Powerful Intranets: Strategy and Content Combined

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I wonder where the first intranet was installed. I suspect I won't have a definitive answer because the Web-based intranets we know today had their origin in groupware applications that emerged in the 1990s, notably Lotus Notes. It was this market, rather than the personal Web user, that Marc Andreessen originally targeted with his Netscape browser in the mid-1990s. So, in a manner of speaking, we are approaching the end of the first decade of intranet deployment.

What lessons have been learned in that time? I am tempted to say "Not many!" Online Inc. (now owned by Information Today, Inc.) launched the show now known as Intranets in 1999 in San Francisco. As I look back over the papers from the conferences (having been fortunate to have attended them all), we still struggle to make organizations realize the value of an intranet. Recently, I was involved in helping a client who in many respects had a very effective intranet, which staff used on a regular basis. The problem was that continuous content maintenance—so that staff could find all that they needed and trust the information they accessed—was now beyond the resources of the group of employees who acted as content contributors on their own time and with no budget. Senior managers used the intranet, but none were willing to take responsibility for it, mainly because they had their individual departments to manage and the intranet was a corporate resource. I am certain that the same scenario is repeated time and time again in organizations across the world.

When I set up Intranet Focus Ltd. four years and several hundred intranets ago, many said intranets were just a fad and that the real action was knowledge management or enterprise portals. Luckily for me they were wrong. Now there is a realization that intranets are an important platform for collaboration and knowledge sharing and form an essential resource for any enterprise portal application. Apart from Microsoft Office and email, what other application in an organization sits on every desktop and has (or should have) value to every employee?

But more than an "intranet strategy" is at stake here, rather an overriding information management strategy for the organization. Although an intranet is not the only way in which employees can gain access to information, well-implemented it becomes one of the most important and has to be set within the context of all the other information channels supported within an organization.

As the benefits of content management software have become more evident and more urgent, intranet managers (or those within an organization who bear this work without such a title) still face considerable barriers in finding budgets for CMS deployment. In many cases, the budget is zero, often a result of the use of Front Page, which is widely available through the enterprise Microsoft license at no incremental cost. Making the case for a CMS on the basis of productivity enhancements is all but impossible unless the organization has a good grasp of productivity measures. Certainly, enhancing the productivity of content contributors is a very difficult case to make when the organization has no concept of the effort involved or a standard by which to evaluate improvement.

And to find a place from which to build, an intranet needs a sponsor. One truism of intranet deployment—and this has been a common theme since the 1999 Intranets conference—is that a sponsor is essential for a successful intranet. To me a sponsor and a strategy are almost synonymous. Informal sponsorship does not work. The commitment has to be for the sponsor to work with relevant business managers to develop an intranet strategy and to get it signed off at main board level, just as would be the case with strategies for HR and corporate governance, and to ensure that adequate financial and other resources are allocated in line with the objectives of the organization.

One outcome of CMS adoption is that it is forcing organizations to face up to the true cost and true benefits of their intranet and, as such, to treat it as an essential resource. Make 2004 the year when you either develop your first intranet strategy or (for more fortunate readers) revise the one you have to help information sit at the core of every desktop and empower every worker in your organization.