Keeping your intranet healthy and effective
You may have just built a brand new intranet, or re-invigorated your existing intranet. Either way, the challenge is now to ensure that the current quality, level of use, and value of the intranet is maintained well into the future.
An intranet must constantly grow and evolve to match the changing needs of the business, while ensuring a high level of usability and efficiency.
This is no easy task, and it will require the constant enthusiasm and efforts of the intranet team.
These efforts will deliver considerable benefits for the whole organisation. At its best, your intranet forms the core of information and knowledge management efforts in the organisation, enabling wider strategic goals to be met.
This article outlines a range of approaches which can help to ensure that your intranet remains healthy and effective. Few of these involve large expenditure, instead they focus on putting in place viable processes that guarantee intranet viability.
(Author’s note: this article follows on from last month’s Sixteen steps to a renewed corporate intranet.)
Make the intranet part of daily activities
This must be the primary goal of the intranet: to become a normal part of staff’s daily lives. Once there is a strong demand, there will be a strong incentive to support the intranet, and many complaints if it is not kept up to date.
It is this ‘critical mass’ of usage that is necessary to make the intranet viable in the long-term.
There is no one feature, tool or set of pages that universally makes an intranet desirable to staff. Instead, each organisation has its own unique set of requirements and demands.
Only by involving all stakeholders in the design and evolution of the intranet will these key features be uncovered.
A truly successful intranet is relied upon by all staff
Obtain strong management sponsorship
The intranet must have a clear ‘sponsor’ within the senior levels of the organisation. This manager is the sole ‘owner’ of the intranet, and the intranet team.
Having strong sponsorship of the intranet is critical to the long-term viability of the intranet, and this manager must be prepared to adequately resource the intranet, and to fight on its behalf.
This senior manager also has an important communication role, in conveying the position and importance of the intranet down the chain of command.
Position the intranet as a strategic asset
The intranet must be recognised as a strategic asset by senior management, and included in medium and long-term corporate planning.
This ensures that there is coordination between different efforts within the organisation, and that the intranet is kept in sync with new corporate directions.
Visibility of the intranet at senior levels also helps to ensure sufficient funding is available to allow the intranet to meet more than just short-term needs.
The intranet team must have enough power to ensure quality and consistency
Ensure the intranet team has sufficient authority
Even in a decentralised authoring model, the central intranet team has a valuable role to play in setting and enforcing key standards.
In general, the intranet team is responsible for managing the:
- basic ‘look and feel’ of the intranet
- overall information architecture
- general writing standards
- design and content of the homepage
- design and usability of other key pages and applications (such as the internal phone directory)
The intranet team must be provided with sufficient authority to enforce these aspects, otherwise the intranet will quickly slide into an inconsistent and poor quality state.
This authority must come from senior management levels, via the intranet’s sponsor.
Create an intranet peer group
Bring together all the content creators and intranet administrators to form an internal peer group (also known as a ‘community of practice’). This provides a mechanism to:
- Share best practice between authors and administrators.
- Explore new ideas and innovations.
- Encourage consistency, quality and accuracy through peer pressure.
- Provide ongoing training and support for all participants.
- Identify and resolve problems.
- Communicate news and updates rapidly to all intranet participants.
The peer group should meet regularly face-to-face, with online communication provided as a secondary medium.
Trust and rapport must be built within this group if it is to be successful. This must be facilitated by the intranet team.
Provide authors with sufficient time and resources
If the information on the intranet is to remain up-to-date and accurate, the content owners must be provided with enough time and resources to meet their obligations.
In a model of decentralised authoring, the intranet tasks are often simply added onto staff’s existing workloads. This only highlights to staff that management does not view the intranet as important, and is not satisfactory if the intranet is to be long-term viable.
Instead, intranet responsibilities must be formalised, and included in job role descriptions. They should also be assessed as part of staff performance evaluations, alongside other important activities.
Only once this is done will the intranet be taken by staff to be more than a hobby for the self-motivated to squeeze in at the end of the working day.
Continually market the intranet
The intranet team must continually promote the use of the intranet within the organisation, long after the initial fanfare of ‘go-live’.
It is widely recognised that cultural change within an organisation can take up to five years to take effect. Even then, there will be pockets of staff who cling on to the old approaches.
Recognising this, the intranet team must ‘market’ the intranet at every opportunity. This must target the specific needs of staff, and employ ‘sober selling’ techniques (instead of hype).
The goal is to get to the ‘critical mass’ of acceptance, where the intranet becomes sufficiently entrenched in the organisation to gain a life of its own.
Once this level of recognition is reached, it becomes much easier to grow and further develop the intranet, with the support of both staff and management.
It is not enough to ‘build it, and hope they will come’
Include the intranet in staff orientation
It is not sufficient to ensure that all current staff are trained in the use of the intranet. Instead, basic intranet skills must be included in the orientation package provided to new staff.
This is particularly important from a change management perspective. Depending on the nature of the workforce, many of the current staff will only reluctantly use the intranet, preferring instead to use earlier methods.
New staff, on the other hand, enter the workplace unencumbered by past practices, and will easily see the intranet as the ‘normal way of doing things’.
New staff should be trained to use the intranet as their ‘first port of call’
Budget for incremental development
An intranet is most successful if it continually evolves to meet changing business needs. To support this, a budget must be allocated for ongoing small development activities.
In practice, there are dozens of minor technical tasks that must be completed on the intranet within a year. Each of these is too small to be considered a project, but are still important to the ongoing success of the intranet.
