Boom and bust – the intranet life cycle

October 3, 2010

Recently speaking at Janus Boye’s ‘Intranets at Work’ conference I introduced the concept of the intranet life cycle and intranet ‘boom and bust’.

I have been thinking about this concept for many years, ever since I carried out  some initial use research for a local government intranet I was trying to get off the ground.

I was doing some contextual research with staff, sitting down with people at their desks and asking what they did, trying to establish their information needs and wants. I started talking to one guy and gave him the prepared spiel about what the project was and what we were trying to achieve when a knowing smile grew on his face. He’d been with the organization for over fifteen years and he had seen it all before. He co-operated fully and gave me some great data but the way he wished me luck at the end of the interview made me feel like I was going to need it. I asked him why.

He told me that this was the fourth time since he’d been with the organization that he heard someone give my little speech. The previous three times the projects had hardly gotten off the ground before they plummeted to the earth in flames. I could see in his smile that he thought this new attempt would fail as well. And you know what? He was right. I put together a good intranet but when I left no-one was appointed to take over and, although it is still use today (so I hear) it’s like an old house slowly falling to bits, it might give you shelter when you’re desperate, but it’s just going to get more and more dilapidated over time.

This started me thinking about intranets and what happens to them over time. If you are involved in intranets find someone who has been with your organization for some time and I’m sure they will give you a good perspective of the varying fortunes of your intranet over time.

Staff who have been in an organization for some years have seen it all before –

  • The soaring hopes for a new intranet which, after a few years, fall grievously injured to the ground
  • The re-design that gives the intranet the kiss of life before another inevitable crash
  • The content clear outs that make the intranet more user friendly until the content builds up again into another plate of information spaghetti

No wonder staff are sceptical.  They have seen intranets work but never consistently and sustainably over time.  I call this cycle of hope and despair ‘intranet boom and bust’.

Let’s have a look at this in some more detail (if you suffer from sea sickness look away now)–

The chart above represents what might happen to an intranet over a 10-12 year period. It is based on something I sometimes refer to as the ‘ First Law of Intranets’ –

‘The volume of content held in an intranet and the usability of the intranet are inversely proportionate. When content grows usability inevitably decreases and vice versa.’

I think this is just common sense. There is no navigation or search system that can cope with huge volumes of content. There is an inevitable tipping point, where navigation and search break down and usability, findability and the good management of content hit rock bottom.

So looking at the chart you can see that –

  • When bright and shiny new the intranet has a small content set and high usability levels. It works like a dream and you ask everyone to bring their content so that you can populate the intranet and everyone can share its benefits
  • Only problem is that over time they keep giving content but hardly anyone is taking content away so the content set grows and grows and usability levels fall to the point where people start saying ‘something must be done!’
  • And it is. A re-design is commissioned. The intranet is re-organized and a lot of obsolete content is removed. Once again the content set is small, though not as small as at the very beginning, and usability is quite good. Only problem is no-one has addressed the problem that caused the re-design so it just happens all over again
  • Yes the content grows, choking the intranet, and it is decreed that a content clear out is required…

‘…they went through and automatically deleted (archived) every page that was older than a specific date, that hadn’t been reviewed. This eliminated 50,000 pages in a single act. They set up a “war room” within communications to respond to the complaints and questions. That day, they received 3 emails and two calls. That was it.’

That’s a quote from an item in James Robertson’s blog where he describes an intranet clear out. The two questions that occurred to me were –

-Why did the intranet get in such a state in the first place?

– What did they do to stop it happening again?

The real tragedy of the ‘boom and bust’ cycle is that each time usability drops to rock bottom and staff can’t find what they need you will lose some of your users forever. They just don’t want to have to rely on something that will inevitably fail at some point in the future.

The lean (and sustainable) intranet

If the roller coaster ride of the ‘boom and bust’ intranet with its long periods of poor usability is to be avoided what should we do?

The lean intranet is the answer. As you can see from the graphic below the emphasis is on keeping the visible content levels low ensuring that there is a good chance of keeping usability at a sustainably high level.

What are the key factors in keeping an intranet sustainable?

  • Establish what the intranet is for. Where intranets try to be everything to everyone with limited resources they are ensuring their own failure
  • Be realistic in what you can do. Doing a few key things really well is always better than doing a lot of things badly
  • Establish a road map for continuous improvement for your intranet using approaches such as kaizen
  • Always look to the long term and avoid short term gains that cannot be sustained
  • Manage content centrally
  • Adopt the lean intranet philosophy

In order to walk around the world you need to take a first step. In taking that step it is important that you recognize the fact that whatever ground you take must be kept. If you can do this, over time, you will win back your users and stakeholders leading to increased participation and increased resources.

You can find out more about the lean intranet in a series of three articles I did for the FUMSI online magazine or by posting a comment.

(Photo is a CC Library of Congress photo from Flickr)

24 Responses to “Boom and bust – the intranet life cycle”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bruno Amaral and Maria Rantanen, Kristian Norling. Kristian Norling said: One of the best intranet post I've read lately >> Boom and bust – the intranet life cycle […]

  2. Boom and bust – the intranet life cycle – Patrickc Walsh…

    This article has been submitted to IntranetLounge, a website with a collection of links to the best articles about intranets…

  3. Vivek Says:

    Hi Patrick,

    I like the graph depicting usability of the Intranet depends on how lean the content is.

    Excellent thought!

