A Case for Formal Intranet Leadership

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Managing a 21st Century Intranet
I chose this subtitle with care, since one of the two best books I have read on intranet deployment was The 21st Century Intranet by Jennifer Gonzalez, published in 1998. (For the record, the other is Intranets by Randy J. Hinrichs). Intranets are now becoming recognized as a key element of the information management infrastructure of a company, especially as corporate portal vendors raise the overall visibility of effective information access.

In all the companies I have visited over the last year or so, the demise of the intranet would have very serious repercussions on the future of the business. And yet, in most of those companies the management of the intranet is being undertaken as a part-time activity of a manager already very busy with other tasks. Often, a helpful senior management team has read an article about the merits of getting everyone in the company to contribute to the intranet, and implemented a distributed content management policy without any regard for the implications in terms of quality and training requirements. 

In the hands of a good manager, an intranet acts rather like an intelligent agent, seeking out content wherever it can be found. When this happens, senior management may not be aware of how the company intranet is transforming the way that staff work together, and the value the intranet and its manager bring to the company. I am constantly amazed and encour- aged by intranet excellence achieved against very significant barriers, including no formal budget and little if any senior management sponsorship. One of the reasons for this is that intranet managers tend to be excellent communicators, and are adept at working to gain a consensus among staff with different business and information objectives.

Vice President Intranet Operations
This brings me back to the opening paragraphs of this column. The appearance of the two intranet management positions in the Sunday Times gives me hope that other companies will be alerted to the importance of the position. Intranet management is not an engine-room position, given to someone who has some Web publishing experience and a reasonable knowledge of the operations of the company. Although the corporate portal business is having some problems at present (along with most of the IT industry), over the next few years important decisions are going to have to be made about the creation of a corporate portal. These decisions need to be information-centric, and not IT systems-centric, and should be taken by a senior manager with an excellent understanding of how information is being used to sustain and enhance competitive advantage.

I would therefore argue strongly for the appointment of a vice president/director of intranet operations position. The skills required are quite a complex mix of information technology awareness, excellence in negotiation and team-building, an awareness of the basic principles of Web publishing, and an understanding of what I would term information content architecture. They also need to have a very sound understanding of the business operations and objectives of the company. And, of course, they need to be very familiar with current and emerging good practices in intranet design and management.

The problem that remains to be solved is how a vice president of intranet operations is going to gain his or her appreciation of intranet good practices. Intranets are still so sufficiently new—especially in Europe— that few intranet managers have worked on more than even two good intranet projects. The extent to which lessons learned in other companies can be applied to a current position also varies considerably. At least in the U.S., there are quite a number of intranet conferences—notably the Online Inc. events—but that is not the case in Europe, or other regions of the world. It would be good to see the management schools paying more attention to intranets, but that is unlikely to happen in the short term.

If intranets are to be the primary platform for information and knowledge access within a company, attention is going to have to be paid, as a matter of urgency, to ensure that the intranet is being managed by someone with the appropriate skills, experience, and level of authority. It is comparatively easy to state the obvious. It is much more difficult to identify suitable candidates, especially outside of the organization, and for those candidates to gain a broad perspective of intranet good practices.

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