Of all the projects we’ve been involved in, only two types elicit a deep sigh and a rolling up of the sleeves. CRM/SFA projects can be intimidating, but they can be analytically assessed; Intranets, on the other hand, are a far more right-brain exercise. While we don’t feel there are any hard and fast rules to the Intranet game – each situation has its own dynamics – there are guidelines that should apply to anyone considering an Intranet deployment (or redeployment).
1) Define your own project goals. Intranets tend to fall into two general types – tightly controlled content (few makers, many readers), and grassroots (“social”) intranets (many makers, many readers). From your IT perspective, you’ll know which of those (or what type of mixture) best meets your firm’s needs. Visualize the completed project and what it accomplishes for your firm. Identify the easy wins/low-hanging fruit from within your goal list.
2) Match your goals with stakeholder interests. Talk to a dozen people in your firm and you’ll get a dozen responses as to what the Intranet should/would/could be. Links. Documents. A wiki. A social site. Project information. Etc. The key here is to ensure that your internal project team goals hit as many of the wishlist items that are defined by your users. The more people that feel they’re getting what they want from the site – regardless of how disparate the offerings are – the higher your chance for success.
3) There *must* be business value. While you’re out polling folks for what they want on the site, understand that the people who really matter are your firm’s senior leadership. They may not understand the intranet – nor ever even use it – but you must be prepared to show a business value to justify your existence. Whenever possible, avoid soft numbers and promises of future productivity gains. Make sure you really hear what senior leadership wants from the site, and that those wishes are incorporated. At best, they are a neutral entity – because if they view the Intranet as a negative, you’ll always be pushing from behind.
4) Middle Management buy-in. This is especially critical with grassroots-type intranets. Architectural firms live and die by billable hours, and middle managers have a keen eye for productivity rates. Any discouragement from management regarding contributions to the site will be the death knell for your site. You have three options here: A) get true middle-management buy-in to the value of the site. This will be *very* difficult in most organizations. B) make sure middle management knows the Intranet is a priority for Senior Leadership. They may not be thrilled about it, but they won’t want to appear to be undermining the initiative. C) work with middle management to craft a contribution schedule that they support – be it 15 minutes a day on average, 2 articles a week, anything that allows the end users to create content.
5) Content > Usability > Look/Feel. It is a cliche, but Content is King. Relating to point #2, if you’re presenting fresh content that users have an interest in, people will use your site, no matter how ugly or unusable it is. If you’re relying on end-user content, it is hugely important that you pick a platform that makes it exceedingly easy to contribute. If you think a process is moderately difficult – as an IT professional – there is no way an end user is going to feel it is easy. For intranet contributions, there is no such thing as “too easy”. And as design professionals, we often get hung up on how the site looks. I’ve heard it a million times – “we care about aesthetics – if we think it is ugly, we won’t use it”. Sorry, but that’s BS. Google. Facebook. Ebay. Wikipedia. None will win any design awards, but because content is king, they are hugely popular sites – even with Architects. 🙂 Your site should look clean and functional. Any time spent designing past that point is probably better spent on features or content.
That’s it. Five guidelines to help you on your way. As a postscript, we’ll say that it isn’t the worst thing to view your Intranet project as a tiered approach – i.e., what you put in now that lasts for 2-4 years isn’t as important as the learning process you go through. Treat Version 1 of your Intranet primarily as a learning process, something you can truly leverage when it comes time for Version 2.
And to preempt the “what do you recommend” question – we’ll say:
If you’re looking for the “Library” type of intranet – (few creators, many readers), and you have a Microsoft environment, you’d be amiss by not looking at their Sharepoint product. Especially now that the Sharepoint Foundation Server is free.
If you’re looking for the “Grassroots” type – we like (and we’re not getting a dime for this plug) ThoughtFarmer. It makes adding content very easy, and it has a clean feel. Excellent value for the money.
Good luck. Questions/Comments? Leave them here or shoot them to firstname.lastname@example.org.