Doing It by the Book...If Only There Were Books to Do It By

Jun 15, 2004

June 2004 Issue

I'm a bit of a bookshop junkie. One of the pleasures of visiting the U.S. is being able to visit the vast bookshops that are a feature of American cities. Barnes & Noble on New York's Union Square is probably my favorite. Lugging said book acquisitions back to the U.K. is less of a pleasure. Initially, they seem to weigh nothing, but they have a habit of doubling in heft when slotted in to my carry-on case. I do hit the shops at home as well. Although I do not live in London, I visit the city almost every week and do my best to be able to spend time in a Borders or Waterstone's megastore looking for the tools of my trade.

So there you will find me, with my head at 90 degrees to my body (orthogonal to a mathematician) scanning the rows of books for anything with the word "intranet" in its title. But mystery of mysteries, there are virtually no books on the subject of intranet management. Just occasionally, you will hear a cry of "Eureka!" from my lips: It happened just the other day in Foyles in London when I found Practical Intranet Development by John Colby and eight (yes, eight) other authors. This was published by Glasshaus in March 2003 just as the company was acquired by Apress ( Somewhat surprisingly, it was being sold at half-price, a rarity in the world of professional books. If you want to read my review, it will be in the Intranets ( newsletter by about the time you read this column.

Now, I am old and grey (and still peruse bookshops) and there will be readers of this column who have already hit the Amazon site to look for books on intranets. Checking it out for this column, I found 242 hits…and what hits they were. The majority of the books in the Amazon warehouse date back to the period from 1996-1999. A quick check indicated that, of the 242, only about a dozen have been published in the last three years, and many of these are quite technical books on fun topics like how to build an intranet in ASP.NET. The Dummies Guide to Intranets dates back to 1997. Some of the older books are excellent, such as Intranets—The Bottom Line by Randy Hinrichs and The 21st Century Intranet by Jennifer Gonzales Stone, but, alas, these seem to be out of print.

Look around the same virtual or brick-and-mortar bookshops and you will find hundreds of titles on virtually any aspect of Web development—from HTML through XML and beyond. But even the invaluable O'Reilly series of IT titles does not include a single title on intranets. Publishers are usually very keen to jump on any publishing opportunity, so I just do not understand why there are so few books on intranets. Perhaps everyone has developed such a perfect intranet that there is no need to buy a book? Not so, given the evidence of my consulting work.

Moving on from books, intranet-focused conferences bear a similar state. Certainly Information Today Inc.'s Intranets 2004, which will take place in Santa Clara in October, is a really first-rate event. But in past years, even ITI's marketing efforts seem not to have attracted the hoards of intranet managers I would expect to attend.

In the U.K., there are some small specialized conferences run on an ad hoc basis, and the Online Information conference held in London in December each year consistently has a strong intranet theme. I suspect that the main problem with intranet conferences is that—because of their behind-the-firewall nature—rarely can one actually see an intranet demonstrated live at any of these conferences. I recall an excellent presentation of the Compaq intranet at the Online show a couple of years ago in which virtually all of the information had been added by hand so that not a single element of confidential information escaped. This is quite understandable and indeed is a major issue in being able to demonstrate intranets. The other main reason few intranets see the light of day is that many are so bad that no one wants to stand up and take credit for them.

Finally, to get to the intranet consulting business, I guess that there are perhaps only half a dozen consultants in the U.K. that specialize in intranets. Although this may seem like consulting heaven, it does give rise to a problem with government contracts. They need to get tenders from three consultants and often end up asking me to find two other consultants to which they can compare my services. Again, is everyone doing so well (in secret) on their intranets that they don't require consultation?

And even to begin with consultation, many people need to read a book about intranets in order to find out what their problem is before they can set about solving it. If only there were some out there in the bookshops that I could recommend.