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The ying and the yang of intranets

In this guest article, Kristian Norling considers the many facets of a modern intranet.


Taijitu benchThe other day I woke early and enjoyed a morning of serendipity. While procrastinating, by reading through a back log of interesting blog posts, I was suddenly struck by the thought that I cannot explain to my friends and family what an intranet is. After all, this is what I have been doing for a living for more than a decade. And to further complicate things, I have been working with intranets in many different roles, each with totally different takes on both the focus and the benefits of the intranet. So the big question that came to me was: What is an intranet really? All I can say, without knowing more about the specifics of a distinct organisation and their intranet is, it depends.

That is kind of depressing, so I decided to jot down my thoughts on the subject as they appeared during the week. This is the semi-structured version of what came to my mind.

The intranet is a dichotomy

Everything on the intranet always has gravitational pull from at least two opposite lines of thinking and operating.  For example: I have often been in the situation where the business side expects IT to solve business problems with the help of technology. That is all good, but then the business side also demands IT to lower costs, since ‘Everyone knows IT cost come down, Moore’s law you know’. So more technology for less money. BUT new technology usually cost more than older commodotized tech. This is an example of the ying and the yang of intranets. For an excellent rant on IT vs Business read @risgaard post: “Business and IT – Why can’t you guys just get along?

The question is; what is cause and effect? It is a chicken and egg situation. A perpetual catch-22. When working with intranets I have always felt stuck between a rock and a hard place. There are many questions, but there are even more answers. Who should I listen to? Other practitioners or experts? Who can give me the right answer? Business or IT? What is the purpose of the intranet? Communication or tasks?

A common solution to a increasingly more stressful and chaotic workplace situation is to scream for; Better organization! Better planning! A Better Intranet! While I think that we all need to understand that chaos is the new order, and complexity the new normal, I understand that you think what has this to do with Intranets? The answer is ambiguous; everything and nothing.

I will try to make you even more confused by discussing a few of these dichotomies in the following paragraphs. And, yes I purposely do pit different opinions, points of view, schools of thinking, groups with different agendas and states of being against each other.

Online vs IRL

Working remotely or rather anywhere working, has been growing as a way of doing work for the past years and is of course accelerating due to many different reasons, many of them macro-societal. A lot of us Skype, Lync, Webex, GoToMeeting etc on a regular basis with colleagues and team members scattered all over, on a local to global basis. On the other hand, you and I can agree on most meetings being a waste of time, right? But then why do I feel the need to regularly meet my colleagues in physical meetings?

Online chats and video conferences works well when we do work on ordinary everyday stuff. And when we do familiar work tasks, very focused and on our own, we are very effective. But when we need to get creative and find solutions to complex problems, don’t we do that best in the company of others? When we have to solve though problems that need a lot of explanations and discussion it is easier to do if we meet in person.

Five headed godInformation vs search

Since I spend a lot of time working on improving search within the organisational firewalls. I’m often asked, ‘so how do we fix our search?’ Or even more common, ‘what search engine should we buy to fix our search?’ And of course that discussion always includes Google. So is there a quick fix? No way! The only things that can fix search in your organisation is hard work, patience and resources, that includes well written and structured information, with good lifecycle management and lots of metadata. And, at least on a sub-conscious level, you know this as well. But as this requires quite an effort, we still look for an easy way out, by putting our hopes on some kind of magic technology to save our day.

Now vs the future

When ever I have been to a conference, energized and inspired, I have been met by the brutal and harsh reality of work when I returned to the office, aka the post-conference-blues.  The needs of the organisation now and today, is often very far away from the visionary and beautiful state-of-the-art future painted by experts, pundits and practitioners at the bleeding edge of the intranet scene (and yes, of this I am guilty myself).

I remember once coming back from a conference in 2007, at the beginning of the Intranet 2.0 hype, already I was planning how we should incorporate all the new features and then, smack! Hit by reality. What the organisation needed most at the time, was a way to organize internal events/courses/seminars and to make the manual administration of them “electronic”. Of course we built that functionality for the intranet, and to this day it is still running and very much in use (and appreciated too, I have heard). So what? Well there I was all excited by the new cool stuff that I was convinced would revolutionize the way we worked (in the near future), and what I had to do was fix problems here and now.  By the time we got ready to implement new, social features, I was all bored with it, since that was “old news” to me. This is the danger of focusing to much on ‘the next big thing’.

Summary and conclusion

So you are still reading? Good.

As the intranet space is full of contradictions and dichotomies, what can we do about it? If you are the lone intranet professional at work, without team members you need to collaborate and use diplomacy. Remember that when working with people, we all have our own agendas and goals, and they do not necessarily always align or go hand-in-hand with your agenda or the organisations goals.

You will need to have a holistic view of the intranet. you will have to balance the needs of all stakeholders, management and users, IT and business, also take in to account what is important now and in the next few years etc. You need to prioritize, but be ready change your priorities as needed. You will need to be agile and swift. From my experience it is always best to deliver something small here and now, rather than something big later. You need to remember that you understand the needs of your organisation better than any pundit (that definitely means opinionated people like me!), so do what you think is best for your organisation. Study best practices and the work of others, but if you think differently; just go with it. Because there is a chance is that you are going for  ‘Next Practice’ instead of ‘Best Practice’. The best practice of today is the way everyone else did things yesterday. While the next practice of today is the best practice of tomorrow. And the chance is that you have identified intranet features that might give your organisation a competitive advantage.

I will be thinking more about this over the coming months. And will talk more about this theme at the Intranätverk intranet conference in Gothenburg, Sweden, 21-23 of May. (disclosure: I am the founder of this intranet conference). Stay tuned.

Remember that you know better than anyone else what to do with your intranet, in the best interest of your organisation.

Please let me know what you think in the comments; and remember, keep on hacking.

[ Kristian Norling ]

Photo credit: Daquella manera, j.o.h.n. walker

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Kristian Norling
Kristian Norling

Kristian Norling (twitter: @kristiannorling) has been working in many different roles in communications and web tech over the last decade. He used to hack on C64, but nowadays mainly works on Intranätverk, intranet conferences and communities of practice for intranet and digital workplace professionals in Sweden.

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