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Look Before You Leap: The Importance of an Intranet Pilot

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (12-Feb-2003)

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During lunch with a friend and former colleague, I was almost upended by laughter when she related to me a story about a business trip she had taken to Singapore several years ago. As is always the case with business trips, it's necessary to participate in a well-known ritual called the schmooze-a-thon.

During this particular session, all of the participants gathered around a restaurant table as a queue of waiters filed in, bringing all manner of exotic food to the eagerly waiting guests. There, my friend, the fearless soul that she is, stared down at a beady-eyed and tentacled creature resting on her plate—a creature that has been informally dubbed "Funky Octopus" for lack of a better name. Struggling with her chopsticks, she took a tiny bite... the rest of this story, I'll leave to your imagination.

The whole point of this narrative is to illustrate the fact that few of us are brave enough to try something completely new without first taking a tiny bite. Perhaps by past experience, we know that if we take that large leap of faith, one of two things will happen: you'll spit it across the table and commit a catastrophic social faux-pas or you'll gobble it down and ask for seconds.

Truth of the matter is that it makes sense to ensure the success of a greater whole by first tackling a smaller piece. Simple HTML-only document management systems of the early 1990's have given way to more robust, content laden intranets with dynamic database integration. With all the different uses for intranets now compared to a decade ago, it's vital to tackle a smaller working model before investing the time, effort, and money into achieving Nirvana in one try.

Let's take a closer look at the benefits of an intranet pilot:


Pilots are Working Models

Why should I waste my time and effort building a model when I could be building the real thing?

This is a misconception. Pilots will save time and effort by allowing you to experiment with the same functionality of a production intranet on a much smaller scale. It will also aid in the prevention of the negative snowballing effects of "Back to the Old Drawing Board Syndrome"—an affliction that has caused the premature death of many promising projects.

If you do decide to kick your project off with a pilot, it's important to develop a usable model. Some companies design "throwaway" intranet pilots that are based on generic and hypothetical templates. They build these pilots as a facade for presentation purposes, to test out new software, or to experiment with how the system will fit into existing corporate IT infrastructure. It makes a lot more sense, however, to build a real piece of the overall project.

Let's say your intranet will be made up of four core branches, each corresponding to your four business units. Rather than building a throwaway site, select one of these branches in which to build your pilot. This way, when you get the green light for the project, you'll already be a quarter of the way there.

Pay special attention, though, to the branch you choose to base your pilot. Don't pick the smallest one simply because you think it will be quicker or easier to build. Whichever branch you select, it must be large enough to provide you with an accurate indication of real usage. Otherwise, you'll get a false reading.


A Tool To Get Managerial Buy-In

The most critical component to long-term intranet success is support from the senior members of management. And in order to gain this support you need to prove to them that you're able to accomplish what you're proposing. This goes far beyond the PowerPoint presentation with static screen captures of what you promise to build if they sign over a blank cheque.

You can reference whitepapers, reviews, and case studies until everyone passes out in the boardroom (or in this case "bored-room"), but they won't be swayed by that alone. A static presentation is fine to get an initial idea across, the coup de grâce is a working model that enables them to kick the tires of a fully functional intranet with real data. This test-drive will allow your potential sponsors to get a better sense of intranet functionality, look-and-feel, and navigation that paper and screen captures just can't simulate.

An intranet pilot, along with your business case, is your one best chance to convince the inquisitive managerial decision makers who control so much of what does and does not happen in your company. It's the all-important fork in the road that determines whether you'll be riding atop a well-groomed Arabian horse as a crowd of adoring fans toss rose petals in your direction or whether you'll be wrestling with a stubborn beast-of-burden as angry onlookers pelt you with rotten tomatoes. This is your chance to win them over, so make it count.


Put Theory Into Practice

Working the kinks out of a project plan during a production run is a bad idea. It will feel like you're walking on eggshells all the time. And when you fall through, the impact is going to be magnified by the fact that turning back will cause major delays in project milestones.

Sometimes what we put on paper doesn't translate well into real life. Everything seems possible when viewed on paper. We plan, and plan, and plan, but when it finally comes time to implement, we discover it's not doable. Staring blankly at well thought-out flowcharts and stacks of project specs, you wonder where it all went wrong.

Whether as a result of an overly ambitious goal, time constraints, technological limitations, or lack of resources, your pilot will allow you to test your theory and make adjustments on a much smaller scale before attempting to tackle the full project. Performance athletes train for big events by gradually upping intensity level and distance before packing their bags and heading to Hawaii for the Ironman Triathalon. Unless you want to find out, 10 minutes into the swim, that you're unable to complete the event, you'd be well-advised to do the same.


Test Intranet Team Dynamics

There's a very fine line separating an efficient intranet team from a dysfunctional family hellbent on putting the Munsters to shame. That's why selecting the right people to take part in an intranet project requires more thought than randomly pulling numbered balls out of a bingo cage and hoping everything falls into place properly.

When I was an IT greenhorn more than a decade ago, the first thing I was taught was the theory of "garbage in, garbage out". It was a mantra we were made to chant in unison along with the other bright-eyed neophytes so as to never forget its importance in the systems we develop. The same principle applies here. A cooperative effort will produce a prodigy; an uncooperative effort will produce Rosemary's baby.

An intranet team is comprised of multi-disciplinary personnel who may not necessarily speak the same language. While content providers are talking about site navigation and data structure, IT is talking about security and network infrastructure. With such varied backgrounds it's essential that everyone be on the same page at the same time. Pilots give you the opportunity to evaluate this working relationship among the potential production team members. As the pilot progresses, you'll be able to gauge how team members get along with one another, whether there are any major roadblocks to the project's progress (this is a euphemism for "giving the boot to the troublemakers and slackers"), and to establish an initial line of communication among the various departments and workgroups involved; in short, the better the team, the better the product.


Obtain Feedback From a Smaller Test Group

Whenever you implement a new system that will affect the company as a whole, it's important to test user reaction in a smaller, controlled environment before full deployment into the general user community. You need to do this for the same reason television executives create pilot episodes and hold pre-screenings. They do this to see how viewers respond to the new show and use the feedback to make last-minute script changes or leave certain things on the cutting room floor. Once the show has been polished, it's time to get ready for network television.

Your test group must represent the demographics of the company as a whole. Don't base it on one department alone. Select representatives from the core departments that will eventually make up your user base. They know how their staff go about their daily routine and can provide valuable feedback on what will and will not work for them. This is a first impression you really don't want to gamble with. Remember, you're building an intranet for the corporate community, not for yourself.


Time to Take Your Tiny Bite

Unlike what you may think, pilots are not just for beginners to cut their teeth on. Experienced developers build pilot projects, not so much because their ability or knowledge is lacking, but rather because they know that pilots are an essential stepping stone to full production intranets. And it's important for you to realize this as well.

Oh, and by the way, my friend who took that tiny bite out of our good friend, Funky Octopus... she finished the whole thing—successfully.


Copyright © 2003 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.