Many corporate intranets/extranets have their roots in the 1990s, which is when many were dreamed up in the twinkling an eye. With ‘knowledge management’ in particular vogue at the time, it was thought to be a good idea to create what?in effect?for many turned out to be a black hole for company information and intranet/extranet use. Aidan Cook, CEO, Sense Internet, explains.

At the time, few originators or designers of those corporate private portals understood much about the behaviour and preferences of the users. There were clues, though?going back to the early 1990s and earlier (i.e. to the Web’s pre-browser days), showing that if information was presented in a certain way, with chat facilities around issues of the day and personal issues included, users welcomed that approach and became involved. They could also start their own discussions.

Much is made of ‘Web 2.0’, a sort of ‘next generation’ Internet, but its heavy bias on enhancing information sharing, collaboration among users, social networking and creativity is not new. In fact it is testament to all these things as practised in the era of the pre-browser internet. What can managers of intranets and extranets learn from the early internet and the Web 2.0 approach?

‘Make it usable’

The golden rule, for so long overlooked that most intranets and extranets are considered failures by most of their users, is ‘make it usable’.

– Don’t present users with huge menus that try to offer access to every aspect of your organisation from one page. Instead, learn from online success stories and let users choose what they want to see on their homepage of the intranet. Yes, it’s the corporate intranet, but it should be their personalised homepage.

– Look at what Google or Facebook do and consider using a simple framework for information submitted and controlled by users, with the ability for them to add applications that are useful and relevant. Users like this. Whether a degree of social networking is permitted is up to the boss, but a diary showing what after-work social events are available and when—and what staff think of them or how they could be improved—might be popular.

Portals like this are not all fun and games and neither should they be. They can include embedded compulsory information. Google and Facebook do that and call the result ‘adverts’. In an intranet/extranet they can be called notices, memos, press releases, internal newsletters, etc.

– Allow users a degree of freedom in what they don’t (and do) want to see. Let them drag and drop different items to different areas of their page, to give them a sense of ownership of the applications and of the page design. If you really want them to see something important, consider the ‘pop up’ box approach. Company-wide surveys might be an application for these boxes. An important word from the boss would be another.

When I view my personalised page of our intranet, I am greeted with a simple diary of things I am doing this week, a panel telling me how many holiday days I have remaining this year (and the status of my most recent request) and the holidays that I need to approve for my team.

To save me getting up from my desk and fruitlessly searching for colleagues, or trying to track them down by phone, I used my page to tell me who is absent from work today. I can also see, for example, that I have to give appraisal feedback on five colleagues. I’ve also got easy access to useful information like phone numbers, timesheets, and (if I ever lose the will to live or need to look like I’m working) a handbook of company policy that I can review at my leisure.

I also have a nice little interactive map of who works where and what they do; if I roll my cursor over a ‘desk’, up pops a named box. If I click on that, I can magically send whoever sits at that desk an e-mail. How simple. It’s an intranet with a function, a purpose and a result. It supports me in my daily work, and in addition to being both useful to my needs and easy to use, it gets used.

It’s not an obviously top down directed approach, although if I was persistent in e-mailing a member of staff who did not respond to my e-mails, he/she might begin to think so. Using the social networking model is very different to the largely irrelevant (and top down) ideas of who ever it was who had that great concept for your intranet in 1998. It works, it’s more effective, provides much more flexibility for internal communications and is an excellent platform to build on.