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.

 

Remember Google Sidewiki? Meet Jive Anywhere

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Remember, Google Sidewiki? I thought at the time that it would make a great way to help make intranets, including internal Web-based apps, more social and now it looks like Jive Software have provided this ability natively in their latest release. Why is this useful? Well, basically it provides a short cut to integrating systems of record with Jive’s system of engagement platform to mix social collaboration with tasks.

Better than Sidewiki, Jive Anywhere appears to support HTTPS pages (which is critical these days for it to be useful, since most work systems are likely to be running on protected sites).

Jive Anywhere also takes the basic Sidewiki concept further by also integrating differently with different Websites. Examples Jive mention include Techcrunch.com, Linkedin.com and Salesforce.com where it may behave slightly differently.

I wonder if corporate system owners will view Jive Anywhere as vandalism, like people feared with Sidewiki? Personally, I think its a fantastic idea (but Google, take note about the execution).

For more thoughts on Jive Anywhere, see Charlie Hope’s post and also Alan Lepofsky’s analysis.

NZ Government: Technology can deliver for less money and better results

Prime Minister John Key is citing Air New Zealand check-in times as a model for the public service to follow as the Government pursues smart phone and other technological advances to replace over the counter contact.

But he conceded that it would require a huge investment by the Government. He confirmed previous reports that an IRD upgrade alone was expected to cost $1 billion plus.

“I think we’ve got a very good public service but we can’t stand in the way of technology…and nor can we stand in the way of some of the advantages of having shared services,” Key said.

“I have it in some of my ministries I’m looking after and I’m convinced I can deliver for less money, better results.”

Interesting that the NZ government is looking at examples of technology-enabled service innovation in the private sector. But I’d be a little nervous of government adopting Web-era service models without the appropriate Web-development mindset. Even getting a standard Website up and running can be a challenge for government.

The UK government is a better example of this, with their alpha and beta whole-of-government Website pilots – but those aren’t particularly cheap, but should eventually prove a better return on investment for tax payers. 

Is there a future for email?

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French company, Atos, cause a stir recently by repeating again its intention to ban internal email from 2014 that was announced earlier in the year. There has been a fair bit of misunderstanding on the Web about this so I suggest you read this BBC interview with ATOS CEO, Thierry Breton, that explains his thinking behind this strategy.

Most of the critical responses to this idea have expressed an incredulous attitude towards the idea of eliminating what most people consider to be a critical business tool (remember the reaction to the BlackBerry outage a few months ago?). In some respects, many of the arguments against banning email are reasonable:

  • Can you ban email if your customers and clients are using it? (to be fair to ATOS, they aren’t planning on banning external email).
  • Rather than banning email, users just need to manage their inboxes better.

However, on balance I think there is good reason for aiming to effectively ban email. But rather than outlawing it, we need to reinvent how we utilise email as a software protocol and also the ageing paradigm of the inbox, particularly where the assumed effectiveness is built on false assumptions around utility and information ownership. At a software level, email offers a number of important features – such as:

  • Interoperability and extendability.
  • It can work offline (although this is becoming less important).
  • For the sender, it costs no more to send messages to 1 or many people where ever they are.
  • Both sender and receivers can store and organise copies of messages exchanged independently of each other.
  • Email addresses act a simple proxies for identification.
  • Email accounts can be created for individuals, groups and also non-human systems.

These features provide a great deal of utility, although we can look at each feature and find many negatives too – for example:

  • Email standards and extensions aren’t implemented homogeneously, so users may have problems reading or processing an email.
  • When you go online after an extended absence, your inbox is flooded with new messages.
  • People send many messages that for the receiver are just transient or ambient information – but your inbox treats them as all the same.
  • The independent nature of email messages contributed to fragmentation of the information chain, making it hard to know who knows what and people who should know made end up getting left out of the loop.
  • An email address doesn’t actually tell you anything about the user, who they are or why you should trust that identity.
  • High volumes of automatically generated notification emails from non-human systems contribute to information overload.

In summary, we can say that email works as a pragmatic solution, but not without creating numerous problems for individual users and organisations a like. As a result there many solutions out there that help us to deal with everything from email processing to email data management. Some solutions are technical in nature, like help desk ticketing software or records management systems, but others focus on the user as problem and attempt to fix individual behaviours. But ultimately none offer a way of making email the perfect tool and it will take a leap to improve how we communicate and collaborate.

