Global & Local

Lost in the middle

…… Part of The Basics series. First published in June 2009 ……


Lost in the middle or is the middle lost?

I wrote an article for the publication “Intranets Today” exactly 2 years ago entitled “Lost in the Middle”.

Today I would give it a stronger title: “The Middle is Lost”.

Seriously, I’ve been struck in recent months by the number of organizations I have seen that have decided to eliminate what I call the “middle layer”. Decentralisation strategies in organisations result in giving more power to the out-lying parts of the organisation. Strategic guidelines come from the central head-quarters. So the centre and the entities end up being reinforced, and the middle layer severely weakened, even removed in some cases. The current economic context is pushing organizations to become leaner and meaner. Where better to cut than the middle?

This has big impact on intranet landscapes because many global intranet landscapes have relatively heavy “middle layers”. So many times I’ve seen the divisional or regional intranets masquerade as head-quarter intranets. Sometimes, the middle layer intranet managers even attempt to prevent direct communication between the central intranet manager and the local intranet managers in their regions or divisions. I’ve personally experienced this when doing intranet audits.

Removing the distance to be both “globally local and locally global”

Interestingly, when the middle layer is removed in intranets, things seem to work just as well as before. The challenges become how to provide guidance from a distance and in fact how to remove the distance:

  • What is the right balance between “rules” and “guidelines”, between “mandatory” and “highly recommended” when defining governance policies?
  • How can you build trust, among intranet managers and with users?
  • What tools and methods will help communication in a geographically dispersed group of content providers?
  • How can you ensure that people in the centre listen and understand those in the entities and vice versa?

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I have provided a full reprint of the original article below as it was first appeared in June 2007 in Intranets Today. (Magazine that no longer exists.)

Lost in the Middle: The hard truth is that the majority of these intranets should not exist

The role of divisional and regional intranets can be both ambiguous and misleading. They are neither global nor local. Global intranet managers may feel they reproduce global content, thereby keeping users from the authoritative global site; local managers may feel they are unnecessary because they can best provide their local users with what they need. Thus, the divisional and regional intranet mangers are caught in the middle, running intranets with little guidance, other than their managers saying “we need to have an intranet.” The hard truth is that the majority of these intranets should not exist.

A global intranet has a clear mission: communicate about global strategy and values; provide strategic news; give access to organization-wide tools like employee directories and reference and policy documentation; and provide collaboration tools. A local intranet is closely integrated into day-to-day life. It provides local news; offers tools for reserving meeting rooms and ordering office supplies; has self-service centers for HR and administrative processes; publishes the canteen menu as well as local information such as traffic and weather conditions

Intermediary intranets, on the other hand, exist for less clear reasons. Some are created to deal with temporary objectives. For example, an organization undertaking acquisitions often positions acquired companies at a divisional level. An intranet is then created to communicate and facilitate the merger process but runs out of steam when the integration is completed

Companies doing business globally may create another type of intermediary intranet—regional ones that play a coordination role between global and local for marketing, training, administrative, and other needs. One would think this raison d’etre is more sustainable because the need appears permanent. However, regional intranets also find themselves “lost in the middle” as organizations implement global processes, rolling up regional content and services to the global level.

Two questions: What is unique about them? Who do they serve?

Two simple questions will help clarify if an intermediary-level intranet should exist. First, does it offer unique content and services that cannot (and should not) be found on other intranets in the organization? Second, does it serve only users who work within the same division or region, or do people elsewhere in the organization also need to use it? Examples of unique content and services include: information related to the specific business activities of the division, collaborative spaces used by managers to share regional or business-specific knowledge, and regional reporting tools. However even this uniqueness does not necessarily justify the existence of regional and divisional intranets. It simply means that certain services and content are best provided from the intermediary level. The appropriate place for users to find them may be elsewhere

If users across the organization need access to the knowledge in the expertise centers, they must be able to find it without knowing which region is the source. Marketing and customer-oriented information may be local or regional by definition, but others throughout the organization can learn from sharing experiences, lessons learned, and best practices. It makes sense to place these types of content at the global level where they can be found by subject and keyword. As business becomes more knowledge-based and organizations more global, there are few if any reasons for maintaining intermediary intranet sites

Forget history. Move on to real value and visibility.

Many of these intranets exist for historical reasons and, if the enterprise intranet strategy was to be redone, would probably never be created. When an organization does decide to simplify and optimize the intranet structure, the validity of these sites will be questioned. Managers working at the regional or divisional levels may well want to have an intranet. Unfortunately, the “I have an intranet site, therefore I exist” feeling is still alive and well. One solution is to give high visibility to content producers and less to intranet site owners. Build your intranet strategy, governance, and communication around the concept “I exist because I provide high quality content and services to everyone that needs it.” Everyone will be a winner, especially the content contributors who will be more visible and valued, and the users who will be able to find what they need faster.