Essential Reading for Intranet Professionals

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BEST PRACTICES SERIES

Ethnography In The Service of Intranet Design
Ethnography is a research methodology associated with anthropology and sociology that systematically describes the culture of a group of people. The goal of eth- nographic research is to understand the natives'/insiders' view of their own world. In effect, this is what an information audit will uncover. Two books will give you some indication of the complexity of information exchange inside organizations, and the care needed to understand the issues in the design of intranets. Neither are easy reads.

The first is Inside the IMF by Richard Harper (Academic Press, 1998, ISBN 0-12-325840-5), the subtitle of which is "An ethnography or documents, technology and organizational action" and looks in great detail as to how the IMF develops economic position papers, based on an extensive period of research within the IMF. The second is The Challenger Launch Decision by Diane Vaughan (University of Chicago Press, 1997, ISBN 0-226-85176-1). The author investigates in very considerable detail the events leading up to the Challenger shuttle disaster, in particular, the issues arising from information exchanged (and not exchanged) in the teleconference just before the launch. The issues raised may have changed a little with the advent of videoconferencing, but still need to be taken into account in supporting virtual communities.

Intranet Design and Usability Analysis
Only fairly recently has the impact of poor usability on intranet effectiveness been recognised, mainly due to the efforts of Jakob Nielsen, who has been writing about the subject on his Web site (www.useit.com). His book Designing Web Usability (New Riders Publishing, Indianapolis, 1999, ISBN 1-56205-801-X) has a useful chapter on intranet usability issues, though much of the rest of the book is also relevant. Nielsen is a partner in the Nielsen Norman Group, which has just published "Intranet Design Annual: Ten Best Intranets of 2001." The report, which can be purchased through www.nngroup.com for $56, develops and illustrates many of the themes that Nielsen covers in his book.

Another excellent text on usability is Usability for the Web by Tom Brinck, Darren Gergle and Scott D. Wood (Morgan Kaufmann Publishers 2002, ISBN 1-55860-658-0). The main strength of this book is the way that it shows how to develop an information architecture from first principles, and complements Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville (O'Reilly and Associates Inc. 1998, ISBN 1-56592-282-4), which I understand is currently being revised. With all three and the Nielsen Norman report, you will be in good shape to design an effective intranet.

Corporate Portals
One of few areas of growth in the corporate portal business is the number of briefing papers published by the portal vendors. However, none are as well-written and as comprehensive as Corporate Portals by Heidi Collins (Amacom, 2001, ISBN 0-8144-0593-2). You may well comment that in your organization corporate portal technology is not relevant. Not yet, perhaps, but you will certainly benefit from the clarity with which the author sets out the process of establishing a business case for a portal, since much of what she presents is also relevant to the intranet environment.

Knowledge Management
There are several hundred books on knowledge management, but there are two I find especially useful in devising intranet strategies. Common Knowledge, by Professor Nancy M. Dixon (Harvard Business School Press, 2000, ISBN 0-87584-904-0) reports on research the author undertook with a number of major international companies to see how they supported knowledge exchange. Professor Dixon comes up with five types of knowledge transfer, identifying the characteristics of each and what support is needed for effective transfer. I have found her model to be very valuable in getting companies to think about their own knowledge access and transfer requirements, especially in a focus group environment. This leads me into the current level of interest in communities of practice and of making the most of social capital, a company's stock of human connections. In Good Company, by Don Cohen and Laurence Prusak (Harvard Business School Press, 2001, 0-87584-913-X), combines theory, philosophy, and practical advice in a very readable book.

Ten For The Top Shelf
Intranet strategy and design is a fascinating subject, combining elements of technology, psychology, sociology, management science, information science, and communication theory. I hope that you find these books expand your horizons as they have mine. One day I might get around to writing a book on intranet strategy, but at present I'm having too much fun just doing it.

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