Wanted: Intranet Leadership

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As an intranet consultant, there are times when I am tempted to say that all my clients have the same problems; only the solutions differ. The best example of this is when I am asked which department should be responsible for intranet management. My task is then to quickly read between the lines of the question to judge whether the managers concerned want me to make the case for them to hand over the intranet to someone else, or to justify why they themselves should be the owners. The answer I give always upsets someone, just hopefully not the person paying my fees. The problem is that there is no standard answer, as it depends on a number of different factors, including organizational structure and culture.

An ownership decision based on organizational structure tends to want to take the "tidy" route to management. Everything else in the organization reports into one department, so why not the intranet? There is logic here, but alas, it is false logic. The fundamental problem with an intranet is that it is on every desktop in the organization. With the exception of MS Office/Outlook, it is probably the only ubiquitous application and so the normal rules of divide, conquer, and take the plaudits do not apply. Of all departments, IT, HR, and internal communications are probably the only ones that touch every employee at every level in an organization. Since only large organizations generally have an internal communications department, the choice usually comes down to HR and IT. 

From a technology perspective, an intranet is boring. It's nothing more that a heterogeneous mess of HTML, Office, and PDF files loosely assembled onto a server. Even the excitement of installing a CMS is soon tempered by the realization that it is nothing more than a database application. Portals are different. I have yet to find a portal application masquerading as an intranet that was not driven by an IT department with an interest in using SharePoint or BEA AquaLogic and needing an application to make the business case for the license costs. (If any reader can contradict this statement, email me.)

There is another aspect of technology though, and that is the CMS implementation that I have referred to above. The case is often made that since the same CMS is being used for the website (which probably got it first) and the intranet then it should be marketing communications that takes responsibility for the intranet. The case is made on the basis of sharing expertise and of reducing support and training costs. There are some fallacies here, however. If there is a major training requirement and a substantial need for ongoing support for an intranet CMS application, then you have bought the wrong CMS. An intranet CMS has to support ad hoc use by people who are not being rewarded for intranet content addition and see the need to work through a 500-page user manual as the final frontier. Moreover, marketing is all about communicating with the external world, and employees have very different information and knowledge needs.

So what about either internal communications or HR? To a significant extent (humor me here), internal communications is about the bulk transfer of information to employees and HR is about some very specific information to individual employees. Neither really gets involved with understanding how better business decisions can be made with effective access to internal and external information.

The solution to the problem is a strategic issue, not an operational one. One of the reasons that departments are sometimes very keen not to take ownership of the intranet is that there is no top-level sponsorship, so budgets and lines of authority stop with the departmental manager, which can be uncomfortable. If the objectives for the intranet are clearly articulated, and the resources required are quantified and made available, then any specific department can see that it is the guardian of the intranet, not the owner of it.

An intranet absolutely has to have a steering group with representation from all stakeholders, which reports to one (or more) executive-level sponsor(s). Budget is made available at a corporate level and allocated to a department for line management purposes. A good intranet improves business decisions, reduces business risk, supports business growth, enhances career development, and makes working for the organization a pleasure. Are you sure you do not want to be the manager that gets the credit for all this?