Getting a flabby intranet back in shape

This column appeared in the Ragan Report in January of 2001.  Going back and reading it, I’m surprised at how much of the advice still remains true.  When corporate communications takes a hands-off approach to the intranet, almost invariably it grows into a mess of poorly organized pages.  The shift in the role of internal communications from simply broadcasting messages to becoming the experts who create clear, meaningful environments where all employees can add their voice has been remarkable.

As many of us have learned, gaining weight is easy.  Just eat whatever you want and sit on the couch.  The weight will come looking for you.  Losing weight, on the other hand, is no simple task.  There are quick fixes that can help out for a short time, but long term solutions take patience, hard work and will power.  It often means changing long ingrained habits that are difficult to overcome.  And it means putting some realistic, achievable goals in front of you to help you on the path to something greater.    You can’t expect to look like Tom Cruise or Nicole Kidman overnight – but you might be able to lose some of your love handles before bikini season.

And so it is with the average corporate intranet.  If you want to have an intranet that is chaotic, difficult to navigate and full of outdated junk, just ignore the problem.  Given time, more and more sites will crop up.  Some of them will be helpful.  Some will be useless.  All of them will look, work and act in a different manner.  You’ll quickly find yourself with lots of ‘stuff’ – but navigating through the clutter will become more and more difficult.  And your company will end up spending more money than it should – because every group will probably end up working with different search, discussion and knowledge management tools.

Unfortunately, as with weight loss, the problem can’t be solved with something you can buy off the shelf.  Despite the promises of portal vendors and a host of other anxious technology companies, I’ve never seen a shrink-wrapped effective intranet.  So if you’ve given up on magic pills to cure your intranet woes, here are some fitness tips that will help you shape up a flabby intranet:

The most difficult part of building an intranet that really delivers on the promise of the technology is getting all the departments to cooperate with each other.  This is especially true for larger companies that have been in business for a long time.  The reason for this difficulty is that organizations have become overly accustomed to clear lines of authority.  Marketing owns the customer brochures.  Communications owns the employee publication.  HR owns the benefits binders.  That thinking works well for older media, but it causes problems on the intranet – where everybody has a certain degree of ownership, but all the pieces are a few mouse clicks from each other.  Confusion starts to arise when that sense of ownership creates separate sites that do not interoperate – it might make the site owners happy, but employees get lost in all the different kingdoms.

The first step to solving the kingdom problem is to get all the departments to agree that the problem exists.  A good way to get that recognition started is by doing some usability studies on your intranet.  There are many good books on this topic , but the process can be as simple as doing some informal interviews with average intranet users, and asking them to find a specific type of information.  Ask them to talk aloud as they navigate through your site.  Keep a stopwatch handy (but not obvious) to record the amount if time it takes them to find what they are looking for.  Get members of other departments to help you in the effort – especially the groups that seem to be the most defensive of their individual intranet sites.

Now that your problem is better defined, use the data you gained to pull together a larger intranet policy group.  Discuss some of the common issues that your users brought up.  Suggest that the group develop standards so that your intranet can be more consistent and easy to navigate.  Emphasize that nobody should own the entire intranet – but that the group can help define some common approaches that will make all the departments more successful in their intranet projects.  Some of the early standards might include time stamping all of the pages on your intranet – showing the date that a web page was created, modified, checked for content, or even when the information will no longer be accurate.  Or marking the contact person for each web page on your intranet so that ‘orphaned’ pages or sites are less likely.

If you work in a large company, the policy group might want to create a smaller task force that can focus more time and energy on creating standards or working with designers to come up with a common graphical approach to your intranet.  This task force can come back to the larger group at regular meeting to report their progress and get input on their work.

Once you have departments talking to each other and some simple standards have developed, consider taking on bigger challenges – like organizing your intranet by information topics instead of department names.  Changes like that might sound simple, but a greater degree of trust and cooperation is often necessary to get people to give up the neatly packaged web sites they have created for their department to participate in something that is more integrated and holistic.  But the change is one I strongly recommend – if for no other reason than the way we call a department HR one week and Human Capital the next.  Organization charts and department names change like the wind – information categories stay the same.  And if you don’t believe me, take a look at Yahoo, consider the growth of the Internet, and tell me why their categories look nearly the same after more than six years.

Just remember, as with weight loss, start with the simple things (like pushing away that extra slice of pumpkin pie), then take on more.  With time and discipline, you’ll have an intranet that makes everybody happy.