Intranets: defining IA and UX in the Enterprise-wide Information System (Part 2)

May 15, 2009


In Part 1 of this post I’ve tried to define a generic Enterprise-wide Information System (EIS) and reflect what is happening currently in many organization’s EIS. I’ve tried to show that the approach to considering information and knowledge transfers is at best fragmented and at worst not done at all. In this second post I’m going to describe the benefits of the EIS approach, how it might relate to IT and knowledge in the enterprise and also to look at the differences in working and managing the EIS as compared to current arrangements.

Major improvements in how organizational information is managed can, in my opinion, be gained simply through how we think about and perceive the system as a whole. Drawing a boundary around the intranet and other information management system components and managing them as stand alone systems will only perpetuate information silos on a grand scale. Organizations who think of and manage these separate components in a holistic way will reap many benefits but they must be prepared to change the way they do things.

Benefits of the EIS approach

Using the perspective offered by the EIS approach it now becomes possible to start thinking positively about how these separate components might better work together. This should benefit an organization in several ways –

  • Duplication can be avoided
  • All information channels and methods of communication can be considered and the best selected for particular activities
  • Resource can be pooled and allocated where it will do the most good
  • The message across all systems can be consistent and strategies to reinforce important communications across all system components will become possible
  • Feedback can be aggregated across all systems
  • Consideration of tacit knowledge and knowledge creation activities form an integral part of the EIS approach. This will contribute to innovation and continual improvement in the enterprise as well as insuring that valuable knowledge is retained within an organisation
  • A holistic strategy for all communications and information can be enacted

What about IT?

Traditionally many intranet workers have been IT oriented. IT skills were deemed to be important while the writing, formatting and managment of content was left totally up to the content owners.  All there is in an intranet is content and all users want to do is connect with it. Giving content a lower priority than the infrastructure that contains it is patently crazy. Its like someone buying wine based solely on how pretty the bottles are.

In my opinion the IT infrastructure is not that important. A set of Word documents on a shared server that contains good high value content, creatively linked will always be far more effective than the fanciest CMS with all the bells and whistles containing low value content. However I agree that IT need to be consulted and even be part of the team. However they should never be in a position where they can substantially influence the EIS strategy.

Working in the EIS

I have been writing recently about the Lean Intranet concept of which the EIS approach is a part. I have tried to draw a parallel between the Ford mass production paradigm and the ‘lean manufacturing’ concept invented at Toyota. In mass production the staff skillbase was very narrow and tasks were rigidly standardised leading to boredom and lack of motivation. In ‘lean manufacturing’ staff  had to become more flexible and multi-skilled in order to deal with the constantly changing workload. This also made the work more varied and interesting.

In the current paradigm, intranet staff and content owners are not  always suitably trained and very often do not have the necessary talent to do an adequate  job. Unfortunately, in some organizations, staff have even been consigned to the intranet after seemingly failing in other areas. It says a lot about how many senior managers view their intranets. Commenting on the 2009 Global Intranets Report Toby Ward of Prescient stated that only 14% of respondents considered their intranets to be ‘business critical’. The current attitude in many organizations that intranets and other internal information systems are of a low priority needs to change. However with many senior managers generally having a very low opinion of intranets due to past failures I think changing attitudes will be an uphill struggle but it is one we must engage in.

In the EIS workers managing information will have to be talented, multi-skilled, professional and motivated individuals if the approach is to work effectively. I have called these workers Information/Knowledge Specialists (INKS). These INKS will be responsible for managing and facilitating all information and knowledge activities and although they will be spread throughout an organization they will need to be centrally managed. They will not be IT technical experts but will be there to ensure that the message from the organization to its staff is getting across and that the information needs of all staff are being met. I absolutely agreed with James Robertson, speaking at the BBC last year, when he stated that the intranet workers of the future would need to be ‘people’ people rather than technical experts.

Knowledge in the enterprise

‘Knowledge’ as a term used in the enterprise has been seriously damaged by IT functions hijacking the term ‘knowledge management’. Knowledge comes in two types according to Nonaka – ‘tacit’, the knowledge that exists only inside someone’s head and ‘explicit’, knowledge that has been documented in some way. However all the ‘knowledge management’ people I’ve come across in the past few years were all IT types interested only in the infrastructure and not in ‘knowledge’ of either type.

I use Nonaka’s term ‘knowledge creation’ for the act of making knowledge explicit or, in other words, into information. Creating explicit information from the knowledge inside your users’ heads will greatly aid innovation in ensuring that new ideas are made widely available and in retaining important operational knowledge within the enterprise. It is also very important when considering continuous improvement. After all if you haven’t written it down how can you improve it?

