Case study (July 2005)
Five intranet reviews, five different results
Over the past few years, we have conducted a number of intranet reviews across a wide range of organisations, and the results have always been fascinating.
This case study presents the findings from five different intranet reviews, with the aim of exposing some of the issues being confronted across different organisations.
These reviews also show that even within seemingly-similar organisations, the intranet issues can be quite different.
This highlights that there is no ‘one size fits all’ intranet solution, and emphasises the value of conducting meaningful ‘needs analysis’ activities, such as those outlined in this article.
This case study presents the results of intranet reviews conducted in five different organisations:
- Local council
- Australian Government agency
- Call centre in the investment industry
- Health-sector organisation
- Judicial organisation
The names of these organisations have not been specified, in order to respect the privacy of the organisations involved. We nonetheless thank these organisations for inviting us to conduct the reviews.
The earlier article Case study: Hunter Health intranet also outlines the results of an intranet review in greater detail. This case study is not included here, and should be read as well.
The five intranet reviews delivered very different findings
Purpose of these intranet reviews
In almost all cases, these types of intranet reviews are initiated when the intranets are suffering from a range of common problems, including:
- out-of-date, incomplete or inaccurate information
- unstructured or inconsistent navigation and content
- difficulties in finding required information
- search engine not working well
- inadequate resourcing for intranet team and authors
- problems with publishing processes
- and most of all, a general lack of use of the intranet by staff
Recognising these problems, a decision is made to improve the site, but the question is: how?
The intranet review is then initiated, with the goals of identifying:
- issues with the existing site
- information needs of staff
- organisational issues and roadblocks impacting on intranet usage
- opportunities for delivering new capabilities and tools
- key goals for the intranet
- concrete roadmap for improving the intranet
Once completed, the intranet review delivers recommendations that cover both tactical (short-term) and strategic (longer-term) aspects of the intranet. These, along with the overall roadmap, can then be used to put in place a measured program of intranet improvements.
These reviews all followed a well-tested methodology that recognises that there are five main aspects of an intranet that need to be explored:
- change management & communication
At the outset of each review, existing documents and reports are examined to identify key findings of interest. These include:
- previous research reports
- relevant surveys, such as staff satisfaction surveys
- corporate communications documents
- IT strategies and plans
- key corporate documents, such as annual reports and strategic plans
The corporate strategy documents, in particular, ensure that the results of the intranet review are aligned with the overall goals of the organisation.
A range of techniques were used during the review
A range of techniques are then used to identify the needs of staff, and the issues with the existing intranet. These include:
- Analysis of usage statistics and search engine reports (see the earlier article Intranet search reports).
- Expert (heuristic) review of the existing intranet, to identify key design, content and structural issues.
- One-on-one interviews with staff throughout the organisation, with an emphasis on staff at the front-line and in other operational areas.
- Contextual inquiry, combining interviews with a more in-depth investigation of work practices and system use.
- Workplace observation, looking at activities in specific environments such as call centres.
Of these, the staff interviews are the primary research technique used during the reviews. These gather a wealth of material on the needs and issues of staff, particularly when operational staff are involved (rather than line management and above).
For more on staff interviews, see the earlier articles:
In all the cases listed, the research is not a lengthy activity. In general, 3-5 days of staff interviews are supplemented by the other techniques to give a clear picture of the high-level needs and issues.
A similar amount of time is then required to analyse the research, and to document the findings. In-house workshops and planning sessions are often used to discuss the findings, and to consider the approaches to be taken for the intranet redesign.
3-5 days of staff interviews will provide a wealth of information
Case study 1: local council
The first case study comes from a local council operating in a mid-sized regional centre. Like most councils, this city council provides a huge range of services to the area, from planning regulation, to social activities, parking fines and animal permits.
The council had grown dramatically over the last few decades, and while every effort had been made to match this growth with suitable business and information management processes, gaps had opened up.
There was no existing intranet in place, although an internal site had been established for the customer service staff, to respond to phone and over-the-counter queries.
Many different issues were being tackled within the organisation, to enable the council to deliver improved (and more sustainable) services, of which the intranet review was just one element. Another project running in parallel was the deployment of a new document management system.
Staff were interviewed from across the whole organisation, in the main council offices as well as in some regional locations.
