The Promise Unfulfilled – Corporate Intranets

I was talking with Chris Murray yesterday and the subject of the woeful state of corporate Intranets came up.

First, let’s think a little about what a Corporate Intranet should be…starting from this via Wikipedia:

Briefly, an intranet can be understood as “a private version of the Internet,” or as a version of the Internet confined to an organization.

The promise of the Intranet is that it will give us an easy means to communicate within our companies, using many to many communications rather than one to one or one to many, as in our phone or email systems. Properly done, they foster communication…so in a very real sense, a properly implemented Intranet is Social Networking at it’s best. But it is even more than that…it can be document and process management embodied. If done correctly, an Intranet ought to be a first stop for any corporate information. “I need the new coversheet for the TPS reports…I have to get on the Intranet.”

So what is so wrong with our Intranets today? For the most part, the Intranets I see are generally out of date. Very important bits of information for our daily activities, such as the current per diem rate for travel are often last years figure, or worse, the year before. This leads the employee to the very real expectation that he/she can’t rely on any of the data therein contained to be the right data. So they search…and call, and email everyone to make sure they’ve got the right bit…and still often end up with the wrong version of the technical spec and in turn, pass that along to the customer.

Many Intranets fail to act as a Knowledge Center. While we’ve discussed business blogging in detail here ad nauseum, we really haven’t discussed the importance of internal, company-only blogging. Sharing thoughts, ideas, and intelligence with our co-workers is a time saver and can help us to turn good ideas into great ideas. Forums, blogs, anything that gets internal discussion going will help. Similarly, using private Del.icio.us feeds provides an easy means to share the vast amounts of data we daily sift off the Internet.

Why are intranets so bad? Generally, I can lump the failures into a couple of baskets:

  • Intranets are lightning rods for cost cutting – basically the people who were propping our Intranet up were laid off in the last round. What does that say to anyone wanting to try to make it work now?
  • Lack of institutional will – we built a good intranet a few years ago, but no one ever used it. It can be hard to get people to start using an Intranet properly. Companies need to make them work by both procedural changes, as well as internal marketing efforts.
  • Bad Technology – “We’d use it, but the system is too hard for regular users to use.” There are some truly awful solutions in place. Simply put, if the technology is getting in the way, you’ve got the wrong technology…
  • Bad Process – “The documentation we need has been tied up in approval since March.” In business, we like to adhere to our business rules, but sometimes, those rules get out of control. Remember, we’re not trying to keep people from working, we’re just trying to ensure their working properly…

Moving forward, things will get better. By the day, people are becoming more used to working with the basics of what a corporate Intranet should be, and they’re learning in some rather unlikely spots. Places like Myspace, LinkedIn and Facebook are teaching them the importance of online networking, and even more important, teaching them *how to network online*.

This area represents one of the truly important untapped opportunities for business. Think about how you can make it work in your company today! (There will be more posts on this issue in the coming days…)

More Reading

Gerry McGovern – Intranets – Getting Senior Managers Attention

Nathan Wallace – Our Intranet, the Wiki: Case Study of a Wiki changing an Enterprise

IBD – Firms Using Wikis, RSS As Enterprise 2.0 Grows

2 Replies to “The Promise Unfulfilled – Corporate Intranets”

  1. The intranet pitfalls described in this blog are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

    In my experience, company intranets are a home page with links to separate departmental sites (Human Resources, Information Technology, Marketing, Legal, Corporate Security, et. al.). The design, content and useability of these “satellite” sites generally bear no relation to the home page, the company brand and are not subject to regular review and maintenance.

    For example, a former employer, like most companies, posts its corporate policies to its intranet. Yet depending on how an employee navigated this intranet (via a search or series of links) they would end up with those from either 2002, 2004 or 2005 or a combination of all three. An employee trying to be a good corporate citizen could run afoul of company requirements by unknowingly complying with outdated rules.

    Then there are the cases of pure sloppiness. The link to a particular policy reads “ABC Policy” and when opened, the title of the policy is “DEF Policy.”

    To make matters worse, someone in their infinite wisdom decided that only those policies that clearly applied to all employees were called policies. All other corporate policies were labeled guidelines.

    The documents themselves were poorly structured. Policy statements would be in the overview section and absent from the policy section; policy titles were ambiguous; responsibilities were not defined; those who were responsible were specifically named as opposed to a title (John Doe vs. Chief Counsel).

    What is often overlooked by companies in this regard is the cost. And the cost is tangible.

    For example, employees charged with Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) compliance and audit-related duties become hobbled. They spend their time wading through a quagmire of useless documents only to come up empty handed at the expense of producing other important deliverables. While lack of up-to-date, clearly written documentation may not be a key control in a SOX audit, it most certainly adds to the cost of the audit. This is especially true when the internal audit function is outsourced for a particular aspect of the audit ($100 plus an hour per auditor). Add to this the cost of the external auditors ($200 plus an hour). Each extra week of audit work has the potential to cost a company a minimum of $30,000.

    Also consider the costs related to the use of other types of misinformation by employees who rely upon these to perform their job functions (sales, customer service, etc.). The annual cost to a company that does not allocate sufficient resources to ensure its intranet is up-to-date and managed in terms of design, content and useability could easily aggregate to $300,000 or more.

    While dollars alone make a compeling argument for companies to invest in their intranets. There are qualitative benefits as well, such as employee loyalty and commitment when companies deliver internally the excellence they market externally.

  2. Exactly – and thanks for the concrete examples. It’s awfully hard to maintain the esprit de corp of the folks on the line when they know they can’t rely on the information we’re providing them. I’ve found it permeates their work. Instead of “We do it right” they learn that the truth is “we do it right once in a while” and that isn’t a message we want to send…

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