March 16, 1998

Accounting for Corporate Culture When Developing a Net

By Steven L. Telleen

Q:Have organizations had much success in justifying the creation of intranets on the grounds that they are good for the corporate culture?

Advisor:Most companies that consciously adopted intranets did not do so on the "people culture" issues. Even the ones that did looked for other ways to justify the time and investment associated with managing the network. 

Many actions with long-term consequences have two sets of causes. The proximate cause is the cause that stimulates the behavior. And the ultimate cause is the long-term advantage that makes the behavior successful. 

In the case of intranets, most companies are justifying and adopting intranets for proximate reasons: return on investment, shorter delivery cycles for new features, customer demands, etc. However, the adoption potentially has long-term consequences in terms of organizational flexibility, innovation, knowledge management, and learning. 

If these consequences are as significant as many management experts believe, they are going to give those companies that integrate their people culture into their intranets an "ultimate" advantage that grows over time. 

This brings us to the issue of why some companies seem to put more emphasis on the cultural benefits of intranets naturally and others don¹t. The cultures of some organizations are more people-oriented, and therefore predisposed to distributed decision-making and employee responsibility. Others are more bureaucratic, with employees who are dependent on fixed rules, activities, and information flows. 

Even in organizations that already support distributed decisions and employee responsibility, however, the way the intranet is introduced can have a profound influence on how a culture grows up around the net and integrates with the corporate culture. 

The problem with organizing an intranet is that every top-down decision sabotages the quest to distribute the decision-making below. Distributed cultures fear that attempts to coordinate activities will undermine their freedom, and bureaucratic cultures keep looking up the chain for the next orders. So how do you stimulate the process without making the decisions? I recommend the following five steps:

  • Identify the groups required to manage an intranet and the roles they need to play.
  • Provide the base level of technical functionality that people in these roles need to support themselves.
  • Create rules that promote information flow with the least burden on communicators.
These steps can be implemented using workshops to help people understand their roles in creating and maintaining the intranet. 

Executive seminars might focus on increasing awareness of the possibilities, issues, and responsibilities of intranet management. Planning workshops can be used to create consensus among business units about the direction of the intranet and a plan for its implementation. Workshops for content owners should help people decide on the information for which they will be responsible. Separate training sessions can be held for editors and authors who actually put information online. 

The workshops should cause each group to stimulate the next group to make decisions--executives stimulate content owners, editors stimulate authors--to promote a "push-down" decision-making process that leaves employees feeling invested in the net. 

A more detailed description of these processes can be found in chapter 8 of my online book, Intranet Organization. 

Date: 19980316
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