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Do You Really Want an Intranet?

Steven L. Telleen, Ph.D.
stevet@iorg.com


For many organizations Implementing intranets has become the new American pastime as they rush to the lure of saving money or the fear of losing ground to competition. In all the excitement, many organizations fail to notice that intranets support and encourage a definite management and cultural style, one that may not be compatible with their incumbent managers. When this happens, the organization finds itself negotiating personal conflicts or implementing complex procedures in an attempt to shut off all but the pre-intranet modes of communication. 

Be aware, if your organizational culture does not value and encourage open communication, an intranet can be like opening Pandora’s Box. An intranet is an infrastructure, not an application. And, it is an egalitarian infrastructure that supports both the publishing and use of information and logic from any point in the infrastructure. Once the infrastructure is implemented to support the first application, it is capable of supporting others, whether intended by the original creators, or not. 

Unofficial applications and information seem to be the trademark of intranets. Many information managers in large corporations report that the first time they ran a web crawler on their intranet, 30% of the web servers that showed up were previously unknown to them. And, nearly every MIS group that has a TCP/IP network, but not a formally endorsed intranet, acknowledges a few "unofficial" web servers already operating behind their firewall. This happens because the technology is so easy to use that anyone with a moderate level of computer savvy, and a computer already hooked to a TCP/IP network, can figure out how to become a web server. 

Depending on your corporate culture, this is either the strength or the peril of an intranet. Employees quickly discover that they can deliver information to each other more quickly over the intranet by cutting out previously required steps. However, when some of these steps were management control points, the result can be management ire. This can turn into an opportunity to evaluate and re-engineer the contribution of management in the quality process, or, it can become a bitter power struggle. 

Organizations that already value and support distributed decision making find the self-enabling aspects of an intranet to be a tool that lets them stretch further. Organizations that encourage top-down decision making and hoarding of information are faced with the prospect of re-evaluating their culture or looking for tools, architectures and sanctions to shut down many of the intranet capabilities. 

To get a rough feeling of where your organization stands with respect to an intranet, put some serious thought into answering the following questions. There are only three, and you don’t have to tell anyone your answers. 

  1. Does your organization value employees more for their knowledge or for their ability to follow set procedures? 
  2. Does your culture value sharing information or is position maintained by withholding and protecting information? 
  3. Is your management style organic or are most key decisions supplied to implementers from above?
If your answers were knowledge, communication and organic, then your will probably find an intranet to be an exciting and enabling addition to your culture. However, if you answered procedures, protecting, and top-down then you should approach an intranet implementation with great caution. An intranet is most valuable where: Knowledge Creation is Essential to Business, and Communication is Essential to Knowledge Creation. 

If you believe an intranet is important to your business, here are a few key points to consider. An intranet supports and encourages three different types of information: official, project or group, and personal. All three have value to organizational communication. Recognize these different uses, then manage them all rather than try to eliminate some. This can be done using policies, architectures and education. 

Managing the quality of the official information delivered over the intranet is critical. Quality is a management rather than a technical issue, and the intranet is a tool that can help managers with this responsibility. Identify the people and roles involved in the development and certification of official information, develop an intranet process and content infrastructure to support these people, and provide them with training. Architect your intranet to support standards rather than technologies or products. Forcing every group to use uniform authoring or management tools under the guise of managing quality is a regression to the central control model. 

Take a hard look at the real drivers behind your information access policies, formal and informal. There are legitimate reasons for limiting access to information, but employees often limit information for reasons that have little to do with the success of the organization. Access restrictions are not free. They cost the organization in terms of dollars, access time, management effort and ease of use. 

Not all activities require free form information, and an intranet will support structured information delivery. Identify which activities benefit from structure and which are more free flowing. Design delivery and management strategies to match the requirements of each activity being supported rather than a "one size fits all" strategy for the organization as a whole. 

Most important, implement an infrastructure that supports diversity. This is not always the easiest path, but it will keep your organization strong and flexible. 

stevet@iorg.com
Last updated: June 24, 1997


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