Recently speaking at Janus Boye’s ‘Intranets at Work’ conference I introduced the concept of the intranet life cycle and intranet ‘boom and bust’.
I have been thinking about this concept for many years, ever since I carried out some initial use research for a local government intranet I was trying to get off the ground.
I was doing some contextual research with staff, sitting down with people at their desks and asking what they did, trying to establish their information needs and wants. I started talking to one guy and gave him the prepared spiel about what the project was and what we were trying to achieve when a knowing smile grew on his face. He’d been with the organization for over fifteen years and he had seen it all before. He co-operated fully and gave me some great data but the way he wished me luck at the end of the interview made me feel like I was going to need it. I asked him why.
He told me that this was the fourth time since he’d been with the organization that he heard someone give my little speech. The previous three times the projects had hardly gotten off the ground before they plummeted to the earth in flames. I could see in his smile that he thought this new attempt would fail as well. And you know what? He was right. I put together a good intranet but when I left no-one was appointed to take over and, although it is still use today (so I hear) it’s like an old house slowly falling to bits, it might give you shelter when you’re desperate, but it’s just going to get more and more dilapidated over time.
This started me thinking about intranets and what happens to them over time. If you are involved in intranets find someone who has been with your organization for some time and I’m sure they will give you a good perspective of the varying fortunes of your intranet over time.
Staff who have been in an organization for some years have seen it all before –
- The soaring hopes for a new intranet which, after a few years, fall grievously injured to the ground
- The re-design that gives the intranet the kiss of life before another inevitable crash
- The content clear outs that make the intranet more user friendly until the content builds up again into another plate of information spaghetti
No wonder staff are sceptical. They have seen intranets work but never consistently and sustainably over time. I call this cycle of hope and despair ‘intranet boom and bust’.
Let’s have a look at this in some more detail (if you suffer from sea sickness look away now)–
The chart above represents what might happen to an intranet over a 10-12 year period. It is based on something I sometimes refer to as the ‘ First Law of Intranets’ -
‘The volume of content held in an intranet and the usability of the intranet are inversely proportionate. When content grows usability inevitably decreases and vice versa.’
I think this is just common sense. There is no navigation or search system that can cope with huge volumes of content. There is an inevitable tipping point, where navigation and search break down and usability, findability and the good management of content hit rock bottom.
So looking at the chart you can see that -
- When bright and shiny new the intranet has a small content set and high usability levels. It works like a dream and you ask everyone to bring their content so that you can populate the intranet and everyone can share its benefits
- Only problem is that over time they keep giving content but hardly anyone is taking content away so the content set grows and grows and usability levels fall to the point where people start saying ‘something must be done!’
- And it is. A re-design is commissioned. The intranet is re-organized and a lot of obsolete content is removed. Once again the content set is small, though not as small as at the very beginning, and usability is quite good. Only problem is no-one has addressed the problem that caused the re-design so it just happens all over again
- Yes the content grows, choking the intranet, and it is decreed that a content clear out is required…
‘…they went through and automatically deleted (archived) every page that was older than a specific date, that hadn’t been reviewed. This eliminated 50,000 pages in a single act. They set up a “war room” within communications to respond to the complaints and questions. That day, they received 3 emails and two calls. That was it.’
That’s a quote from an item in James Robertson’s blog where he describes an intranet clear out. The two questions that occurred to me were -
-Why did the intranet get in such a state in the first place?
- What did they do to stop it happening again?
The real tragedy of the ‘boom and bust’ cycle is that each time usability drops to rock bottom and staff can’t find what they need you will lose some of your users forever. They just don’t want to have to rely on something that will inevitably fail at some point in the future.
The lean (and sustainable) intranet
If the roller coaster ride of the ‘boom and bust’ intranet with its long periods of poor usability is to be avoided what should we do?
The lean intranet is the answer. As you can see from the graphic below the emphasis is on keeping the visible content levels low ensuring that there is a good chance of keeping usability at a sustainably high level.
- Establish what the intranet is for. Where intranets try to be everything to everyone with limited resources they are ensuring their own failure
- Be realistic in what you can do. Doing a few key things really well is always better than doing a lot of things badly
- Establish a road map for continuous improvement for your intranet using approaches such as kaizen
- Always look to the long term and avoid short term gains that cannot be sustained
- Manage content centrally
- Adopt the lean intranet philosophy
In order to walk around the world you need to take a first step. In taking that step it is important that you recognize the fact that whatever ground you take must be kept. If you can do this, over time, you will win back your users and stakeholders leading to increased participation and increased resources.
You can find out more about the lean intranet in a series of three articles I did for the FUMSI online magazine or by posting a comment.
(Photo is a CC Library of Congress photo from Flickr)