Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Intranet New Year's Resolutions

Spend more time with family and friends, lose weight, exercise more, eat healthier, quit smoking, quit drinking; these are the granddaddy's of all New Year's Resolutions. And at one time or another I'm sure many of us have attempted to put forth that valiant effort to carry out our own personal resolutions — to varying degrees of success. We would loudly proclaim to better ourselves as the clock strikes midnight on the eve of the New Year, confident in our success and determined to follow through regardless of any obstacle.

Unfortunately, most of these well-intentioned resolutions for better living don't last past the second week of the New Year. By the third week, your once regimented routine of eating a handful of fresh carrot sticks before a morning jog devolves into downing a big bag of Doritos in front of the TV during a six-hour "Seinfeld" marathon.

While a failure to carry out these types of personal resolutions may have a more profound effect on you than anyone else, a failure to carry out intranet initiatives will impact an entire user community. So why not kick off the New Year by saying, "This year I resolve to..."

Stay in Touch: Renewing Relationships With Users and Colleagues

We are often so consumed by deadlines, project deliverables, and budgeting issues that we can easily forget about the people around us: our users, customers, colleagues, and team members. And ironically, for all the time and effort we pour into the projects and systems we develop, we wouldn't have a job without these people. Yet this knowledge is too frequently lost in a blizzard of non-stop activity.

While we each have our own tasks and priorities to contend with, it doesn't mean that we should lock ourselves inside our own work-laden bubble. Our relationship with colleagues and users is as important as the systems themselves because the success of the latter will be dependent on the quality and effectiveness of the former.

Take the time to set up an occasional "State of the Intranet"-type meeting between all content owners and intranet developers to discuss things such as the status and relevancy of the current system, what needs to be improved upon or added, and most importantly, what their users are saying about the intranet.

Individual content owners acting as representatives for their respective departments or workgroups are often an easily accessible point-of-contact for their users. And I find that intranet users are much more likely to approach those they know in order to discuss their personal opinions of the system.

This feedback can then be relayed to the intranet team as a whole during "State of the Intranet" meetings and form the basis of future intranet upgrades. For all you know, users from different departments may have the exact sames concerns as their neighbors.

It's also important to maintain a healthy relationship between the intranet team and its users. But there's an unfortunate, and growing, problem within intranet and Internet Web sites: a lack of response to user inquires. It's extremely frustrating for users who take time to provide feedback or ask questions only to never hear back from system owners.

Don't put up a "Contact Us" page merely for the sake of appearance; users need to feel the same level of response from system owners as they do with the system itself. You should always respond to user e-mail and questions so they know there's actually a human being at the other end of the browser.

Get Organized: Reviewing the State of the Intranet

As an intranet's content and featureset expands, there may come a time when it will simple outgrow its current home — its technology, hardware, and software. And in some cases, your intranet may even outlive it's usefulness.

Technologies, businesses, and processes change, and so must your intranet. Your first inclination may be to bandage up the problem and deal with it at a later time. But this is only a temporary solution. Bandages should only be used in emergencies when reaction time is critical, and used simply to stem the tide of damage while you work toward figuring out a better long-term solution. If you were to spring a leak in your boat while out at sea, you can plug up the hole with bubble gum (or so cartoons would have us believe) until you reach the shore. But once docked, you wouldn't really consider leaving that piece of gum there as a permanent fix, would you?

Decisions that impact the long-term survival of your intranet deserve more attention and planning than simple Band-Aid solutions. You need to review the state and status of your current intranet implementation to ensure that it's still relevant to your operation — looking at both the technical as well as the non-technical issues related to intranet ownership:

Technical Issues Non-Technical Issues
  • Is there enough server disk space to accommodate new content that's being added daily?
  • Is your intranet still relevant or is it becoming obsolete as a result of changes in business environments and processes?
  • Is there enough server memory and processor speed to run the intranet and its applications effectively?
  • Does your intranet's design and interface still reflect the ways users work?
  • Is your intranet based on soon-to-be defunct technologies?
  • Have other, newer tools (either third party software packages or in-house developed) been introduced into corporate IT that makes your intranet obsolete?
  • Are your security measures up-to-date and still able to protect your intranet from an ever-growing number of new threats?
  • Has intranet usage increased or decreased? If it's the latter, why?
  • Lose Unwanted Pounds: Cleaning Up Old Intranet Content

    Content is an intranet's most valuable asset — it's the reason users access the system. Most, if not all, intranets have multiple points of content entry from the various departments, workgroups, and project- or contract-specific teams. This can be both a blessing and a curse; a blessing because you have multi-disciplinary experts sharing valuable knowledge with the rest of the user community, but a curse because this inflow of information can cause an intranet to become overwhelmed if content is not sorted and managed properly on a regular basis.

