Investing in Intranet Infrastructure


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In a number of my columns last year, I made reference to the skill sets that are desirable for intranet managers. I probably need to add the ability to speak French. Let me explain. While at the Intranets 2001 conference in Santa Clara last year, I met Claude Malaison, the Intranet Manager for Quebec Hydro and President of the Association des Professionnels en Intranet (www.api-quebec.org). As far as I know, this is the only professional association for intranet managers anywhere in the world. Claude invited me, along with a number of other Intranets 2001 speakers, to participate in Intracom 2001, the second annual conference of the API. Intracom 2001 (www.intracom2001.com) was held in Montreal at the end of September and attracted around 200 delegates and a number of exhibitors. As with any event in the province of Quebec, it was held in French, though a number of the papers (including mine!) were given in English with simultaneous French interpretation.

It was an excellent conference. It ran mainly in two parallel sessions, with one session concentrating on content management issues and the other on technical issues. In a third room, there were software demonstrations. There was quite a large contingent of delegates from France, and indeed one of the keynote speakers was Michel Germain, who is Director of Arctus, a Paris-based new media consulting company, and the organizer of monthly meetings of intranet managers in Paris.

The only thing missing from the conference was discussion of the issues that many of the delegates were facing in managing dual-language intranets. In Quebec, the official language is French. As a result, not only do managers of intranets for multinational companies run into problems, but even managers in organizations with offices in cities, such as Toronto, Ottawa, and Vancouver. Staff working in Montreal and Quebec usually speak good English, but the command of French by staff working outside of the province is often very limited.

Although the papers were uniformly good for me, the highlights of the conference were two panel sessions. I was a member of the first panel, which discussed the barriers to intranet development and had members from Canada, France, Spain, the USA, and Belgium. The main conclusions were that the barriers to the effective use of intranet technology were usually a lack of a senior sponsor, no clear business objectives for the intranet, and inadequate resourcing. All that is fairly well-recognized, so I would like to turn to an issue raised in the second panel, which was equally diverse, and in which we discussed whether intranets were still a valid concept in the light of the development of portal technology.

As it happened, the discussion turned more towards the role of intranets in the very difficult business conditions that all countries have been experiencing since the terrorist attacks in the USA on September 11. There was concern on the part of many delegates that investment in intranets would be reduced significantly along with other IT investment plans in order to reduce costs and improve margins.

The consensus of the panel was that, in fact, companies should now be investing in their intranet infrastructure.

Five-Finger Exercises
There are at least five good reasons for this. The first is that an effective intranet is a very effective productivity tool. Productivity calculations are often based on fairly basic mathematics of the number of staff and the time they may save every day in undertaking a standard process (expense forms and vacation forms are the favorites). There is much more to productivity than this. It is not just the time saved, but being able to locate information at the optimum time in a decision cycle, instead of waiting until the information can be found by a conventional route, by which time a less than optimum decision may have had to be made.

The second is that an effective intranet supports the corporate culture of an organization, and this is very important when staff are laid off, or put on part-time contracts. Intranets are a very important element of a corporate communications mix, both because of their immediacy and the way in which they can provide links to relevant policy documents and briefings. The impact of a good communications strategy was well-illustrated by the way in which two organizations in Washington reacted to the news of the WTC and Pentagon tragedies. By mid-afternoon, one of the organizations had rebuilt several key pages of its intranet, including the home page, to let staff know about emergency arrangements. These included setting up a car-share scheme and providing a list of staff that would be prepared to offer counseling. The other organization, with broadly similar resources, did not change anything on the home page for two days, and then only by adding in a couple of links to pages on revised corporate policies on travel.

The third reason is that the organization will be more dependent than ever on external news. If you want to gain a fascinating insight into the way in which the Web was used as an information resource in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, I recommend an article by Rich Wiggins in the October issue of First Monday on the impact on Google (http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue6_10/wiggins/index.html). It will be of the greatest importance for an organization that it knows at the earliest opportunity about the business prospects of customers, suppliers and competitors, and waiting to read about them in the next issue of your favorite month magazine is not going to be good enough. Swissair went bankrupt in the space of around 48 hours. To cope with this rate of change, providing staff with news and business information through the intranet is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.

The fourth reason is that the intranet should provide access to the corporate archives of the knowledge of the staff of the organization. Still too many intranets provide access only to internal documents, often using search functionality that identifies relevant documents, but not where in the document the required information can be found. Having to print out a pdf file of a report in order to read through it is a total waste of time. But I digress. If ever there was a time to invest in software applications that enable the expertise and knowledge of staff to be collated, indexed and distributed, now is that time. Even in the smallest of organizations, it is highly unlikely that everyone will have an encyclopedic knowledge of everyone else in the company, and yet being able to tap into that knowledge could make the difference between survival and failure.

Finally, an intranet can support the development of virtual communities of practice, reducing the need for travel at a time when many have real fears of flying. The transition from physical to virtual meetings is not easy, and few companies understand what it takes to foster virtual communities. There are many books on the subject of communities of practice, but among the best is In Good Company by Don Cohen and Laurence Prusak, published in 2001 by the Harvard Business School Press.

The End of the Beginning
Among the most overused quotations is that of Winston Churchill at the time of the Battle of Britain in 1940. He referred to that time being not the beginning of the end of the war, but the end of the beginning. As we start 2002, I feel strongly that intranets have only just come of age. There is a well-known technology lifecycle that was referred to by Michel Germain at Intracom 2001. After the initial enthusiasm comes a period when new technologies seem not to have fulfilled their promise, and a sense of disillusionment creeps in. However, with the reality comes a recognition of the true value of the technology, and I think that that is the case with intranets. Gradually, good practice is being more widely shared through conferences, such as Intranets 2002 in San Jose in June this year, and the Intracom conferences. Intranet managers still need all the support they can get to persuade skeptical senior managers that an effective, well-resourced intranet is a vital component of business survival in the turbulent months that lie ahead as the world economy starts to get back on course. If this column helps even a little in this respect I don't think that the Editor will mind if you tear it out, and send it to your CEO. Better still, send the issue!