Intranets more than a portal
Published in NZ Herald The Business, June 24, 1997
When was the last time you used your intranet, if your organisation has such a thing? Yesterday? Last week? Last month? The day it launched?
Some organisations have put a lot of time and money into developing information-rich internal websites for use by staff or partners, only to see them becoming digital compost heaps, filled with information of reducing utility as it becomes more and more out of date.
Expensive portals, which were supposed to be the first place knowledge workers would go to start their workday, become the last place they look.
Yet a bunch of free tools which give users a chance to try ideas and built online relationships can become the throbbing heartbeat of a work group, project team or whole organisation.
The intranet, and its relation the extranet, is one of those obvious ideas it turns out is fiendishly difficult to make work in practice.
Dorje McKinnon, who maintains the intranet for a Canterbury-based software development firm, has set up a the Kiwi Intranets online group to allow intranet developers to share ideas and issues.
“The primary difference between a web site and an intranet is the intranet is only accessible to staff, who must log on in some way,” McKinnon says.
“The site then has the ability to know who is looking at it, and depending on the information it holds about that employee, it can become as personalised or generic as the builder wishes it to be.”
Warning. That definition is subject to change.
“One key thing not widely understood by businesses is the intranet is always evolving with the business, because it is a strategic business tool,” McKinnon says.
“If you are getting value for money, it should address the needs of the business, and they will change.”
That’s a step up from being a place to dump documents such as policies or leave forms.
“Increasingly, dynamic businesses are using intranets as tools, so they become a medium for delivering information and tools and appropriate decision-making data for people who need them.”
In a perfect world, a company’s IT infrastructure would allow the intranet to provide and entry point to whatever data and applications people need to do their jobs, without them having to remember dozens of password.
That’s the holy grail, more likely to be seen in vendors’ demoware than in practice.
McKinnon says many businesses don’t see the value that can be gained in having an intranet addressing organisational requirements.
If they can be tied in to other applications such as customer data or messaging, intranets can become more sticky for staff.
McKinnon says intranet developers need to see them as a tools to improve the bottom line.
“That means having an intranet team with enough business understand to sometimes say the intranet is not the best place to do something, a whiteboard may be better.”
McKinnon says because intranets can incorporate technologies like RSS feeds, which facilitate syndication of information, “they give individuals the ability to disconnect from the email tsunami that has taken over internal communications in business, especially in large organisations where everyone gets sent everything.”
Auckland web developer and Internet theorist Paul Reynolds says it’s a mistake to see intranets as a place to build warm fuzzy communities.
“They are armed warring kingdoms,” says Reynolds, whose firm McGovern and Associated has developed intranets for several professional services and legal firms.
“If you can get a practice group to share one resource, even a web address, it is an amazing result.”
Reynolds is working towards a theory of organic, bottom up intranets, the opposite of the top-down information portal.
“Start by giving people a personalised space, allow them to join groups, those groups can join other groups, and eventually you may have something which is used through the whole organisation.”
That sort of thinking has even infected Microsoft Sharepoint, which is the start for many intranets.
It creates a personalised space where users can access Outlook, email, and external applications.
Reynolds is also a fan of incorporating Web 2.0 applications like blogs, wikis and RSS feeds.
“Blogs give individuals the ability to have an opinion in a safe group structure, then they can go to a larger group,” he says.
“If all an intranet means is a neat way to get the leave form, it’s just an expensive filing cabinet, and those intranets are a failure. You have to give people their own internal digital studio, using company resources and external resources.”
He says Web 2.0 applications work on the notion of radical trust, which should suit the culture of knowledge-based organisations.
“If you can’t trust people, what are you hiring them for?”
“Intranets work best when it is a genuine knowledge organisation,” Reynolds says.