book. Undertaking the research was a real pleasure and also quite frustrating. The passage of time has meant that many links were now dead-ends and it took some time to track down information that I knew existed but was pre-Google. With Kristian’s agreement I have now published A History of Intranets as a report. There are some minor revisions to the original text and in addition I have taken the opportunity to cover the period from 2002 to the present day, albeit in summary terms and with an acknowledgement to Sam Marshall and Wedge Black for their excellent synopsis of the last ten years of intranets.

It may come as a surprise to many reading the report that at least in my opinion the fossil records of intranets can be found in the PLATO application that was developed at the University of Chicago in the mid-1960s. By an interesting coincidence Marc Andreessen, the founder of Netscape, was also at the University in the 1990s. It was the ability of the Netscape browser to show both text and graphics in the same page load that did much to stimulate the development of intranet technology. In 1996 IBM, Oracle, Microsoft and Amdahl were proclaiming a golden age for intranets and in the period from 1995 to 2000 at least a dozen books on intranet management were published.

Sadly the momentum generated in the late 1990s was not sustained. During that period a substantial amount of the good practice in intranet organisation was developed through practical experience on some very large intranets. The platform for the exchange of this good practice were a number of very large scale (and primarily US-located) conferences, and much of it was never written down. It would not be a surprise to me to find that many current intranet managers may not appreciate the depth of this good practice development . The functionality of content management technology has certainly increased but the principles of information organisation are based in an understanding of information seeking behaviours rather than finding an excuse to use all of the available technology. However I would argue that since the arrival of SharePoint 2007 managers have had to reverse engineer intranet design to this available technology rather than going from first principles in defining the requirements for a content management application.

I’m sure that I have missed many milestones in this short history and sorting out some of the milestone dates has not been easy. If you have any to add please let me know – I plan to publish a 2nd edition next year once I have finished a report on the History of Search. Intranets have a long and distinguished heritage – we should learn from the pioneers and add to what they discovered in their own intranet journey rather than start out on afresh.

Martin White