I find intranets often get a bad press. If you ask people what they think about their company intranet, it’s a rare day when someone has anything positive to say…
The challenge for many is that they are still functioning (or perceived) in the same way as when first deployed 10 years ago or more – a bunch of web pages containing information that, by now, is often long out of date.
Intranets first appeared shortly after the Internet (World Wide Web) started to gather pace. From the mid 90s through to the mid 00s, Intranet capabilities usually reflected to some degree what you would experience on the Internet: navigating web sites, searching (albeit usually less successfully) for information. If you worked for a technology company, chances are you could even submit a form online. The concept of portals was universal on both Internet and Intranet sites from 2000 to 2005.
From 2005 onwards, the Internet took a leap forward whilst Intranets stagnated. ‘Web 2.0’ introduced a new style of web site on the Internet, where participation was interactive rather than just reading and linking to what others have published. Participation created conversation and social networks moved online. New tools made it quick and easy to share all sorts of content – photos, videos, soundbites, instant messages broadcast globally. Defying conventional wisdom, people voluntarily started tagging everything, creating informal taxonomies (folksonomies) that helped others see relationships between ‘stuff’.
All of these activities could create value if they occurred internally within an organisation. Yet they rarely do. Collaborative workspaces are often deployed separately to the Intranet. For many, Outlook (email) and file shares are still the primary tools for working with content and communicating with others. In both cases, the tools are usually configured (and restricted) to departments and teams. Which is why documents end up being emailed to colleagues in other departments. It’s the easiest way to share them.
When we talk about the Internet, we don’t differentiate between the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, BBC News… they are all sites on the Internet, albeit used for very different purposes. The same attitude needs to apply to Intranets.
There is still a role for the classic Intranet. Being able to navigate through the organisation structure to find information about other departments has its benefits. But the greater value is in making it easier for people to not just find but use information in daily activities, to network and collaborate with anyone they need to complete those activities. To be able to locate anything and everything that helps get stuff done. And to even be able to build the tools for themselves to meet specific needs, just as an individual can quickly and easily create a blog on the Internet if they want to publish their thoughts.
Where to start? Here are 3 steps to consider:
1. Start redefining what it means to be an Intranet
Make the home page the starting point for all information and knowledge-related activities. Even if navigation heads to non-web applications and file shares, the Intranet should simply be where you start to get anything done that involves using a computer. Make navigation as obvious as possible. Most activities fall into one of five categories:
- I need information about the products/services we make, sell and support
- I need information about another area of the organisation
- I need to get to the stuff my team works on
- I need to get to a project that I’m working on
- I need access to commonly used resources, such as booking travel, submitting expenses, reserving a meeting room etc.
Where appropriate, integrate familiar Internet-based resources into web sites. If you have multiple locations, create a page for each location and embed the directions as a map from Bing or Google, add the local weather forecast, travel information, departure boards for train stations and airports, links to recommended places for food and drink. Useful stuff that is automatically updated and relevant when someone needs to visit that office.
2. Evaluate your documents
Are your documents located in hard to share places? Open up permissions. There will be some documentation that should quite rightly be handled with the utmost sensitivity. HR, Finance and Legal being the obvious candidates. But also strategy and projects of a sensitive or controversial nature that need to be finalised before making public. Open up the rest. By all means organise them departmentally, for easy retrieval by authors. But break the dependency on email to share documents. How many copies does your systems need to store? Let people point to the source, whether it’s in a fileshare or collaborative workspace (web site). Collaborative sites usually ofter more value, including the ability to tag/classify documents, provide an automatic version history if needed and make them easier to find.
3. Set-up an internal online social network
It is crazy if employees can find it easier to get in touch with a long lost school friend on Facebook than to identify the person they’ve been emailing about a customer support issue for the past 3 weeks. Get people to create a profile and upload a photo. Keep the requirements simple – it must be a recognisable portrait photo. Avoid using the security pictures that resemble being in a police line-up. If you’ve got the time and resource, set aside a Friday afternoon and make it profiling day, you could even make it a charity fund-raising event. Get people to write about themselves, discover what interests they share with others. If you can really push the boat out, hire a cartoonist to make fun portrait sketches. The money will be well spent in terms of morale and productivity if people skills are of any value to your organisation.