Intranets – a parable explained (Part 2)

February 17, 2013

HighWall_Tom_Joliffe I tried to think of different ways of approaching this topic and using a story seemed the best. I’ve had some complementary comments about the story too but what does it all really mean?  Quite simply it’s all about the death of the intranet as we know it.

Let’s start at the beginning and I’ll explain as we go along.

‘The walled garden’, as you’ve probably guessed, is a metaphor for an intranet. These days I work mostly on audience facing internet projects and, to be honest, there are some things about working with intranets that I really don’t miss – the walls especially. I started to find myself getting quite claustrophobic at times and the sound of some IT person chanting ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that’ reverberates still in my head. The firewalls, that seemingly all intranets must have, cut you off from the latest exciting tools and approaches available just the other side of the wall and, more frustratingly, mean that I can’t see what other organizations are doing with their intranets. Apart from the few times I’ve been able to visit an organization or sit down with someone and look at their intranet via a laptop, I have no idea what’s going on out there apart from the Neilsen Norman intranet report which provided some screen shots of intranet homepages and a few other pages. This is true because Neilsen Norman say it right there at the top of the page –

‘Get an inside look at the 10 best intranet designs of 2013 — this is the only place to find this information’.

This to me was like being shown a library which contains some of the greatest literary works known to man and then only being allowed to see the covers. What’s inside, the real story, remains a mystery because you never get to open the book, to experience an intranet for real. Yet if I want to see the best ten internet designs I just power up my laptop and there they are. A large part of the reason for internet apps and approaches improving at a pace that leaves intranets lagging way behind is that they can see everything that is out there and build on it by adding their own improvements. Intranet workers never have that luxury, all they see is the walls and a few chinks of light every now and again when an intranet report is published. They have no idea if their intranet is world class or total rubbish for there is so little to compare it to.

‘The Golden Machine’, as you’ve probably guessed  is a metaphor for all these incredibly costly, overly complex and ultimately unworkable intranet solutions that get peddled around. In the story the glib salesman states that ‘walled gardens are special’ and they are, but only because of those stupid walls. Information is information whether it forms part of an internet or intranet site and I see no compelling reason why the same approaches that work in internets cannot be used for intranets. What is it that is so special about intranet information anyway that it has to be kept protected behind twenty foot walls?

‘The great wind’ that blows away the wall stone by stone is something that I hope will come to pass. It is simply the realisation that intranets do not need to be kept a special case. I’ve read that chaos theory predicts real winds can start with the flap of a single butterfly’s wings. This post is me flapping my wings.

‘Seeing the other gardens’  when the walls come down is something I’ve dreamed about. Being allowed to experience  and explore other organizations’ intranets for real from my own laptop is a piece of research I’d love to carry out.  I know that some intranets might seem woeful but I’m sure that, like John’s carrots and Jim’s cabbages, there will always be something that works well. Even just being sure that your intranet is woeful would be a big step forward. You can’t start a journey without knowing where you are. Being able to see what’s out there beyond the walls and identify the best tools and approaches will be the satnav for your journey towards a better intranet.

‘A myriad of specialist tools…’ is what the enlightened Jim uses rather than the ‘one size fits all’ golden machine. Out there, beyond the walls, there are some wonderful tools available for very little money or even for free. CMS’s (like the one you’re looking at right now), project and documentation management tools, wikis, news sites etc. etc. There is no internal information need that cannot be satisfied by a current internet app or tool. Using these apps and tools requires some creativity and managing but, hey isn’t that the real fun in doing anything? With so many of them out there you can also pick the ones that suit your organization and its needs best. These internet apps have to constantly improve just to stay in the race for survival so the tools you use will also improve constantly. If they don’t, or if new and better tools or approaches come along, then just swap your old tools for the new ones.

Jim said ..’the garden gets much more sunlight and it allows seeds from other gardens to drift in on the wind and give me great new plants’. Justice Brandeis said ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant…’ Just think of all that crappy obsolete, irrelevant, decrepit, toxic content that currently grows like a malevolent fungi in the recesses of most intranets. Here’s what Gerry McGovern says –

‘Poor quality, low grade, minor-interest content is choking the usefulness of the search engine. I find this happens again and again and again. It happens on intranets, many of which have become dumping grounds for low quality content.

