To Be, or Not To Be: Intranet Justification

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (09-Mar-2005)

back back to portfolio

In a similar, albeit less dramatic, vein to Hamlet's famous "To be, or not to be" soliloquy, we, as intranet professionals, suffer from the same type of existential angst: How do we justify our, and our system's, existence to management? Not only do we face the challenges of convincing them of the benefits of developing an intranet in the first place, but we also have to convince them of the necessity of maintaining it after we do develop one.

The main problem stems from the fact that intranets are more than mere applications. An intranet is a community—made up of technology and personnel—that represents and supports an organization's collective knowledge and culture. And as such, the benefits of an intranet are not always apparent. Perhaps they're taken for granted as a normal part of day-to-day operations; only in its absence will we truly discover the worth of an intranet.

So how do we justify an ongoing commitment to a system with largely intangible benefits?

Understanding the Differences

The majority of corporate IT systems we have today are relatively low maintenance once they reach the post-production stage. You build (or buy) an IT solution, implement it to work within your environment, and then leave it alone. They will, of course, need the occasional tweak, patch, or upgrade but these can be automated to run with minimal human intervention.

An intranet, on the other hand, requires a much larger commitment even—or especially—after the initial stages of development. Rather than a single up-front investment of time, effort, and money, intranets—depending on their size and purpose—may require an investment over a much longer period of time. And because of this long-term commitment, it can be difficult to get management on board with this project.

Before I begin discussing the issue of justification, you need to understand how an intranet differs from many other IT implementations:

Pre-Production Justification

When trying to justify the need for an intranet to senior level management, it's vital to have the support of your colleagues as well as your immediate superiors who can champion the cause higher up in the corporate ladder—there's strength in numbers. When there's solidarity among those involved in the project, the system will be viewed upon with a lot more credibility and not just some small special interest group looking for something to keep themselves busy.

Senior management is rarely happy to see project proposals that replace existing processes. This is a common reaction associated with the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality. The justification for the development of an intranet must be based on a substantial improvement or an addition to current business processes, not a mere replacement. Using an intranet to replace the traffic of paper and electronic documents constantly flowing from department to department is a good sell; replacing a recently purchased CMS application with an in-house intranet is not.

While senior management is accustomed to reviewing new project proposals by way of a business case—an executive summary detailing the system, its objectives, its benefits, and its cost—a more valuable tool exists: a pilot project.

A pilot project allows senior management to kick the tires of a small-scale working model with little-to-no initial investment or commitment. Pilots usually contain only a fraction of the potential system's functionality, but enough to give testers a practical overview of what can be accomplished.

Pilots can also be used within a control group over a period of time to gather feedback on the system, which can in turn be used as real-world testimonials towards the justification of the project. Positive user feedback on how the system can make their daily operations easier is worth more than a hundred business cases.

Post-Production Justification

An intranet doesn't have a definitive end-point after it's released into the production environment. At this stage, core development and deployment will have been accomplished—it's the content owners turn to take the reins. Depending on the size of the intranet, content management will involve any number of multidisciplinary content owners who feed the system. These content owners represent the various departmental or workgroup sub-sections within the intranet. This may eventually raise a few eyebrows and prompt the inevitable question, "What are these people doing, and why are they doing it?"

Post-production intranet content management doesn't get the respect that it deserves; and it's unfortunate that you should even have to justify this. It's simple: unless an intranet is consistently updated with new and relevant content, the system will grow stale and die an early death.

The importance of regular content updates can't be overstated; it's an essential part of intranet ownership. If an intranet and its content are neglected, you'll have to deal with two very difficult obstacles to overcome:

  1. Users will lose faith in the system, and it's going to be extremely tough to win them back.
  2. It's almost always harder to resurrect a dead or dying intranet than it is to build one from scratch.

In order to avoid these pitfalls, you need to ensure that your intranet is never allowed to fall into this state. If it does, the longer you wait to do something about it, the worse the situation will become.

