Creating a useful Intranet

Intranets are a mess, let’s face it. They’re most often a big dump of information that is more a legacy system than any other computer system within your organisation, that is if you have the traditional model of adding in new groups of pages then your model dates back to the early days of websites.

Nowadays things are changing, and our need for information access is changing. We’re overloaded with information, we’re getting information pushed to us, we’re deciding on the information we read and the presentation of that information, and we want it in a timely fashion.

None of that is addressed by the standard Intranet model.

So it’s time for a change. I’ve written about this before as part of my Knowledge Management series, but re-reading the article I felt it warranted a revisit.

Traditional Intranet models are bloated and trying to find something specific is like trying to find a single tree in a rainforest, and this rainforest isn’t shrinking, in fact it’s growing. All the time new sections are being added with more and more information, added to A-Z indexes using the first letter of the first word of the obscure title.

So the answer is to throw in a search engine that tears through the forest and identifies every scrap of information for you, so if you want to find something it delivers every occurrence of the word you’re searching for everywhere and anywhere, and you’re overloaded with irrelevant information.

What is the answer then? Well there’s a series of them, and they’ve been in use on the Internet for years now. Oh I can see technology departments baulking at that straight away and backing off, hold on though, business have been implementing a lot of these models in the workplace for some time now, and it’s maybe about time you did.

After all how much time and effort is being wasted with your current Intranet model, and how much is slipping past unknown because employees just didn’t know about or couldn’t find the relevant information?

Start again

The first thing to do is scrap your current model. Don’t try and rework it, go back to the root cause and understand what people are looking for and how they look for it. Look at how people find information in general, look at how they are finding it on the Internet – after all most people turn to major search engines today – find out what they are looking for and why.

Create areas of function, project and people

Currently we organise information in silos of teams, divisions and groups, none of which is really very relevant. If I want to find out how to reset a password for a system, or find out what the process for raising a complaint is I have to know who owns that function, the name of the team it belongs and how they categorise their work on their web pages. How intuitive is that? Try a search for “complaint procedure” or “password reset” on a large intranet and you’ll be swamped.

So change the way that you think of the organisation of information. Create silos of functions, projects and people, because that is the way that people really search for information.

Functions would be based around things that people want to do, password resets, requesting a headset for their phone, finding out about the holiday policy, these kind of things, and not lumped together under something like Technology Support, or hiding away under a title that isn’t something as simple as Employee Policies.

Projects would be areas that are created for any project that is either in development, underway, or completed and archived, all the employees working on the project are assigned to the project area and each employee could belong to multiple areas. It has to be carefully considered what these areas contain, just throwing some web pages at it aren’t going to work.

The best example I could suggest is to ensure that each project has the following four areas:

  • Document sharing: A system to allow the checking in/out of documents for editing and review, one copy, persistent storage, and accessible to all with comment and access tracking.
  • Wiki: An area where the project team can collaborate on creating information such as quick reference pages or FAQ’s, basically all project documentation and information.
  • Blog: An area where each of the project members can add news, updates and changes to regarding their work on the project. They can raise questions, issues, or just give an update on their piece of work, and other members of the project team can add their comments and discuss. This reduces the need for meetings and increases timely communication.
  • Calendar, Project Plan, Task List: Tools for assigning and monitoring the project and tasks associated with the project giving access to all.

Finally People would also have small areas, just one or two pages. A place to identify themselves, their skills, and to connect to the projects they are working on, after all people are stores of information and knowledge, and perhaps the most fruitful too, so why not provide your employees a place to access and record that knowledge. Adding in a blog to allow them a place to record and share their knowledge is also a great idea, and of course they have to be able to update their own information.

Add feeds

Feeds are going to be one of the most important facets of information management on the Internet and Intranet in the coming years, they’ve already taken over the Internet and can be seen on just about every site you visit, and they are creeping into applications and businesses.

Basically a feed pushes the content of a web site or web page to the user as they are updated. Instead of having to go and visit the site to check if there are new updates, they are sent to you and you can read them in your own application and with your look and feel.

