Intranet Stimulus Package: Surviving Tough Economic Times

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (02-Mar-2009)

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We're all going through tough financial times, from single income families struggling to keep up with their mortgage payments to large organizations trying to justify their own existence. Words like "bailout" and "stimulus" have made their way into common everyday language. And there's a pungent smell of economic doom in the air as everyone equips themselves as best they can with an ineffectual Wile E. Coyote style umbrella. With this looming economic menace on the horizon, what chance does your poor intranet have against your organization's managers who are locking their checkbooks away and looking for anyway to cut costs?

Because of the latent value of intranets, some still view them as being somewhat non-essential, a tool that's nice to have but not business critical. So how do you justify the continued existence of your intranet, convince management to support an intranet re-design, or attract new users to the system? Tough times call for tough measures:

Choose free, open source over proprietary software

Software procurement is the most outwardly visible cost associated with intranet development and management. If your organization is suffering from tough economic times, purchasing new or additional software is going to be next to impossible to justify. So when you're in dire need of new tools during these times of financial constraints, what better price is there than free?

Choosing free, yet established, open source software is a perfect way to avoid the rolling costs associated with proprietary software: Future upgrades, technical support and documentation, and multi-seat corporate licenses.

If you somehow managed to convince management to invest in a commercial proprietary tool during this belt-tightening environment and then end up not using it for whatever reason—the software doesn't suit your current infrastructure, doesn't support company specific business processes, isn't flexible enough for your needs—you're going to have a lot to answer for. It can even cost you your job or be the death knell of your intranet.

Free open source software allows you to perform intranet R&D with no monetary investment. This way you don't raise any managerial eyebrows. You don't even have to let management know you're working on anything until you're ready for production. And should the open source tool turn out to be something other than what you wanted, no money would have been lost in the process.

One word of warning though: If your entire organization is based on a standard proprietary technology backbone (Microsoft, for example), be very careful about introducing a whole new open source solution stack into the mix. You don't want to turn your intranet into some hideous Frankenstein's monster, requiring technological bridges to tie two worlds together.

Introduce Web 2.0 tools

Nothing will reinvigorate an intranet within the user community and further justify the system's existence during tough financial times than introducing new and useful tools. But if money is tight, how on earth can you expect or convince management to invest in new tools? The good news is you don't have to.

Free open source Web 2.0 tools can inject a lot of life into a pre-existing intranet at little financial cost. Plus, many of these tools require little in the way of real development so you don't have to worry about the added expense of hiring IT talent or pulling IT personal away from other, more complicated projects.

Once implemented, tools such as blogs or wikis can turn regular end user from spectators into active participants who might not have otherwise wanted to be an "official" intranet content manager. A professional blog provides the blogger with his or her own voice and unique brand within the company. Depending on the quality of their content (organizations that adopt user-generated content must first address issue of content credibility), various bloggers will become recognized experts in their given fields through their posts. They will have a personal stake in the system and will be more likely to go that extra mile to ensure the intranet succeeds. This has the potential of increases both the volume and frequency of content on your intranet.

Use low-cost viral marketing

It would be ideal to schedule targeted training sessions to educate users on how to get the most of out of the system, circulate hardcopy brochures and Flash-based advertisements to all employees, strategically position professionally designed posters of the intranet in high traffic areas, but management might see these promotional activities as unjustifiable expenses. Your goal is to gain users' attention without dipping your hands into management's cookie jar. This will garner too much unwanted attention from the wrong people.

Although it's true that you need to spend money to make money, when it comes to attracting users to your intranet, it's not the only way. Whether you're launching your first intranet, rolling out an intranet upgrade or re-design, or simply trying to strengthen your intranet user community, consider foregoing costly "bright lights and bullhorn" style marketing in favor of low-cost and subtle, peer-to-peer-based promotion.

Strategic use of creativity and humor, for example, can be an effective substitute for traditional high-production marketing campaigns. The goal of viral marketing is to exploit existing and established social networks within the organization and get users to do the promoting for you by word-of-mouth. If you can get employees to use their intranet without having to explicitly tell them to use it, you're golden.

Bolster your intranet's position in the company

An intranet has so many different business possibilities—from content management to communications and collaboration. But many of these functions existed in other forms before an intranet came into being. After the introduction of an intranet, it was most likely seen as a potential replacement for older functions and media (with some amount of process duplication during the transition period).

In order to ingrain an intranet into users' everyday business lives, you need to get them to stop seeing their intranet as an auxiliary or supporting business tool, and get them to see it as the business tool. You can achieve this by directing users to the intranet (via links in email and other non-intranet applications) while gradually phasing out the old processes. "Leaking" intranet functionality into everyday business life in this manner usually works better than abruptly flipping a switch and forcing users to their intranet.

Eventually, only the intranet will exist and it will become the first place users go to for their content and communications needs. Users and management alike will recognize it as a critical business tool and you won't need to justify its existence when the proverbial axe begins to fall on any non-critical system and those who manage them.

Closing thoughts...

This tough economic downturn has forced us all to re-evaluate what's necessary and what's not. Intranets that play a significant role in an organization shouldn't be treated like some corporate accessory to be discarded when things aren't looking so bright. In fact, your intranet is probably saving you money.

You need to do what you can to prove that your system is a business essential, even when you have little-to-no financial backing. If this means having to go outside your or your company's usual software development practices, such as adopting open source tools instead of commercial tools, so be it. When you're dealing with unprecedented circumstances, sometimes you have to take unprecedented measures.

Copyright © 2009 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.