In my vision of the EIS it will be vital that the same people, that is the INKS, be made responsible for managing all knowledge creation activities as well as internal and external information. All relevant information, whatever its source, can benefit an organization but it will benefit an organization more if information and knowledge in the enterprise is managed holistically. I really believe that an ‘information synergy’ can be attained by combining information from some or all sources and that this synergy can be far greater than the sum of its parts.

Managing the EIS

In order to ensure a consistent, holistic approach INKS must be centrally managed. This does not mean that that a rigid, one size fits all management style needs to be adopted. In my view INKS should be embedded in teams and act like an in-house consultant except that they will have the authority to say what does and what doesn’t appear in the EIS. If INKS are periodically rotated an organization will end up with a multi-skilled team that can support each other when required.

Managers of INKS Teams must always remind themselves that they are managing a customer service and that the customer always comes first. Suitable metrics such as time taken to answer enquiries, users’ perceptions of the services offered, penetration of communications and benchmarking beween systems within the EIS and with other EIS. This will contribute in ensuring that decisons made regarding knowledge and information management are rational and evidence based.

A new discipline?

Although I see the INKS approach as largely being a subset of IA/UX approaches I strongly feel that the approach has the potential to become a discipline in it’s own right. In my view the internet and the enterprise probably have more that is different than they have in common and in the EIS approach INKS should be free to develop their own strategies, communities and shared best practice. Such best practice must be different to internet approaches as INKS must work in the long term within an enterprise framework with other disciplines such as Quality, Operations, Marketing, Projects , Finance etc and indeed must encompass and understand the knowledge and information from these other disciplines. INKS will become the generalists within an organization, the people who know, and their cross-discipline and cross-departmental perspective will make them indispensable in ensuring that an organization keeps it’s cutting edge.

In Part 3 I’ll describe a new enterprise information/knowledge model and how IA and UX activities can contribute in improving every component of the EIS.

(Thanks to atomicity for the great CC Flickr photo)

6 Responses to “Intranets: defining IA and UX in the Enterprise-wide Information System (Part 2)”

  1. milan Says:

    Interesting approach. I’d like to see a schema explaining your concept. Though I do not agree that IT is something insignificant for such a project.

    In complex intranet projects, teams work all day to find IT products suited for the needs of “knowledge workers” in the enterprise, and there is still a lot of work to do until we see a consolidated workplace.

    IT expertise (just as engineers in the technology product space) is just one ingredient of many, but an important one. Without them, the results will always be mediocre.

    • patrick c walsh Says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.
      I agree that IT is not insignificant in contributing to intranets and other information systems. But in my opinion it is not as important as managing content. Intranet projects often turn out to be complex due to the extraordinary amount of unnecessary content generated in many intranets, much of which is poor, irrelevant or obsolete and trying to automate that which cannot be automated.
      I really do not understand why IT products need to be so complex when such an incredibly flexible, powerful portable computing apparatus already exists – the human brain. I honestly think that a simple, robust CMS coupled with a talented and motivated team of humans will be a vast improvement on the most advanced IT approach in almost every case. Information is generated by humans for humans and to date machines have not been very good at managing content without human intervention. If we forget this we are in danger of believing that technology will solve all our problems when in fact they usually just make them even bigger and better than before.

  2. Peter Kelley Says:

    Totally agree with your thoughts regarding ‘people’ people vs. IT. Of course the technology is important and needs to be at the table, but too often it is the technical infrastructure that wags the dog and the whiz bang ‘tools’ that get the attention. Everyone says content is king, but often fail devote the attention necessary to make it so.

    My only issue with your concepts is that they probably aren’t realistic in most environments. INKS would be great, but most content people only do that as a side, i.e. it’s not part of their regular jobs. It’s certainly worth the fight to advocate for, but I think we also have to be realistic in terms of what today’s organizations will accept.

    • patrick c walsh Says:

      You make an incredibly important, even crucial, point. The whole EIS and Lean Intranet approaches depend on an enlightened management providing the necessary resource and support. How we get from the present situation, where intranets are basically considered not to be business critical, to where the intranet becomes the heart and hub of all information activities is, I suspect, going to be an uphill struggle. However, if even one major organization is willing to give the approach a try (and it is successful of course), then I feel that change may happen more quickly than anticipated. I honestly believe that most senior managers would love to have a robust intranet and once the approach has proven to be of value then uptake may increase.
      Otherwise if organizations are not willing to change then they shouldn’t be surprised when they keep getting the same sub-optimal results.

  3. […] leverage and information creation in the enterprise July 24, 2009 In my posts on the Enterprise-wide Information System (EIS) and articles on the Lean Intranet I talk about the role that knowledge  should play in the […]

  4. […] Quality, Operations, Marketing, Projects , Finance etc and indeed must encompass and understand the Knowledge and informationfrom these other disciplines. INKSwill become the generalists within an […]

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