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Five tips for building a truly useful intranet

Corporate intranets offer an effective way to promote communication and collaboration within an organization -- but only if they're designed and maintained with users' needs in mind.

Intranets have been a central component of enterprise communications for well over a decade. But intranets arrived before the dawn of the social networking era, and enterprise social media is now very much in fashion.

So are intranets on the way out for business sharing and collaboration? Not by a long shot.

Intranets remain a critical tool for improving organizational communications and productivity. For example, the U.S. State Department deployed an intranet wiki application, Diplopedia, for collecting and sharing information between ambassadors, desk officers, and employees. The content is collaboratively authored, and Diplopedia dramatically reduces the ramp-up time between assignments and for new recruits.

Likewise, a large multinational manufacturer made employee profiles the center of its intranet. Employees are using the site to locate individuals who have expertise in areas that are of specific interest to them. After finding a colleague and viewing his or her profile, a user can browse that person's content contributions, access an organizational chart with the employee's reporting relationships, determine if the employee is available, and send a secure message.

Use cases like these abound. Most Fortune 1000 organizations use intranets today, and while a poor approach to implementing these sites has doomed some efforts, new cloud-based offerings like Google Sites have emerged to simplify the creation and maintenance of intranets.

Following are five tips for building and deploying intranets that can improve long-term success.

1: Pay attention to the users

Listen to the voice of the "customer" --the internal staff, in the case of an intranet. As the driver of an intranet initiative, you have an insider's perspective, but it's a mistake to assume that you know what your peers want. You have a unique opportunity to request customer input to make your intranet better. At the very least, validate your assumptions. And if you can't implement all ideas right away, create a "future improvements" list to ensure good ideas are not wasted.

2: Make it intuitive, attractive, and easy

The user experience is arguably the most important aspect of your intranet. Wait, maybe it's not arguable. Your users absolutely must be able to find what they need. If your users can do that, the content and tools become invaluable. If your users can't do that, your intranet will die and your great content is useless. What do you want your users to do on your intranet? If there are specific actions you want them to take, design around those outcomes.

3: Take a Zen-like approach

When it comes to features/functions of your Intranet, be both sudden and gradual. Don't get bogged down in a monster project -- these often fail. Deliver the basics, but make sure there's a reason for users to engage. As peculiar as it sounds, an employee directory is the "killer app" for many organizations. A directory that can answer questions like "Who reports to whom?" can be very useful. Then make incremental and continuous improvements. The input you collect at the beginning of a project and the feedback you receive ongoing should provide excellent opportunities to enhance your intranet. Also, opt for a simple, straightforward platform over a grandiose technical architecture that requires daily micromanagement and headaches (or big price tags) when implementing those incremental improvements.

4: Create community and a network effect

Open your intranet to all users. Let them contribute content and value. Enable communities of users to share information and engage in conversations that are relevant to them. More than likely, most of your desk-less workers without company-issued computers have a mobile phone with a browser. Let them join the party and avoid divisions among your people. And yes, your intranet will have some sensitive content. But don't be tempted to lock everything down or make your users jump through excruciating hoops to log in to your intranet. Let them access it 24/7/365 from anywhere. Be brave!

5: Pay attention to governance

While it may be tempting to think that your intranet is going to grow and thrive organically, resist that notion because it won't. An ideal scenario is a self-sustaining community of contributors who add, edit, and archive content. However, there needs to be a framework for achieving the overall objectives of your intranet. Who decides what user feedback is implemented? Who is responsible and accountable for content accuracy?

This framework usually comes in the form of one or more governing groups supported by guidelines that range from hard policy to suggested practices. A steering committee looking after the overall health of the intranet with specific working groups is a hybrid model (between totally centralized and totally distributed) that works well for a variety of organizations. There are other approaches, of course. But the principle is that your intranet needs sponsorship and a way to ensure that the return on your investment is maximized.

Dave Paolicelli is the Collaboration Practice Director at Cloud Sherpas. He has more than 20 years of experience in technology consulting, including as founder and CEO of an Internet consultancy focused on content management and intranet development.

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