It is vital that the lack of a development budget not act as a ‘roadblock’, as this will generate considerable frustration and dissatisfaction.
It is most often easiest to budget a fraction (such as a half or quarter) of one or more skilled IT staff to maintain the intranet. This provides resources and flexibility, without impacting on other IT projects.
The intranet team must be provided with complete freedom regarding how they make use of these IT staff, within the limits of the available time.
Establish an easy feedback mechanism
End users are in the best position to judge the accuracy, consistency and completeness of the information on the intranet.
Provide staff with an easy-to-use feedback mechanism, and encourage them to report both technical problems and content issues.
Experience has found this to be an extremely effective way of identifying problems and deficiencies in the information on the intranet.
Ensure that all feedback is acted upon in a timely way, including both fixing the page, and responding to the staff person who submitted the feedback.
When implemented properly, feedback becomes a powerful way of building trust in the intranet. Once staff see that their feedback is being acted upon, they will begin to rely on the information presented.
Schedule regular usability testing
Usability testing is a very effective way of identifying problems with the intranet. At its simplest level, it involves selecting six real-life intranet tasks, watching actual users attempt to complete them, and noting where they have difficulty.
While usability tests were probably conducted during the creation of the intranet (or the renewal project), the intranet is constantly evolving.
Regular usability tests should therefore be scheduled every six months. These can be ‘light-weight’ events, taking no more than a day or two, with the primary goal of identifying the ‘big six’ usability problems.
While usability professionals can be used to conduct these tests, it is entirely practical (and even preferable) to run the tests ‘in-house’.
The intranet is a valuable asset, and should be protected as such
Implement contingency & disaster recovery
As the intranet grows in usage, it becomes an increasingly important asset for the organisation. Indeed, if it is successful, the intranet becomes a ‘business-critical’ resource.
Like any important IT asset, steps must be taken to ensure that it runs reliably, and that the data is protected.
To this end, sufficient ‘contingency’ must be implemented to guarantee that the intranet is protected against hardware or software failure. This may involve having a ‘stand-by’ machine, or load-sharing between two servers.
Likewise, an adequate disaster recovery plan must be put in place. This must involve regular data backups, and the ability to totally rebuild the system in the case of a catastrophe.
Automate quality control
Wherever possible, consistency and quality should be ‘built into’ the intranet. In this way, standards are maintained automatically without requiring specific effort by the authors.
Quality-assurance features include:
- automated link-checking
- cross-linking based on meta-data (as opposed to manually-entered links)
- effective and workable notification of review dates for all topics
- stylesheet and template-based publishing
This is an aspect of the intranet which warrants attention and innovation, and there is more work to be done before intranets become truly easy to manage.
Build quality control into the underlying design of the intranet
Ensure all pages have a content owner
One of the greatest problems facing an intranet is losing track of who owns the content. Changes in job roles and organisational restructures all contribute to the creation of ‘orphan’ pages without a content owner.
All pages must have a content owner if they are to be kept up to date. Ensure that no content is published without a specific content owner.
Processes must then be established to keep the list of content owners up to date, and aligned with the current organisational structure. This can be done as part of the regular content reviews.
The business groups must clearly understand that if no content owner can be found for a page, it will be removed from the intranet. Presenting no information is better than inaccurate or misleading information.
The reach of the intranet should extend to all staff
Provide universal intranet access
An intranet will only meet its expectations if it is easily accessible by staff across the wider organisation.
This is no small challenge. In many ways, the staff that need the intranet the most, are located in geographically isolated areas, or out on the road. It is these staff who are unable to rely on ‘walking down the corridor for a chat’.
Extending the intranet out to these staff stretches the technical capabilities of networks, and taxes limited budgets.
Note that it is not sufficient to merely provide staff with access to the intranet, without also providing training, and sufficient time to use it.
Develop an integrated intranet platform
The phrase ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ applies very well to the intranet. A coordinated, consistent intranet is much more valuable than a collection of disparate web interfaces.
To deliver the greatest benefit, a seamless interface must extend across the entire intranet, including all applications (both internal and third-party developed).
In this way, staff are presented with a familiar design, tools and navigation regardless of where they are on the intranet. This encourages the development of a strong ‘identity’ for the intranet, which reinforces its strategic position and value.
Define and track intranet metrics
A clear set of strategic goals should be defined for the intranet. From this, a range of measures (‘metrics’) can be derived.
These metrics allow the ongoing success of the intranet to be monitored. They also allow issues and problems to be identified in a timely way.
An effective set of metrics will highlight areas where there intranet is weak, and suggest potential changes in direction.
The intranet metrics should be reviewed each year, to determine whether they still match the overall corporate goals, and whether they have proven to be effective and workable.
Monitor usage statistics
Web usage statistics (hits, popular pages, etc) should be tracked for the intranet. In addition, search engine usage reports should be generated, showing most popular searches and failed search terms.
These two sets of statistics provide the intranet team with considerable information with which to manage the daily operation of the intranet.
The usage statistics also operate as ‘usability testing in the field’, showing which pages are being used, which are not, and what information staff are looking for. With this, it becomes possible to adapt and improve the intranet to better meet staff needs.
These are just a few of the practical techniques and methods than can be used to ensure the long-term viability of your intranet.
With each organisation’s unique needs, it is critical that collaboration with all stakeholders be used to identify the right strategies for your specific circumstances.
Most of all though, you will need unwavering enthusiasm and commitment for the intranet to be successful.