Intranets: defining IA and UX in the Enterprise-wide Information System (Part 3)

May 25, 2009

Question_Mark_AtomicityIn Part One I discussed the current state of intranets and other information management components that comprise what I call the Enterprise-wide Information System (EIS). I also graphically represented a generic overview of how these components are currently managed. In Part Two I discussed the holistic management of the EIS, how the EIS approach might work in practice and what benefits an organization using the approach might gain.

In this third and final part I will try to show you what I think a robust EIS might look like and how IA and UX approaches have the potential to improve every component of the system. In this approach the intranet assumes its proper place and becomes the indispensable hub of the Enterprise-wide Information System.

What might a future EIS look like?

In the current state graphic you can see that the IA/UX area of influence (shaded blue) is shown as only being within the intranet (when it occurs at all that is) and is usually only applied to transactions, management systems and other explicit information held on the intranet.

In the graphic below, representing what I think an EIS might look like in the future, you can see that the blue shaded area covers everything, meaning that IA/UX approaches are being applied to all elements of the EIS. You can also see that the intranet has become the heart of the EIS and the common link between all information elements.


Let’s have a look and see what this might mean in practice for each component of the system-

Intranet The intranet should serve as a hub providing links to and information about all the component systems including interactions and governance. If a formal management system exists it may be documented as a set of procedures and guidelines maintained on the intranet. To be effective the intranet must be lean and the same personnel that administer the intranet should also administer all other information management components.

Internet In my view internets and intranets should be like opposite sides of a coin. Different but still part of the same thing. IA and UX approaches should be applied in exactly the same way to both systems. I see no reason for instance why some organisations spend money on different software systems when so much of the content could be shared. Rather than view the internet and intranet as two systems they should be viewed and managed as a single information resource.  This will reduce duplication and remove the internet/intranet dislocation.

ERP systems These giant systems straddle many organizations and can ‘manage’ everything from inbound materials, finished goods, payroll, invoicing etc etc.  There is often a conception that no further information is needed as the systems ‘do everything’. In my experience nothing could be further from the truth. The interaction between these lumbering, complex systems and staff needs to be documented from high level process steps right down to each key stroke of data input. Often, after implementation of these systems, very little ‘how to’ documentation exists and a situation where staff train other staff can become the norm. This is very dangerous as ERP systems are basically just giant ‘black boxes’ where data is put in and, in reality, no-one (not even the techies who wrote the code sometimes) can really be absolutely sure that the output is 100% reliable. Every effort must be made therefore to ensure that a consistent process for data inputting is maintained and, of course, this information must be maintained in the intranet.

Transactions such as applying for holidays, completing timesheets, viewing paychecks, sickness details etc. are a vital part of the intranet and are what I call ‘My Stuff’ (which may also be known as ‘My Links’, ‘My Pages’ and so on). These are the pages and forms that are of most interest to the majority of users for obvious reasons. People generally like having holidays and getting paid.

‘My Stuff’ should always be prominent on the home page and staff will thank you if you can place shortcuts so that they can easily access their stuff from whatever they are working with or wherever they are working from. IA and UX approaches will ensure that the findings of user research are incorporated in a final user friendly design. One important point – I have heard of intranet managers who purposefully structure ‘My Stuff’ links so that staff have to go through other pages to access them. This is designed to improve their statistics and is an approach to be avoided at all costs. All it does is place a barrier between the user and the content they need to access. In my opinion ‘My Stuff’ could stand as a mini-intranet by itself ensuring all of the personal interactive forms and information that staff need is in one place. Your statistics may suffer but your users will thanks you for it.

Collaborative systems already exist throughout your organisation. They are called meetings, corridor and water cooler discussions, phone calls, emails etc etc. Never lose sight of the fact that staff are collaborating all of the time. Collaboration is collaboration whether its a fancy wiki or a chance meeting in a corridor. The so called ‘intranet 2.0’ approaches should be wholly contained in the intranet but should be used very sparingly. IA and UX will inform as to when and how these approaches should be best used. As the graphic implies collaborative approaches should be considered as ways of accessing tacit knowledge and knowledge held in informal systems as well as accessing other explicit knowledge. Collaborative systems will only work, according to James Robertson, where there is a defined community and a common purpose. I absolutely agree. Before you kick off an ‘intranet 2.0’ initiative ask yourself ‘Why would staff use this?’. If you can’t give yourself a convincing answer don’t even try.

Email There is an obvious area where IA approaches could be applied – email folder structures. In most cases email folders are structured and named by the user. Users aren’t all good at this so it leads in many cases to an unstructured mess. Providing a standard set of folders tailored to the organization and even department could help matters greatly. This is not to say that users shouldn’t be allowed to create their own folders, rather that the provision of a set of well thought out and and named folders should provide a ‘spine’ to the folder structure that will help the user store and find emails in a more efficient manner.

For the organization email should be part of an overall communication strategy and IA/UX approaches can hugely inform that strategy through user research, a structured approach and the ability to define the optimum user journeys across all components of the system.  IA can help even when it comes to the actual email content.  Is the title relevant and informative? Is the email content clear? Is the layout helping or hindering communication? If even a little user research into which email layouts and styles users preferred was carried out, bolstered by some good IA understanding, communications by email might be greatly enhanced.

