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Taking Stock: Intranet Content Audits

By Paul Chin

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

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Retailers of all shapes and sizes have to occasionally take stock of their inventory in order to maximize business potential. They do it to check what stock is on hand; the quantities available for immediate sale; what stock is currently on order, or needs to be ordered, from suppliers; and ultimately, what's selling and what's not. The last thing retailers want is to have too much of something that's not selling and not enough of something that is.

Organizations need to take stock of their content inventory for the same reasons. They shouldn't have employees spending valuable time and effort gathering and developing content that's not being used. Business and user needs change over time, so do organizational structures. Content audits are needed to evaluate not only the state and performance of a corporate intranet, but an organization's information assets in general.


Content Lifecycle

Intranet content, like the system that holds it, has a lifecycle. While the content itself may not change throughout its lifecycle, its value certainly does. Like many things of value, intranet content depreciates over time. Content that's added today won't have the same impact and worth a month down the road.

To keep content relevant for as long as possible, it's important to understand the five stages of the content lifecycle:

  1. Gathering and Conception: External information is collected from various third-party sources and filtered by each intranet section owner. Internal content is developed in-house by experts in their respective fields.
  2. Storage and Organization: Content is processed, classified, and stored on an intranet.
  3. Dissemination: Content is published on an intranet for users to access and/or delivered directly through e-mail and RSS newsfeeds.
  4. Usage: The active use of content by turning it into knowledge and used in the decision-making process.
  5. Disposal or Updating: Old content is either archived, destroyed, or updated with newer information.

I won't get into content lifespan too much here, since it was already covered in my article Content Life: The Art of Archiving, but I think it's worthwhile mentioning stage five as it relates to an intranet content audit initiative. What's done with content during the final stage of the lifecycle must be decided by those holding ownership of the information. Content is either updated with newer information (thereby extending its lifecycle and making it relevant again) or its journey ends there and is put out to pasture.

Old content that has clearly outlived its life shouldn't be kept on an intranet simply for the sake of proving it was there. Unless there are legal or regulatory reasons to keep this content active, it should be disposed of securely or archived—kept separate from more relevant content. Content owners who haven't taken the time to consider stage five enough will find out during the auditing process how much extraneous information can really accumulate in an intranet over the years.


The Purpose of Conducting an Audit

An information audit is not so much about the state of a system as it is about the content contained within it, those that have yet to be discovered, and the process by which it's all managed. Intranets grow and become more content heavy, ownership moves from one department to another, and business processes as well as their user base will change throughout content's lifecycle. Over time, content that goes unchecked can be lost, forgotten, or even become a burden on the system. It can be relegated to the darkest recesses of the system never to be seen again. Some valuable organizational content might never even make it onto the system.

An occasional intranet content audit is required to maintain the overall health of a system and to review an organization's knowledge assets. It's used to accomplish many goals:


What's Involved in an Intranet Content Audit?

Unlike inventories conducted by retailers, content audits are a fair bit more complex. Intranet content doesn't sit on a shelf where it can be easily counted; you can't simply walk from department to department zapping content with a bar-code reader. Product inventories are black-and-white. Retailers know what's selling based on total quantities ordered and total quantities remaining at the time of the inventory. Intranet content, on the other hand, isn't tangible—it's conceptual. It needs to be interpreted by someone, turned into knowledge, and then put into use.

So how do you take stock of something as intangible as intranet content? The process is made up of two parts: Analysis and action.

Part 1: Analysis
The analysis phase of an intranet content audit consists of a thorough review of an organization's information inventory (ie., taking stock of content currently stored on the intranet as well as content that never made its way onto the system), its usage and management of this content, and its information needs in general. This can be accomplished with the use of Web site analytics (this topic will be discussed in my next article) and by interacting with the user community through interviews, focus groups, and surveys as discussed in Measuring Intranet User Response and Designing an Intranet User Survey.

The analysis process—and the effort required to carry it out—will be highly dependent on:

Part 2: Action
Once the analysis phase has been completed, a report is written containing the key findings and a list of recommendations. Like the analysis phase, the action plan will depend on what you hope to accomplish with the audit. Some of the actions arising from an intranet content audit can include:

Regardless of the actions taken as a result of the audit, all intranet section owners need to be involved in the action planning process. Smaller departments with fewer resources may not be able to comply with the initiatives set out by larger departments. It's vital that all audit team members have a say in the outcome of the process.


Deciding Who Will Conduct the Audit

How you conduct your intranet content inventory will boil down to your experience with information audits, available personnel, and budgeting issues. Some information audits are carried out in-house by those who understand the organization and its content needs best. Others are carried out in conjunction with consultants in the library services industry.

The primary advantage of using professional library services consultants—aside from the fact that information, and its organization, is their job—is in their candid interaction with users. Users who are critical about the intranet and those managing it might not be comfortable voicing their opinions openly if the audit were run by in-house personnel—especially if the criticism is directed towards those very people running the audit.

Non-biased consultants unaffected by corporate politics provide users with a higher level of comfort because of the anonymity associated with the user-consultant relationship. Users will be much more likely to speak openly and truthfully during interviews or in focus groups without the fear of reprisal.

On the flip side, no one knows the organization's content and processes better than those who work in that environment everyday. They will also be more familiar with the organization's subtle idiosyncrasies—something that consultants won't catch onto in the time they're performing the audit.

However, there's an issue of content security when dealing with consultants. While it might not be a big concern for those without a lot sensitive information, more secure facilities have to take extra precautions when it comes to content access. Trade secrets, corporate strategies, and financial information may have to be exposed to the consultants. If consultant are to be used, it's crucial that they conform to confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements.


Closing Thoughts

An intranet content audit isn't something that needs to be run very often. It can take place once every few years, after a substantial amount of content has been added. But it's important to bear in mind that the time in between audits will narrow the larger the intranet, the more complex the content management process, and the higher the level of intranet activity.

When and how to conduct an intranet content audit really depends on your specific goals and the current state of your organization's information assets. An audit can also be a great catalyst to other intranet initiatives such as system and process upgrades. But if you never conduct a content audit and allow it to run unchecked, you're going to find your information piling up and will be oblivious to information gaps. Even the best content managers can't keep track of all their information assets throughout the years.


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.