Intranet addiction – a vicious circle

August 21, 2006

During a couple of intranet audits this year, I came across situations where some users said they could not work properly if the intranet went down for even one hour, and in the same company others said they would not be bothered until the downtime reached at least several days or a week.

Below the poverty line

The difference? The first ones were based in countries where intranet conditions were “below the poverty line” that is to say places where intranet access conditions and intranet resources were very bad.  The other users were based either at head-quarters or in the HQ or other country where intranet access was fast and reliable.

People in the second case had become used to using the intranet as their reference point – first place to check in the morning, first place to look for documents, etc. People in the first case actually expressed relief to me that they did not depend on the intranet.

“It’s a good thing I don’t really need it because it’s very slow and when I am on it, it takes a long time to find what I want.” We all know that the more we use a web site or intranet site, the faster it is to find information. We get used to and work around any navigation or ergonomic issues, and, soon don’t even notice them.

Lesson to be learned? The “poverty line” is a combination of unfavorable technical environments (low bandwidth, slow machines), difficulties with content (language, questionable relevance, etc.) and low level of local human support (training, user help, etc.). People in business units working under these conditions will obviously not consider the intranet a business critical tool – they’re usually very good at finding ways to “work around the intranet”.

The parallel intranet

One person I interviewed describe their parallel intranet – the place on the local network where they stored the important documents they found on the intranet. Why? To save time the next time they needed to use that document!

Intranet structures: it’s not easy to be in the middle

August 2, 2006

I recently had a fascinating conversation (in the context of an intranet audit) with a business manager who was one of a very small number of expatriates in a country far from headquarters. He works at the divisional level of an organization that has had many acquisitions over the last 3 years.

One of the goals of the divisional intranet (for whom I am conducting the audit) was to facilitate the merger process.

We were talking about the role and home page of the divisional intranet, and several of his comments really struck me:

  • ” I need my local intranet of course, for my work and a lot of practical things. The group intranet is important for staying up to day on corporate news. It has strong group branding and helps me see what’s happening globally.”
  • “I just realized, in talking to you, that the divisional home page is useless for me. All I use is the navigation.”
  • “I don’t know if the divisional intranet is supposed to be a communication tool or a work tool. When I look at it, I don’t feel like working – I feel like exploring around the company.”

Good or bad? Depends on the timing. Obviously that was once the goal of the intranet, but now…?

More input from other companies:

  • I’m currently about to start work with another client who has 4 or possibly 5 levels of intranets, each one corresponding to a level in the organization, and a team of people who have “things to say and to share.”.

However, when I draw a diagram from the user viewpoint, it’s clear that there is no unambiguous way for the user to know where to go for specific types of information.

Another of my clients talks about “core business”: They say that each site should provide content around its core business, and not produce content that is not related to its core business. Rather, it should publish syndicated content coming from entities also dealing with their core business.

Another client talks about “subsidiarity”, defined by Webster as “a principle in social organization: functions which subordinate or local organizations perform effectively belong more properly to them than to a dominant central organization.”

This is an interesting concept for intranet governance. Basically it says, give responsibility for content at the lowest level possible.

The challenge in these projects will be to define solutions that are user-oriented, yet let the different stakeholders provide services and content.

Comments anyone?

Letting go

June 30, 2006

There comes a moment in global intranet initiatives when the intranet team has to let go of the “baby” and learn to be a facilitator.

After months sometimes years of pushing, evangelizing, persuading people and departments one by one to join the global intranet, there is what some might call the tipping point.

It can be triggered by Senior Management suddenly realizing they need the intranet. Or by a large country or business division previously with their own intranet agreeing to migrate to the global system.

At this time, when the critical mass is reached, or the critical degree of coordinated energy is achieved, it is emotionally hard for intranet teams to let go. After so much often unappreciated work, they suddenly are no longer the center of the action.

Everyone is suddenly jumping on the bandwagon and – of course – have lots of ideas about how to improve the intranet. In their enthusiasm – as newly converted “intraneters” – they forget to acknowledge the hard work of the past.

