Intranet rationalization: The politics of downsizing

by Toby Ward — Site sprawl undermines the very promise of an intranet—making it easier to store and find information. Downsizing the number of sites is a complex project.
There’s been a lot of attention paid to intranets lately, which can only be encouraging news for those of us who believe in the power of an effective internal website.
Intranets are natural drivers of employee productivity, communications, collaboration and supporting overall corporate effectiveness. While it’s not the most scientific data point, a good example of the increased awareness is that the number of intranet-related inquiries Prescient receives through our website and blog is up significantly.
The buck stops with the users who are tired of the frustrating experience
that the intranet has become
Given the evolution and adoption rates of intranets, it should come as no surprise that none of the inquiries concern how to start an intranet. Everyone wants to know how to redesign the intranet and reduce the number of sites existing in their organization.
It’s a critical goal: site sprawl undermines the very promise of an intranet—making it easier to store and find information. Downsizing the number of sites is a complex project that must involve such tasks as a thorough audit of the content that exists on all sites, the development of an effective Information Architecture and the implementation of a content management plan.


But whatever you call it, rationalization, cooperation or adoption, the path to success will be fraught with politics. Intranets are political footballs and politics will almost always be an intranet manager’s top challenge. This is a natural outcome of the many divergent groups with different minds and ways of looking at the world forced to work together in a cooperative environment and a common platform.
Communications sees the world far differently than IT. Marketing approaches business far differently than HR. So friction is natural. Hence the need for a strong champion, a cohesive steering committee, and an armful of policies (legislation) to support the process.
“I've had the opportunity to work closely with both developers and end-users during these system adoptions and have always noticed a subtle but very real threat to the outcome,” writes intranet writer Paul Chin in a recent column, Lil' Orphan Intranet: Adopting an Ownerless System. “It isn't a technical threat, it’s a social threat. IT may feel some animosity, justified or not, toward renegade developers... Users, however, should never have to bear the brunt of this frustration.”
There’s the rub. The intranet must serve the audience: the users, your employees. Measured ROI and cash saved is important. Without the support and use by employees, however, that ROI will never be realized. The buck stops with the users who are tired of the frustrating experience that the intranet has become. A rationalization program will save money, but it will also save the sanity of frustrated users who are tired of complaining, “I can never find anything!”

IBM’s challenge

Whenever contemplating a daunting task, it’s always helpful to learn from an inspirational example. When it comes to downsizing intranet sites, there is no better story than IBM. At one time, in the late 1990s, the computer giant had over 10,000 intranet sites, representing millions of pages. Through a dedicated campaign, the company rationalized more than 6,000 intranet sites and saved $9 billion.
IBM’s approach to bringing these sites under control provides a good example of how to manage the politics of downsizing sites.
Most intranet owners cooperated willingly. And why wouldn’t they? If the corporation provides a central platform, an easy-to-use publishing tool, indexing from the central search engine and technical hosting, why wouldn’t renegade site owners jump at the opportunity to close their intranet site? They would; they did. Some of course were reluctant and a less subtle form of persuasion was needed in the end.
“Driving the consolidation of sites was difficult,” said IBM’s Liam Cleaver, a key manager of IBM’s intranet portal W3, in our recent webinar, Intranet World Tour with IBM. “We owned little and controlled less. But we [the portal team] do own the URL and groups want to have that root in their URL. To be part of that they have to adhere to standards and we have the authority to shoot down sites. We don’t like to play cop but prefer a carrot and stick approach that sells the value.”

How to rationalize

Well, easier said then done, but combined with a lot of hard work, here are the ingredients needed to cook up a site rationalization program:
  • A forceful and tactful executive champion that is, with few exceptions, a C-level chief.
  • A united and strong central steering committee or council that widely represents core business services and business units.
  • A strong business case with anticipated and measured return on investment (dollars and cents sell business cases).
  • A robust central intranet portal and supporting technology.
  • An engaged and participatory IT department (no more excuses about understaffing and bigger priorities).
  • A set of enforceable intranet standards and polices (development policy, editorial policy, etc.) that spell out the rules, roles and responsibilities of all.
  • A central content management system and publishing tool that stores and indexes all content with standardized page and document templates.
  • A decentralized content publishing model where content authors and owners write, publish and manage their own content via the central CMS while adhering to the aforementioned polices and standardized templates.
It sounds pretty easy. Start small and seek out friends for some easy wins. Rationalize a few sites. Talk about the program benefits and success for the content owners and the publishers. Sell, sell, sell. Once the carrot looses its shine and ceases being effective, then pull out the big stick.
Of course, anything involving politics is not easy. It requires deft judgment and strong communication skills backed by solid knowledge of the task required. But in most political arenas, things get easier if you can rally people around a common cause. I don’t know any organization that wouldn’t rally for increasing employee productivity and supporting overall corporate effectiveness.

Toby Ward writes a daily intranet blog at, from which this article was adapted. Toby is the President of Prescient Digital Media which specializes in Internet and intranet strategy, technology and total site management. For a copy of the free intranet white paper Finding ROI, please contact us.