In San Francisco this week

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I’m in San Francisco this week. The primary purpose of this trip is the Atlassian Summit, where I’m presenting on Friday. If you are going to be attending the Summit, please come and say g’day over the next few days.

I’ll also be taking some time out to catch up with a few social business vendors who are located here as well – expect more reports and commentary in due course.

The Intranet Imperative (2005)

I wrote this in June 2005. The history of intranets is one of a slow burn of adoption (or innovation, if you like). But the pace of technology change is increasing, email is being challenged… is it time now to dust off the intranet imperative and think about about where we go next?

What exactly is an intranet?

The nature of intranets is changing. In fact the term intranet itself is rapidly losing meaning as the Internet interpenetrates organisations through a mixture of business-to-business marketing, extranets, hosted application services and of course personal use of the Web at work. The traditionalist view of intranets, one that concentrates on static information built around an impregnable information architecture, creates a risk for organisations that may be oblivious to the rise of collaborative and dynamic “application-nets” that connect users to people, places and things.

Consider for a moment – what exactly is an intranet? The most simple or basic definition defines it as a restricted, private computer network that uses TCP/IP (Internet) network protocols to facilitate data transmission and exchange within an organisation. But when we look at modern intranets (and extranets), this definition raises more questions than answers – for example:

  • Restricted or private to whom – does this include business partners or even customers?
  • What is the computer network – does it end at the PC on your desk, the mobile phone in your pocket or a kiosk on the shopfloor?
  • Does data include self-service systems, rich media, access to Web – and video conferencing and business intelligence tools that empower staff to get their work done?

Clearly the potiential demands placed on intranets are moving well beyond their original scope of simple access to information and documents. In fact paralleling other changes in our working environments, intranets now need to support always on, always connected access and provide flexibility and interactivity on demand. The technologies to do this already exist and the key challenge for many organistions is how to manage the evolution of an intranet into a multifaceted application-net in a controlled manner.

Of course while you can choose to ignore this imperative, be aware that technology has a habit of winning. You may find your users taking the path of least resistance (like returning to the dreaded network drive) or they will pick their own user-driven tools that will ensure they can get the job done.

The Strategic View of Intranets

Organisations need to control how their intranets will evolve into application-nets. The right approach for achieving this control is a management response that starts with developing a strategic view of their intranet. This strategic perspective does not prescribe the exact future form of the intranet as an application-net, but it provides the basis for creating a system architecture that will facilitate it. The critical point of difference between this new architecture and the old approach is that the intranet imperative forces us to broaden our horizons in order to understand more fully the fit between people, places and things.

This new strategic view should be built from understanding four key elements:

  1. People and Process – understand who the current and future users of system will be, where they are located and what work activities the system must support;
  2. Content – not just documents and information, but the collection of applications and other data in the system;
  3. Infrastructure – The basic technical structure or features of the system (e.g. servers, networks, content management software, etc) and also the human support functions (e.g. helpdesks, trainers, technicians, etc); and
  4. Governance -– the management controls (standards, committees, etc) that deal with the form of the infrastructure and the nature of the content in the system to ensure it meets the needs of the organisation and its users.

But like any type of strategic planning, the application of this strategic view must take into account the overall context of the organisation. Steps for understanding the strategic context and incorporating it into the design of the new architecture include:

  • Business and Technology Analysis – Develop a strategic understanding of the intranet and how this technology, at its most fundamental level, relates to the overall strategy objectives of the organisation;
  • System Audit and Gap Analysis – Complete a review of the people, processes, technology and content that already exists within your organisation to identify the gap between where you are and where you want to be;
  • Manage expectations – Negotiate performance outcomes with your stakeholders to link the evolution of the intranet to the organisation’s objectives; and
  • Innovation – Look outside the organisation to learn from leading practices, understand the different options that are available in the market, and emerging trends.

These steps take us beyond simply asking how users will contribute and access information in the intranet and instead make us focus on the bigger picture, resulting in an architecture that is better aligned to the needs of the organisation.

