By Jeff Lash
Intranets have become immensely popular over the past few years. While they were usually found only in large organizations five to ten years ago, the past few years have seen companies, non-profits, and institutions of all sizes beginning to see the value of creating a Web site specifically for internal use.
Often the drive for creating an Intranet is simply to keep up with the Joneses (because every other company is doing it) or because rogue departments set up their own internal Web servers and the Communications or IT departments try to reign them in. Unfortunately, it is too often the case, especially with smaller companies, that there is no real strategy behind creating, maintaining, and using an Intranet.
Every Intranet is different, and every section of a company’s Intranet can be used differently. There are a number of different methods to how an Intranet can be used to benefit a company. However, the three most popular and most valuable are:
- Knowledge Management
- Collaboration and Communication
- Task Completion
For companies just starting out creating an Intranet, or for companies that have an Intranet but are not quite sure what to do with it, one or more of these approaches may be appropriate.
Knowledge management deals with understanding information and knowledge within a company. Knowledge can be stored in someone’s head, on their hard drive, or on paper, whiteboards, or other artifacts. A knowledge management approach to Intranets is one that seeks to use the Intranet to find and organize all of the information that resides within an organization. The Intranet serves as a front-end to a large repository of knowledge. There could be document repositories, individual file warehouses, financial and statistical data, Web-based reports from legacy systems, decision support documents, vendor information, databases, and other information that previously was only available to one person or a limited group of people.
By allowing more people across the organization to access this previously-hidden knowledge, it eliminates confusion and duplication, increases productivity, improves decision making by decreasing instances of asymmetric information, and better prepares the organization for strategic shifts and organizational and personnel changes.
Collaboration and Communication
Collaboration and communication encompasses features that allow employees and groups to connect with others within the company (collaboration), as well as features that assist in creating essential one-way information flows (communication). In a system geared towards knowledge management, individuals contribute and have access to a wealth of information, but never interact with other knowledge creators. Similarly, there is no emphasis on proactively getting the information to the right people. An Intranet model of collaboration and communication promotes discussion, learning, and assists with offline communications. It is especially useful in largely decentralized organizations or groups, and when geographic locations can stand in the way of face-to-face communication.
An Intranet focusing on collaboration and communication would include features like discussion forums, internal announcements, surveys, corporate calendars, department publications, collaboration environments, and employee and project team pages. Distributing information electronically saves time and money (by eliminating printing and distribution costs), and assisting employees in collaboration is invaluable in preventing problems, exposing (and quelling) rumors, providing feedback, identifying opportunities for cost savings and revenue growth, increasing job satisfaction and reducing turnover.
Task completion refers to a model of interaction with explicit goals. While the two previous models were focused on information (either sharing it, in the knowledge management approach, or communicating it with/to others, in the collaboration and communication example), Task completion focuses on actions. Instead of using the Intranet to find things, people use the Intranet to do things. Organizations using this approach usually allow employees to go on the Intranet and reserve rooms, make purchases, change human resources information (beneficiaries, or 401(k) allocations, for example), fill out and submit timesheets, purchase supplies, take online classes, and complete necessary forms.
The main benefit to this sort of system is that it lets employees spend more time doing their job and less time completing these everyday tasks. By moving offline processes to the Intranet (i.e. converting a paper form to a Web-based form), it should be less time consuming to fill out and process the information, with the added benefit of having the information stored electronically for future use. It makes employees more productive and less frustrated.
Applying the strategy
While it is not required that an Intranet (or a section of an Intranet) only focus on one of these three models, most have a primary concentration, which is often supplemented by other aspects. For example, an Intranet used for knowledge management may have an area where employees can discuss and collaborate on documents; or, an Intranet may be focused on allowing employees to complete tasks online, but also providing them with a knowledge repository to assist them in completing their task.
The important element to understand is that all Intranets and Intranet sites need to have a strategy to be effective. There must be a purpose for the site, both from the business side and from the user perspective.
Intranet growth need not be restricted to these categories, but understanding their purposes, differences, and benefits can help to make an Intranet more useful and help a team, department, or organization more quickly and easily reach their goals.