This identified a number of key findings regarding the organisation’s information management, operational practices and culture, including:
- Information was difficult to find
There were over half a million files on the corporate fileserver, yet staff couldn’t easily find key documents, such as council policies, strategic plans, or organisational charts.
- No formalised news distribution
The message came through clearly that the council lacked any formal news distribution mechanism, and that most staff rated their primary source of internal information as ‘word of mouth’.
- Council was very reliant on long-serving staff
While much had been done to establish suitable business processes, the council was still very reliant on the information in the heads of long-serving staff.
The major source of internal news was ‘word of mouth’
Based on these (and other) findings, a number of strategic and tactical recommendations were made.
These recommendations included:
- Develop a corporate intranet
While an intranet has been developed by the customer service staff, this did not meet the wider needs of the council. If the key issues of information findability and news distribution were to be met, a new corporate intranet needed to be developed.
- Focus on establishing processes
While in many organisations the intranet becomes unmanageable over time, the council had the opportunity to establish viable intranet processes from the outset.
- Develop an intranet news system
An intranet-based news system should be developed, to provide a central point for news to be published, and to encourage broader usage of the intranet.
- Improve network access at remote sites
The council maintained a number of sites outside of the main office building, including depots, libraries and other community services. The speed of the connections to these sites needed to be urgently improved.
- Provide access to field staff
While the initial phase focused on establishing a new corporate intranet, this must not draw attention away from the needs of the field staff, who were unable to access the intranet on a regular basis.
- Further expand staff induction
Considerable work had already been done by HR to redevelop a centralised induction process, and it was recommended that further resources be allocated to this process.
These are but a few of the recommendations made, but they give a sense of the overall scope of the intranet review, and the issues that were addressed.
Since the review, much has been done to establish a new corporate intranet, and to embed this in the working practices of staff.
A new corporate intranet needed to be developed
Case study 2: Australian Government agency
The next case study outlines the results of an intranet review conducted in a mid-to-large Australian Government agency.
Like many agencies of a similar size, this organisation had a central head office, with state offices throughout the country, and a network of supporting branches and customer service locations.
An intranet had been in place for some time, and had grown to over 70,000 pages and documents in size. In fact, five major intranets had been delivered, and were being maintained to varying degrees of success.
Like many organisations, the agency was wrestling with the challenges of maintaining such a large volume of content, while sustaining workable publishing and maintenance processes.
No clear strategy for the intranet had been developed, and a way forward was needed that would address the needs of both the national and state-based staff.
Email was the primary way of disseminating information
The intranet review involved interviewing staff in a number of state offices (either in person, or over the phone). Time was also spent conducting an expert review of the intranet, and discussing approaches with key stakeholders.
This research identified a range of issues and needs, including:
- Dissemination of information to operational areas
Information was being delivered to operational areas primarily through the use of email, which led to considerable duplication of information management activities.
- Reliance on informal and ad-hoc networks
Operational areas relied heavily on long-serving staff and their store of knowledge, ahead of looking up corporate information resources.
- Gap between publishing and use
Many of the policy areas published considerable amounts of content to intranet subsites, and yet there was evidence that they were not being widely used by staff.
- Intranet was very difficult to use
There were upwards of ten different intranet sites, each of which was very large, unstructured and inconsistent, ‘glued together’ using a small amount of cross-linking.
- Usage of paper
Staff throughout the organised maintained extensive personal paper files relating to their job activities.
Based on these findings, a number of recommendations were made regarding a strategic approach to the intranet and an overall management model, including:
- Create a single corporate intranet
Creating a single corporate intranet was the only effective way of ensuring that staff have access to the information and tools they need, when they need it.
- Meet state office needs
State office staff were possibly the most important users of the intranet, and the new intranet needed to meet their needs, ahead of users in head office.
- Meet front-line and operational needs
The goal should be to create a seamless information environment that can be used to serve the needs of all front-line and operational staff.
- Create a new policy dissemination mechanism
The use of e-mail attachments to disseminate policies, resources or news should be completely eliminated across the organisation.
- Create an organisation-wide staff directory
Across almost all organisations, the phone book is the most-used application for staff, and is often the primary mechanism for driving intranet use.