Aside from the content, running a long-term intranet will require the addition or upgrade of its technological backbone in order to maximize the system's lifecycle. Technology must be kept current for two reasons:

  1. Staying current: Technology must be kept up-to-date or you'll run the risk of managing a system on orphaned technology that's no longer supported.
  2. System quality and performance: Upgrades are required to ensure a high level of intranet integrity and to manage a growing user-base without degradation in system performance.

But remember, there must be reasonable justification for an upgrade in technology and not simply for experimentation with the bleeding edge.

The Cost of Intranet Development and Maintenance

I don't want to dwell too long on the issue of cost because this isn't an article about ROI. But you need to understand the general costs associated with building and managing an intranet because this issue is unavoidable.

The needs of every organization varies and as such an intranet used in support of that organization will also vary widely—in terms of scale, personnel requirements, equipment, software, and security. But generally, the cost of an intranet involves three core areas:

  1. Technology: Technology costs represent the procurement of new hardware and software, or upgrades to existing infrastructure, to support the development and daily management of an intranet.
  2. Information: Costs associated with buying, or subscribing to, information provided by third-party content vendors (more on this can be found in my article "Intranet Content: Long Live the King").
  3. Personnel: The time and effort required of developers (programming, designing, providing technical support and user training) and content owners (research, filtering and publishing content).

Having a firm understanding of the total cost of your solution will be important when justifying the development and management of a system that requires long term commitment.

The Benefits of Committing to an Intranet

The most difficult part about trying to justify the existence of an intranet—whether pre- or post-production—is that you're trying to get management to invest hard dollars for mostly soft returns. These soft returns come in the form of improved employee productivity and self-sufficiency, a higher level of inter-departmental collaboration and communication, and easing the process of information gathering and dissemination.

Among the many intranet benefits, the most obvious are:

Replacing Hard Copies
Intranets replace the rolling and cumulative costs associated with the printing, maintaining, distribution, and storing of hardcopy documents—and this is money that you're never going to see again. In terms of hard dollar returns, this is the most quantifiable benefit.

Reducing Content Search
The amount of time that's spent—more than 20 percent of workers' time (that's eight hours in a normal 40-hour work week) according to knowledge management professionals—searching for information within an organization or on the Internet can be drastically reduced when employees have a central "one-stop shop" for corporate content. This will allow employees to focus more on their jobs rather than digging for information

Reducing Duplication of Effort
Intranets can be used as an open, collaborative tool to coordinate the efforts of various departments, workgroups, and project teams. This will have the potential of creating unified knowledge community—a central environment for knowledge sharing and management—and will minimize duplication of both effort and content.

Promoting Employee Self-Sufficiency
Intranets improve employee productivity by allowing users to quickly access content without the need for third-party intermediaries who may be unavailable to help you when you need it most. Intranets act like self-service stations and empower users with the ability to find the information they're after without having to rely too heavily on others.

Keeping Knowledge Within the Organization
When employees leave, knowledge stays. Employees come and go—they may transfer departments or leave the company entirely—and when they do, they will be taking all that knowledge they have accumulated over the years with them. An intranet allows an organization to collect and store the knowledge and expertise of its employees, and giving it more permanence within the organization.

Final Thoughts

Intranets can't be justified by using financial return as the sole measuring stick. While many of the soft returns I mentioned in this article can lead to financial savings by way of improved employee productivity, they tend to lead to them in an indirect manner. And maybe it's because of an intranet's latent value that we're forced to justify its existence when other IT systems are accepted as a matter of fact.

It's our job, as intranet professionals, to help management see the true worth of an intranet beyond the dollar. They need to understand a properly built and managed intranet has long-term benefits that will affect the company and its culture as a whole. It's not just a matter of how much money it will save or make—and if management doesn't have the foresight to realize this, then perhaps they have missed the whole point.

Copyright © 2005 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.