Keep Your Intranet Off Life Support, Part 1

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (19-Feb-2008)

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You already know what happens to those neglected, sickly, content-deprived intranets that are put on life support before they even get the chance to see the light of day. And you tell yourself over and over again, "No, that's not going to be my intranet." So you do everything in your power to prevent that from happening.

But intranet health can very easily be taken for granted. Everything can be working perfectly fine one day; next day, the system's creaking and groaning at every key strike. Intranets—even though they may be healthy and thriving at the moment—still need regular checkups and a healthy diet of content. If you let an intranet run for too long without either, its health can take a turn for the worst.

Recognizing and catching the early symptoms of intranet failure is crucial in prescribing proper treatment to an ailing system. Although there are hundreds of ailments that can adversely affect an intranet, here are some of the more serious, system-threatening ailments you need to keep your eyes on, and what you should do to keep the problem from killing your intranet.

Ailment: Steady decline in usage

Intranet test: Review intranet logs once a month—or once every two weeks on large intranets with a lot of regular traffic—and run the occasional user satisfaction survey.

Symptoms: A drastic decline over a short period of time is usually self-resolving (unless some major event occurs that negatively impacts your intranet). Drastic declines in usage often accompany major holidays when people are absent, but a slow and steady decline in usage of a previously healthy and vibrant intranet over a long period of time can be more problematic.

Causative factors: The intranet no longer meets users' needs, or user are simply bored with the system.

Rx: Revive the intranet with new features and improved processes.

An intranet has no end point. It's a constantly changing entity, in terms of content and features. It needs to continually grow and develop to meet new business challenges or adapt to changes in existing business processes. If it's years of the same old same old, users can get bored of the intranet, or their needs might outgrow the system.

Every system user has a wish list, or WIBNI (Wouldn't It Be Nice If...) list, containing features they would love to have available on their intranet. It could also be features that were promised to them by the development team (features that, for various reasons, were not included during deployment of the current version).

Although it's impossible to fulfill every single user's WIBNI list, intranet managers must understand that they have to offer up new features from time to time. Intranet owners must listen to users' feedback and take real action, not simply spout stock responses like, "We're looking into it." If intranet managers continually ignore users' feedback, eventually users will ignore the system.

One treatment that should be avoided, however, is the superficial intranet facelift, often used to hide the lack of real progress and development. While I do encourage a redesign every few years to keep the system fresh or to accommodate a new brand, redesigning an intranet simply for the sake of redesigning is a temporary solution for a serious problem. You can't simply mask old or deficient processes with a new look. Sure, a new design might increase traffic for a while, but this is only a quick fix. Within a month or so, users will no longer be wowed by the new design and you'll be exactly where you were before.

Ailment: Loss of support from teams

Intranet test: Hold regular "state of the intranet" meetings with all high-level members of the intranet governing body. Symptoms: Intranet team members appear apathetic, and there's a general lack of interest in anything dealing with the system. These symptoms are often accompanied by stale intranet content.

Causative factors: Interpersonal conflict with other team members, stress associated with being overworked, lack of action from senior management when intranet issues and concerns are brought forth, or just plain boredom from having worked on the same system for so long.

Rx: Managing a large-scale, corporate system like an intranet can sometimes feel as though you're swimming upstream. This is because everything is tied so closely together. Decisions made on one intranet section can easily affect another section. And trying to get consensus in these situations can be an ordeal. Discussions on intranet standards can get rather heated at times.

There's no easily defined cure for this type of ailment because it deals more with interpersonal dynamics, politics, or personal issues more than anything. Unfortunately, psychological intranet ailments are much more difficult to cure than physical intranet ailments. But there are many things that can be done to ease these ailments and get the intranet teams working smoothly again:

Ailment: Content atrophy

Intranet test: A quick weekly review of new content added and/or archived during that week. A more thorough monthly review of content movement during that month.

Symptoms: New content isn't being added, and older content isn't filed away or archived, with the same frequency, quantity, and quality as it used to.

Causative factors: Unhappy, overworked, resentful, or apathetic content managers.

Rx: Above all else, an intranet's content needs to be kept fresh. Content is the lifeblood of an intranet. If it goes bad, the entire system dies. It's a simple formula: Healthy content owners = healthy content = healthy intranet.

Content managers—those tasked with ensuring content health on a daily basis—are as vital to an intranet as the technology that serves up the content. Without them, an intranet will be little more than a technological toy, an empty shell with little substance. So it's no surprise that having the right teams will have a very big impact on the health of an intranet.

Those who are under too much stress and are overworked might view intranet content management as an auxiliary duty. They convince themselves and their colleagues that they'll get around to it "later"—and we all know that "later" never comes because they'll always have something else to do. Those who do have the time, but are uninterested in their role as content manager, will either not bother with the task or will do a very sloppy and lackluster job. In both cases, it's going to be extremely difficult for the person who will eventually have to clean up this mess.

As described in my article, "Keeping Your Content Owners... Content," you can promote healthy content owners by ensuring that those working on an intranet actually want to be there (as opposed to being drafted against their will), and are provided with all the necessary training and tools required for them to do their job.

To be continued...

Next month, I'll continue to explore some of the dangerous system-threating ailments that can affect an intranet's lifespan.

Copyright © 2008 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.