Intranets: defining IA and UX in the Enterprise-wide Information System (Part 1)

April 21, 2009

question_mark_atomicityIn information architecture (IA) and user experience (UX) discussion lists there are bursts of manic activity that periodically break out. Hundreds of posts a day flood the lists; many of them at odds with each other and some quite angrily so. What is it that causes these periodic convulsions? DTDT.

It stands for ‘defining the damn thing’. Every so often some brave soul sticks his or her head over the parapet and launches a grenade in the form of either an attempted definition of IA/UX or questions a previous definition and a rapid chain reaction then occurs. Personally I think that it is incredibly difficult to define IA and UX as applied to web based activities as the requirements for IAs and UX professionals can vary greatly from case to case. This may in some part be due to – 

  • Each website design may have some unique features
  • Drivers may be different for each site
  • Clients expectations for deliverables may vary widely
  • Ways of working may differ widely from company to company. What an IA or UX does in one agency may be very different to what’s expected in another
  • Influencing factors in the environment may also vary greatly
  • As IA and UX design are fairly new disciplines an overall consensus with regard to best practice in many areas has yet to be reached

I think that’s why the favourite answer that many IAs give to general questions is  ‘It depends….’

But what about defining what we do with intranets? Could such a definition more easily include information architecture and user experience activities ? I think it’s a possibility. So wish me luck as I’m now going to stick my head over the parapet.

This is a first attempt at such a definition so if the thinking strikes you as being a bit woolly, forgive me. I am throwing this out there to start a conversation. A conversation that I hope in time might lead to a more robust definition.

 But why bother trying to define intranets, IA, UX and the whole damn thing in the first place? I think that it could be very important in providing a generic way of looking at intranets and perhaps also in suggesting  a  structure for how intranets might be better managed in the future.

I think we, as intranet workers,  may have a better chance of success at attempting such a definition as –

  • Organisations, whilst diverse in what they do, do it in broadly similar ways
  • The drivers for many intranets are quite similar e.g. increase productivity, keep staff informed, book holidays
  • We know exactly who our users are and so it should be easier to identify their wants and needs
  • Intranets may be less ephemeral and less buffeted by events than many web sites. Their environments may be more stable as organisational cultures generally tend to change slowly over time

However there is a very big problem with applying a definition to intranets only. Intranets are embedded in organisations and only form a part, though a very important part, of the enterprise-wide information system (EIS). I feel that any definition, if it is to be robust, must address how information and knowledge is considered in the enterprise in a holistic way. 

Therefore the first thing we must do is attempt to define the Enterprise-wide Information System itself.

Defining the Enterprise-wide Information System (EIS)

In my view the EIS must consider all instances of information and knowledge transfer that take place within an organisation. This does not mean that it is possible to actually manage all transactions. For instance the tacit knowledge inside people’s heads can be added to by training and can be influenced by organisational culture but the only manager of this type of knowledge is the person in whose head the knowledge resides. However it is possible, for instance, to consider the amount of tacit knowledge that people might need in order to do their jobs effectively. If it is too little then you are not allowing staff any control over their working environment and they will have little job satisfaction; if it is too much then the organisation may be badly affected as crucial knowledge will leave when the person does.

Different organisations will have somewhat different EIS. However it should be possible to identify some elements common in many organisations –

– The intranet containing information from some of the elements below in various degrees

– Transactions (timesheets, holidays etc)

– The organisation’s internet site

– E-mail system

– Management systems, both formal e.g. ISO 9000, ISO 14001 etc, and informal, anywhere where the translation of  tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge (i.e. information) in the form of procedures, best practice and guidance takes place. This also includes training information.

– Explicit knowledge, that is all other documented information

– Internal/external communications (e.g newsletters, press releases etc)

– External information relevant to the organisation

– Paper based systems (e.g. card indexes, archive material, libraries etc)

– Informal systems (e.g. the water cooler)  

– Tacit knowledge in employee’s heads

Quite a lot to consider! However as all of these systems have the potential to impact each other I feel that none of these should be taken in isolation.

Mapping the EIS

If our approach is that the intranet is at the heart of an organisation’s information system then it might be possible to represent the relationships between the systems as below –


 (Click on the thumbnail above to enlarge the image)

Internet It can be seen from the diagram that in many intranets there may be little or no correspondence between the intranet and the organisation’s internet site. In many organisations internet sites are well resourced and well researched as much time and money is spent on getting it as right as possible. On the other hand the intranet, not being seen by management as a priority,  is generally under-resourced, under-funded and often very little research is carried out. Approaches and content that have been developed for the internet are very rarely passed over to the intranet and many internet and intranet sites belonging to the same organisation look and feel totally different.

E-mail The diagram shows that there is some overlap with internal communications as it is often used for departmental and organisation-wide announcements. However in many organisations little thought goes into what might be best conveyed by e-mail and what through the intranet. For instance important organisation-wide announcements should, in my opinion always be conveyed via e-mail to every member of staff adopting the principle of bringing the information to the user. Including such announcements on the intranet home page then becomes a belt and braces exercise and it may then be possible to reduce home page space or churn such information more quickly. Importantly the e-mail should contain a link to an archive of announcements held on the intranet so that staff can see where the current announcement fits into the scheme of things.