Internal communications The EIS approach allows this function to apply a truly holistic approach to managing communications. For instance if there is an important event that an organisation is anxious to ensure that all staff are made aware then a strategy involving posters, emails, intranet pages, intranet media, blogs and wikis can be instituted. IA and UX can help ensure that the message is consistent across all media and that the messages reinforce each other. The consideration should always be to reduce the number of communications to a minimum whilst ensuring that the message is still getting across to relevant staff.

External information Information from external sources is becoming more and more important in our information saturated world. No man, or organization, is an island. Ensuring that relevant external information is presented to staff and managers in a timely way can help ensure that staff achieve their full potential and that managers make more informed, evidence led decisions. External information must be creatively linked to internal information so that users can access information relevant to a particular activity whatever it’s source. External information may be classified as –

Sector – Information on best practice, benchmarking, case studies, standards from the organization’s industry or service sector. Keeping up with other organizations in your sector is an absolute must if an organization is to keep up with the competition

Stakeholder – This type of information is incredibly important as it includes legislation, health and safety, customer and supplier related information, local environmental information, national and international standards etc. Not taking care to ensure that relevant stakeholder information is available where and when required may at best injure your organization and at worst may lead to certain activities being deemed illegal!

Surroundings – External information from the larger environment that can affect an organization. Examples of this include stock market, currency exchange rates, market trends, global and national politics and even the weather. Information related to surroundings can have a dramatic effect on organizations. A good example of this is the current global financial crisis. Certain organizations can be very sensitive to changes in the larger environment therefore they must ensure that robust information flows are constantly maintained so that timely and evidence led decisions can be made

Serendipidous – External information that may, on the face of it, not seem to be relevant but can either be adapted for a new setting or can be combined with internal information and knowledge to produce something new. Whereas, in the main, the other three types of external information will keep an organization abreast of competitors, serendipitous information will provide a competitive advantage by fuelling internal innovation through information synergy. Information synergy is when you combine two or more pieces of information so that the sum is much greater than it’s parts; sort of  2 +2 = 8. An organization must always be researching what is out there if they are to benefit from serendipitous information. This can only be done by someone who has a good overall knowledge of an organization and it’s internal information.

As you can see I quite like alliteration.

Informal systems and tacit knowledge are rarely considered or even acknowledged yet no organization would be able to function without them. Where possible informal systems must be formalized although this might need to be in a ‘light touch’ way which will still leave individual staff members some room for manoeuvre. Knowledge creation approaches should be used for both informal systems and tacit knowledge. They are really the same thing although on different levels. Tacit knowledge is what resides in an individual’s brain while informal systems can be described as tacit knowledge shared within a defined group. All knowledge is valuable. IA and UX can help organize knowledge once it becomes explicit but a fine balance has to be struck between how much needs to be made explicit, ensuring that important information is maintained within an organization, and how much is left tacit ensuring that staff have the room to customize some activities.

All approaches that can be used to make tacit knowledge explicit should be considered. These might include proceduralising activities, suggestion boxes (or eSugggestion boxes as I have now heard them called in intranets), team briefs feedback, continuous improvement activities, quality circles etc.

Explicit knowledge Not all explicit knowledge generated by an organization is contained within the intranet or other information management components. This type of information can exist in silos in departments and very often form localized procedures. This can be very dangerous as this type of information, being local, can often be out of step with or even totally contradict information held elsewhere in the EIS. It is often managed in a haphazard manner meaning that there is always a greater probability that such information may be outdated and obsolete.

Part of an EIS worker’s role (I call them information/knowledge specialists or INKS) will be to constantly be on the look out for such information. Where relevant it can be brought into the EIS and IA and UX approaches will inform how this might be best done.  It may well be that some such information may be relevant and well managed in which case it might be left as is. However INKS need to be aware of its existence so that it can be audited to ensure that it is kept up to date.

Management systems For some organizations formal management systems can be incredibly important as it is often a customer requirement that an organization is accredited to certain national or international standards. This can pose a challenge in organizing management system related information that only IA/UX can address. I have written more about this for a FUMSI article. Even informal management systems can generate a huge amount of content which must be organized so that that it is findable and assessed for value.

Paper systems This may seem incredible to some but these type of systems still exist in many organizations. However in certain situations, whether due to the type of workplace, resources or personal choice, paper based systems may be the most practical choice and guess what? They very often work fine, in which case they are often best left alone. However IA and UX approaches can be applied to and can improve all types of information systems not just electronic ones. Also where such systems are in operation, information about where and how they are being used must be included in the intranet so that a holistic view of all information components can be maintained.

So there you have it. I think that the Enterprise-wide Information System is probably some time away but I think it may provide a target that we should all be aiming for. So how do we move from where we are now to an EIS approach? Simple – one step at a time – use kaizen and you will get there eventually.

This post has also been a plea to people managing and working in intranets and internal communications to get their act together and stop being the poor relations of the internet world. The Lean Intranet approach, of which EIS is a part, states that we must start a journey towards the goal of an integrated, well managed information system in which the intranet/information workers of the future will be talented professionals operating in their own discipline and developing their own best practices and information solutions for the workplace.

I think it’s about time we got started!

(Thanks to atomicity for the great Flickr CC photo)

2 Responses to “Intranets: defining IA and UX in the Enterprise-wide Information System (Part 3)”

  1. patrick c walsh Says:

    You raise a very important point. I was trying to keep the model as simple as possible but I think you are absolutely right and I missed a trick here by not including ERP implementations. I am therefore going to amend the post and the graphic to include ERP.

    Many thanks

  2. Akash Says:

    Awsome Article ,May be in the Heading is mistake

    serendipitous as Serendipidous in Bold

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