Making a Home for Your Intranet, Part 2

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (21-Nov-2002)

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Welcome back to the construction site! In the first part of this series, "A Home for Your Intranet", I discussed your three primary options for building an intranet solution: developing it in-house, outsourcing the project, and buying an off-the-shelf product. We saw that, regardless of which option you choose, each has its pros and cons. The decision as to which path to take is sometimes the result of careful review of your resources, budget, and project scope. Other times it's dictated by consequence, by the infeasibility of other options.

Today, we're going to take a closer look at the option of building an intranet internally. Before we get started, let's review what we discussed in the last article.

Advantages of building in-house

Disadvantages of building in-house

Some people have a natural inclination for construction and design. Couple that with some formal training and they'll be able to erect a house capable of withstanding an earthquake or a typhoon. Then again, there are also those who believe there's nothing wrong with building a house on quicksand or in the middle of an established bison migration route.

Curious readers often E-mail me and ask whether they should build an intranet themselves. Unfortunately, I'm not able to answer that for them because it's a question they should really be asking themselves. Now, before I start sounding like a psychiatrist who answers every question with a question, let me elaborate.

Different companies have varying levels of experience, and some have more resources than others. Each company has its own set of requirements and circumstances, and it's with these in mind that help them determine whether they should, or are even capable of, building their intranet in-house.

At a high level, when it comes to deciding whether you should build in-house, the probability of a successful intranet is relative to the scope of the project, the experience of those involved in its construction, the amount of time you have to work with, and the availability of resources. For example, if you have an aggressive deadline for an intranet with a fairly large scope but don't have the experienced personnel to carry it out, you won't be able to factor into your schedule the time it takes to get over a learning curve. Therefore, as a result, building in-house is not an option.

So, before you lace up your construction boots, you need to determine for yourself whether you're ready to tackle an in-house intranet project or look for a "Plan B" by asking yourself 5 key, interrelated questions:
  1. Am I ready to accept this responsibility?
  2. Do I have experienced personnel to carry out the project?
  3. What's the project scope?
  4. Do I have the proper equipment and material?
  5. What's the project deadline?

The conclusions you arrive at by answering these questions are not mutually exclusive. Your response to one is directly related to how you answer the others.

Am I ready to accept this responsibility?

When you decide to build your own home, from the foundation to the final decorative touches on the mantel above the fireplace, you have complete control over what happens with the end product. But, of course, you have to know what you're doing. This total control means you have an open landscape in which to do whatever you want, mistakes and all. Look at it this way, if you don't have any experience building an intranet, it will be like half-a-dozen trucks pulling up to an empty plot of land and dumping loads of lumber, cement, brick, and insulation and then driving away while the drivers shout in unison, "Good luck!". Meanwhile, you're standing there with all this building material around you—what do you do now?

You need to have confidence in your abilities as a project manager and in your knowledge of basic Web technologies and intranet concepts. This doesn't mean you need to know every minute detail of the latest Web standards, but it would help if you were not a complete neophyte either. If you think that XML is the newest extreme sports league, maybe you should go through Intranet Journal's Intranet FAQ page or do some research on the Web first.

Do I have experienced personnel to carry out the project?

Building an intranet doesn't simply mean building a Web site. I'm making a conscious effort to distinguish between the two. I'm trying to help people understand that there is, in fact, a difference. It's the difference between building a house and building a home. A house is a structure that serves as a dwelling. A home is where you've taught little Timmy how to throw a curveball in the backyard.

Similarly, a Web site is just a tool in which to place information. An intranet gives the Web site context—it gives it a purpose. With the tools that are available on the market today, you can build a Web site quicker than Clark Kent can change into Superman in a telephone booth. On the other hand, building an intranet involves, not only the Web site itself, but also organizing and populating the site with value-added content that will aid in your company's day-to-day business processes.

The e-mail questions I receive usually begin with "We're building an intranet but don't have a dedicated IT department..." However, the focus should not be placed solely on IT or technology. Depending on the complexity, size, and scope of your project, you're going to need more than technical personnel to build a useful intranet. After all, it's often non-IT departments or workgroups that initiate these projects.

Intranets bring together the efforts of project managers, Web developers and architects, content providers, and editors to maintain the site. You'll need a team of dedicated, multi-disciplinary personnel in order to pull off this project successfully. I say "dedicated" because many promising intranets have crumbled to the ground as a result of a team being made up of too many part-timers who only worked on the project in between other ones. When you're being pulled into so many directions you end up trying to accomplish small pieces of everything but never completing anything!

What's the project scope?

The bigger the project, the more planning and resources are required. While some intranets act as centralized, shareable repositories of information, others include fully interactive online applications with back-end database connectivity. The size and scope of your particular intranet will help to determine whether you'll be able to tackle this project with existing resources. Having relatively inexperienced carpenters construct a small cabin in the woods is far less risky than having them attempt the Taj Mahal!

After the planning phase, if it seems that your scope and requirements exceed your available resources and capabilities, you may want to think about contracting the job to some more experienced builders. However, smaller intranet projects may involve fewer such requirements and can get away with using a novice or less experienced team. After all, unless you don't mind throwing money around, it's seems kind of silly to hire contractors to build a doghouse, doesn't it?

Do I have the proper equipment and material?

It's kind of tough to build a house with little more than a Swiss Army Knife and a pair of dusty overalls. You need the right equipment and the right tools. At minimum, an intranet requires:

(A quick note here: As I mentioned earlier, the larger the scope, the more resources are required. To keep it simple, I didn't mention things such as data redundancy, security measures, and backup and disaster recovery.)

The good news here is that you don't necessarily need to buy truckloads of new equipment and tools. In most cases, companies with an established IT infrastructure may already have much of what they need lying around. If budget doesn't permit, you can always leverage existing equipment. Rather than buying a $15K server, you can host the site on an existing corporate Web server. However, if you expect it to be a high traffic site with large amounts of data or you require the server to be able to manage hundreds of simultaneous I/O requests (such as with online database applications), you may need to have a dedicated server to ensure there's no performance degradation. Another option would be to build the site internally but have it hosted externally on an ISP's server.

Web development tools are readily available and run the gamut of freeware, shareware, and commercial products. Web server software is also fairly easy to come by. Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS) is bundled with their NT and 2000 servers or you could download the popular Apache Web Server off the Internet.

What's the project deadline?

If you can't finish your new home before your current apartment's lease is up, what are you going to do? It's a race against the clock, and if you lose, you're going to find yourself on the street.

How much time do you have to get the project done? You need to keep in mind how you answered the other questions because say, for example, you don't have any intranet building experience. You'll need to factor in the training time required to get everyone up to speed. Trying to juggle a high priority mandate from senior management without experienced personnel or adequate equipment may force you to explore other, more viable, options.

Many projects necessitate that "hit-the-ground-running" momentum and you need to be adequately prepared to meet key milestones. Trying to deal with intranet growing pains or an overly bureaucratic hardware/software procurement process will result in scheduling setbacks that management may not be too forgiving of.

Before breaking ground

Building your own home requires a lot of dedication. If you take a haphazard approach to it, it will show in the end product. I hope, by answering the questions above and by putting all your cards on the table, you'll have a better idea as to whether you have the necessary skills, resources, and time to head up your own, in-house intranet project.

Copyright © 2002 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.