From Here to Maturity

As an intranet consultant, I certainly get to see the world— even if it means contending with severe security restrictions at Heathrow for a short four-day trip from London to Sydney. Luckily, the only major problem on that flight occurred at 25,000 feet and 100 miles out from Sydney, when it became clear that virtually no one on the 747 had a pen to complete the landing card.

Whilst in Sydney, I had the chance to talk intranets with James Robertson, managing director of Step Two Designs. By about the third latte, we got around to intranet maturity. This was prompted, from my perspective, by my having recently read a report from the Enterprise Solutions group at Avenue A | Razorfish entitled "Corporate Intranet Best Practices" ( At the heart of this report is a six-stage maturity model that starts with communication and information sharing, and then moves to self-service, collaboration, enterprise information portals, digital dashboards, and finally a consolidated workplace interface.

The model that Avenue A | Razorfish developed is based on work they have carried out for clients on large corporate intranets. There is much that is of interest in the report but I'm not at all sure I can live with a maturity model that is based around technology. (Though one of my clients read the report and had a real Eureka! moment, so perhaps I'm in the minority.) Nevertheless, I am sure that the report will be heavily downloaded by intranet managers trying to prove a point to their sponsoring manager. In part this is because, for all the millions of intranets there must now be in the world, there is still very little statistical information known about them. Back in 2001, Melcrum Publishing, a UK consultancy (, released the results of a survey they had sponsored that included some of the quantitative metrics of intranets, such as the size of the budget and the number of people on the intranet team. Robertson carried out a similar survey about a year ago as well (

Flying back from Sydney gives one lots of time for thought, and I found myself pondering over something I'll call White's Intranet Paradox. The paradox can be stated as follows: The more you manage to find out about how intranets are being used in other organizations, the greater the chance that your own intranet will fail to meet the requirements of your organization. There has certainly been a lot of interest in benchmarking intranets over the last year or so, and I'm not changing my mind about the utility of benchmarking (covered in my March 2006 column). But I have recently come across organizations that drive their intranet based on what others are doing. This borders on insanity.

When we speak of maturity we do so with some norm in our mind. We see our children maturing, using what we would consider adulthood as the norm. My concern with benchmarking and quantitative research into intranets is that the focus is looking outwards, when it should be looking inwards. Intranet maturity should be a function of how well it supports the provision of information within an organization, taking into account business objectives and user requirements. I might go so far as to say that a fully mature intranet is invisible. It becomes so much a part of the way an organization goes about its business that no one even thinks to mention that such and such a piece of information is on the intranet. That is maturity.

Lessons can certainly be learned from case studies about other intranets, and indeed from benchmarking, but in the end an intranet probably has to be the most user-centric application in a company. This is because just about everyone uses it almost everyday for just about everything. The only application that will be used more frequently in an organization is email, and just possibly Microsoft Word or its equivalent.

It would be good if some industry group would designate 2007 as The Year of the Intranet User, but I'm afraid that it will just have to be me in this column. All too often I find intranet managers who have never run user surveys, never set up discussion groups to get some face-to-face response, and go on to make the assumption that since they have a CMS that enables each employee to contribute content, then the content by definition must be useful. As Robertson puts it, "A key principle for intranet teams is: You can't usefully deliver information to users that you haven't personally met." Make 2007 the year to meet your users—and their needs.