- Clarify ownership and management of the intranet
The overall ownership of the intranet needed to be defined, with a large number of separate intranet sites currently being managed by individual business users.
State office staff were the most important intranet users
In these situations, there is no ‘quick fix’ to large intranets that have grown over time. Since the recommendations, work has been steadily done to improve and enhance the existing intranets.
Case study 3: call centre in the investment industry
Call centres are now a key mechanism for interacting with customers and clients, never more so than in the private-sector investment industry. Here call centres answer questions on the huge range of products offered, as well as completing transactions over the phone.
In advance of deploying a new intranet content management system (CMS) in the call centre, a review was conducted to identify the key information needs to be met, and the organisational issues to be overcome.
The primary goal of this review was to identify the “low hanging fruit” that should be initially captured in the CMS, as well as determining a roadmap for the initial implementation (and beyond).
Like most call centres, systems had built up over time, with few opportunities to “step back” and review how the call centre as a whole was operating. This meant that the intranet review identified a number of areas where improvements could be made, beyond just the intranet itself.
There was an almost total reliance on email for updates
The research, even though it was conducted over a very short period of time, identified a broad range of issues relating to information management practices within the call centre, including:
- Reliance on email as primary communications method
There was an almost-total reliance on email to distribute news, updates, product information and legislative changes to staff in the call centre.
- Staff rely on printed product booklets
All call centre staff maintained a full set of current product brochures on their desks. These were the primary source of information used by staff, and were referred to in order to answer most questions.
- Inconsistencies in resources used
A lot of the resources used by staff were not maintained centrally, but were instead developed by individuals or teams. These documents were then passed from person to person within the call centre.
Key information resources were not maintained centrally
Based on these (and other) findings, a number of recommendations were made, looking particularly at where to focus efforts during the initial intranet project.
- Focus on managing updates
The primary focus of the project should be on implementing an improved mechanism for distributing and storing product updates. The intranet should be the sole mechanism for communicating updates out to call centre staff.
- Align with major call centre changes and updates
There are certain times in the year that see major changes occurring within the call centre. These include when legislation is changed and products are ‘rolled over’. These present an ideal opportunity to promote the use of the intranet, and to demonstrate its value.
- Ensure a single point of ownership and responsibility
Past initiatives failed, in a large part due to a lack of a single point of ownership. If the new intranet is to be successful, there must be a single group responsible for maintaining and promoting the site.
- Plan for gradual growth in staff usage
Over time, staff had been selected for their ability to be self-reliant, and they had all collected information to ensure they were able to answer queries. Staff will only change their working practices once they have confidence that the intranet is up-to-date, accurate and maintained.
The results of the review were well received by the call centre management, and the details were used to plan the CMS deployment and intranet development.
Case study 4: Health-sector organisation
An intranet review was conducted in a health-sector organisation that had been relatively recently created through the merger of a number of existing entities (including a major hospital).
The previous organisations had maintained simple intranets, although these had generally fallen into disrepair as staff left or changed responsibilities.
The creation of the merged organisation was a driver to reviewing the need for an intranet, and the activities needed to put a new site in place.
None of the intranets had a process for ensuring quality
Discussions were primarily held with business stakeholders (managers) rather than end users (such as medical and nursing staff). This is reflected in the nature of the findings and recommendations.
A selection of the key findings:
- Three existing intranets
There were three intranets, belonging to the organisations that merged to form the new agency. The intranets used different technologies and content creation processes. None of the intranets were resourced.
- Management of content quality
None of the intranets had a process for managing and maintaining the quality of content and there was no ownership of the intranet sites.
- Access to technology
Access to technology was mixed, with administrative areas having good access and clinical staff having poor access. Many clinical staff were starting to use PDAs to access information.
- Communication methods
There were a range of mechanisms being used to communicate with staff, many of them not very effective. There was a clear need to better communicate within the organisation.
Based on the research, a number of recommendations were made, primarily focusing on the broader strategic activities needed to establish a new intranet.
These recommendations included:
- Create a single intranet
A single corporate intranet will best serve the needs of all staff within the organisation. This is the most effective way to ensure that staff have access to information they need, and to position staff as employees of the new organisation, not of their previous agencies.
- Determine intranet ownership and establish an intranet team
The overall ownership of the intranet must be resolved before developing the new site. This includes establishing a new intranet team, ideally containing three full-time roles.
