Many intranets have reached, or passed, their fifth birthdays. Having grown organically with limited funding, these intranets have become steadily more inconsistent and out of date.
Many corporate intranets have also lost their identity, and now exist simply for the sake of legacy.
The growing status of content management systems (CMSs) is now providing many organisations with an impetus to revisit and renew their intranets.
Unfortunately, while the technical aspects of implementing a CMS are well understood, many organisations are struggling to identify the issues with the content, structure and management of their intranets.
The good news is that by following a disciplined approach, it is possible to re-invigorate an intranet, making it deliver real business benefits, and supporting strategic goals.
This article outlines a sixteen step process which guides you through to a refreshed and dynamic new intranet.
There are a number of clear indicators that your current intranet has languished, and is not delivering effective business benefits:
- Staff usage of the intranet is low, and not growing.
- The majority of content is out-of-date, incomplete or inaccurate.
- The intranet is very inconsistent in appearance, particularly across sections managed by different groups.
- Almost all information on the intranet is reference material, not news or recent updates.
- Most sections of the intranet are solely used to publicise the existence of the business groups within the organisation.
- There are few interactive features on the intranet (it is not a place ‘to do things’).
- The updating of the intranet is an entirely manual, and labour-intensive, process.
- There are few, if any, controls over what can be published on the intranet.
- Content reviews and other editorial processes are limited, or non-existent.
- The volume of e-mail used to send news and updates is unmanageable, and still growing fast.
- There is no clearly-defined list of business goals for the intranet.
- Senior management does not see the intranet as a strategic resource.
- Funding for the intranet is inadequate.
Is your intranet languishing in a state of disrepair?
If these signs apply to your intranet, it is time to instigate an ‘intranet renewal’ project.
The intranet has the potential to be a valuable strategic asset for the organisation. It can deliver many benefits:
- Single interface to all enterprise applications.
- Effective communication and news distribution infrastructure.
- Centralised resource of business information and knowledge.
- Supporting tool for initial and ongoing training requirements.
- Platform for an online community of staff, particularly for those in geographically isolated locations.
An intranet is also a necessary prerequisite for a wider knowledge management strategy. Before the larger cultural and process issues can be addressed, a strong foundation must be built to support the creation, capture and distribution of information.
The intranet should be a key component of strategic initiatives
In order to achieve this benefits, and to address the limitations of the current intranet, a disciplined approach must be followed. This is an approach we have found to be useful:
- Review existing intranet
- Determine intranet goals
- Identify stakeholders
- Conduct stakeholder interviews
- Conduct usability testing
- Determine strategic and tactical recommendations
- Obtain management support and funding
- Conduct a content audit
- Address information architecture needs
- Develop a new intranet design
- Select and implement a content management system
- Create an intranet style guide
- Rewrite key content
- Migrate existing content
- Promote the new intranet
- Establish new processes
Step 1: Review existing intranet
The first step in the project is to examine the currently-deployed intranet. This allows lessons to be learnt from the past, thereby ensuring that the new version builds on current strengths and addresses existing weaknesses.
This review must examine a wide range of aspects:
- Conduct a comprehensive review of the current intranet, using usability and accessibility heuristics (guidelines).
- Identify information architecture problems with overall intranet structure.
- Investigate the underlying technology used to manage the intranet, and determine implementation issues.
- Examine usage statistics to identify key areas, unused information, and user behaviour.
- Review any previous surveys or reports covering intranet usage or issues.
The goal of this activity is to identify the primary strengths and weaknesses of the current intranet, and to start identifying the key recommendations for the renewal project.
It may be beneficial to obtain outside assistance for this activity, as this provides a new perspective on the intranet and the issues with it. It can be very difficult to gauge the true nature of the system, after working on it for several years.
Take a step back, to assess why the intranet is not successful
Step 2: Determine intranet goals
A succinct but meaningful list of business goals underpins the long-term success of the intranet. These must spell out what concrete benefits the intranet will deliver to the business as a whole.
Many intranets have the single goal ‘Provide staff with efficient access to online information’. This will not suffice: merely having an intranet is not a goal in itself.
Business goals should relate to the wider strategic direction of the organisation, and a meaningful goal will help to clearly position the intranet in relation to strategic projects.
Some example goals include:
- Provide an efficient communication channel, both to and between staff.
- Support ongoing organisational improvement.
- Increase knowledge flow within the organisation.
- Increase the safety of all staff.
Note that every organisation is unique, so it is important to involve senior management when determining the intranet goals.
See the article What are the goals of a content management system? for a more comprehensive list of business goals.
Step 3: Identify stakeholders
Determine a comprehensive list of key stakeholders, in consultation with the relevant managers. This is used to organise the stakeholder interviews.
The list of stakeholders also forms the basis for a broader list of ‘content owners’, which is crucial for ensuring that the information on the intranet is both accurate and up-to-date. The content owners list is also used when conducting the content audit.
Potential stakeholders include:
- business groups
- IT sections
- content owners (authors)
- senior management
- end users (staff)
The involvement of all major stakeholders throughout the project will ensure that the true requirements are identified, thereby maximising business benefits.
