You have to feel sorry for my wife Cynthia. Ever since we first met in 1971 her response to inquiries about what her boyfriend/fiancee/husband does for a living has been, "He's an information scientist." That tends to stop any conversation dead in its tracks as the questioner conjures up an image of a white-coated scientist studying information. Much of my career has been in electronic publishing, but how do you expand on "He's in electronic publishing" over a dry martini? Now that I am an intranet consultant the problem gets even worse.
Actually, I have the same problem: People contact me hoping that I can solve whatever the problem is with their intranet but have no idea of what I do or how I do it. So in case you are reading this and thinking of hiring a consultant, I thought I would tell you a little about how I go about "making your intranet work better."
The first meeting with the intranet team is always an interesting experience. They are usually keen to show me the intranet and are somewhat surprised when I ask them to save that for later in the discussion. Initially I am in detective mode. The sequence of the questions I ask may vary, but the questions themselves don't. First, I want to know why they have called me in. The top-level response is that they feel that the intranet is not working as well as it could. As I probe, I usually quickly find that there is little or no empirical evidence for the statement. No user surveys, no user panels, no benchmarking of any sort, and no usability tests.
My next question seeks to find out who the business sponsor for the intranet is, and why. The level of seniority of the sponsor and the extent of their active involvement in the intranet tells me a great deal about how committed the organization is to its intranet. This question leads into one about what business objectives of the organization the intranet is tasked with supporting. Usually no one is sure, or provides a vague response about better internal communication. The other common response is that the intranet is a one-stop shop for all information. Both statements are of no help at all other than showing that the intranet is not positioned to support current operational and strategic objectives. I try to help by asking what tasks the intranet supports, because when I eventually look at the intranet, I want the team to show me how these tasks are supported, but again there is usually little awareness of the need to think in terms of tasks rather than just getting as much information on the intranet as possible and hoping that employees will find it.
Since the intranet is only as good as its content, I move on to finding out if content contributors have their roles set out in their job descriptions. All too often this is not the case, and so the intranet is really a hobby, not an operational platform. Without a trace of a smile I ask if the finance staff adds information to the finance systems in their spare time as well. That usually makes the point.
Now it's time to play with the intranet. If there is a search function I type in "salary." This shows two things: First, if there is confidential information that should not be on the intranet, and second, whether the search engine also finds "salaries." The results can be fascinating and sometimes horrifying. If there is no search engine (the lack of which is a good indicator of the commitment of the organization to information access) then I ask a member of the team to find the corporate policy on data privacy. In Europe this is a formal requirement. Watching the team work through the navigation reveals a great deal about how the content has been structured.
As I look back through the projects I have tackled in the last 10 years I see that my role is more about management consulting than intranet consulting. The problems of poor intranet performance lie in the lack of any understanding of the value of information to the business, compounded by a wide range of organizational and change-management issues. I help organizations identify and find solutions to these. Intranet problems almost solve themselves as the operational benefits of the intranet become more visible and measurable. Perhaps I should describe myself as an intranet detective. I wonder if Cynthia would agree.