Friday, January 26, 2007

A simple intranet model

This article sets out a process for putting in place a ‘baseline’ intranet – one that serves the twin needs of facilitating corporate communication and supporting staff in their work activities, and that is based on established knowledge management and usability principles.

The article provides a model for how the intranet should function, how it should be organised and what it should contain. While it may be only the starting point for additional functions and layers of complexity , it nevertheless provides for a comprehensive address of basic corporate internal communications needs.

The model answers to the following principles:

Navigation should be easy

There should be clear identification of links to content areas, an ‘uncrowded’ interface and consistency in look and feel and operation.

Structure should reflect the company structure

The company structure – its primary organisation into divisions or units – is the readiest-to-hand organisational principle for intranet information. Each company division will have its own main section – with an ‘overarching’ section that unifies the content and speaks for the whole company (a ‘corporate’ section).

For each division there are ‘internal’ and ‘external’ audiences

Intranets are for communication within an organisation – but each employee is both ‘internal’ to their own area of the organisation – and ‘external’ to the other areas of the organisation.

This means, for example, that for a Payroll section of the intranet, there will be information that 'faces out' to the rest of the company, such as "How to enquire about your pay" and information that ‘faces in’, and supports the work done within the department, eg "Running the payroll".

Navigation should be clear so that users know which type of information they are accessing.

Quick access to key information

All information about a company is owned somewhere within the various functional areas of the company – and as such, will belong in the section of the intranet belonging to that area. Some information, however, is key and frequently called on, eg the company phone list – additional, direct access needs to be provided to this information in the form of a ‘hot’ or quick link on the main page.


Information on the intranet – all of it – needs to be kept current. Regular, fresh information will provoke ongoing interest and recourse to the intranet. Currency is part of managing the intranet, and needs to be formally considered with appropriate processes being set out. Fresh information should be published to ensure a continuing connection to the user audience – company news and company staff and social information are key types of information that can be regularly updated.

Ownership and controls

All information worth publishing needs to be ‘controlled’ to some degree. Where compliance, regulatory and safety issues are at stake, the controls need to be more formal and rigid – but even low risk information needs to be managed so that it doesn’t proliferate or lie around, out of date, cluttering things up. Ownership – whereby a nominated person is responsible for an element or category of information – is the key to effectively managing information, and keeping it current and relevant.

What might it look like?

Below is an example that illustrates the home page for the ‘model’ proposed for fictitious company "Frobisher Foods". The design is illustrative only. Frobisher has a number of sectors of operation that they term Stores, Buying, Factory, Admin, Transport and R&D – these are Frobisher’s organisational divisions.

Frobisher’s ‘quicklinks’ break out the following information items and areas: News, Phonelist, Leave, IT Support, Social Club, Noticeboard and Staff Specials. A link to collect feedback is also located under this head.

Click on the above image to see a full-size readable version

The ‘corporate’ element

The ‘corporate’ presence within the intranet site may be overt – and a separate division button be added to take users to a formal sub-area of the site. Or it may simply consist of the ‘home’ page text with links, as in the example above, where Quicklinks point to items like News, Noticeboard, Social Club etc, that have a corporate wide audience and function.

Division pages

Within each division page, a menu should offer clearly distinct access to each of the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ information areas.

Each division page may in fact lead to a ‘sub-site’ that replicates the model for the whole intranet – with a unifying element covering all audiences for division-related information, division quicklinks and a button set for component elements of internal and external information. The model is scalable in this way – and the depth to which it is deployed is dependent on the size and complexity of an organisation and the volume and variety of information appropriate for the intranet.

Extending beyond the baseline

Applying the baseline intranet model to a living example of an organisation will almost certainly result in the discovery of good reasons to vary it – for example, some divisions of an organisation may simply not have a need for either an internal or external type of information – for a variety or reasons. Subjecting each element of information to the model as a ‘test’ however is a useful exercise, as it draws out a conscious awareness within the organisation about how it chooses to communicate internally and how it supports its personnel.

What a simple, practical model offers in evaluating the information needs that are in view when an intranet is being considered is a structure to permit effective planning, evaluation and ongoing development.