The makings of an IT-centric intranet

IT-centric intranets can help end users and spotlight IT's efforts. But there are some pitfalls to avoid as you lay the foundation for this critical effort. Find out what to do and what not to do to ensure your portal provides every benefit it can.

IT managers are discovering that an IT-centric intranet can be remarkably helpful in getting staff, as well as themselves, recognized for the often-overlooked work an IT department accomplishes.

While IT has largely been responsible for building most corporate intranets, it’s only recently that IT leaders are realizing how such a portal can prove valuable to the internal tech team.

“It's interesting that though many intranets were started by the IT staff, it takes a while for the IT department to put the tool to use for its own needs,” noted John Gerstner, CEO of Intranet Insider, a popular resource for intranet professionals.

“Today, I see that [trend] changing dramatically. Large IT departments now have very large and robust IT intranet sites that offer everything from job announcements to real-time server stats to detailed processes.”

It’s exactly that flexibility and functionality that is appealing. An IT-centric intranet can not only benefit end users and spotlight IT’s efforts, it can also conceivably help educate high-level executives about IT’s abilities in cost-cutting and ROI, or perhaps even transform the technology industry as a whole.

Putting together an IT-centric intranet doesn’t have to cost big bucks or heavy labor. But it does require upfront planning and focus so that this crucial information/marketing vehicle provides as many benefits as possible.

Read more
Check out Larry Lange’s first article on the importance of having an IT-centric intranet now: “Promote your department’s stature with an IT-centric intranet”

Getting started
The first step is to specifically document what the IT unit is doing and how that effort is boosting company goals. It’s that information that needs to be communicated via the intranet.

“Begin by asking yourself what the company is up to, and then ask how the IT department is supporting it,” advised Meta Mehling, managing principal of Cupertino, CA-based Meta Mehling & Associates, which specializes in employee and marketing communications. “Then you can get into the tactical.”

There are basically two types of IT-centric intranets—a grand approach and a low-key approach. Deciding which one to implement typically depends on the size of an enterprise.

Mehling described the first kind as an ambitious intranet that highlights an IT unit’s lofty goals—such as helping an enterprise meet productivity goals or offering IT help in cutting costs or delivering ROI. “Take a look at the e-commerce sites at Dell, Cisco, or National Semiconductor. Those companies are actively mobilizing their IT resources,” she said.

The second type is more of a communications/contact/information portal approach that provides end users with solid information about tech issues, support needs, and insight on members within the IT department.

Growing a goodwill IT intranet
An IT-centric intranet is also referred to as a “goodwill” intranet because it’s an undertaking that can bring positive ramifications across the company and for the IT staff as well. The intranet can provide a slew of information that employees will find useful and interesting—from uptime/downtime network metrics to IT staff bios and pictures. The approach, said Mehling, is “Hey, come on and meet the IT department!”

Once you determine the focus and goals for the intranet project, the second step is identifying required resources and essentially creating a project team.

“The single most important factor [in getting an IT-centric intranet off the ground], is to assign one person to lead the effort,” advised Elton Billings, manager of Web production at Remedy, a service management software company based in Mountain View, CA. Billings also runs the intranet discussion site Cluebox.

“While many persons may contribute [to the intranet] by building applications or authoring procedures, there needs to be someone responsible for the outcome of the site,” said Billings. The project leader needs to make sure the parts fit together in a cohesive way and that the site is meeting the needs of employees, while also accomplishing the goals of the IT department. Billings said it’s critical that the leader’s intranet responsibilities be included as part of their formal job goals. This way there is project ownership, and it’s viewed as a legitimate work effort and not something just piled onto the person’s already crowded task list.

The third step, said Billings, is to know from the start that an IT intranet can often become a large undertaking, so it’s best to start small and grow it gradually.

“The best approach is to start with a subsite on an existing intranet server and use that to make available things that are important to employees,” he explained, adding that, eventually, “you will identify processes that can be streamlined and start building, buying, or outsourcing applications to meet the needs.”

What not to do
While it’s not rocket science, there can be some pitfalls on the intranet road—even if the planning was comprehensive. CIBA Solutions, an intranet and knowledge management service provider based in Melbourne, Australia, recently conducted a survey on what’s wrong with corporate intranets currently in place, and the big issues enterprises face during and after the intranet effort. Here are the problems that CIBA Solutions found:
  • Intranets are not accurate and are often out-of-date.
  • Content duplication can be a major problem.
  • Finding content can often be a frustrating experience for users,
  • Intranets have little or no logical structure.
  • There is a significant amount of organizational content missing.

In his experience at Remedy and elsewhere, Billings said simplicity is key in order to avoid these reported issues.

“We spent a major effort in simplifying our IT-intranet site,” he explained, adding, “We made it easier to find five or six ‘guides’ to routine functions; provided an obvious place to download recent patches, and greatly simplified the process for requesting help on the site.”

Linda Giang, an independent program analyst and Web developer based in Silver Spring, MD, helped create an IT-centric intranet for Intel Corporation’s treasury department a year ago. She advised that staff should establish a consistent look-and-feel throughout the site, thus reducing the learning burden.

“This makes it easier for users to recognize where they are, and where they can go when navigating a large information space.”

She added that there should be a standard procedure or policy for the intranet as well. “Set guidelines to be followed and execute, but do allow some individualities and creativities to shine in the overall design of the intranet. This will allow employees to express themselves, and to feel a part of a real team.”

Under the hood
For Akim Canton, VP of planning and IT strategy at Cable & Wireless Panama, the intranet undertaking for him and his staff was fairly extensive. With a company of 2,500 employees and with 70 on the IT staff, the small IT team that built the IT-centric intranet deployed Microsoft’s Content Manager Server software (CMS) to build the portal. (“It’s very flexible in managing content,” Canton noted.) The entire project took about three months to complete, though Canton said “it changes every day according to new requirements.”

The cost, said Canton, was low because it only required additional investment in some hardware and software. The rest of the work was done with internal IT resources.

The payoff has been huge—the intranet is helping Cable & Wireless Panama employees and the IT department.

“The intranet is now the center stone,” said Canton. “Now we have the culture built up so when somebody thinks about sharing, they think about our intranet.”

Max Burgstahler, director of MIS at Decatur Public Schools, in Decatur, IL, has his hands full, overseeing the networks for 9,500 students, 1,200 employees, 13 IT staffers, and 26 buildings across the city. Yet building out an MIS portal—geared to communicate MIS policies, report project status, and share problem tracking data with the customer base—was not very time or labor intensive.

“We used Macromedia’s Dreamweaver, and we also extract data from our problem tracking system everyday and serve it to the intranet via Excel,” he said, adding that the intranet took about two weeks to build and cost about $2,000 in time and materials.

More costly not to do it
In the end, experts and IS leaders believe IT managers can’t afford not to do an IT-centric intranet.

“You have to invest in an intranet,” Mehling said, “otherwise your job’s going to go away. No one’s going to know who you are—that’s the truth!” She said IT managers need to answer a tough question: Don’t you want to start a conversation in which you and the IT staff are at the center?

“The bottom line is you are critical to the business achieving its objectives,” said Mehling.

Remedy’s Billings summed it up just as concisely, saying, “I believe any IT department that doesn't have an intranet should have one. If properly deployed, such a site can save the IT staff and employees countless hours on routine issues, as well as having a positive effect on overall productivity. All the while increasing the stature of the IT department.”

“You can't live without one of these,” added Burgstahler. “Get going on one now!”

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