This is the acid test for intranet teams. It should be a moment of celebration because it means you have won. It can be experienced as a moment of disappointment, a let down, because there are suddenly many people who want to take ownership of different pieces of the cake.

You just need to realize that you’ve finally reached the point when the intranet is about to become a utility in the organization.

Now your next job is to work on governance. This is a tricky one. It requires much facilitation and negotiation to lead a participatory process through to a concrete, realistic governance system.

And, the intranet team should take leadership in this, but you need to be able to step back from your past nearly total “ownership” of everything, and begin to integrate the intranet into the way of working of the enterprise.

Good luck. This phase can be painful, but it is essential.

Intranets in “no-where land”

February 28, 2006

A story straight from Intranets in “no-where land”. A situation I witnessed recently:

An international company decides to delegate responsibility for deciding how much bandwidth should be bought by a country and of course, asks the countries to pay for it from their local budgets. At the same time, the company has imposed significant cost reduction goals for everyone.

The  company sets three levels of priority for bandwidth: (1 = highest priority)

1. email

2. applications

3. intranet

Senior management in the  company state that the intranet is a must, that it is the primary driving force for enabling the company to achieve it’s goals, building a shared culture, and working efficiently together.

The communications department – in charge of the intranet – did not even know that the IT department had established the priorities.

Users in outlying countries – far from headquarters – say the intranet is too slow.When asked if they would have problems if the intranet went down for one day, most say no, which of course is fortunate for them, because if the intranet had business critical information for their work, and was last priority for bandwidth — good luck doing their jobs!

This is a real story.

One slide worth a thousand words…?

February 22, 2006

I used the slide below in a workshop I ran in London in December 2005 on globalization and large, complex intranets.

Intranet is a process

A participant in the workshop told me I could run an entire workshop around this single slide.

Sounds like a good idea.

The three arrows refer to something I believe strongly, having seen hundreds of intranets in as many different organizations:

1. You need 3 flows of information – top down, bottom up and horizontal.

2. If one of the three is missing or weak, your intranet (and your organization) is missing something.

And losing business value.

Vocabulary hurts or helps

August 12, 2005

I have trouble deciding what word to use to talk about intranets serving an organisation with people located in different countries around the world.

Global” is often used, especially by Americans. Consultants talk about Global IA (global information architecture), companies talk about globalization of their web sites.

One problem with this word is that it has very negative connotations for many people: globalization is perceived to be part of the offshore manufacturing strategy, the Wal-Mart effect, what people riot against during World Trade Organization meetings.

International” is a word often used, but it triggers mixed perceptions also. A company I know has renamed its division outside the US as  “(Company name) International”.  The people making this change perceive 2 parts of the company: here at home, and everything else. Other people will perceive the “(Company name) International” as the headquarters, with the US-based as a country division!

So, we may be left with the word “worldwide“. So far, I have not found any downsides to using it. I plan to do a quick audience opinion survey in San Jose and London this fall (intranet conferences) and see how / if perception differs from continent to continent.

Hole in the Wall or “the leader takes the mouse”

May 11, 2005

An article appeared on the BBC web site May 2 about the Hole in the Wall programme in India where computers are made available to dispossessed children in a shanty town. Sugata Mitra broke a hole in his office wall and made a computer available to children who had never before seen one. Within a few days, they had taught themselves to use it, working together with no help from any adults.

This extraordinary story tells us a lot about collaboration and the power of collective experimentation. Among his comments “”Groups of children given adequate digital resources can meet the objectives of primary education on their own – most of the objectives.”

Sugata observed their behavior: “You find that the noise level begins to come down, and from somewhere a leader appears. Often his face is not visible in the crowd, but he is controlling the mouse because suddenly you see the mouse begin to move in an orderly fashion.”

“And then suddenly a lot of children’s voices will say ‘Oh, that pointer can be moved!’ And then you see the first click, which – believe it or not – happens within the first three minutes.”

Take the time to read this amazing story, and think about what it suggests for our own work on intranets and collaborative projects. For me it illustrates how leaders emerge naturally and groups are capable of self-regulation and self-teaching  given the opportunity, time and motivation.

Teach-yourself computing for kids, BBC

The Hole in the Wall web site

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