All the action in intranets at present seems to be focused on content management. Many Web content management vendors I have spoken to in Europe over the last couple of months have indicated that the intranet market is now at least as important to them as the Web site market. However, the vendors are finding that the time and effort they need to spend on intranet pre-sales activities is much higher than is the case with Web sites, and given the pressure on pricing and margins they can ill afford to spend much time without a good probability of closing the sale.
The problem seems to arise from the fact that very few companies have a formal intranet strategy, let alone a more widely-based content management strategy. A recent survey in the U.K. by Consultants Advisory magazine (www.consultants-advisory.com) reported that only 34% of companies surveyed had a content management system, and that of those not employing such technology 75% said they either had no plans to do so within the next two years, or did not know what will happen.
At the heart of the problem is that, in my experience, very few organizations have a formal intranet strategy, or better still, a content management strategy. I have seen a number of RFPs for content management software which are written only in IT infrastructure terms, with no business objectives other than vague mentions of "enhancing productivity." I have a very straightforward approach to intranet and content management strategy planning, and it is based on three core elements, information content, technical infrastructure, and governance. These three elements are all interrelated, so although I will comment on each of them in sequence, strategy development requires an incremental approach that looks at these interrelationships.
As I have remarked in a previous column, there needs to be an adroit combination of top-down and bottom-up development of an information content strategy. The top-down element has to be based on describing the information dependencies of the business objectives of the organization. A mission statement about "decreasing new product development timescales" has to be translated into a set of information objectives. These could include enhancing access to patent information, better feedback from product development projects, and ensuring that the organization is aware of the expertise of staff who are not directly involved with specific new product developments.
Unfortunately, senior managers are often unaware of the dependencies of their organization on adequate information assets and flows. Ask any redundant corporate information manager! As a result, staff involved in operational activities often use unorthodox and invisible methods of gaining information, which is then shared across the organization by email and probably lost forever in C drives. Each staff member has his or her own list of bookmarks and there is no mechanism for sharing and reviewing these. Without undertaking an information audit, there is little hope that a structured approach to information content requirements can be achieved. User surveys can be very helpful in identifying issues. One of my clients discovered that such a survey revealed staff were very reluctant to support the idea of creating discussion groups and communities. However, the chief executive was proposing to roll out community applications across the entire organization overnight. The results of the survey were used in a series of briefings and discussions with staff to understand why there was a reluctance to adopt this approach, and this led to a much slower, but in the end, very successful roll-out.
came across a situation recently where a useful intranet had been developed using Active Server Pages on a Microsoft platform. However, an IT strategy was issued which was based around J2EE, and no one had worked through the implications of the transition from the ASP environment to a J2EE content management application. Quite frequently I find that database, network, directory, and other strategies are developed to meet the needs of specific high-visibility requirements, such as a CRM or HR system, and no one appreciates the impact on the intranet (or, more often, intranets) until it is too late.
The problem seems to arise from the fact that there is often little formal programming resources allocated to intranet application development, which is often undertaken by Web-savvy staff in their spare time. The fact that this application is then available through every desktop is not apparent until issues of interoperability and support are raised.
Further complications arise from offsite access and its impact on security, file formats and size, and database integrity. IT managers in mobile-intensive countries in Europe seem not to have a good understanding of the implications of mobile and wireless technologies. Another gray area is the integration of external information resources. All these and other issues will have a significant impact on effective access to achieve business objectives.
An intranet will be on every desktop, and will have (or at least should have) a beneficial impact on every member of staff at any location. All the content on the intranet has to be created by someone, and the accuracy and integrity of the information has to be as close to 100% as possible. Few users will give an intranet a second chance once they've made a decision based on incorrect data.
One important element in a content management system is the development of some business rules for content authorization. Often these rules are implicit in current working practices, and staff know how to get memos, reports and agendas through the system with minimum effort. Building these complex rules into a CMS is a real challenge, and all too often the rules are far more complex than they need to be. If you can't trust a staff member to contribute quality content to an intranet then maybe the problem lies in your performance evaluation procedures. You will not fix the problem with software.
Performance evaluation also reveals the need to incorporate intranet roles and responsibilities into job descriptions, so that intranet contribution moves from a hobby to a key element in the achievement of the organization's business objectives. The need for active senior man- agement support of the intranet also needs to be addressed in this element of the strategy.
Meeting Changing Circumstances
Even as the intranet strategy is being developed circumstances will change, especially in the current business environment. This does not mean that developing a strategy is a pointless exercise. Without a strategy, there is no touchstone to assess what has changed and what the implications will be for the intranet. What it does mean is that the strategy should be concise, developed over a fairly short period of time, and a process put in place to monitor the need for revisions to the strategy.
Enterprise Content Management
This column has been written focusing on intranet strategy development, but the process should neither start or stop with the intranet. In many organizations, the IT department has little interest in intranets, but a lot in enterprise portals. The interfaces between intranets, enterprise portals, document management systems, electronic archives management, employee self-service portals, desk-top ecommerce/ procurement services, Web sites, and a host of other systems will, in the future, have to be considered in content management terms and not just in systems integration terms. I am well aware that many IT departments do spend time on a rigorous approach to database development, but there is much more to content management than data dictionaries.
And then we have to consider how to facilitate access and exchange of the tacit knowledge of the staff of the organization. But that will have to be the subject of another column.