Intranet Content – dealing with the technical stuff

June 26, 2009

IS_PresA while ago I was surprised to be invited to talk about the ‘Lean Intranet’ at the Intranet Summit in Frankfurt. I was even more surprised when I first looked at the programme and found out that in fact I was to be was the keynote speaker opening the summit. A real honour indeed!

 The summit lasted two days, finishing yesterday, and I enjoyed every minute. Before I launched my presentation I explained that one reason why I was always thrilled when I attend intranet conferences, of which there isn’t enough in my opinion, was that I knew I was with people who have felt the same pain as myself. When I said this it raised a lot of wry smiles. I think that conferences such as the Intranet Summit are vital in raising the morale of intranet workers who can often feel very isolated and under-appreciated in their own organizations.

I need to thank Stephan Schillerwein of the IntranetMatters blog who was kind enough to act as interpreter and especially Bjoern Negelmann and Thomas Koch of Kongress Media who looked after me as if I were a visiting king. Although my foreign language skills are virtually non-existent, and most of the presentations were in German, I found that I could understand quite a bit as they were also using ‘intranet speak’ and some of the screenshots were very informative. The networking afterwards was really rewarding and I must thank everyone I spoke to for switching to English when I was around. That was real hospitality.

 I could go on for longer about what a good time I had but, not wanting to be the boring guy who goes on for ages about how great his holidays were, I’ll get to the point of this post.

During the Q&A after my presentation Bjoern asked a question about who decides what goes in the ‘Lean’ part of the intranet, what is stored in the ‘unseen’ part (see my FUMSI article) and how do you convince technical experts that the assessment is correct. Quite an important point! I had to think for a moment and replied something about how the intranet team, as information professionals, would have to understand content to a level deep enough to make a considered judgment. I’m not sure if Bjoern and the audience were satisfied with the answer but I knew that I wasn’t.

 I’ve had a good think about this question and it took me some time to realise that I had been in the position before of having to arbitrate online content with technical experts during my time in the automotive sector. So I asked myself how did we deal with it then?

 Management systems and technical content

 In the automotive sector maintaining your accreditations to ISO Quality, Technical and Environmental management system standards is incredibly important. Without them no automotive company will even consider using you as a supplier. By the time I left the automotive sector I was responsible for integrating all our Quality, Environmental and Health and Safety management systems into a single online entity. This required discovering and structuring masses of content around processes and procedures and some of this content was of a very technical nature.

The content had to be correct and structured to a high standard as every six months a very knowledgeable man with a clipboard from the British Standards Institute would appear and audit all our systems with a fine tooth comb to ensure that they were being suitably maintained. Very often these auditors brought along their own technical experts so that there was no hiding place if technical content was not up to scratch. These audits were considered to be of such importance that immediately after an audit was completed it was standard practice to meet with the Managing Director and other senior staff to discuss the auditor’s report. As you can see getting the technical content right was a priority if you wanted to remain employed!

 How did we adjudicate technical content?

 I was often faced with the situation of adjudicating what content added value within the management system and what didn’t. For me documenting the complete process in a logical, user friendly way meant sometimes telling people who were experts in their technical areas that certain content would be included and certain other content wouldn’t. So how did we convince them we were right?

Of course my answer at the Intranet Summit was partially right. In my role as Quality Manager I got to learn an enormous amount through documenting processes and procedures. In my vision of the ‘Lean Intranet’ intranet workers will also be involved in this process when levering knowledge from staff. No matter how technical the area it is possible to learn more than you might think. In my estimation the intranet team can learn enough to make a convincing case in most instances.

However ‘most’ is not ‘all’. What about when areas are so technical that the intranet team feel that they are not fully capable of making the case? As part of my approach to Quality management I tried to identify technical experts in each area of the company who were sympathetic to what we were trying to achieve. Luckily Quality has a high profile in the automotive sector and this did not prove too difficult. I could always go to them and discuss any problems around technical content and not only get an appraisal but get a feeling for the importance of the content from a technician’s point of view. In one company, where a technical area was very important, I actually persuaded the managing director to allow me to make one of these technical experts a member of the Quality team so that we had our own resource for dealing with difficult technical content and questions. So it is important to build bridges with technical experts and if necessary import their skills into the intranet team.

The last point was that it is sometimes necessary to remind yourself that you also are a technical expert. As a Quality manager, amongst other skills, I was an expert in documenting processes and procedures and ensuring we hung on to our accreditations. It was therefore usually accepted that there were two technical experts involved in the discussion and while they knew their stuff, they had to accept that I knew mine. As the accreditations were incredibly important to the company if I stated that we had to do something in order to ensure compliance there was usually very little dissent. However the situation for intranet workers is somewhat different as their work is often not seen as important and they have no big stick to wield as I did with accreditations. What can we do?

The way forward

I think that there is a way forward. While the intranet team need to engage with technical experts and learn as much as possible about what they do, they also need to educate technical experts in what the intranet team is trying to achieve. If they can be made aware of this, as well as the content strategy and the principles of user centred design (UCD), this might go a long way towards ensuring their co-operation and reducing disagreements in the future. It is also important to allow technical staff to have their say. It might not always affect the final decision but they will feel better knowing that they have made their views clear.

In the end, if the intranet is to be managed holistically and is not going to slip back into the bad old days of intranet zero, the decision of what goes where in the intranet must lie with the intranet team. However it is also the responsibility of the intranet team to reach out to technical staff and ensure that they are educated in and included in the process.

I always say that any new concept is doing really well if it gets it even 75% correct at the start. Constant questioning by your peers and allowing them to point out the soft spots and the grey areas that you have not considered will either improve or sink the concept.  Bjoern’s perceptive question has hopefully led to light being shone into another grey area that was lurking in a corner of the ‘Lean Intranet’ concept.

If you can think of any more please let me know.

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