Escaping the organisation chart on your intranet


At the core of the structure of many intranets is the organisation chart. This is not surprising as many intranets grow organically with little central control. Business teams create their own areas on the intranet, include information about what they do, and disseminate it to their internal clients.

While matching the organisational structure is often the easiest approach for an intranet, it doesn’t serve the needs of many staff.

This article outlines practical ways to move from an intranet based on the organisation chart to one that is more intuitive and allows people to complete their tasks more easily. It does not describe a full intranet redesign process, but focuses on those issues that are most likely to occur if you wish to break your organisation chart.

Issues with the organisational chart

Staff often need to find information but don’t know who wrote it, or are doing a task that involves many parts of the organisation. Finding the right information can be a long and tedious process involving visits to many sections of the intranet.

In many cases, staff find it easier just to ring someone, rather than wade through the intranet.

Organisational structures often change, sometimes with disturbing frequency. This then necessitates a matching change to the structure of the intranet.

Ideally all information that a staff person needs for a particular task is in one place, even if that information comes from across the organisation.

Staff often need information, but don’t know who wrote it

Benefits of restructuring

Breaking the hold of the organisation chart is difficult. It requires commitment to the needs of staff, hard work to determine a new structure, significant effort to sell the new structure and usually some tricky internal politics.

The benefits delivered, however, can be enormous:

  • improves ability to find information
  • reduces duplication of effort
  • improves information quality
  • insulates the intranet against organisational change

Is the organisation chart the wrong approach?

Before you redesign your intranet, find out whether the organisation chart approach does work for you. In some circumstances, an intranet structured around the organisation chart can work: after all organisations are arranged so that people who do similar work or provide a similar service work together.

Examples of when an organisation chart structure can work include:

  • The organisation has a relatively unchanging structure and staff who have been part of the organisation for a long time — many will know who does what, or who prepares information.
  • The organisation is quite small.
  • Staff spend most of the time using information from within in their own part of the intranet
    (e.g. a regional sub-site) and may not need to use the rest of the intranet.

Even in these circumstances, however, organisationally structured intranets may not work. There will still be many tasks that involve more than one team, and new staff will have more difficulty than experienced staff.

Organisational structures often change, sometimes with disturbing frequency

How to find out

To find out whether the organisational structure works for your intranet, run:

  • a usability evaluation; and/or
  • a set of stakeholder interviews.

A usability evaluation involves asking users to complete a set of tasks as they normally would, while you observe and identify usability issues. To obtain a good understanding of whether the organisation chart approach works, ensure that most of the tasks are suitably complex, and don’t just ask participants to find a news story or a person’s phone number. Instead, ask them to find information for a larger task (e.g. “One of your staff has told you that she would like to work from home. Find out what you and she need to consider for this request, who needs to be involved and what forms need to be filled in.”).

When doing stakeholder interviews, don’t ask only about people’s experience with the intranet, ask also about what their job involves, what their main tasks are, what information they need to complete these tasks and where they get information from.

Also ask them to tell you a story about a recent time when they have found information easily, or not found it at all. Above all, ask them to show you what they mean as you are talking.

(For more information about stakeholder interviews, see the article Stakeholder interviews as simple knowledge mapping.)

If the organisation chart structure is not working, you will hear things like:

  • “I don’t know where to go to find this.”
  • “I don’t know who does that.”
  • “I know that Finance do that but don’t which division they work for.”
  • “I think I’d have to ask a few people about that.”

If the organisation chart works, you will hear things like:

  • “HR does that, I’ll look in their site.”
  • “I looked for that before and it is in the finance site.”

Research a new intranet structure

Identify readers’ information needs

From the stakeholder interviews, you should have a good understanding of the main tasks people are doing that involve the intranet.

If your intranet has a large amount of information, there should be an associated large number of tasks. There will, however, be a core set of tasks that people frequently do.

Identify the core tasks, along with other the tasks associated with high risk or core business strategies.

Analyse these tasks further (which may involve another round of stakeholder interviews) to gain a solid understanding of what information needs people have for these tasks. Getting the information structures for these tasks right will create immediate benefits, both for readers and your redesign.

Core tasks relevant for many intranets may include:

  • checking staff details
  • looking for vacant positions
  • finding core policies and associated procedures
  • checking employee conditions such as pay and leave
  • researching training opportunities

Identify core tasks, and research those in depth

Understand the content

To ensure that the intranet will achieve the reader’s needs, you need to have a very good understanding of the content.

For a small intranet, conduct a content inventory (a detailed listing of content on your intranet). For a large intranet, analyse a cross section of the information available, making sure that you spend time on each section of the site.

