Originally published in Intranet Journal (20-Jun-2003)
Containers are handy devices, aren't they? They can be cups and glasses, bowls and plates, or boxes and wrapping paper. They come in all shapes and sizes and they all serve one primary purpose: to hold things.
Yes, it would be nice if these containers were adorned with all manner of fancy embellishments—pure "eye-candy"—but we're more interested in what's inside. We're interested in the warm drink inside that cup when we come in from the cold, the 3 a.m. snack inside that bowl when we're pulling an all-nighter to meet a crucial deadline, the special birthday or anniversary gift inside that perfectly wrapped box.
An intranet is just another type of container. You can make it as elaborate as you want, but regardless of technological advancements and new software packages boasting "bigger, better, and faster," the heart of an intranet has remained the same over the years: content.
Content will still exist without an intranet—whether in the form of electronic documents or hard copies—but an intranet will not exist without its content. So let's shift the focus away from technology for a moment and take a look at what all this technology is meant to support. After all, when you're thirsty, what good is a gold-plated cup filled with sand?
Internal knowledge assets (IKA) are a company's intellectual property—its employees' knowledge and expertise put onto paper or into bits and bytes. They usually consist of information that's unavailable to the general public and is produced through the efforts of an internal knowledge community. IKAs may include business strategies, market trend analyses, financial information, inter-departmental communiques, or details regarding specific projects and contracts.
Unlike externally sourced information, which can sometimes be vague and general, IKAs are highly focused and very specific to a company's industry without a lot of the "sugar" that's often added for public consumption. In this respect, IKAs have the most added-value because they're produced internally by content owners who specialize in their discipline and are aware of the requirements of the company—nothing more, nothing less.
External information sources (EIS) include any type of information that can be obtained through a public medium or purchased externally through third party vendors. They can be in the form of:
The greatest advantage of an EIS is volume. Since information doesn't need to be written internally, they enable you to put together more content in a shorter period of time.
This, of course, can be both a blessing and a curse. The sheer volume of information flooding in can easily give way to clutter, so it's vital for your content owners to understand that it doesn't mean they have carte blanche to post at will. The same principles that apply to internal knowledge assets must also be applied to external information. And any potential post should be reviewed with a critical eye to ensure an intranet doesn't become a dumping ground.
You should also be aware of the copyright laws associated with the information being reproduced. Some content found on the Internet is made available to the public through the originating site only and prohibit duplication in any other form. Content delivery services may also have rules and regulations as to how their information is copied and transmitted.
Containers can only hold so much before they either overflow or break apart, spilling their contents onto the floor. You'll then be left with a mess to clean up—a mess that could have been avoided. The trick here is to know what to put in and what to keep out.
Content engineering is the process of filtering raw data into more usable, value-added information. Engineered content has been pared down, thus eliminating as much "white noise" as possible. Rather than posting an entire 60-page financial report onto your intranet, an internal financial analyst could filter out all of the superfluous information and create a one- or two-page summary of the results.
This process can save employees the time and effort that would, otherwise, have been spent digging through the report. Engineered content, therefore, is extremely focused and specific to a discipline or topic. But this is not to say that non-engineered content doesn't have its place as well. Non-engineered content covers a wider spectrum and is most useful when you're not looking for anything in particular.
By definition, IKAs are engineered to begin with since they originate from the knowledge and research of internal content owners. However, EISs can be posted on an intranet as-is or filtered to ensure that only the most vital and useful pieces of information are kept—but care must be taken to ensure that the original context of the content is maintained.
Let's take a look at how the two measure up:
Highly focused on specific topic or industry.
More added-value since "white noise" has been eliminated.
Information may only be addressing the needs of one specific group.
Requires much more human intervention to filter and may not be as current.
Caters to browsing. Useful when you're not exactly certain what it is you're looking for.
Little human intervention is required. Information may be more up to date.
Forced to sift through non-applicabale information in order to find a specific piece of information.
Content owners may be tempted to post as-is without reviewing its relevance.
The technology behind an intranet lies within the domain and responsibility of the IT departments, however, an intranet's content needs to have an owner as well—someone responsible for ensuring that information is accurate and kept up-to-date. As a rule of thumb, this owner should be someone within the information's originating department. This ensures that those best suited to represent their discipline are the ones responsible for managing their content.
Unfortunately, with busy schedules and waning deadlines, it's far too tempting to dump this duty onto a third party. This is not only a bad idea, but a dangerous one as well. Third parties have no vested interest in seeing that your information is relevant or up-to-date. Orphaned content will grow stale, users will lose confidence in the system, and your intranet will eventually die a slow death.
It's important that all content management facilities be in place—in the form of in-house written applications or off-the-shelf software tools—for content owners to update and modify their information. This will go a long way in helping those who are not very technically inclined. The easier the management process, the more likely content owners will maintain their information on a regular day-to-day basis.
An intranet, like all systems that exist in a corporate-wide setting, needs to cater to a large user-base and requires the participation of multiple departments. This prevents tunnel vision where the scope of a project is narrowed down to a single point where only the needs of a handful of niche groups are met.
However, when so many people have access to this giant container, things can easily get of hand. There are a number of steps that can be taken to avoid intranet anarchy:
All systems have a life cycle. Technology changes, business requirements change, and priorities change. However, there will always be a need for information—regardless of how it's delivered. And always remember: new and up-to-date content will help extend the life of an old intranet, but a new intranet will never resurrect stale and out-of-date content.
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.