So, what is stopping us taking this leap? Thinking about this from a social experience design perspective, I think there are four key issues that need to be addressed to create something better than the email we use today:

  1. Move to open work as the default. Email provides users with a simple system of directing messages at people – this falls into a mental information sharing model of open only by exception that is the default in most organisations, but it is also supported by a false perception that email is owned by the sender and private if we restrict the names included on the To, CC and BCC lists. Of course, this doesn’t mean we stop supporting some private communication entirely!
  2. Everything is Miscellaneous. Centrally designed information systems that enforce fixed, common models for organising information and work process don’t work. These were designed with good intentions, but they aren’t effective and only encourage the use of personal information stores.
  3. Collaborate by staying apart. We need the same ease of interoperability between different social business software platforms that email offers – I shouldn’t be forced to use your system, when I have my own, and neither should you.
  4. Who are you? We need to shift from email addresses as identifiers towards a model where organisations can offer a better user identifier and profile that will enable messaging to take place through the right channel or system.

Its entirely possible that email protocols will continue to play a role in this new environment, but I think it will also depend on other Web 2.0 protocols like Activity Streams, Open Social, and ATOM. This actually hints that the death of email will come incrementally, if we wait for the technology to rise up and present better alternatives. In practice, the tide of data created by other social business software tools will make the traditional email inbox an unsustainable proposition.

The water is rising slowly right now, but don’t doubt that the inbox will need to be reinvented at some point – the question is really when and how, not if.

BTW if you found this interesting, you might enjoy this presentation, Architected for Collaboration.

Image credit: Inbox Art CC BY-SA

Google is retiring Sidewiki

Sidewiki: Over the past few years, we’ve seen extraordinary innovation in terms of making the web collaborative. So we’ve decided to discontinue Sidewiki and focus instead on our broader social initiatives. Sidewiki authors will be given more details about this closure in the weeks ahead, and they’ll have a number of months to download their content.

Do you remember the fear and outrage about Google Sidewiki? It was all just FUD in the end… the technology was completely misunderstood by most people. Now, if the Sidewiki concept was incorporated into Google+, that could be interesting.

What Google+ could learn from About.Me et al

Basically, about.me enables you to create a centralized personal profile page that links to your content around the web. Sound like a Google+ profile page? It’s different for quite a few reasons, but mostly so due to the “splash page” look of the site (where I usually choose to show a large picture of what I look like).

In addition to the slick front end content management tools, about.me also provides analytics so you can see who viewed your profile, where they came from, and where they’ve gone afterwards (your facebook, linkedin, flickr, twitter, blog etc). The only thing that’s missing right now is domain mapping, so I can use my domain name.

They also have a partnership with moo.com (the business card and sticker folks) that let’s you get free business cards that feature a QR code that will link to your about.me profile.

Highly recommended.

I’m a fan of about.me and also flavors.me too. Google isn’t know for the visual aspects of its user experience and I really think they could learn something from the visual design and ease of use of these profile sites.

Intranet, Internet, Extranet merger imminent?

It’s clear that the once clear distinctions between intranets, internet sites and extranets are blurring somewhat as the technology evolves and business needs develop. Traditional distinctions between internal and external communication teams (and outputs) will also likely diminish, mirroring this application of technology. This merger though will bring some clear advantages.

  • A single design with a single user experience for all places, giving a clarity of corporate identity with smaller overall design bills
  • Publicly listed companies are obliged to publicly reveal some materials to the markets before telling employees (see our intranetizen post on laws and intranets). A single merged space could limits the chances of a mis-timed publishing.
  • Employees read the corporate site too! Merging ensures that there is no chance of mixed messaging especially if the former intranet and internet materials were managed by different teams. Consistency of content is critical when information consumers can compare and contrast.
  • Reduced licensing and support costs as to you move to using a single technology foundation.

We are definitely heading down this path – I’m seeing this issue come all the time during the planning stages for social intranets.

However, in practice right now it doesn’t necessarily deliver all these benefits – e.g. licensing models for external and inward facing versions of the same platform can throw a spanner in the works. In some companies, the public internet site is also a more reliable source of information than the intranet – so some users might not see this as an improvement.

But there is not doubt that in the medium term, the intranet is definitely going to be a victim of extranet-isation; meanwhile organisations are also building external facing spaces where staff and customers will mingle. Just a question of if and when these will merge.