Ten steps to a successful intranet

What is an intranet? An intranet is a publication containing content and applications that will help your staff become more informed and productive.

An intranet is not a dumping ground for any old content, as some have become. Nor should it be a free-for-all design environment, in which anyone can explore their graphic impulse.

The intranet is most definitely not some techie nirvana with loads of cool software that automatically classifies, translates and ‘dynamically’ publishes content.

Technology has failed to deliver cheap, quick fixes for content. Organisations that think they can solve a ‘content problem’ with software are missing the point.

Content is not a problem but an asset. Content is the fuel on which an intranet runs. Quality content will make an intranet hum. Inferior content will run it into the ground.

There are two things you need to understand about content. Firstly, people create content. Technology supports the content creation and publishing processes but, if you don’t have talented people writing, editing and publishing content, all the technology in the world is useless.

Secondly, quality content is expensive. You simply can’t do it on the cheap. Writing, editing and publishing content is a difficult skill that is rarely mastered well. That’s why the only way to look at content is as an opportunity, not some problem that must be dealt with.

You need to create propositions that state something like this: if we invest £200,000 per annum in intranet publishing, we will see a productivity gain of £400,000. You must get away from the conversation that revolves around how much it is costing to publish content on the intranet.

The intranet must be seen as a means by which productivity can be increased through staff improving their skills, and where staff morale and loyalty can be enhanced through improved communication.

Darwin magazine wrote in November 2001: “When Hewlett Packard’s [HP’s] executive committee decided in June to ask all employees to take a voluntary payroll reduction, the decision was posted immediately on the company’s @HP portal, the intranet that binds together nearly 90,000 employees in 150 countries.

‘A tool enabling employees to volunteer for the reduction accompanied the announcement. The first day, 10,000 employees signed up; within three days 30,000 had volunteered.

‘Instead of finding out by word of mouth whether people were signing up, employees could check the site to find the current tally of volunteers; as the count increased, it convinced more people to participate. Ultimately, more than 90% of HP’s employees volunteered for pay cuts.’

This may not be the most ideal example to show how an intranet can work. However, it does illustrate the potential of the intranet to communicate and influence behaviour.

Think about it. The intranet homepage is probably the only place that every member of your organisation can view every day. Organisations are increasingly physically dispersed. The intranet can act as a vital glue which bonds the organisation together. Properly used, it reinforces corporate values and objectives on a day-to-day basis. It can communicate vital information in a fast and efficient manner.

A fundamental mistake that management makes again and again is to treat the intranet less seriously than the public website. However, it is at least as important to ensure that the content on the intranet is accurate and complete, as it is for the public website.

As intranet consultancy Intranet Focus puts it: ‘Staff have to trust the intranet 100%. They must have the reassurance that the information is complete, current and accurate. This is not the same for a company website, where most users will check other sources, just in case.’

Time and time again, staff go to the intranet only to waste time fruitlessly searching for that product specification or overtime form. Instead of delivering a productivity gain, such intranets become a productivity drain.

You might as well have asked your competitor to design your intranet for you, with the explicit objective of making you less productive.

To get the very best out of your intranet, here are 10 things to keep in mind:

  • Develop a long term plan
  • Deliver enthusiastic management support
  • Run it like a publication
  • Put an editor in charge
  • Have absolute focus on the reader
  • Motivate and reward knowledge sharing and collaboration
  • Focus on quality metadata and information architecture design
  • Implement common design standards
  • Implement a content management system
  • Resource properly

Too many intranets are approached in an ad hoc manner. You need to align your intranet objectives with your corporate objectives and develop a plan for the evolution of your intranet over a three-to-five-year period.

It should be both championed and used by management. If the intranet is run like a publication, it will focus on getting the right content to the right person at the right time at the right cost.

To make the intranet work you will have to create, edit and publish quality content on an ongoing basis. The principles and processes of publishing are hundreds of years old, and can be adapted to your intranet environment.

What’s the first thing a publication seeks from its readers? Trust. Putting an editor in charge helps here. A single person can then have the responsibility to ensure that all parts of your intranet meet commonly agreed objectives and standards. That person should be someone with editorial experience, someone used to working with content.

Too often, intranets forget that they are there to serve the reader/visitor. Ask this question: which reader is likely to benefit most from content, and whose consumption of content is most likely to benefit the organisation?

Is it sales representatives, engineers or support staff? Prioritise your intranet for that reader. If you want people to create quality content on a consistent basis it needs to be written into their job profile. Those who create great content need to be appropriately rewarded.

The information architecture is also vital. In other words, the organisation and layout of content on your website has to be right. Think about metadata, classification, navigation, search, layout and graphic design. The information architecture should not be rushed, as it is critical in reducing the time staff spend searching.

It is essential that you have common design standards throughout your intranet. Without them, it becomes incoherent and difficult to navigate. The key reason to have common design standards is not so that you can achieve central control, but so that you can empower the reader to find the content they need quickly.

A content management system will help, too. It will allow you to efficiently implement and manage common design standards. It will allow for practical publishing processes. It will facilitate these without technical knowledge to easily create, edit and publish content.

And finally, a good intranet needs resources. If you starve the intranet, you might as well not have one. Either the intranet can further your corporate objectives or it can’t. If it can, then you must deliver to it the appropriate resources.

However, those who run the intranet must deliver to management appropriate return on investment justifications that show that if you invest X in the intranet, you will get Y in return.

  • Gerry McGovern is an author and consultant.

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