As intranets started cropping up, most followed the same evolutionary path. Companies tended to begin with "information distribution models," or data that all their employees could use.
"Everyone went to HR first," said Dal Harris, consultant and marketing manager for Chicago-based Neoglyphics, a Zepher company. "The cost-saving ROI on printing employee handbooks, et cetera, was easy to see, but that was early."
Companies are looking at more ways to use the intranet for "knowledge management," Mr. Harris said. Intranets are becoming a forum for discussing ideas and comparing virtual notes on various projects. Disparate groups within an organization can use the intranet to communicate with each other about problems that one group or another might have already solved.
Intranets can also function as data storehouses. Documents that at one point existed in an employee's filing cabinet, Rolodex or personal computer can now be sorted, searched and shared on an intranet. As a company experiences employee turnover, continuity can become even more vital.
"Anything that has been created can now be stored in a virtual library," said Mr. Harris.
One of the greatest growth areas for intranets is in softer applications.
"Companies are realizing that it's not an altogether bad idea that there be some content that's fun," said Mr. Harris. Intranets can be used as a "virtual watercooler" to facilitate community building that takes place in an office every day, off line. Birth announcements, party planning, corporate trivia, car pooling and even parenting advice are fair game for less work-focused areas of intranets.
On the development side, most issues that come up for Web sites are in play for intranets.
"Interaction design and visual design are still important," said Stephen Plumlee, head producer at New York's R/GA Interactive. "Whether it lives on one side of the wall or the other doesn't matter."
The other issue that comes up is maintenance. Diversification of the intranet's content can lead to questions about ownership of the project. Mr. Harris finds more corporate communications divisions taking charge of the upkeep for the intranet's content.
One of the most interesting developments is the increasing need for intranet umbrella sites. Marketers are finding that their intranets are becoming so widespread, they need a company such as Neoglyphics to design a Yahoo!-like interface for the thousands of mini sites within their intranets.