    As the days roll by your intranet will get fatter and fatter, becoming less and less effective the more you force users to sift through an ever-expanding repository of improperly categorized content in order to find a single piece of information.

    Content should never be treated with an "input it and forget it" attitude. Like the system itself, content has a lifespan and needs to be treated as such, placing careful attention on the proper organization of your current content and either archiving or deleting old content.

    While many look upon this type of intranet housekeeping as a nuisance, think about the alternative: It's much harder to lose this content weight after it has bogged down the system than to stay fit from the outset. The good news is that a lot of these housekeeping tasks can be automated and eased if content is properly handled at the initial point of entry into the system.

    So instead of having to perform an annual, year-end ritual of paring down your intranet's extra pounds, why not have your intranet follow a regular exercise routine. Remember: An intranet needs to build muscle, not fat.

    Exercise More: Running the Intranet Like a Daily Publication

    An intranet, as a system, is only as good as the relevancy of its content and the timeliness of this content's availability. While there will always be users searching for archived information, it will be difficult to justify the manpower and costs associated with maintaining a static intranet with such a small and infrequent user-base — a user-base that will likely dwindle as time goes on.

    The best way to ensure the long-term survival of an intranet is to maintain a regular, scheduled regimen for serving up fresh content — to provide users with a reason to come back. To do this, content owners — those responsible for populating their respective sections of the intranet — need to start looking at intranet content management like the running of a publication. And if it seems like a silly idea for newspapers and magazines to print the same stories day-after-day, why wouldn't it be any sillier for an intranet to remain static?

    Some content owners may decide to input content piecemeal, as soon as it becomes know or available to them. Others may decide to have a more controlled schedule, reviewing and inputting relevant content first thing each morning, mid-day, end-of-day, or all three.

    Obviously, urgent and time-sensitive content should always be input into the system as soon as possible so that it can be made available to the user community. However, following a set schedule for inputting less time-sensitive content will increase the likelihood of content owners adding new content on a regular basis as opposed to the "I'll do it later" excuse sometimes found in ad hoc management.

    Get Out Of Debt: Keeping Promises on Intranet Upgrades

    It's not always possible to include all the features you want in an intranet — especially during initial development when you're starting at ground zero. Often, due to technical, budgetary, or time constraints, you may be forced to break the project up into several phases or versions — with each progressive release representing the addition of new (or improved) features that were deemed non-critical or infeasible for the current release.

    New requirements will also arise in the form of as they become more familiar and comfortable with the system, spawning the inevitable wish list containing a slew of feature WIBNIs (Wouldn't It Be Nice If...). Granted, not all of them will be possible to implement, nor should they. Some will be based on a true need — those you see repeatedly mentioned by a large percentage of the user community as well as by your developers — while others will be more superficial. Trying to satisfy every whim is a sure-fire way to

    While it's unrealistic for users to expect instant gratification when requests are made, you need to eventually follow through on the promises you do make of upcoming features — and to do so in a timely manner. A year's worth of "don't worry, it'll be available in the next version" will cause users to doubt your ability to deliver on these promises; and they will begin to lose faith in the system and those running it.

    You should never make empty promises of phantom features in fabled future intranet versions if you know full well that this next version that will likely never see the light of day. If it can't be done, explain to users why it can't (or shouldn't) be done; if it can, then follow through with your promises. Your users need to know that intranet owners are taking their feedback and requirements seriously.

    But you don't have to try doing everything at once. Review and prioritize all of the items on your pending intranet upgrades list, taking into account when these enhancements and features were requested and when they were promised to be available.

    Time To Get Started

    Making New Year's resolutions is always easier than keeping them. And if you find yourself making the same ones year after year, you're probably doing something wrong.

    But think about this: You only make a resolution because, at some point, you let something slide. You wouldn't have to worry about losing those extra pounds that have set up permanent camp around your belt line if you just ate properly and exercised more; you wouldn't be in debt if you didn't spend so much money on frivolous things that beep and glow in the dark; and your family and friends wouldn't have to worry about whether you were abducted by space aliens if you just picked up a phone every now-and-again.

    If you show a little discipline and do things right from the very beginning, you would never even have to make resolutions. So perhaps the best intranet resolution you can make this year is to resolve to put yourself and your intranet in a position where you'll never have to make a resolution again — to keep your intranet and your intranet team in good shape yearlong. Then, as an added bonus, you won't have to feel so guilty about that big bag of Doritos.