Setting Standards for Intranet Success

I think that there is now general acceptance of the fact that responsibility for intranet content contribution should be devolved to staff with direct responsibility for the content. Passing content up the line to an intranet content manager has some severe limitations. In addition, many organizations also run a federated intranet architecture, in which each department or office takes responsibility for their own intranet. The corporate intranet team remains responsible for the overall architecture of the site, the content, and navigation schema for the top levels of the intranet, and for setting out standards and good practice.

Without careful attention paid, not only to setting standards, but also to making sure that they are complied with yet of pliable stuff that can be modified to suit changing requirements, intranets can soon become a morass of irrelevant documents. When I am carrying out an intranet evaluation, among the documents I ask for at the outset are the standards and good practice guidance notes—and the quality and quantity varies very widely indeed. The extent to which these standards and good practice are complied with will have a significant impact on the speed with which a content management application can be implemented, and legacy content migrated.

In the space of this column, I cannot set out a complete list of the standards required for an intranet. Among the broad categories, however, should be content creation, page appearance, navigation, metadata, link management, graphics management, usability testing, and accessibility. The secret of success in setting standards is to do so using a team comprising a range of interests, from IT and networks through to the legal department and the authors themselves.

Along with the setting up of the standards, consideration needs to be given to the governance structure. Unless is it clear what the penalties are for non-conformance, the impact of the standards will be minimal. Public chastisement rarely works! Any problems need to be resolved between staff members responsible for the infringement and their manager. This ensures that there is an opportunity to see if the issue is a result of a lack of understanding and/or requirement for training.

All too often I find that intranet standards are hidden deep within the intranet itself, and usually present a classic example of how not to make the most effective use of Web technology. For example, an important standard would be to ensure that vertical scrolling was justified on an individual basis and that in no case was the scroll greater than 1.5 page views. Stated in text format, the full significance of this standard might not be apparent. Linking the standard to an example of a Web site that breaks this rule will get the message across in a far more graphic way. Indeed, there is scope for a competition for users to identify really terrible examples for incorporation into the standard.

A brave intranet manager will use internal examples to make the point. This brings peer pressure to bear on recalcitrant department intranet managers. The best route is to use a two-step process: First, only use the best sites as examples linked to the standards section. Then move on to using as examples sites that, despite warnings and work, still fail to understand the concept of standards. This approach will only work if there is a high-level sponsor that can deal with departmental managers that feel that they have been pilloried. Without such a sponsor, you are wasting your time as an intranet manager.

Standards have to reflect not only what is desirable, but also what is achievable. I remember, when working at the UK software and system company Logica, that much stress was laid on the difference between fitness to specification and fitness for purpose. Any standard that is not founded in reality will never be complied with. The time and effort that needs to be expended on achieving a standard has to be taken into account at the outset, and reviewed on an appropriate basis.

There should always be a clear statement of the process whereby a standard can be reviewed and revised. One approach could be to have a process whereby there is a progressive review of standards over a two-three year cycle.

There will always be topics that lie outside of a formal standard, such as the organization of intranet responsibilities in a department. Much will depend on staff expertise and management style, and here suggestions need to be made that do not have the force of a standard, but nevertheless document the various approaches so that others may learn.

In the final analysis, the best standards are those that are used with enthusiasm as they are seen to make a significant contribution to the ease of both content contribution and access to trusted content. How do yours match up to these criteria?