Involving end users also reduces the natural level of resistance to change within the organisation.
Staff are often the best source of intranet issues and ideas
Step 4: Conduct stakeholder interviews
This is the primary mechanisms for identifying the user and business requirements for the intranet. By including a range of representative users, a complete picture can be built up of content and process needs.
Structure these interviews according to the issues identified in the intranet review. Focus on the key business processes that each participant is involved in, and identify how the intranet assists with this.
In this way, the issues that have the greatest impact on the operation of the organisation are identified and discussed.
The outcome of these interviews is a series of general needs, and specific requirements, issues, and problems. Synthesise these into a single list at the completion of the stakeholder interviews.
Note that surveys and questionnaires have not been included in this methodology. In our experience, they are not an effective way of determining user needs.
Usability tests identify real problems, not opinions
Step 5: Conduct usability testing
The most effective way of identifying problems with the design of the current sites is to conduct usability tests. Even a small test encompassing five representative users will identify any major problems with the design of the intranet.
Develop specific tasks for the tests, focusing on the key areas identified during the previous reviews and stakeholder interviews. The users then attempt to complete these tasks, with their actions being analysed to identify specific problems and issues.
The goal of these ‘small scale’ tests is to identify the largest issues with the intranet, following the ’80/20′ rule.
Note that usability testing should be conducted throughout the intranet renewal project. For example, the prototypes for the new design must also be usability tested.
Step 6: Determine strategic and tactical recommendations
The previous activities have gathered considerable information on:
- The primary strengths and weaknesses of the current intranet.
- Key usability and accessibility problems.
- Strategic goals and needs.
- The information needs of staff.
- Areas where the intranet can provide greatest benefit.
This information must now be articulated into a succinct set of strategic (broad) and tactical (specific) recommendations.
Lack of management ‘sponsorship’ is the biggest source of project failure
These recommendations will drive the overall direction of the renewal project, and define the key activities to focus on.
Sample strategic goals:
- Focus on processes to deliver business benefits.
- Use the intranet to support geographically isolated staff.
- Establish the intranet as the primary news medium.
- Rewrite policy and procedures.
Sample tactical goals:
- Implement an improved search engine.
- Resolve accessibility problems.
- Maximise the value of the home page.
- Schedule regular usability testing.
Take the opportunity to look beyond the intranet, and to identify process or cultural issues that must also be addressed. The intranet renewal will deliver greatest benefits when tackled in conjunction with other supporting initiatives.
Step 7: Obtain management support and funding
The involvement and support of senior management is critical, if the renewal project is to succeed.
Develop a brief executive report, outlining:
- the issues with the current intranet
- strategic and tactical recommendations
- benefits delivered by the project
Sufficient information has now been gathered to concretely describe the costs of not updating the intranet, and to quantify the expected return on investment (ROI).
While the activities up to now have required few resources, a more substantial budget will be needed to move the project through to completion.
The largest cost is likely to be the purchase and implementation of the content management system. It is important, however, not to under-budget the key supporting activities, such as the content audit and user training.
Step 8: Conduct a content audit
A content audit steps through each page on the intranet, and generates an exhaustive list of the current content.
This is a necessary pre-requisite to migrating the content into the new content management system.
A content audit also provide invaluable information about the specific issues with the current intranet, as well as the particular needs the system meets.
A content audit always generates a few ‘surprises’, which often reshape some of the tactical or even strategic goals of the intranet.
The content audit should be done by a member of the main intranet renewal team, as this is the only way the team will gain a full understanding of the current intranet.
Step 9: Address information architecture needs
Most first-generation intranets are structured along organisational lines. That is, each business group manages a section of their own on the intranet, where they publish information of interest to them.
It is our experience that staff have great difficulty in finding information when it is structured in this way. Instead, the intranet should be organised according to:
- task, activity or process
A large-scale restructure of the intranet is a key part of the overall renewal project. To determine a new structure, use methods such as ‘card sorting’. This is both effective, and enjoyable to run.
For a detailed tutorial on using card sorting, see our article Information design using card sorting.
Over time, intranets become increasingly unstructured
Step 10: Develop a new intranet design
Develop a new design for the intranet, addressing:
- standard page layout
- site structure
- home page design
Of these, the navigation and standard page layout are the most important aspects. If the graphic design of the current intranet is satisfactory, don’t spend the effort changing it (this will provide some continuity for users).
The first step is to create a low-fidelity (rough) prototype. This is used to check that the overall layout is workable, and that the flow of pages is meaningful.
Conduct a small usability test with actual users to confirm this. This test can also be used to check the validity of the new information architecture.
Using an iterative process, refine the design until you have a completed interface. At each stage, usability testing is used to check and adjust the designs.
A content management system provides a strong foundation for an effective intranet
Step 11: Select and implement a content management system
Many older intranets are entirely managed using only Frontpage, or Dreamweaver. While this serves the needs of a small intranet, it does not scale to support the growing number of pages.
A content management system (CMS) is required to provide an efficient, and controlled, publishing process. A CMS will also deliver many other ancillary benefits.
The technical requirements of many intranets are not demanding, and a small-scale commercial CMS may suffice. Alternatively, an open-source CMS may provide a basis for further in-house development.
