Pretty Simple: web, digital, social

We’re currently redeveloping our staff Intranet, and as part of this exercise I’ve been trying to radicalise my own thinking about what we want our Intranet to do – to challenge some of the assumptions and hopefully hit upon some better ways of doing things.

The following are some of the thoughts I’ve had. I welcome comments, for or against any of these. I also asked the Twittersphere for thoughts and have thrown in some of the resulting ideas from that too.

And of course, for some organisations these ideas won’t be so radical. If you’re already employing some of the ideas mentioned here, I’d love to hear from you.

As always, these are my own personal reflections. They are not endorsed by, nor will they necessarily be adopted by, my employer.

1. Make it public

My organisation is UK local government. We are subject to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, and have a duty to publish (or at least provide on request) certain information that we hold.

Why not, therefore, make our Intranet public? It would greatly reduce the necessity for FOI requests, because most of our policies, procedures and data would be freely available. It would also mean the council would be seen as being open, honest and responsible.

Equally, it would prevent staff thinking that the Intranet is ‘a safe place’ to store inappropriate or irrelevant information, and would most likely result in an increase in quality and currency.

The natural extension to that is to do away with an “intranet” altogether and incorporate such info into your public website or some form of extranet (thanks to @lelil for that suggestion, and for the link to @CarlHaggerty‘s post on the death of the local authority intranet).

2. Forget about structure

When it comes to Intranets and information architecture, there are no right answers. Our staff are hugely diverse in their roles, technical abilities and interests – we can’t possibly cater for them all equally. Any attempt to impose a rigid structure is fruitless – people will still get lost.

Also, people are more likely to use site search nowadays, and if you get that right, why even bother with wasting days or weeks trying to construct the perfect site structure? Intelligent search, with comprehensive tagging of content (crowd-sourced so that users can suggest additional tags to aid future searches), should make locating content a breeze – no need for endless drilling down into subcategories or mind-bending lateral thinking to try to guess where someone might have put something. Tags are ideal because they permit an infinitely customisable taxonomy.

3. Embrace Web 2.0

Like many organisations, mine is still quite nervous about Web 2.0. But the benefits are clear and we can no longer afford to ignore this important tool for discussion, collaboration and sharing. As @JaneOD points out – Intranets are often only “one-way” communication. Far better to allow staff to upload their own content (including videos etc) and share their experiences.

So why not embrace Web 2.0 and reap the rewards of a hyper-connected workforce? It needn’t cost the earth – many of the most popular technologies are free. And if you integrate these systems into your Intranet, you’ll get a far higher take-up which will boost the usefulness of the tools even further. I’d love to see our organisation use something like or Yammer (corporate versions of Twitter) so that staff can quickly report what they’re doing and see what others are up to – there’s often a great deal of duplication of effort in large organisations and this could help put the right people in touch with each other.

Introduce blogs and forums to get people talking more, and make it easy for people to view and contribute. Utilise ‘people directories’ to help people identify the right people for the job, as well as to nurture greater social interaction. Encourage people to post their interests and areas of expertise, to further facilitate collaboration.

4. Crowdsource

Permit staff to comment on posts or pages to capitalise on their knowledge and experience. Additionally, if a page is wrong or out of date, users can use this function to quickly report this and get it fixed.

Going even further, why not make the entire Intranet a Wiki? You could always lock down areas that really shouldn’t be changed (legal info, for instance) but for everything else, let your staff build the Intranet that they want. This was actually a thought that senior managers in my own department had themselves, and I know that it’s been suggested many times before (thanks to @whitingx for the link to an article exploring the use of wikis for an intranet).

5. Get tough

A proposal by James Robertson of Step Two Designs suggests that Intranets are all too often an after-thought – somewhere where you simply archive documents that you’ve already sent out via email anyway. This devalues the Intranet, perpetuates the bad practice of sending out documents en masse, and leads people to think that important info will be emailed so they need not bother ever checking the Intranet.

The solution, he suggests, is to refuse to publish information to an Intranet if it has already gone out via another method. For me, this could look like sour grapes on the part of the webteam, and is likely to be taken in the wrong light for that reason, but it does hint at a real problem around how Intranets are often a second thought.

I do like the idea of getting tough with those who still haven’t bought into the Intranet as a key business tool. Organisations invest large amounts of time and money in developing Intranets, and failure to use them properly results in huge inefficiencies. We can no longer allow those who don’t get it to prevent it from being a success.

Being tough should extend to the content itself, too. Dump anything out of date, and impose strict policies to ensure nothing goes stale. Cut out the middle man – if something’s not right, go to the senior managers who have overall responsibility for the content.

And don’t let internal politics or egos take hold of the reins either.

If you have other ideas for how to radicalise Intranets, do leave a message below.

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10 Responses to 5 radical approaches to Intranets

  1. Ben Millard says:

    Using a wiki as your intranet works out perfectly. If you use MediaWiki, you get:

    • a Discussion tab for every Article;
    • categories which also work like tags;
    • good search;
    • lots of admin tools;
    • lots of automatition that Just Works;
    • user permissions (only used where necessary);
    • and a fairly familiar environment to browse through.

    “Oh, it’s just like Wikipedia!”

  2. Ben Millard says:

    Oops, seems like my HTML bullet list got filtered out. :(

    A note near the comments box saying what’s supported would take the guesswork out of it.

  3. alex says:

    Hi James,

    Making it public – if you had a staff directory 1/2 as good as Edinburgh University, citizens might be able to find officials. This would be a great step to showing openness and interaction.

    Like the ideas and perhaps the design can incorporate input from Edinburgh citizens. As the City is sponsoring social media surgeries in Jan to April 2011, perhaps now is the time to work with local groups, communities and individuals to make the intranet an open resource and one that benefits us all.

    In children and education parents might have ideas to give. GLOW still does not seem to be working so this could be quicker.


  4. Lesley says:

    Carl Haggerty spoke in a bit more detail about his thoughts on the Knowledge Hub removing the need for local authority intranets at the latest advisory group meeting on Tuesday. There’s more on this blog: and the presentation he gave on Tuesday is available in the Knowledge Hub CoP.

  5. Andy Bryant says:

    Re. 2 Forget about Structure, we looked at an Intranet redesign in 2008 for my former employer (UK district council), and we went through some ‘off the wall’ ideas, one of which was to abandon any kind of structure and simply offer a search box and single pages for all content (no directory structure).

    The idea was to give users a blank canvas, but the more they visited the Intranet the more it learned what users were searching for, and could offer things like ‘popular pages’ and ‘recent searches’ as lists under the search box. The idea was that over time it would develop it’s own structure, but based on user behaviour patterns on the site, not on a pre-defined structure everyone would have to use.

    The idea went down well with staff in the early workshops, but was never carried forward. i still think there’s some merit in the idea and would love to see it in action.

    I’d be interested to hear what you end up doing ;)

  6. sue waller says:

    You talk in a radical way but very logically (to me and others who have posted) re item 2 about doing away with structure and concentrating on searching, have you looked at any natural language search options? eg any person can ask to find the information that they are looking for in their own words – this is often very different to how documents are written or structured. For example reporting abandonded vehicles, how many of us look for this tag/link rather than phoning the council to report a car left in the road or a van that doesn’t belong to anyones, a dodgy looking car that hasnt moved in weeks? I’d be interested if you have found any as i’m working with Councils who want to do and are doing what Andy comments about. Please contact me on my email as I don’t want this post to be seen as a sales pitch (but our product does what your looking for and is affordable).

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