Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Guiding the Corporate Net

It has been about two years since the widespread birth of corporate intranets. For some intranets are entering the "terrible twos" stage and are in need of discipline and direction. What started as a few departmental Web sites has now grown into sophisticated interactive applications starved for executive attention and oversight. No longer is an intranet just a new technology being tested by programmers back in the server room, but instead is an everyday part of life for all employees.

The incredible growth of intranets is due in part to the creativity and excitement the technology breads. With any new technology, the early-adopters push it to its creative heights. To ensure continued success (return on investment) of this fast-growing technology, corporations need to begin to deliver structure and a common architecture to the user. This structure can include guidelines on style, content, copyright issues, technology and security just to name a few. (For more, check out the list below). With direction and structure, an intranet can become more streamlined and controllable, providing more return for the corporation. How does a company keep the creative spirit alive and bring order to the chaos?

One company walking this line successfully is MCI.

The MCI intranet, built mainly on a grass-roots effort, is one of the largest in the world delivering some of the most advanced Web-based applications and content to thousands of employees. An intranet this large and complex could easily become too hard to manage with duplicate applications, out dated content, bad style and different architectures. MCI combats this through an innovative, grass-roots effort of communication and collaboration.

Regina Menza is a project manager for the intranet products communications department at MCI. In 1995, her group, lead by department head Shelley Jensen, invited those involved with the intranet to Colorado Springs for a meeting to discuss what everyone was working on and how they could exchange ideas. According to Menza, the early motto of this project was, "collaborate, don't duplicate." This first "Web forum" attracted approximately 100 internal Web developers, project managers and content creators. Since the original meeting, the Web Forum has grown as the company's intranet has grown.

The Web Forum effort now includes live events every three to four months. For those who cannot attend in person, events are multicast over the intranet using Web-based video and chat technology. The events have grown to include executive speakers and interactive breakout sessions. The events have cut application redundancy and provided a forum for users to push the technology to its fullest potential.

Employees use the accompanying Web Forum Web site as the one-stop resource for intranet information. Visitors are encouraged to post information about the projects they are working on. Links to development resources, intranet strategies and intranet white papers are among the resources found on the site. Menza states that the live events and Web site have been very successful in " … providing a forum for developers and content creators to collaborate."

Menza states that MCI is very entrepreneurial and does not believe in rigid standards documents but instead relies on programs such as the Web Forum to open the lines of communication leading the intranet to a system that benefits the company as a whole. Each department is the owner of the applications it publishes.

How does a particular department within MCI work in this open environment to define direction and standards for their portion of the intranet? A good example is the technology solutions department within marketing communications. This department publishes some of MCI's largest and most popular Internet and intranet sites. One site, Business Library, is a reference tool for MCI business markets sales and service professionals. It contains more than 23,000 pages.

Kristine Schaffner, the leader for the technology solutions group, believes her group, "has a strong role in implementing guidelines for our sites.…Within our department, we have two different approaches for consistency. One, we document clear standards for items such as font, HTML conversion, downloads, size, graphics, forms, copyright language, etc. Two, we have more flexible guidelines for things such as technology. We evaluate technology options for each project and try to use standards when possible but will not force if functionality is improved by trying other technologies."

To keep this one-two punch working smoothly, the technology solutions group keeps the communication lines open with its user group by implementing a feedback loop that ties into most all applications. Schaffner describes this tool: "The TalkBack online feedback form is a very strong tool that is used extensively by our user community. We receive approximately 20 messages per day; 50 percent of them address content issues and 50 percent cover platform or technical issues." Communication and collaboration tools such as TalkBack and Web Forum will become increasingly important as the MCI intranet continues to grow and MCI looks towards the merger with World Com.

At each Web Forum, speakers offer challenges to the user group to provoke thought on intranet development. The challenge for MCI and most other companies is to provide direction and standards that drive an emerging technology towards even greater return on investment. MCI has chosen to meet this challenge through a combination of corporate collaboration and individual departmental standards.

Intranet Guidelines Checklist
Use this list as a guide to what questions you should ask yourself when setting guidelines for your intranet. Brainstorm within your company for more ideas. Remember some companies choose not to set down hard and fast rules but instead use questions such as these to build communication and collaboration between departments.

1. Who can publish to the intranet?
2. What types of content can be published?
3. Will content be reviewed by someone in an editorial position?
4. How will content be produced?
5. Is there a structure you want set down for HTML docs? Fonts? Colors? Layout?
6. What legal issues surround the intranet? Logo use? Copyright issues?
7. Who has ownership of applications and content?
8. Is there an e-mail policy in place?
9. Are there security concerns for the intranet?
10. Will some intranet content be open to those outside the firewall?
11. How will testing and loading occur?
12. What technologies are allowed for intranet applications?
13. What types of tools can be used for creation of content and publishing?
14. Who will control licensing concerns?
15. Will multimedia be used?
16. What is the impact of the intranet on network bandwidth?
17. Who will monitor network and server impact?
18. Who is responsible for maintenance and backups of intranet data?
19. How will standards and guidelines be communicated to employees?
20. By what standard will you measure the success of the intranet?