Plus ça change...

I recently received a telephone call from a communications manager at a major German company asking if I could provide her with a copy of Intranet Management, a report that I had written 10 years ago when I was working for TFPL, Ltd. TFPL provided recruitment and consulting services to the information profession, and it was a leader in knowledge management methodologies. It was out of some of the KM projects that the consulting team became aware of the value of intranets, and we sat down and wrote the report in a matter of a few weeks. Until the call, I had forgotten all about the report and had to search for it on my bookshelf. I was inclined to tell my enquirer that the report was now hopelessly out-of-date, but I decided to read through it and remember old times with some great colleagues, notably Peter Kibby and Angela Abell. One of the catalysts for writing the report was that, although there were many books being published on intranets at that time, most of them had a highly technical approach, and they rarely looked at intranets from an information or knowledge management perspective.

As a result, the report had sections on the need for an intranet strategy that was focused in the information needs of the organization. There was also a lot of advice on identifying user requirements and preparing a business case for the investment. At that time, CMS products certainly existed, but they were expensive and complex, so the focus was very much on using HTML or Front Page. One of the catalysts for publishing the report was some research from KPMG that stated, "Organizations which [by the year 2000] do not have an intranet are likely to be at a competitive disadvantage." That statement struck me as a major consulting opportunity. In 1999, I attended an intranets conference in San Francisco. I was impressed by the sophistication of the intranets being developed in Silicon Valley.

Six months later, I handed in my notice and set up Intranet Focus, Ltd. Over the last decade, I have worked on perhaps a hundred intranet projects and attended almost all the Online, Inc. Intranets conferences (which were, like this magazine, acquired by Information Today, Inc.). The technology has come on by leaps and bounds, though it is salutary to recall that Ward Cunningham developed the wiki concept in 1994, and when Netscape launched its browser in the same year, the original business plan was to sell it as an intranet application. But to a significant extent, all that the technology has done is make certain processes easier, most notably impacting content contribution and site management. It has not changed the basic concept of an intranet as providing browser-based access to internal information.

A decade later, the main lesson that we have learned is that intranet success has nothing to do with technology and a great deal to do with the value that the organization places on ensuring that employees have access to the information they need to achieve corporate and personal objectives. Each year, at a very few conferences where intranet groupies gather for a glimpse of others’ sites, it was impossible to gain any sense of the overall direction of the progress of intranet adoption. This is why Jane McConnell’s work in developing the "Intranet Trends Report" has been so important—and long overdue. Yet the news from the survey is disappointing. Only one in five of the organizations surveyed report that senior management regards the intranet as being business critical, and less than half say that the intranet is at the heart of how the organization operates. How can this be?

From the top down, there is a grievous lack of understanding on the part of senior managers about the dependence or very existence of the organization on quality information. From the bottom up, the development of an intranet manager community has been almost nonexistent, mainly because of the technical and procedural difficulties of demonstrating intranets in real time. This is now changing, especially in Europe through the Intranet Benchmark Forum in the U.K. and the communities being developed by J. Boye in Denmark.

I’ve been writing this column for nearly 10 years as well. When I started, I doubted I would have anything to say after the first year. Luckily for me, and I hope for you, that has not been the case. Good intranets today are based on good practice that dates back a decade, but there are still not enough good intranets. C’est la meme chose!