- Identify an intranet sponsor
Most intranet teams have little power to enforce changes in practice or policy. An intranet sponsor should therefore take on some of these challenges.
- Undertake further needs analysis activities
One of the first tasks to be undertaken by the intranet team is to gain a more complete understanding of staff information needs. This will help the intranet team to prioritise intranet development.
Create a single corporate intranet to serve all staff
In addition to the intranet review, work was also done to assess the current state and future direction of the websites. Similar recommendations were made for these sites.
Case study 5: Judicial organisation
The final case study presented in this article covers an intranet review in a judicial organisation, responsible for hearing cases and publishing judgements.
This organisation has offices throughout Australia, and a clear need to communicate well to all staff.
An intranet has been in place for some time, and it has been steadily improved and enhanced, including a relatively recent redesign.
The goal of the intranet review was to assess the success of the changes made, and to identify future steps to be taken based on the ‘best practice’ approaches of other public-sector organisations.
The biggest issue was that information was hard to find
Overall, the review found that the intranet was delivering value to staff, and that many aspects were working well. There were, however, a number of issues that needed to be resolved, as outlined in the key findings:
- Design of the site
The intranet was relatively well designed, with good page layout and consistency throughout the site. There were some aspects that were difficult for staff to use that needed to be addressed.
- Information is hard to find
The biggest issue with the current intranet was that staff couldn’t find information easily. The information architecture wasn’t intuitive and the search facility was poor.
- Useful content and features
Staff used the intranet frequently as it contained useful content and features. Amongst staff favourites are the weather, online forms, other forms and templates, and some of the corporate information.
- Intranet governance and authoring
There was some frustration amongst authors about authoring and intranet management approaches. While staff recognised the need for high quality content, many wanted more control over their own content.
There were a range of recommendations, most of which focused on the design of the site, with the overall goal of ensuring that staff could quickly and easily find desired content.
The recommendations included:
- Clarify intranet goals and scope
Before undertaking further development work, it would be valuable to clarify the goals of the intranet (the business goals it supports and what it needs to achieve) and its scope (the content that is and isn’t appropriate).
- Review governance and authoring models
Given the frustration with the current governance and authoring models, these needed to be reviewed. The best elements (particularly the role of the intranet editor for content quality) should be retained and other aspects revised.
- Restructure intranet content
The intranet content must be restructured in order to allow staff to find information that they need more easily. The information should be structured around ‘topics’, and linking between related content items should be improved.
- Determine the need for a CMS
With a revised governance and authoring model, the organisation will need to determine whether the current publishing tools will meet requirements.
- Continue to integrate business tools
The intranet incorporates links to key business tools. These are useful for staff and they provide a reason for the use of the intranet. The inclusion of more interactive tools should continue, but the usability of each should be examined before implementation.
Since the delivery of these recommendations, an overall redesign of the intranet has been initiated. This will follow best-practice usability and information architecture techniques, and is expected to deliver considerable improvements to the design and structure of the site.
Continue to develop key business tools on the intranet
Developing a KM strategy
A number of readers may have spotted the similarity of approach taken in these intranet reviews to that outlined in the article Developing a knowledge management strategy.
An intranet review is, when done properly, very similar to a KM project and applies many of the same techniques and approaches.
Both projects will identify a range of issues and needs, are very holistic in their approach. The key difference is the original objective of the project, even if they end up delivering similar results.
Recognising this, the key message is therefore:
- When conducting an intranet review, be aware of larger organisational issues and needs that must be addressed, beyond just the intranet itself.
- When developing a KM strategy, ensure that the practical information needs of staff are recognised and met, typically through the improvement of the corporate intranet and other supporting systems.
This article has presented the results of five intranet reviews, conducted in a range of organisations. While the research techniques used were very similar, the results were quite different.
The specific findings and recommendations reflected the unique nature of the organisations, including their size, function, history and resources.
Of the many other intranet reviews conducted, all have shown a similar degree of diversity in findings, which highlights the value of conducting thorough ‘needs analysis’ research.
This research then allows the development of a meaningful and practical intranet strategy, and a roadmap that outlines how to get to this future desired state.
(For examples of innovative work conducted on intranets, see the Intranet Innovations 2007 report.)