In Part 1 of this post I discussed how we could do away with the traditional homepage altogether and restructure an intranet with the focus being on the My Stuff section. In this approach the My Stuff section will not only contain personal data and tasks such as salary details and booking time off but also a personalised view of relevant content held in the other sections. Of course the question then arises of how this might be done. I am going to suggest some approaches but I’m hoping that this post might start a conversation and other, probably better, ideas as to how My Stuff might be made to work will be suggested. The probability is that no one solution will work perfectly but then again we shouldn’t be looking for perfection. If we only make 50% of the content users regularly need easily available in My Stuff then we will have saved out users a massive amount of time and frustration
Let’s start with a very low tech approach…
Everyone understands and uses bookmarks so let’s take a very simple case. You are an admin person in a large organization and there is lots of content that you need to access across the breadth of the intranet in order to do your work. If you are new to the job you face the appalling task of having to trawl back and forth through the intranet to gather all of the information you need or you can share bookmarks. Seems too simple? That’s because it is. This still requires some central control to ensure that sets of bookmarks are easily accessible and updated but at it’s simplest level the new admin is sent to the senior admin who has spent years collecting relevant content. The senior admin will have worked with someone from the intranet team to ensure that the bookmarks are grouped in a way that most people will find intuitive. The senior admin will explain what content is in the set and why and will then make a copy of the bookmark set available to the new admin.
Even better if these bookmark sets are made available in the intranet. The new admin opens their My Stuff and a prominent link takes them to the admin page on the intranet which contains the bookmark set amongst other information relevant to the job. That way new admin staff will only need to see the senior admin when their is something that is unclear to them. It will then be the senior admin’s job to notify the intranet team of any updates to the bookmark set. As the owner of the set it would also be hoped that other admin staff finding relevant content would contact the senior admin and alert them to the new content.
Bookmark sets could be used not just for job roles but there could also be sets for departmental issues, corporate issues etc. If this approach is being used then persistent URLs are a given. If your URL structure is inconsistent, unreadable or illogical it might be best to restructure it first.
Favourites and recently accessed
Another,admittedly limited, approach might be to allow users to favourite content so it is always available and also to display recently accessed content so all of the stuff that users access a lot is readily available. Recently accessed content is a feature that the user doesn’t have to work at, whereas for favourites they normally have to do something and not all users will bother (see the section about personalisation features). However there may well be some value in this approach especially if recent and favourites could also be shared within a group.
Using the right media channel for the right information
In a comment on Part 1 of this post I was asked about how corporate news and urgent alerts might be possible without the intranet homepage. I replied that ‘…remember that in many organizations many (sometimes the majority) of users do not regularly use the intranet which makes it a poor candidate for important, time-constrained content anyway.’ So if the homepage isn’t a good candidate what might be?
Well as it happened when I looked at James Robertson’s blog that day he had published a post that answered that question. James suggested that mobile might be natural channel for intranet news. To me this made absolute sense as mobile is the perfect media for live and ephemeral content. It is vital that news items are relevant and of interest to a user. Otherwise users will simply stop accessing news if they have to wade through lots of irrelevant content to get to the content they need. News items may be sliced and diced by department, job role, location etc but whatever way it is done it must make sense to the user.
This is just another example of thinking outside the limits imposed by the accepted intranet paradigm. In the Enterprise-wide information system approach organizations should view all information channels holistically and use the ones best suited for getting a particular message across. The use of apps, especially for many task based activities, has been raised in comments on the first part of this post and I agree that they could provide great value to users so long as they use UIs that are intuitive. If users have to go on a learning curve for each new app the probability is they won’t use them.
Allow the user to personalise their own pages (not recommended)
I have seen some intranet pages that allow users to change the page quite drastically so that content is then more relevant to them. DO NOT GO DOWN THIS ROUTE.
Personalisation of this sort requires the user to actually do something. Where personalisation features have been tried only 5-10% of users bothered to try out the features (see James Robertson’s slide show). This is also true in the bigger world of the internet. The BBC’s previous version of the homepage contained some very good personalisation features and yet less than 10% of users made use of them. This actually led the BBC to totally re-think and redesign the homepage using a totally different mental model. Any time spent on this approach will be time wasted.
Tagging content and dynamic publishing (definitely not recommended for now)
Now we’re going to get a little more technical. If a piece of new content is about finance and only concerns a particular location and department then, if it is properly tagged, it is possible for finance workers in that location and department to have a page that is automatically updated when relevantly tagged content is published. It had been thought that the people who create content might also produce the tags. However the reality is that content owners on the whole won’t tag or inconsistently tag content making the whole tagging process under perform. If you can’t trust an automatic system to consistently make, possibly important, content available as it should then it is not worth attempting.
In the larger world the linked data concept is gaining some traction. The aim of this approach is to make all documents machine readable so you don’t need tags, the machine will consistently be able to identify concepts and extract meaning from documents. In the ideal linked data world as a finance officer in a large distributed organization all I would need to do is enter my details and all of the relevant content would come to me. This is definitely a concept that intranet workers should be aware of and keep informed about but it is one for the future and is at least perhaps 15-20 years away for intranets.
Making the intranet more human (definitely recommended)
The amount of technical knowledge, resources and effort required to implement even the simplest personalisation initiative is prohibitive to many organizations especially when there is very little guarantee of success. In some intranet forums I’ve seen the talk is all about the latest hardware and software that intranet workers think will solve all their problems. Take my word, they won’t. In my experience intranet technology and fads come and go and yet intranets still remain unusable and useless. Let’s go wild and do something really different.
I’m in a very large library and I desperately need a particular book. Do I go rushing up and down the aisles randomly pulling out books in the hope I might find it? Or spend time trying to figure out the categorisation structure only to find my book could belong in several? Of course not, I go to a friendly librarian who knows the categories and through experience has a formidable knowledge of what the library holds. Libraries spend a lot of time making things easy for their customers yet they haven’t fired all the librarians. This is because their customers are human and only a human can truly understand their needs.
Well intranets are like that vast library yet we expect our users to fumble around not knowing where they are going or even if the content they eventually find is of any value. Where are the librarians? In a previous post and in other posts about the Lean Intranet I argue the case for information workers as being the indispensable resource for any intranet. If we use simple personalisation techniques such as bookmark sets and recently accessed/favourite content coupled with content assessed by a human as being relevant then we might get something that would actually work and provide real value to intranet users. If a team of humans were used to review and tag content as part of a controlled vocabulary, simple dynamic pages might become more consistent and trustworthy. The aim of the Lean Intranet approach is to only make the 20% of the total content that users regularly access visible in an intranet with the rest being maintained in an archive. In this paradigm if a user doesn’t find the content they need in say fifteen minutes then they fire off a request to a human who has access to the archive and is familiar with the totality of the content set and how it is organized.
Organizations pay incredible amounts of money for intranet systems and the latest toys are getting ever more expensive. The cost of maintaining a lean intranet and a team of humans would in most cases be a cheaper alternative. There would also be very little ongoing maintenance costs and no danger of being tied to a particular supplier who, once you purchase their system, really has you behind the eight ball as they can pretty much charge what they like for upgrades.
Whatever we do it must be recognized that an intranet is only about connecting human users to content created by other humans. At the moment intranet technology is actually adding to the problem by creating barriers between the user and the content they need. Technology will solve this problem in time and I think linked data may well be solution. However for the time being users need intranets that work. The most powerful computers that exist on this planet are between people’s ears. If I was to bet on how successful the latest technology might be compared to a team of trained and talented humans coupled with a Lean Intranet I know where my money would go every time.