Is Your Intranet Headed for Extinction - Part I

by Toby Ward — Intranets are complex and expensive investments - their scope and reach should touch and positively affect all employees in every corner of an organization. The rigor and execution required to build and maintain a successful intranet is massive – from governance to content management, and from technology to business processes. At the heart of a successful intranet is the strength of the plan that underlies it.
Failure to develop an integrated plan that accounts for an organization’s structure, stakeholder, and user requirements will certainly ensure failure and, with it, a loss of significant time, money and jobs.
An intranet manager at a major communications company recently lamented about the phenomenal amounts of wasted time, money and effort exhausted in evolving their enterprise intranet portal that serves tens of thousands of employees. In one year, the intranet was redesigned three times – sucking significant funds and patience from an organization that should be using the intranet to support rather than drain the bottom-line. Of an extended team of more than a dozen people working on the intranet, only one person remains.

A Political Football

The problem here and in many cases was that executive whims shaped the intranet instead of research and requirements. Other threats include management seizing control, especially where managers of various departments vie for profile and editorial power, and intranet design and redesigns based on a myriad of product demos and vendor presentations.
“Too many intranets and portals fail or don’t live up to their potential because they lack direction and often become a political football torn between rival groups and competing priorities within an organization,” says Carmine Porco, Vice-President, Prescient Digital Media, a veteran consultant who has also worked for Cisco and Deloitte Consulting. “Firstly, you have to get your stakeholders to agree, in the form of a strategic plan and vision, on how the intranet should work and evolve. But you also need to understand what employees want and expect; and then marry the two.”
“Too many intranets and portals fail or don’t live up to their potential because they lack direction and often become a political football…”

Business Requirements Assessment

An intranet’s future performance and success is determined before its birth with the identification and documentation of business requirements and the subsequent, mandatory planning that constructs the blueprint for guiding an intranet’s evolution. In other words, before any technology evaluation, redesign or the scripting of a single line of code, you must undertake a proper business requirements assessment .
An extensive needs or business requirements assessment is necessary to identify, develop, prioritize, and document goals and current practices. The assessment should include stakeholder input, interviews and/or workshops as well as user research that could include surveys, focus groups and usability testing, and a complete technology audit and analysis (conducted subsequently or concurrently with user research).
Armed with this intelligence, a detailed strategic blueprint – including creative, information architecture, technology, and ROI plans – can be crafted to build a leading-edge business system.
The assessment actually serves two important needs: it documents the needs and requirements of the user population, for the purpose of answering those needs; and it addresses the politics of intranet ownership and governance by engaging everyone who has a business stake in the intranet. Indeed, for the majority of organizations, technology is not the biggest intranet challenge. Rather, the biggest challenge is politics – most specifically, the political challenge of who owns or should own and manage the intranet or portal. As such, it is frequently recommended that an organization consider engaging a third-party or consultant to conduct the assessment. While budgets might be tight, the process need not be expensive and a third-party may be more successful in gathering sensitive opinions and feedback. Internal resources may be cheaper, but a third-party will be more objective with no personal attachment or any political agenda.
As the intranet is not just a single internal site, but the sum of the internal infrastructure including all sites, LANs, WANs, and the enterprise email system, it makes no practical business sense for it to be wholly owned or managed by any one department. The intranet or enterprise portal should serve the business needs of all users, not just the users in one area of the company. Therefore, the needs and requirements of each stakeholder and user are relevant and each needs to be engaged as part of the assessment process. This does not mean, however, that every single employee needs to be asked his or her opinion. It does mean that a representative sampling of user opinions is crucial to gathering an accurate reading on user needs and requirements.
For all intranet and portal undertakings, the project process can be segmented into five major phases:
  1. Assessment
  2. Planning
  3. Technology
  4. Design & Build
  5. Promote & Launch
The first two phases, assessment followed by planning, are perhaps the two most important phases: without undertaking rigorous and thorough assessment and planning phases, subsequent phases will be misguided or fail.
Assessment steps might include:
  •  Stakeholder interviews
  •  Stakeholder workshops
  •  User surveys
  •  User focus groups
  •  Existing research review (employee and communication surveys)
  •  Usability Testing
  •  Benchmarking (best practices) 

Toby Ward, a former journalist and a regular e-business columnist and speaker, is the President and Founder of Prescient Digital Media. For more information on Prescient’s CMS Blueprint service, or for a free copy of the white paper “Finding ROI”, please contact us.