Feeds also carry with them the ability to deep link to content, so for example if I have a feed in my reader that carries with it the latest content on the Learning Management System with the words “change management” in it, I’ll get updated when there are new additions that match and each will carry with it a link direct to the content.

Feeds not only ensure that information is pushed to the relevant employees, but it reduces the amount of information that they have to search through to find what they need.

Add tags

Like feeds, tags are all across the internet effectively organising information across systems, sites, and multiple sites galore.

Rather than enforcing some structure on all content, such as an A-Z list or a rigid taxonomy, the author of each article decides what the keywords are that are relevant to the story that they are writing. What you find is that when a tag is selected, either through a search or user selection, the information displayed is far more relevant to the user, and suddenly there’s a complete site wide taxonomy created and maintained with minimal effort.

Give the search engine categories and feeds

Ensure that when a user goes to search the entire intranet for a keyword that they can decide how to search. Offer them the choices of searching titles, entire pages, tags, feeds, or restrict the search to the function, project or people areas. This allows the user to restrict the results and target their search, and combined with the new, far more relevant, way the information is stored, they’ll find their results much easier.

Make sure that the search engine can provide feeds for search results, so that rather than having employees return to the search engine to perform the same search again and again, the search engine sends them the new results of feeds as they appear on the intranet.

Give the user a feed reader

You’re offering them feeds you need to give your employees a feed reader, whether this be embedded in the home page of the intranet or as an application on their desktop – it could even be on the windows desktop itself – it will enable the user to manage how much information they see and scan through the information in a single place, quickly and efficiently.

Add social bookmarking

Despite all this you’ll still find that the intranet grows, sure with archiving and transferring of project areas to simple FAQ’s and documents information will be consolidated, but it will still grow. The best answer to this is to make the content relevant, and one of the best ways to do it is to pass the buck onto the readers.

Social bookmarking will add a relevance to the content, and one that is also time based. The more people referencing the source of information, be it a project, function or person, the more notice it will receive, so the more relevant an area is, the easier it is to see.

Lists of content will be produced showing what employees are reading and using, and like the rest of the intranet it will be viewable by category and tags as well as searchable and carrying feeds to ensure the reader is kept up to date.

By adopting these measures you’ll find that your intranet is now focused on information, projects, actual employee functions, and people’s skills. That’s a huge shift from the current stale and useless model of pages of teams, divisions and groups.

Suddenly employees will be able to find the relevant information they need in a timely fashion, and find information and resources they would probably never have before.

They’ll be able to be updated on information that’s relevant, interesting and useful to them as it is written, and something more important, they’ll be able to upload their knowledge and skills for others to utilise.

What actually happens is your tired old intranet, which became a dumping ground for procedural and structural information, becomes a knowledge management system.

Oh here we go, I hear people shouting about costs already, well let me tell you that many of these tools are free, and those that aren’t are superbly cheap when compared to corporate applications.

Some of these applications are also open source, so that the systems can be customised by your company’s own technology teams, what a refreshing and cost saving change that would be – have you seen the costs of customisations of corporate applications, especially during an upgrade?

If they aren’t open source they still allow the development of plugins which allow customisation and addition of the applications without cost.

With all these wins it’s a wonder that there aren’t more companies looking to such systems, and at the end of it you get an intranet that stores usable, accessible and discoverable information. Content that to a great extent is self managed, can save time and costs, and aids the business, not hinders.

2 comments on “Creating a useful Intranet”

  1. Simone Reply

    My Trust is changing our intranet as well, and I am the one in charge of my department’s section of it. I am not sure how it will look like once we go live but what I am doing right now is just saving old files that I can move over to the new page. I can use this piece of advice so thanks for this article Rich!

  2. Richard Brunton Reply

    Glad that it could be of help Simone – It would be interesting to hear what your work are doing with regards the Intranet, in fact it would be interesting to hear what anyone’s work is doing with theirs and if they are thinking a little forward (or rather to right now) and not so behind.

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