Lessons Learned: How to Avoid the Top 10 Intranet Mistakes

by Carmine Porco — The third best way to improve through experience is to learn from your mistakes. The second best way is to learn from the mistakes of others. And the best way is to learn from your own successes.
My experience in developing and implementing intranet strategies has exposed me to a number of mistakes, many committed by others and, I must admit, a few by me. Along the way, I’ve also enjoyed a number of successes.

From my experience, I’ve developed a list of the Top 10 Intranet mistakes, from which you can learn some crucial lessons without experiencing the pain that might otherwise be felt. This list can get you started on your own intranet strategy, or it serve as a checklist for your intranet endeavors.

Mistake #1: Don’t Talk to Users

“I’m afraid of what they might say” was one response I received when I asked a client why they haven’t asked what their users want. Sticking your head in the sand and ignoring the world around you is a great strategy… if you’re an ostrich. But if you’re creating an intranet site that will improve the lives of users, you had better understand how they want to use it. User input is essential, particularly when you consider how a new intranet affects just about everyone in your organization.

Engaging employees in usability testing is also an important consideration because they are your clients after all. Nonetheless, it’s surprising how many organizations make the mistake of launching or refining an intranet without formally gathering user input.

Mistake #2: Don’t Build a Plan but do try to boil the Ocean

Too many times, I have seen organizations try to implement everything at once without a solid plan to guide their priorities. That’s like trying to boil the ocean: you’ll expend enormous energy and achieve little as a result. Without a proper plan, your intranet will surely fail.

As with any new initiative, a proper planning phase is required to ensure clearly articulated requirements, vision, strategy and measurable objectives. A proper plan will also allow you to effectively determine your scope and help map out a phased approach. This is not to say that your strategy should not include a grand view of the end product but it should be implemented in 6-8 month stages.

At the rate technology is changing, especially in the Web Content Management System (WCMS) arena, it is more prudent to pick a few low hanging fruits and establish success which will encourage buy-in (and spending) than it is to try and pick the tree clean all at once.

Mistake #3: Ignore the KISS (Keep it Simple Stupid) Rule

This can never be stated enough, yet time and time again we see organizations trying to “customize” their intranet because they feel they are “different”. I would venture to say that a majority of the small to mid-level WCMS vendors can accommodate 80% of many organization’s requirements without customization. As I mentioned earlier, when you devise your plan, start small and keep it simple.

The number one comment we hear from our user research is, “I can’t find anything.” We never hear, “I would like a really neat customizable application that can’t be bought off-the-shelf”. It makes no sense to increase the risk of failure by allowing users to, for example, customize the look and feel of their home page by adding columns, graphics, etc.

Mistake #4: Write for the printed page, not the Web

Quite simply, users read the web differently than they do paper documents. Notice how this article, for example, is written in easily scannable chunks. I bet many of you probably didn’t read this sentence until you first scanned the top 10 mistakes and then decided that the article might actually be interesting enough to read top to bottom. So, why is it that when Prescient first views a potential client’s site, we are invariably overcome by long blocks of verbiage?

Your content providers/authors need to be trained on how to write for the web if you want to avoid this mistake.

Mistake #5: Don’t Provide Training

Everyone, from authors and users to administrators and IT staff need to be trained on how to use the software, write for the web, administer users, etc. However, if a site is not intuitive enough for someone to instinctively grasp, then I would say the fault is in the site, not the user. Don’t’ agree? My 6 year old daughter can surf Barbie.com on her own. ‘Nuff said.

Authors and content providers need to learn not only how to use a new CMS, but also, how to write for the web. Administrators, webmasters and IT staff who receive training also require “train the trainer” courses so that they can transfer knowledge to others in the likely event that people change jobs or leave the company.

Mistake #6: Launch Your Site without Marketing It

“If you build it, they may not come”. Not only does marketing your site help garner greater traffic, it also allows for better buy-in from your users. Change management is very important when implementing an intranet as it affects the entire organization and, therefore, must be acknowledged and built into the planning process.

Marketing should not only be a priority at launch but continuously. New
features/applications should be continually promoted to demonstrate success and promote innovation. One simple way to do this is by highlighting a new feature in a monthly newsletter, on the home page or on a frequently visited page, such as the employee directory.

Mistake #7: Fail to Build a Governance Model

Who owns the intranet? When asked this question, organizations often resemble the monkeys who “hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil”. Without proper ownership, management and standards for your intranet, it will surely fail. How the site is managed and governed needs to be clearly defined during the planning process and then must be supported by senior management.

Without this, the common excuse for the inevitable poor intranet is “I have real work to do”. Steering committees, executive champions, standards and guidelines are all essential components of an overall governance model. By putting a good model in place, the political bickering that inevitably accompanies an intranet project is lessened. See “ The Politics of Intranet Ownership” for more on this topic.

Mistake #8: Only Look Internally for Best Practices

As I said in the opening, the best way to learn is from your own successes. If your organization has a strong track record of successfully deploying intranets, then all the answers you need will be found internally. If not, you’ll need to learn from others’ mistakes and successes by reading extensively, attending seminars and hiring consultants.

OK, the last point may sound self-serving, but where else are you going to discover the most up-to-date best practices in a time-efficient manner? A consultant can assist with your project by offering an unbiased opinion, by sharing best practices and knowledge and by offering insight into how case studies can be adapted to your unique requirements.

Mistake #9: Move Ahead Without Senior Level Backing

As with any project, if a new intranet is not fully endorsed by senior management, it will be more difficult to achieve success. Prescient has learned two essential ingredients to success. First, senior management must “get it”. If they see no need for the intranet, they will need to be “ educated”. That is, they will need to be shown how their competitors and others have received return on investment.

The second ingredient for success is recognizing that more senior managers are requesting a business case for their intranet. This is no easy task. However, while measuring the precise return on investment may not be possible, there are ways to demonstrate both potential and existing ROI. For our free white paper, Intranet ROI, please contact us.

Mistake #10: Treat the Intranet like an Event, Not a Process

Many intranets have not been updated since launch. Your intranet may have been built by somebody in IT who once had some time on their hands and who now probably regrets doing so because anytime a change is required/she is the one who gets the call. This role may not even be in their job description and as mentioned earlier, the site has probably faltered because he/she has scoffed it off by saying, “I have real work to do”.

With a proper governance model in place, the intranet can be a living, breathing application that grows and changes with the organization. Ownership, process and content workflow, trained and decentralized authorship, ongoing marketing and metrics, defined responsibilities and executive support are some of the essentials that will ensure your intranet enjoys ongoing success.

Avoiding these mistakes won’t guarantee intranet success, but my experience has shown that applying these lessons significantly raises the probability that your site will contribute positively to your organization’s goals. At a minimum, the list will help you learn from others’ mistakes, rather than from your own.

A Senior Internet Business Consultant and a regular writer and speaker, Carmine Porco is the Vice-President 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.