How to fix the intranet

This article discusses some the critical factors surrounding what has become an increasingly important organisational information mechanism – the intranet.

It sets out a pathway to ‘modelling’ the intranet function so that it is clearly understood by the organisation and indicates steps an organisation can follow to obtain greater benefits from and more efficient functioning of this mechanism.

About intranets

The corporate intranet is seen as a key mechanism in making information accessible within organisations.

Ease of publishing using HTML and networking has allowed organisations to ‘put up’ documents and information resources and make them electronically available to all staff with access to a PC.

Intranets provide an opportunity for making a fundamental change to an organisation’s information environment. Information formerly localised within the organisation can be made widely available. Capturing and sharing of information is also made easier. Effective establishment of an intranet function permits organisations to leverage their corporate knowledge and to move towards ‘knowledge management’.

HCi recent experience with intranets

HCi is an information development specialist. We focus on content and process and have no technological bias. Our view is that the technology enables and supports the content and process needs of organisations (and not vice versa).

We have obtained detailed insights into numerous organisational information environments and have developed an understanding of intranet issues.

Most intranets are one of two types:

First generation intranets – information

First generation intranets are typically information focused. They are generally functions which permit the publication of static information products that can be accessed through a web browser.

These products are often unchanged from their native format – eg Word, Excel – or converted to PDF. Rarely is the information on them purpose built for web based use – ie produced in HTML.

These intranets are characterised as having very limited interactivity or ‘services’ and a basic technological infrastructure.

Second generation – addition of ‘services’

In the second generation of the intranet, services are increasingly extending its role and function.

Services may be simple web interactivities, such as search engines, discussion lists, bulletin boards, online data capture and workflows – or entire web based applications, such as document management systems, library and publications catalogues, databases, business operational and service systems, like HR ‘kiosks’.

Services require more from the technical infrastructure and technical administration of the intranet.

Problems with the intranet function

The most common feature of most organisation’s intranets is that they have developed like early Australian city road systems – without planning.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Providing the technical facilities to go with some enthusiasm and management support is probably the best way to start and intranet – but it is not the way to continue it.

Intranets are key mechanisms in the wider information environment of organisations – and are increasingly taking up a more important role in that environment. Organisations need an insight into their information environment that is reflective of a strategy, and they need to shape and manage all the functions within that environment from a strategic perspective … but this is jumping ahead.

Some of the common problems with intranets are:

Problem #1 – Higgledy piggeldy development

Intranets rely on web technology – and this technology has changed rapidly over the life of the intranet as a function. So it is unsurprising that intranets are developed unevenly as the potential for what they can deliver has expanded and developed.

But the main reason for unevenness in intranet development has been on the organisation (process) side, and in the way content and services have been envisaged by the organisation.

The technological side of intranets – like all technology – demands a formal response for effective management and administration. Organisations need to extend the need for ‘formality’ to contents and processes as well to obtain some assurance over the quality of information available on the intranet.

Problem #2 – The people who provide the technical facility get identified with the whole thing

IT departments typically set up intranets. Historically they’ve been lumbered with developing them, as web publication knowhow is more likely to exist in an IT department than elsewhere in an organisation.

This is a problem. Intranets belong to the whole organisational community – and should be driven by whole of organisation policy. They should be managed and administered to reflect whole of organisation needs. IT personnel are not necessarily the best people at making the editorial and information management decisions that the intranet requires. Nor is it their job to publish and manage the documents of other departments.

Problem #3 – intranets are managed as ‘stand-alone’ entities

This is another way of saying that most organisations do not have a broad governing strategy for their information environments. Problems that are perceived as belonging to the intranet may just as likely have their origins in the wider information environment. It is common for organisations to be unclear as to what exactly belongs on the intranet and what belongs elsewhere, say in an email, in a network folder, or in an application database.

When looking at the intranet the whole environment should be considered.

HCi has developed a ‘knowledge management’ model that provides for the whole of organisation insight required when considering how the intranet or other aspects of the information environment should be developed.

Tackling the problem of overuse of email illustrates this point well. A recent HCi analysis pointed out that an organisation did not clearly distinguish the types of information it sent by email, and as a result issued important policy and procedural information via email that was vulnerable to be being deleted or ignored or lost. The solution was in integrating that information into an existing collection on the intranet – where it was preserved and formally managed – and sending an email to advise people it had been issued and was able to be viewed on the intranet.

When looking at the intranet the whole environment should be considered.

Proposal for intranets

HCi views the intranet as a delivery and management medium for information. You should apply the standard IS15910-based methodology to determine audience and tasks for the information that is appropriate to the intranet.

Ground this within the ‘bigger picture’ offered by our knowledge management methodology. As a result, your intranet analysis will typically deliver:

  • an insight into the wider context of the organisation’s information environment
  • a view of how the organisation can formalise its intranet function within that environment
  • an analysis of how the content of the intranet can best be organised and used
  • a plan for optimising and developing intranet content

a plan for expressing and documenting the editorial, production and administration functions of the intranet, including skills and training requirements.