One reason intranets have become such dumping grounds is because a great many organizations have no clear strategy in relation to how they manage their content/data. Because there is no other place to put “stuff”, many people simply store it on the intranet, which of course bulges and bulges and bulges’.

I wonder if this would be the case if intranet content was subject to the sunlight of the public’s gaze? Would staff be so willing to add more content to the rubbish dump if the people who buy or use their  product or services could see it? I guess not.

Another added advantage is that customers and other stakeholders would be able to comment on the policies and procedures of an organization and, like a strange seed taking root in the garden, suggest improvements that someone inside the organization could never have done. Besides that making all intranet information available means that any potential customer can make a real value judgement on the organization and, for instance, check that robust health and safety processes are in place for the workers who produce the product and that environmental management systems exist for minimising environmental impacts. It will give some real payback for all the virtuous things you do.

‘What make all our stuff available so anyone can see it? What about the competition?’ Let me tell you another story. It’s about a manufacturer who some sixty years ago was a small family business and, because of necessity and through creativity, grew to become the one of the biggest car makers in the world. Toyota created the Toyota Production System (TPS), sometimes called ‘The Toyota Way’, which is the cornerstone of its success. You would think that such valuable information would be locked away in a vault somewhere in Japan but no, Toyota has always made information about how it achieved success freely available.  Why not? It has taken Toyota decades to get where they are and it will take a competitor that amount of time to catch up. In the meantime Toyota are confident that they will have moved on and so keep ahead of the competition. They also see that improving the general level of all car manufacturers could be of advantage to them in grooming new suppliers and partner companies.

So good organizations have nothing to fear in making their information open. What about the poor ones? They need to be more open than anyone else. Being a poor organization is no crime but staying one is. The first step in improving is being able to identify how good/poor your organization or intranet is. Without open organizational information this will remain impossible.

So what about sensitive commercial information and my salary details? I’m not saying that everything should be open. My personal details can and should only be accessed by myself, it’s the law in most countries. So ‘My Stuff’ would remain a little walled garden of its own. Sensitive commercial information – they don’t put that on intranets anyway do they?

In short – The story is a little flap of my wings towards the day when intranets become wall-less.  ‘Intranets without IWW_logowalls’ (sorry, best I could think of!) will –

– Make virtually all of their organizational information available, not just to staff but to anyone who who is interested

– Use the best tools and approaches that the internet can offer

– Improve continuously by benchmarking their site with other wall-less intranets and communicating freely with them

– Use customers’ and stakeholders’ ideas for improvements

– Makes the best use of money by utilising the best apps and tools at a minimal cost (especially when compared to a ‘golden machine’).

Intranets without walls just makes sense to me though, like the great wind, the walls may have to be dismantled brick by brick over time. Let’s face it most intranet content is not well written, presented or organised enough for the internet.  Which says a lot,doesn’t it?

4 Responses to “Intranets – a parable explained (Part 2)”

  1. […] « Dis/integrate your intranet for a better user experience (Part 2) Intranets – a parable explained (Part 2) » […]

  2. Intranets – a parable explained (Part 2) – manIA…

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  3. Great parable and food for thought, thanks for putting this out there. I am left with a question and that is, how do we find these other wall less intranets and start talking?

    • patrick c walsh Says:

      Thanks, really good question. Not sure if there are any out there yet but if there are any, even slightly wall-less, I’d love to hear from you.
      What perhaps is needed is some sort of forum or clearing house for intranet or internal communications ideas and case studies (I’m beginning to think that the word ‘intranet’itself is becoming too small and insular for what it should cover).
      I belong to the Information Architects Institute which tries to be at the centre of the IA discipline and it has an OK discussion list which anyone in IA usually posts for new books, ideas, groups etc. Is this something that would be of benefit to intranet workers? The ‘Internal Information Institute’- doesn’t that sound grand?
      Open to any ideas from anyone else on how communications between workers and people interested in this area might be improved,


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