Is Your Company's Intranet a Digital Landfill?

It's hardly news that we are awash in information, but the sheer amount may be surprising. In 2009, the world produced about 750 exabytes (EB) of information. To put this into context, one exabyte is the equivalent of one followed by 18 zeros of bytes. In 2010, by some estimates, the world will produce 1,250 EB of information. How could we possibly use all of this information productively?

Companies face the same problem on a smaller, but still daunting scale. As information plays a larger role in creating value and competitive advantage, how companies move and access information becomes more important. While many companies know this, most have done little to address the challenge.

Exhibit A: the corporate intranet. More often seen as a digital dumping ground than a tool for getting things done, the corporate intranet has not kept up with the information needs of the organization. While employees and managers universally say they want a one-stop shop to find important information, they're more likely to find an outdated collection of odds and ends.

Most intranets' shortcomings are due to a lack of two things: oversight and intent. Too many companies rely on loose councils of representatives from IT, HR, and Communications to manage the content and functionality of their intranets. However, few of these people have expertise in online information flow and use. Furthermore, they often bring functional biases to the table that move intranets in unproductive directions.

If good oversight is rare, stated intent for intranets is even rarer. Through conversations with C-level executives at Fortune 500 Companies, the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) has found that most companies routinely fail to develop anything resembling an intranet strategy that details what the company hopes to achieve with its intranet and what steps it needs to take in order to accomplish them.

The best companies understand the importance of oversight and intent. They use simple governance models that empower the best information architect the company has—regardless of that person's "home" function. These information architects are more likely to have a background in web design or digital strategy than in Communications or IT.

Perhaps more importantly, leading companies are crystal clear on what they want to achieve from their intranets. They see intranets as tools for enabling employee productivity first and driving engagement second. That clarity drives metrics and simplifies content and functionality decisions.

A global energy company, and CEB client, provides a great example of this view in action. To help its 60,000 employees get their jobs done efficiently, the company began by clustering employees around their information needs. Employees in groups like, "New Talent," or, "On the Road," access and use information differently and the intranet needed to reflect those differences. These insights informed the technologies the company now uses, such as personalization, to drive its intranet goals—rather than the company starting first with technology.

Want to move your intranet from a digital landfill to a valued resource? CEB has devised a list of principles that the best companies use to get the most from their intranets:

1. Clearly state the outcome your company needs to achieve through its intranet.

2. Select a short set of metrics that reflect that outcome.

3. Review the group of people and processes that govern your intranet. Make sure an information architect plays a leading role and that processes support an agreed-on information architecture.

4. Identify the most common employee information needs that are unmet in your organization and look for technologies you have available on your intranet that will meet these needs.

5. Look for commonalities across the user population that may serve as personas for different kinds of use.

By following the steps detailed in this article, companies will be on their way to converting its digital trash into treasure.

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