It is important to gather a comprehensive set of content management requirements, by involving all stakeholders. This will allow you to select a CMS that meets your short- and long-term business goals.
Implementing the CMS is, in some ways, the easiest of the activities. Work with the vendor, develop, test and deploy the new content management system.
Good project management principles should be followed throughout the development activities. If issues arise, these should be addressed with all stakeholders.
The process for selecting a CMS is covered in the article How to evaluate a content management system.
Ensure staff understand the benefits of a consistent intranet
Step 12: Create an intranet style guide
Intranet consistency and quality is not a product of the underlying technology, but rather the training and support of the authors.
To ensure that the intranet does not slide into a state of disrepair, develop an intranet style guide for authors, covering:
- usage of the standard page templates
- tips for good writing style
- guidelines for structuring pages
- linking conventions
- other support style guidelines
- the benefits for users of the consistent style
This document should not be written in a formal, proscriptive style. Instead, it should endeavour to support the authors, and to save them time.
Allocate time to train the authors in the use of the style guide. Provide support, via phone and e-mail. Over time, as the new styles become standard practice, support requirements will fall.
The majority of intranet content is confusing, innacurate or misleading
Step 13: Rewrite key content
It is reasonable to assume that you have at least a few large manuals on the intranet. These typically cover policy and procedures, or corporate governance.
These manuals form the core of the intranet, yet are often the result of a quick conversion from legacy paper documents.
As part of the broader content migration, identify the most valuable information on the intranet, including these manuals.
This information should invariably be rewritten and restructured, to delivery the best business benefits. These pages must be:
- easy to read
- written to match the online medium
- comprehensive and up-to-date
- well structured
- extensively hypertext linked
Obtain the resources of at least one professional technical writer to assist in this rewrite. In most cases, you will need to devote a team of writers to the task for several months.
While this clearly involves considerable cost and effort, the benefits delivered by this rewrite cannot be overstated.
See the article Losing sight of the content in a content management system for further discussion of this issue.
Step 14: Migrate existing content
The content audit has produced a comprehensive list of all information stored on the current intranet. This must now be mapped to the new structure, and migrated into the CMS.
It is important to approach this in a ‘ruthless’ way, as this will be the only opportunity to comprehensively clean up the intranet content.
Follow these rules when migrating content:
- Identify a content owner for each page.
- If an owner cannot be identified, do not migrate the page (it is common for groups not to accept responsibility).
- Ensure all pages are reviewed for accuracy and relevance by the content owners before migrating them.
- Conduct a brief editorial review to ensure the information is understandable and readable. If not, have the content rewritten by the content owner.
While this process can be slow for a large intranet, it provides an invaluable mechanism for conducting a ‘spring clean’. If this is not done, the new intranet will be crippled by the inadequacies of the old content before it even goes live.
Step 15: Promote the new intranet
Staff throughout the organisation should be kept informed of ongoing progress. Then, when the new intranet has been finalised, organise a public launch. This must clearly spell out the features provided by the new intranet, and how these will benefit the users.
This launch should be supported by a comprehensive communication plan, outlining the message, medium and timing of the promotion.
The promotional activities must run in conjunction with the training provided to authors and end users.
At all times, follow the principle of ‘sober selling’, also characterised as ‘under promise, and over deliver’. In this way, the promotional activities become a valuable communication exercise that builds trust in the new intranet.
Effective update processes ensure the intranet is sustainable
Step 16: Establish new processes
The intranet must be kept up to date if it is to build and retain the trust of staff. To achieve this, sufficient resources must be allocated to the update processes.
Put in place ‘triggers’, so that when a piece of information changes, steps are automatically taken to update the intranet.
Note that these processes focus on people, not technology. It is the staff within the organisation who must understand the reasons for updating the intranet, and who must be provided with the time needed to make those changes.
The intranet is only truly a success when its use is a standard part of daily activity, whether accessing pages, or creating new content.
See the article Centralised or decentralised authoring? for a discussion regarding content creation strategies.
An effective intranet can be created, within any budget
Working within a tight budget
While this process may seem somewhat daunting, it is eminently possible to complete the entire exercise within tight budget constraints.
Depending on the nature of the organisations, it should be possible to complete individual steps (such as the usability testing or stakeholder interviews) within a few days each.
Much of the work can be done internally by the project team, with limited assistance from external consultants.
To gain the greatest benefit within the available funds, it is important to focus on the major issues, and ‘quick wins’.
For example, creating an attractive layout is much less important that resolving the handful of usability problems preventing staff from finding information.
Similarly, when determining goals, look for the key features which will bring staff to the intranet on a regular basis. These are often news or communication tools (such as discussion groups).
The aim is to build a momentum with the new intranet. Once there is sustained use and interest in the intranet, it becomes much easier to find additional resources to continue expanding the features and content.
While the current intranet may be languishing in a state of disrepair, the process for renewing it is both known, and achievable.
By following this sixteen step process, the intranet can be made to deliver substantial benefits, in support of overall business strategy.
By putting in place effective content and supporting processes, you can also ensure that the intranet is sustainable over the long-term.