May 3, 1999

Some Content Gets Stale Quickly, While Some Is Timeless

By Steven L. Telleen

Q: How long should content be allowed to stay on an intranet? How old should pages be allowed to get?

A: There is no standard length of time content should be allowed to stay on an intranet. It depends on the purpose and accuracy of the content more than the length of time it has been available. Consider the case of William Shakespeare's Hamlet or Sir Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica. Should they be taken out of circulation because a set amount of time has passed? Clearly, not all content has the same value or characteristics. Some content when it becomes dated does affect the perception of a Web site's integrity as an information source. For example, a site that announces an upcoming event that is already in the distant past does not engender a feeling of confidence in the currency of other information on the site. 

On the other hand, a site that posted a description of project management best practices six months ago, but does not offer them today, engenders a lack of confidence in the permanence of the site. Which brings us to an important management concept: Different content has different qualities. 

All content falls somewhere between the extremes of being timeless and being perishable. 

On an intranet, information that falls closer to the timeless end of the spectrum includes stable policies and procedures, best practices information, historical records and stories, and visions and scenarios important for maintaining the corporate culture. 

Information that falls closer to the perishable end of the spectrum includes company news, announcements of upcoming events, current metrics, and rapidly evolving policies and procedures. Where content falls along this continuum is a major indicator of both the style and intensity of management that will be required to maintain its integrity. 

There are several things an enterprise can do to manage the quality of the content on its intranet. First, distinguish between formal and informal information. An intranet is a communication infrastructure that can simultaneously support many different activities. Intranets usually contain many Web sites--some intended as official broadcasts, and others meant to support works in progress. The official content sites are what require a formal management process. Ignoring the distinction between formal and informal information overly complicates the management of intranet content. 

Second, focus on each audience, the purpose of the communication, and what the audience expects from the Web site. It is the meaning, not the age, of content that determines its usefulness, and meaning only comes from the parties involved in the communication. I am continually surprised by the number of Web sites, on both intranets and the Internet, that have no apparent understanding of what their visitors expect. 

Finally, distribute responsibility for content quality. Most organizations have too many audiences to effectively manage all the content centrally. The organizations accountable for the accuracy and integrity of the official content should be responsible for maintaining that content. They should decide when content has become dated or is no longer useful, and they should have the power to change it or remove it. 

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