Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Intranet is not a Thing

Patrick C. Walsh recently asked for input on a concept he is calling lean intranets, based at least in part on the concept of lean manufacturing. The basic concept he is promoting is very attractive: make the intranet more productive by significantly reducing the content down to only that which actually helps employees "create value".

Certainly many if not all intranets could do with some dramatic reduction in either outdated or superfluous content. However, as attractive as the concept of a "lean intranet" is, it is based on a false assumption: that the intranet is a "thing" that can be managed or controlled as a single entity.

The problem is that the intranet serves more than one purpose and more than one master. Unlike manufacturing, where there is one linear process that can be optimized to reduce "waste", the intranet is more like a city, with hundreds or thousands of diverse members each with their own goals and objectives.

The reason this caught my eye is not because Walsh's theory is fatally flawed -- in fact it is not. His prescription for creating a lean intranet may make a few spurious assumptions, but the goal and many of his suggestions are still valid. (More on than later.) The reason the assumption is important to recognize is because the same assumption is endemic to corporate managers and intranet teams everywhere.

The Intranet as a Thing and its Postulates

For any company larger than, say, 200 or 300 people, you cannot ask "what is the purpose of the intranet" as if it was a singular thing. However, this is exactly how it is treated by many, many companies, resulting in some rather spectacularly dysfunctional behavior.

Most of the time when people -- especially managers -- talk about "the intranet" they are talking about the corporate intranet portal; the internal "home page" for the company. The problem is that the portal is -- quite literally -- just the tip of the iceberg in terms of content and uses of the intranet.

This "intranet as a thing" thinking results in a number of fallacious assumptions:

  • The corporate portal is everyone's home page
  • Only pages linked to by the portal are part of the intranet -- everything else is noise
  • You can control the intranet by dictate

Many companies enforce the first assumption by setting the intranet portal as the browser home page as part of their standard PC configuration. But, is the corporate home page the most useful page for employees? Shouldn't they start at their division or their department's home page? And, let's face it, most experienced users navigate through bookmarks/favorites, significantly diminishing the importance of the home page...

Some companies also enforce the second postulate -- "the intranet is what I say it is" -- by limiting the corporate search engine to crawling only "official" pages. The argument is that by restricting the scope of search, you increase the value of the results that are returned. The actual consequence is that you put up castle walls around a portion of your intranet, leaving many employees (and their content!) outside the walls. This form of electronic feudalism creates significant barriers to sharing information across organizational boundaries within the corporation.

Finally, many companies try to control their intranets by dictate: they define requirements and standards for the appearance, structure, and even content of web pages within the intranet. These rules start out as well intentioned, attempting to define a common look & feel for the intranet browsing experience (usually through a common intranet banner, colors, and fonts). But it soon extends to guidelines for the layout and even the content of pages.

Again, this mandated layout is done under the auspices of standardizing the browsing experience and simplifying maintenance, but the result is that lower level groups are handcuffed into following a structure that may have no relation to the information they need to present. A prime example is intranet guidelines that require each organizational home page start with a mission statement and "news". I cannot tell you how many times I have watched groups struggle to come up with news items simply to fulfill this stylistic requirement.

Creating a Lean Intranet

As I said earlier, Walsh's assumption that it is possible to define a single set of criteria for identifying and eliminating wasteful content on the intranet from the top is flawed because the intranet does not have a single purpose, as a manufacturing process has. However, at each of the lower levels at which intranet content is owned and maintained it ought to be possible to define and apply such criteria. Because that is the level at which the goal of the content is defined and understood.

So although I am quibbling that a process for lean intranets cannot be applied at the top level, there is real opportunities for applying it at lower levels, assuming the corporate style police allow it.


TradeExpress said...

very good article. we use an intranet tool called HyperOffice in which each department or team has total control over its intranet "workspace". moreover, each group is encouraged to customize its workspace according to its needs.

another reason that it is hard to trim an intranet is that it is not just a cog in the company's operations, but it also part of the brand and loyalty building exercise.

Atul said...

quite agree with you. given that the different parts of the organization work on quite diverse functions, if an intranet is to deliver value to all of them, then it must be quite diverse in nature. as such, the intranet must be quite broad in scope, with people getting the ability to search for what they are looking for, in easier ways.