Are you treating your intranet as information dumping ground?

9 min read
Vlad Kovalskiy
September 1, 2014
Last updated: May 23, 2019
Are you treating your intranet as information dumping ground?
Martin White is one of the most respected intranet experts who founded in 1999. An information scientist by profession he has been a Visiting Professor at the Information School, the University of Sheffield since 2002 and authored 12 different books, including The Intranet Management Handbook. We talked to Martin about why so many people choose Microsoft products for their intranets, what happens when you treat your intranet as information dumping ground and why intranet is morphing into a digital workspace portal that includes clients and suppliers.
When it comes to intranet, 'social' is the buzzword that's mentioned most often with it. Is 'social intranet' a rebirth of intranet in the workplace or is classic idea of intranet dead for good and enterprise social networking going to replace traditional intranet as we knew it?

Social networking is a good concept and needs to be supported. However networking is not a solution to finding out what the vacation policy is for unpaid leave, the list of new customers signed up in the previous two months or the account code for travel outside of the EU. An intranet may in regarded as a ‘dumping ground’ for information that does not fit easily into other enterprise applications but at least it is a structured dumping ground and (assuming there is effective content governance) users can trust the validity and quality of the information they find. A social network in the enterprise is a response to the way in which people network outside the office and often blurs the boundaries. For example, when employees use their LinkedIn membership to track down contacts of value to the business. It should complement an existing intranet but I don’t see it replacing what might be seen as the traditional information-centric role of the intranet.

Microsoft is the biggest intranet vendor on the market by far. They’ve made their big bet by acquiring Yammer. Some say this is major miscalculation, because SharePoint is going to lose users to Google Apps, Dropbox, Box, Slack and the like, not ESNs. How do you see the future of current intranet leader(s)?

Microsoft is not an intranet vendor. It sells an information management platform that has CMS and search functionality. It is certainly used for intranets and so competes with intranet product vendors, stand-alone CMS vendors (commercial and open source) and other enterprise platforms from IBM, Oracle and Open Text. For the CIO Microsoft is a safe bet, with a global support network of Microsoft Partners and it owns the desktop through Office. Yammer is a side show compared to Office 365. There is room in the market for a wide range of intranet offerings but Microsoft is increasingly the default option so every other vendor needs to position themselves to promote a) the benefits they offer and b) how they can integrate with SharePoint. Another benefit of Microsoft is that the company has a roadmap and will back-support legacy applications for a number of years. You cannot say the same about Google.

Year 2014 is when the share of mobile internet traffic from phones and tablets exceeds that of traditional PC traffic. Yet most intranets are still not mobile friendly. What can/should be done about that and which intranet vendors in your view got the mobile part right?

Although even Microsoft SharePoint does provide mobile support the problems lie in two main directions. The first is that it’s not about ‘mobile’ but about providing integration from the desktop through tablet to mobile in both directions. The second is that no attention has been paid to how search is carried out on a mobile, and indeed in general how mobile devices are used to support tasks and decision making. Intranet teams are always under-resourced and do not have the time, and probably the skills, to undertake ethnographic research into tasks being carried out by field-force employees. Providing a ‘mobile view’ of an intranet using responsive design is a totally inadequate approach. Organisations need to determine how mobile devices are being used, and then provide content and a UX that supports the tasks. There might well be a ‘mobile’ version of part of the intranet but architected in such a way that at the back end it is a single platform.

It’s no secret that most intranets have to be ‘forced’ onto employees. This is why intranet consultants talk about ‘engagement’, ‘management support’ and so on. What simple things can intranet administrators do to promote organic intranet adoption within their organizations?

Deliver information that makes tasks easier to complete and decisions less risky to make. One of my clients has a set of five ”use cases”

· Can I handle this?
· What is the implication?
· Can I find out sooner?
· Will it work?
· Have I chosen wisely?
These are typical of the challenges that employees face every day and to which the intranet needs to be able to provide solutions.

But the bigger problem is that organisations do not treat information as a corporate asset. Information quality is usually appalling, mainly because information creation and curation are positioned as hobbies. If these organizations had an information management policy and strategy then the intranet would be seen as a business-critical application and not as a communications channel for news and social networking.

A few years ago I developed an information charter . My position is that if the organization cannot make a commitment to even this simple charter then information is not regarded as an asset. An organisation will know how many hand-driers it has, how many employees work for it and how much money is in the bank. But will it know how much information it has and what the quality is of that information?

If there is no commitment from the senior management team to information management then the intranet manager has an impossible task. How would the finance manager cope if the senior management team did not support the use of standard invoice or expenses forms?

In the final analysis if employees have to ‘forced’ to use the intranet it is because the information in it is not relevant, and not of an adequate quality, to support them in achieving business and personal objectives. That’s the responsibility of the Board, not of the intranet manager.

The biggest intranet trends of this decade have been social and mobile. What other changes do you see coming in the next 10 years?

I disagree. As you highlight in Q3 most intranets are not mobile friendly. Social is a trend, even if for no good business objective. The major trend has been the rise of SharePoint as the default intranet platform, which means that it is owned by IT. Moreover in many respects SharePoint has limitations for intranet design as in effect it is a web view of a collaborative document management application.

I see three trends. The first is towards providing a seamless integration of content delivery to any device. The second is to understand that search is a core application for an intranet and not an add on. The third is that the intranet will morph into a digital workplace portal that supports interaction with suppliers and customers. In ten years intranets will not exist, just as word processors do not exist. It will just be the way that people work.

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