Spend as much time as you can doing this as it gives you a deeper understanding of what content exists and what some authors are trying to achieve. It will also help you to identify gaps in information.

Look for patterns

Based on the stakeholder interviews and content analysis, identify:

  • what currently works
  • what doesn’t work
  • duplicated content
  • similar content
  • other patterns

Look for areas on the intranet that have similar, but not identical, content. You may find information with slight variations — perhaps a policy that has been adapted slightly for local conditions.

Look at how the information is structured within each area. For example, each may have a training, meetings and news section. These will give you clues about the patterns beneath the organisation structure.

Many intranets have a significant amount of information that describes what each team does, usually combined with the information that readers actually need to achieve their tasks. Check whether your intranet does this, and think about whether the information about ‘who we are’ could be separated from everything else.

As you analyse these issues, you will see patterns in the content. However, go through your content inventory or sample separately and see if there are other patterns — similar document types, similar topics, similar tasks. These all provide clues to natural groupings of information for your new structure.

Look for patterns in the structure and content

Card sorting

Another input is a card sort. This will help you to synthesise the other research, gain further ideas about what type of information could be grouped together and identify labels for categories.

(For more information about card sorting, see the article Information design using card sorting.)

Design & evaluate a new structure

Now you know about the readers’ requirements, the content, it’s time to escape the organisational chart.

Create a new structure, and test extensively until it works

The research activities will have identified key issues and needs. Next, create a draft structure for the information. Don’t try to make it perfect, but make sure it covers all core tasks, all core content and is good enough that you will be able to evaluate it. Don’t be afraid to put information in more than one place in the structure at this time.

Stay committed to escaping the organisation chart — don’t let it slip back in (such as including any team names at the top level). The moment you include a team name (even if it is good topic like ‘Training’), everyone else will want their team name there as well.

Once you have a structure, evaluate it using tree testing, as outlined in the earlier article Tree testing for effective navigation.

Revise the structure based on the evaluation, and evaluate again. Revise and evaluate until you are happy with the structure and the readers are finding information easily. Collect some statistics on task achievement — they will be useful later.

Sell the structure

Moving from the organisation chart to a topic-based structure will be a significant change for the organisation, and you will need to sell the change. This should be done as part of a broader project to rejuvenated the intranet.

The best way to promote your new structure is to provide concrete examples. These could include:

  • stories of how people couldn’t find information but now will be able to
  • improvements to core tasks
  • examples of when people made incorrect decisions or provided wrong advice, but now will find correct information
  • tasks where a reader previously would have had to look in many parts of the intranet but now can look in one place
  • humorous or illogical examples from the old structure

Tailor examples according to your audience. Management may be more interested in examples where risk is reduced or efficiencies are saved; frontline staff will be interested in examples that relate closely to their work. Everyone is interested in tasks such as pay and conditions.

Use metrics from the evaluation liberally. There is nothing a manager likes to hear more than “this new structure resulted in a 95% success rate for core tasks” or “what previously took 10 clicks now takes 4″.

Help authors to understand where their content will live

Other challenges


If you have distributed authoring, the biggest challenge will be helping authors to understand where their pages will “live”. To them, all of their information belongs together and it is completely logical to keep it within their area.

Again, plenty of practical examples, based on core user tasks, will help. Include examples that demonstrate users needing information from different sections of the organisation.

One way to help authors to understand the reader’s perspective is to ask them to write scenarios — stories describing a task that involves a reader using their information. This helps them to think through why and how someone would be using their information, and where in a task they need additional information.

Ownership and self-promotion

One of the biggest challenges will come around the issues of ownership and self-promotion. Some authors put a lot of effort into their information and will want to keep it all in one place. They will also be quite proud of their ‘patch’ and may not want it to be split up.

Again, provide practical examples showing how the reader’s experience can be improved by changing the structure. Provide somewhere for people to have an area they call their own — in it they may just include information about what their team does, or a group of links to information that they use often.

You may need to enlist some management support, as organisational politics surrounding ownership may restrict your ability to achieve improvements.

Demonstrate how the new structure will deliver benefits


Moving from an organisation chart structured intranet to one that is more intuitive is not easy. It involves gaining a deep understanding of the information needs of staff and your content, identifying gaps and patterns, change management activities and internal politics.

However, the benefits can be enormous — increased use of the intranet to find information, reduced time spent on locating information, improved information quality and reduced risk.

(For an overall methodology for developing or redeveloping an intranet, see the Intranet Roadmap.)

Donna Spencer
Donna Spencer
Donna (Maurer) Spencer is an alumni of Step Two Designs, and is a specialist in information architecture. Donna has presented widely on IA, and is currently writing a book on card sorting.