Just How Good Is Your Intranet?

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Very few organizations can answer that question with anything more than an emphatic "It's fine!" If the question is instead, "How good is your intranet compared to other organizations like yours?" then the answer involves usually a more sheepish "We have no idea." Much of my work is helping organizations assess the quality of their intranet, but even with the number of intranets I have seen, the analysis I can provide is relatively subjective. In most cases it would be valuable to provide some form of quantitative analysis of the intranet so that there is a comparison with good practice. However, I have to admit that until recently, I was very skeptical about the value of formal benchmarking, but glimmers of hope have begun to appear.

The Intranet Benchmarking Forum (www.ibforum.co.uk) was set up in London in 2002 by Paul Miller, the founder and managing director of the Empowerment Group (the company that has developed the IBF). I must disclose my personal interest at this point, because I have been invited to work with the IBF on some consulting projects. The basic idea behind the IBF is to develop some quantitative benchmarks for intranets that will enable large corporations to gain a sense of how their intranets stack up against a range of similar firms, in terms of size and organizational complexity. Initially there was a strong focus on usability, but with the recent launch of IBF Global, more business-related parameters are being included in the assessment.

In addition to its benchmark review, IBF provides members with access to an extranet containing targeted content. The organization hosts regular meetings, and in October of last year, members were able to participate in a two-day IBF Live conference. One problem with all benchmark groups is that there needs to be a critical mass of members from which stable and credible benchmark scores can be developed, but it appears that the IBF has now achieved this with nearly 40 members, among them large government agencies and public sector organizations.

The second problem for groups of this sort is that it is one thing to present the results of benchmarking analysis to members, and another to actually provide solutions to the problems. This is why the IBF is now expanding its range of associate consultants (which now includes me) who are able to work with members on the steps that need to be taken to raise their benchmark scores. To my surprise, there are still not many intranet consultants around, and I actually wish there were more. This would raise the overall profile of intranet consultancy (which is often more aligned to management consultancy than information architecture) and enlarge the market for everyone.

Of course not every organization is of a size that would benefit from the IBF services, and thanks to a grant from the Information Architecture Institute, there is now a benchmarking process right for "the rest of us." The Intranet Review Toolkit has been developed by James Robertson (www.steptwo.com.au) and covers the intranet home page, site structure and navigation, search, page layout and visual design, intranet content, news, staff directory, and intranet strategy and management. The Toolkit, which is available under a Creative Commons license, has been published (http://iainstitute.org) as a 200,000-word document, designed to be filled in by the intranet reviewer. Space is provided for comments against each of the heuristics, and a total score is calculated for each of the sections. At Janus Boye's excellent inaugural Content Management Forum in Denmark (http://cmf2005.dk/), I had an opportunity to speak with Robertson, and he told me that developing the text for the 1 to 5 scores for each heuristic was the most difficult part of assembling the Toolkit. Congratulations are due to the vision of the IAI in underwriting some of the costs of the Toolkit and to Robertson for the immense amount of experience and dedication that went into developing the Toolkit at a time when he was engaged in circumnavigating the world via the CMForum and the Intranets/KM World conference in San Jose.

A final ray of hope for the emerging potential for benchmarking is the Nielsen Norman Group report (www.nngroup.com/ reports/intranet/design), which reviews the designs and usability of ten intranets chosen from a much larger number of nominated designs. The report contains more than 100 screenshots and a valuable amount of background information on the main problems the organizations selected faced in managing their intranets, how these problems were overcome in the redesign process, and how the new design compared with the previous design. The organizations featured come from the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and the U.S. At 235 pages for just $128, this represents good value for money.

If nothing else, the simple fact that these various benchmarking efforts exist points to not only the need for effective means of intranet evaluation, but also to renewed hope that organizations of any size will be able to deploy successful intranets.