From imperative to action

The intranet imperative is driven by unstoppable technology advances that affect how people work with and use information technology in the workplace. These include:

  • Blurred lines between people, places and things – the distinction between intranets, extranets and Internet sites is changing;
  • Rich media and interactive content – the scope of content has expanded to includes more than static documents, text and images;
  • Always on, always connected – the working environment and intranets need to be delivered through new channels, such as mobile phone, wireless PDAs, voice and kiosks on the shop floor;
  • Next generation networks – awareness, presence and locality will be built in; and
  • User-driven software – users will take the path of least resistance and will pick less sophisticated tools if they get the job done.

Unfortunately for the average intranet manager or management team these changes will of course increase the complexity of dealing with already existing document-centric challenges such as information architecture, effective search and content quality. For example, expert designed information architectures will need to co-exist with those created by user communities. In practice what this means is that we will see organisations embrace different degrees of control, standardisation and integration in order to align their application-nets with the strategic goals of the organisation. For example, centralised authoring will live along side self-publishing systems such as wikis and blogs because it makes business sense rather that isolated decision to choose one over the other.

What may be worse still for some teams is that the technology of the intranet will no longer be isolated from other parts of the organisation. Under these circumstances the system architecture becomes even more critical as both a plan but also as a process for engaging with the rest of the organisation, both in terms of needs but also to create the right operational linkages. So, applying strategic thinking and designing a system architecture for your next generation intranet represents more that just a nice theoretical step but is instead a critical success factor.

Summary

We now understand that the nature of intranets is changing. Unless you use strategic thinking to broaden your concept of what constitutes an “intranet” into a next generation application-net, then you risk losing control as technology leaps ahead without you. You can prepare for this challenge by:

  • Understanding why the nature of intranets is changing;
  • Analysing the strategic context of your intranet today and what will be needed moving forward; and
  • Designing a new system architecture that will facilitate this change so it is progressive, evolutionary and beneficial rather than chaotic, revolutionary and disruptive.

 

Time for Australian government to wake up to mobile?

Less than a quarter of the Australian Government’s regular websites can be considered smartphone or mobile-friendly, according to a survey conducted by iTnews.

A survey by the ITNews concludes that government Websites fail mobile access tests. Actually, lets be specific:

  • They surveyed 21 Australian federal Australian government, plus the mobile version of USA.gov.
  • They used two specific testing tools, a W3C tool based on standards developed in 2008 and another that looks like it was designed to test to baseline of phones like the Nokia 6680 (from 2005).

Personally I think this makes the test results pretty limited, but worth discussing.

(A more recent evaluation tool is Google’s Ready to Go Mo, although I’m not entirely clear what standards it is based on.)

Now, there are some very good examples of government in Australia using mobile. One example that comes to mind (because I used it the other day) is NSW’s live traffic reports site – it comes in desktop, mobile and iOS versions.

Sticking with transport, in some states it is now possible to renew your car registration electronically using a smartphone. So clearly, mobile is being actively utilised as a channel by government. Front-end Websites are just one aspect of government communication and service delivery.

Being realistic about government budget cycles and priorities, I see a couple of issues:

Firstly, the Federal government is currently focused on updating their Web channels to be WCAG 2.0 compliant. One thing I would like to highlight is that WCAG 2.0 is technology agnostic – its actually all about the end-user:

“mobile accessibility is making web content accessible to people with disabilities in the mobile context. This includes users with visual, mobility, hearing and cognitive impairments as well as older users.”

Second, the rise of mobile and demand from consumers (i.e. citizens and other stakeholders) for mobile access in all spheres of life is moving much faster than government planning and technology development cycles – see the latest Australian data from Google [PDF].

So what should government do? Be strategic about mobile:

The agencies and departments that should be thinking about this most are those that have a service delivery element or are involved in public education. The new work in the area of eHealth immediately comes to mind. In the US, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reports there that:

“Among smartphone owners, young adults, minorities, those with no college experience, and those with lower household income levels are more likely than other groups to say that their phone is their main source of internet access.”

I’m sure we would see similar patterns here. Just within my family and social circle I know lots of young adults outside of my industry that only use wireless mobile devices for Internet access a home.

Do you need an app? Do you need a mobile Website? What do mobile users need from your agency? Do your e-government applications work on mobile?

