"We didn't try and complicate it": the unsecret formula of a winning intranet
By David Walker (Google profile)
Keep your aims realistic. Work to a tight timeline. Use what's already built. And talk to the users all the way through. On these simple principles, the Department of Victorian Communities last month won a place in the Nielsen Norman Group's list of the "ten best government intranets". Nielsen Norman Group , a US-based Web site usability consultancy, selected the winners after a contest that attracted 33 entrants.
The DVC had a simple problem: a new department serving eight ministers, covering everything from employment to multiculturalism to local government, made up of fifteen business units from seven old departments, with seven different intranets. People in the new department didn't know who other people were, what they did, or how to contact them.
The project team aimed to create a full intranet within six months. Nielsen Norman describes this as an "ambitious" timetable. "I like a time-frame," says project manager Meigan Geileskey.
To meet that timetable, the DVC team stole from everywhere. Content creation and clean-up challenge many intranet projects: the DVC team reused core content from the seven intranets they were replacing. Choosing a content management system can delay a Web project for months: DVC simply borrowed the system already in use in another government department, which wasn't perfect but did the job. They stole navigation ideas from the same department (and then tested them, changing the ones that didn't work for users). They stole ideas from the seven previous intranets, specifically asking users what they'd liked about their old systems. "The main thing that worked was that we didn't try to reinvent the wheel," says Meigan Geileskey. "We got a lot of value from learning from other government intranets."
Government bodies can steal ideas with more freedom than businesses: other departments, other states and other levels of government may have similar problems, but they have less reason for rivalry than private-sector groups. So this sort of sharing finds an important place on the Federal Government's official list of "better practices" for intranets. But as Geilesky points out, you can share ideas in the private sector too, through formal or informal contact with other intranet managers.
The DVC intranet does not implement a slew of cutting-edge technologies or sophisticated Web applications. Much of its content is straightforward text: news, policy documents, statistical data and the like. "We kept it very clean and simple. We didn't try and complicate it," says Geileskey.
Like almost every group of intranet users, the new DVC staff nominated the staff directory (and its associated staff profiles) as a favorite above just about everything else. Many intranets try to develop into "knowledge management systems". But as management guru Peter Drucker puts it, you can't manage knowledge, because it's inside people's heads. Better, perhaps, to simply let the people get in touch with each other. One of the most popular aspects of the new DVC intranet: randomly rotating staff photos, with names underneath, to tell everyone who they were now working with.
Nielsen Norman's report draws particular attention to the DVC intranet's "New Starters" area, designed to help new staff. "In studying intranets, we often see cases in which new employees are too embarrassed to ask a certain question, or don't want to bother their manager or administrative assistant," the report says. "In such cases, having the information available on the intranet lets them find answers independently and privately."
Many of DVC's lessons, according to the Nielsen Norman Group, were about involving people from the organisation. "A conscious decision was made to involve as many staff as possible", they found.
Right at the start of development, the team created a "reference group" - a list of people who could help them understand the work that the intranet would help with. Later, many of the group's members became advocates, contributing content and convincing others to do so. "If people have helped to produce something, they are more positive about it," says Geileskey simply.
At the other end of the process, as they launched the intranet, the DVC team went out to sell the intranet. They used posters, the staff newsletter, fliers, information sessions and even customised mouse pads to lodge it in the department's consciousness.
Both the DVC's experience and Nielsen Norman's report underline how little difference technology makes to intranet success. "Currently there seems to be no relation between the technology used and the intranet's quality," says the report. At one extreme, some of the Nielsen Norman winners used expensive document management systems; at the other, one winning intranet used Microsoft FrontPage to update a site with 23,700 users.
And none of the winners had found technology that even did most things for them. Jakob Nielsen himself noted the phenomenon in a recent interview with CIO Insight magazine: "All of them say of whatever [technology] they happen to be using, 'Well, we had to make a lot of changes ourselves to make it really work for us.' So I think there is a big contrast between advertising and reality ..."
Intranet success comes not from information technology, but from understanding the help people need to get their jobs done.