  4. […] Recently speaking at Janus Boye's 'Intranets at Work' conference I introduced the concept of the intranet life cycle and intranet 'boom and bust'. I have been thinking about this concept for many years, ever since I carried out  some initial use research for a local government intranet I was trying to get off the ground. I was doing some contextual research with staff, sitting down with people at their desks and asking what they did, trying to es … Read More […]

  5. Marc Miyashiro Says:

    Nice analysis, Patrick! Provides good context and motivation for lean initiatives. The inverse relationship between content volume and usability seems obvious when you point it out, but your chart adds insight with the time dimension.

    • patrick c walsh Says:

      Thanks. I think that intranets might get a better reputation if organisations planned for the long term and for sustainability. If, as is the case in all too many organizations, resources are constrained then we should define and concentrate on the core activities. If we prove we can do those well and over time I think that more resources might be forthcoming in the future


      • Marc Miyashiro Says:

        I shared your post with our intranet Users’ Group. Not only was I surprised by how many people actually read it, I was delighted by their response. For many, it was an eye-opening insight into why we have problems; for others, it was a well-articulated expression of concepts that they already sensed intuitively. For all, it was a bonding experience that inspired and empowered them to become co-creators of the intranet — exactly what we’re looking for!

      • patrick c walsh Says:

        Many thanks for your comment.
        I have had similar feedback myself so it’s nice to know it wasn’t just happening to me! I hope it has helped define the problem somewhat. What we need next is to fully define solutions that can really work for intranet teams as they currently stand.


  6. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Great article, Patrick. The cycle you have described is so true.

    May I ask a silly question… What do you mean by “manage content centrally”..? Are you recommending an intranet content manager?

    Also, as I was reading your article, I thought of Wikipedia whose content continues to grow exponentially without (I would say) any negative impact on usability. Of course an intranet and an encyclopedic wiki are two different things, but I was wondering whether there are any lessons to be learned?

    • patrick c walsh Says:

      Thanks for your comment.
      When I say ‘centrally’ I mean that there should be one function responsible for formatting, organizing and removing content. We need to look at intranet content as a single entity. That doesn’t mean to say that in a large organization there needs to be one team sitting in an ivory tower at HQ. I would imagine that there would be a single team with members embedded in sections of an organization and being the intranet gatekeeper for that section. As the gatekeeper they would have the knowledge and skills to assess and format the content as well as knowing where best it should sit in the intranet.

      With regard to Wikipedia. Good question! It’s all to do with trust. You know when you view content on Wikipedia that you might want to take it with a pinch of salt as the content may have been contributed by an amateur editor who doesn’t know what they are doing (mmm…sounds like an intranet to me 🙂 ). If content is an intranet is viewed this way by its users no-one would bother using it. However even Wikipedia have felt the need for editing some content centrally ( and I have heard that a lot more editing by Wikipedia goes on in the background that many people would think. Wikipedia also only really does one thing – retrieve a piece of content by using a key word. They have really thought out their URL design and ontologies for the site which has helped them achieve what they have. Perhaps this is something that intranets should be looking at as well.

      Hope than answers your question but I must admit that you have given me something to chew on…


      • romney Says:

        I reckon the equivalent to wikipedia in an intranet is a phone directory. Its a single database with a single purpose, and something that the users want, regularly use and give feedback on if it is inaccurate. Much intranet content is the opposite of this – a mishmash of information that users hardly ever use and expect to be slightly out of date.

  7. Sam Marshall Says:

    Hi Patrick
    Great article, very thought provoking. I wonder though if ‘lean’ doesn’t sacrifice value for usability? Is there nto a 2nd law that links depth of content to value, and hence is in tension with your first law?

    Thats; nto to say that yoru 1st law isn’t true, or that many intranets fill up with junk, only that the challenge of preserving usability in a very large intranet is hard but not so hard its nto worth trying.

    • patrick c walsh Says:

      Many thanks for your comment.
      I absolutely agree that even with a large volume of content intranets or web sites can still be pretty usable. However this usually requires a lot of resource and skills that aren’t available to many intranets. In a previous question Ryan mentioned Wikipedia which is a lot more hands on and using state of the art techniques than many people imagine.

      It may be possible to get a similar level of usability for a larger volume of content by using e.g. Domain Driven Design, URI Design and advanced metadata techniques like RDF and triple stores. However I think this may be beyond most intranets (and many web sites for that matter).

      The Lean Intranet is a low tech, pragmatic, human centered approach that I honestly think stands a better chance of success in the long run.


  8. […] Уолш (Patrick Walsh ) в статье Boom and bust – the intranet life cycle пишет, что проекты по улучшению интранета часто […]

  9. […] Boom and bust – the intranet life cycle ” manIA (10/3/2010) ( […]

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  13. […] in flexibility will pay dividends for years to come. Many intranets unfortunately undergo the boom and bust cycle due to ‘intranet inflation’ – simply too much content. A good intranet […]

  14. Elaine Says:

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  15. […] Perhaps some of you are doing a regular spring cleaning in your home. But it is also useful to regularly clean up your intranet, especially if there are no plans for a platform upgrade or a merger with another intranet. (A content purge is usually included in upgrade or merger plans). How much dust have your documents collected? How many contributors have left the company? How many Team Sites have been left unattended? But all that unmanaged content keeps showing up in search results and taking up disk space. And remember, the usability of your intranet decreases with increasing amount of content! […]

  16. […] architect Patrick Walsh recommends maintaining a “lean intranet” instead. This simply means that the visible content in the intranet is kept consistently low. This […]

  17. […] to the only clear wants and needs they can identify, that of their stakeholders and bosses. If the First Law of Intranets is that ‘The volume of content held in an intranet and the usability of the intranet are […]

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