However, at all levels of government they need to start thinking about the impact of mobile. I’m worried about government sites that have just been redevelopment or are about to be redeveloped. They need to think about medium term strategies for mobile.

Also, when setting budgets, the allocation between ‘desktop’ and ‘mobile’ need to be re-evaluated. A mobile first strategy for some departments could actually be a source of savings in the long term, as they focus on content that really counts.

This is a challenge and government needs to respond. But lets look at this in a smart way. I mean, does it really matter in the short term if the mobile experience of treasury.gov.au isn’t that great?

In the much longer term, I’d like to see government move towards a completely different Web mobile. But that’s a subject for another post!

UPDATE: A great example from the National Library of Australia, who have adopted a proactive strategy – they say in their introduction:

Where opportunity exists, conceptual leaders stand ready and eager to innovate. The mobile web provides superb food for innovation, as evidenced by the immersive Ludwig II app by the Bavarian State Library, which includes augmented reality features like 3D pattern recognition so that historical digital objects appear on the mobile screen, triggered by the physical location of the user.

It’s also demonstrated by NASA, who created a mobile portal to learning about space through their latest images from space, video, news and social media activity. The Eyewitness app acts as a showcase for the best photography featured in the Observer and the Guardian. It showcases the 100 most recent and topical images and includes ‘pro tips’ from the photographers. And it’s seen in Biblion, the New York Public Library scholarly journal reborn as a “multi-linear immersive experience” for the iPad. The inaugural edition (2011) delivers manuscript material, images, films, audio, and essays on the 1940 New York World’s Fair.

Importantly, the achievements of these institutions have been realised against a backdrop of economic hardship and a substantial reduction in funding for cultural and research institutions around the world.

Hat tip to Craig.

UPDATE #2: iTnews reports on AGIMO’s response at a recent Senate estimates hearing, that mobile is something they are looking at but its not a priority. This issue of accessibility was raised, reflecting somewhat my comments above.

I also discovered that DFAT’s Smartraveller site has a mobile optimised version, which is a good example of targeting a specific need. DFAT previously scored a ‘bad’ rating in iTnews’ survey of federal sites. When I ran the mobile version of Smartraveller through the same tests, it performed badly too, which really makes me question the original iTnews piece again. It rated much better on Google’s test (4 out of 5 as a publisher).

Southeastern integrates operational information into their internal activity stream

In the past six months, Southeastern [a UK railway operator] has leveraged Socialtext Connect, a flexible and robust developer toolset built on our REST API that enables developers to socially enable existing systems of record, such as ERP, CRM, or content management systems. The Socialtext solution, now integrated into the Southeastern infrastructure, enables employees to access train status information on the fly, in real-time with visibility across the entire workforce. By providing Southeastern with a more efficient way to share knowledge, expertise, ideas and information, the company can more quickly respond to change and serve their patrons effectively.

And you thought social inside the enterprise was all about staff telling each other what they had for lunch?

Genre analysis of how Yammer is used within Deloitte Australia

Social media technologies are making fast inroads into organisations. In the context of knowledgeintensive work the propositions of improving communication, information sharing and user involvement seem particularly promising. However, the role and impact of social technologies in enterprises in general and knowledge work in particular are still not well understood, despite emerging scholarly works in this field. In this study we aim to contribute to this stream of research. We investigate the phenomenon of Enterprise Social Networking (ESN) in the context of Professional Service Firms (PSF). Our case investigates emerging communicative work practices on the ESN platform Yammer within Deloitte Australia. We perform a genre analysis of actual communication data captured on the Yammer platform. We uncover a set of emerging practices enabled by the platform within the case company and reflect on our results in the context of the knowledge-intensive nature of professional service work. We find that Yammer in the case company has become 1) an information-sharing channel, 2) a space for crowdsourcing ideas, 3) a place for finding expertise and solving problems and most importantly 4) a conversation medium for context and relationship building.

Kai has written a short summary on his blog. But beware – this isn’t a blueprint for Yammer or any other enterprise social network. Neither does it provide data on the organisational value generated by the activity observed. As Kai also points out, in the case of Deloitte Australia:

a number of knowledge-work practices are not carried out within Yammer, even though we found these practices in some of our earlier enterprise microblogging case.