Transactions  The areas where staff carry out internal transactions for booking holidays, recording sickness, time sheets etc. are usually completely contained within the intranet. Whereas it might seem logical to present all such transactions to the user in a single view (‘My Stuff’ perhaps) very often they are spread throughout the intranet and are embedded in the departmental sections of the intranet. This makes no sense whatsoever as the user does not care who owns the form, they just want to access such forms as quickly as possible and get on with their jobs. Where these forms are owned by different departments formats may differ and the principles of IA and UX are not always considered. This leads to interactive forms that are clunky, that may keep asking for the same information again and again and that may contain dead ends. A guaranteed recipe for driving users mad with frustration. 

Management systems This is an area that in many organisations contributes an enormous amount of content to an intranet. The management system documents the vision, procedures and best practice for an organisation and, where formal accreditations exist (e.g. ISO 9000 or ISO 1400o), the future of the organisation may depend on maintaining such accreditations. Some organisations hold many such accreditations and the only effective way to manage these systems is through integrating them into one management system. However approaches that integrate management systems require a robust and well planned architecture (see ISO Management Standards, Intranets and Information Architecture)

Explicit knowledge That is all documented content in the EIS excepting ‘managment systems’. In many EIS this might include HR, financial and performance information not all of which might be available in the intranet

Internal/external communications Again in many organisations the communications team and intranet functions don’t speak much to each other which is quite remarkable as logically the intranet can be seen as a sub-set of internal communications.  There is something to be said for having a single approach and management structure covering all internal and external communications.

External information There is a wealth of information out there on the world wide web that can be of great use to both management and staff . Management decisions, if not based on solid, timely data can adversely affect the health of an organisation. Staff, if not given access to relevant external information, may perform well below their potential. That important 20% of external information that 80% of your staff need to access most of the time should be brought into the intranet and creatively linked into information such as procedures, best practice, job specific information etc.

Paper based systems These still exist in many organisations and there may be good reasons for it. However the EIS must try to define what these systems are and where they exist so that an assessment of how they contribute to the overall information system can be made. At the very least the existence of these systems, who is responsible for them and a description of what they do must be available in the intranet.

Informal systems Some informal systems may be paper based as above but I am also thinking about other ways that people exchange information e.g. the water cooler, informal meetings, the grapevine. Again it would be  impossible to manage these types of systems but an organisation should be aware of such systems. James Robertson, in a recent interview,  stated that intranet staff should get out from behind their desks and go and see what real people are doing and talking about if they want to deliver business value.

Tacit knowledge In my opinion this is an area where there is a wealth of untapped knowledge that can contribute to innovation and improvements in organisational performance. Yet very often no formal arrangements exist with a view to accessing and documenting the valuable tacit knowledge that is locked away in employee’s heads. 

It can also be seen that classic information architecture and user experience approaches, where used at all, may only be used in the intranet.

So what might a more robust, effective structure for an EIS look like and how might IA and UX  play a larger part? I’m afraid that you’ll have to wait for Part 2 to find out….


(Many thanks to atomicity for the great Flickr CC photo)

5 Responses to “Intranets: defining IA and UX in the Enterprise-wide Information System (Part 1)”

  1. […] one has to define them first. Regarding Information Architecture and User Experience, this article tries to incorporate these topics in a unifying concept. It is thoughtful, written with insight, and only the first in an upcoming series, so you are […]

  2. thom haller Says:

    Nice envisioning/visualizing Enterprise-wide information systems.

    Some thoughts:
    You have IA/UX roles floating in the middle of the EIS. That tells a different story. Story one: here is the system. Story two: here is IA/UX role in the system.

    If you tell story two you’ll often find the same people working jobs for both systems.

    I also wonder where performance systems fit in. Sometimes the IA/UX person works on a systematic solution directed at helping employees get their jobs done. This is not typical “Intranet” content and is not supported by typical Intranet structure.

    Just some thoughts.

    • patrick c walsh Says:

      Many thanks for your thoughtful comments. Performance systems are generally part of the management systems in many organisations. I was attempting to show that in intranets that do IA/UX (whether they know it or not) it is generally confined to the intranet and often only involves structuring the management systems, transactions and other explicit information.

      I absolutely agree that people can have many hats on especially in intranets where resource is usually cut to the bone. Part of what I was trying to do was show that the information system should be considered and governed as one thing which, in many cases, might give intranet and other enterprise information workers a different perspective on what they do.
      Look forward to your comments on Part 2 (when I get it written!)


  3. […] Current state of enterprise-wide information system architecture « manIA […]

  4. […] in many organizations as I think that it would be a good fit as detailed in my posts on the Enterprise-wide Information System. However, as you rarely get something for nothing in this world, extra resource must be made […]

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