However, this is a great piece of research and provides more insight into the different ways that different organisations make use of social technologies.

Situating the mobile user experience for business apps

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I’m currently working on an Ark Group report on developing mobile apps for internal business users and the business partners that organisations work with. There is a growing acknowledgement by designers that mobile apps need to be created with recognition of their situated use, however most of the research and discussion I’ve seen is focused on consumer apps.

Business users are consumers too and much of the thinking about how consumers use mobile is broadly applicable to the business users when designing apps. However, the business context does need special attention to take into account elements such as:

  • The overarching organisational context;
  • Constraints to the UX that might apply; and
  • The relationship between the individual worker and the people they work with.

This is a draft of a diagram to summarise that situated context for mobile business apps. I’m not sure if this will make it into the report or not at this stage, as the primary purpose was really to help me capture my thinking.

I’ve used a couple of sources to help inform the diagram, which you might like to review too:

Let me know what you think and if you have any suggestions for additional sources that examine the business context for mobile apps beyond what is presented here.

 

Should businesses use collective intelligence and the wisdom of the crowds?

Amazon reviews are just as likely to give an accurate summary of a book’s quality as those of professional newspapers, according to a study from Harvard Business School.

Professor Michael Luca and his co-authors analysed the top 100 reviews from 40 media outlets, including the New York Times, and the Washington Post, between 2004 and 2007 for their paper. The academics used data from reviews aggregator metacritic.com, which summarises professional reviews and then awards ratings, if not given, based on content. They also looked at Amazon reviews for each title.

Although the study points out that there is “virtually no quality assurance” in Amazon’s consumer reviews, which can also be “gamed” by publishers or competitors submitting false reviews, they found that, nevertheless, experts and consumers agreed in aggregate about the quality of a book.

Another piece of research looking at the reliability of information shared through social media. Earlier in the year, a report was published of researchers who looked at mining Twitter to predict the success of movies. The study was not so positive in this case:

Overall, the study found no clear evidence that shows a direct link between Twitter hype, ratings and box office sales.
“The most surprising finding was that Twitter data may not be representative enough of the total population, so it is somewhat risky to use the site for forecasting,” Sen said. “More sophisticated techniques may be needed to understand the applicability of such data sets, such as the metrics we developed to understand the extent of the difference between Twitter users and other online rating side users.”

Others, like The Economist magazine, still see potential:

search-volume forecasts will help spot consumer trends of this sort with increased precision. But the improvements they bring will be incremental. Sophisticated methods based on natural-language analysis of tweets, blogs, or Facebook pages, by contrast, hold greater disruptive potential. As users of social media grow accustomed to sharing highly personal information, apparently unfazed by market-research outfits like WiseWindow watching their every step, the feelings and intentions of hundreds of millions of people are there for data-hungry computers to see.

Really, the reliability of crowdsourcing has to be looked at in context. Structured or designed crowdsourcing sites like , Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and others are seeing success. Competitions and gamification are popular technique, perhaps hinting at the value of using social media and Web 2.0 to achieve scale or breadth of participants rather than the wisdom of the crowds as such. Crowdsourcing is also useful where no other viable method exists to solving the problem, because there is nothing to lose in those situations. Opinion and research on the reliability of Wikipedia is also an ongoing story, but what is perhaps more interesting is the fact that Wikipedia has an article discussing its own reliability – transparency is critical when evaluating the reliability of social media. “Experts” on the other hand typically don’t like to be challenged.

What about crowdsourcing inside businesses?

All the caveats above apply, particularly beware that the size of the pool may affect the quality of outputs. This is why is makes sense to extend crowdsourcing to business partners and customers. But crowdsourcing doesn’t need to be about making decisions or prediction markets, it can simply be about sharing information widely, getting tasks done too, solving small problems, and gathering feedback. “Working outloud” is another way to tap into collective intelligence about what is going on and who is doing what, which has the potential to be mined (tools like Jive and Atlassian Confluence for example are already doing by telling users about popular content or making recommendations on relevant people and content).

Finally, lets not forget the role of the user, as information literacy is critical. We can’t blame the technology for all its hits and misses.