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Intranet trends to watch for

Cultures and priorities vary, but there are some common issues for organizations as intranets continue to evolve

Intranets have come a long way since 1995 when they first caught our attention. Today they are used to address enterprise wide business challenges with budget parameters, timelines and resources that are on a much larger scale.

Analysts and software vendors now earnestly publish reports and white papers on how to make intranets more usable and valuable to an organization -- something which they weren't doing a few years ago. Vendors are flooding the market with software that addresses the problem of information publishing, aggregation and retrieval on intranets.
So what is in store for intranets next? As an intranet manager, what should you be worrying about? How can you create greater business value through your corporate intranet? Is your intranet going to be most impacted by a new technology, a new business idea or something else? Or is it all just about information retrieval?

The trends identified below based on experiences with several large organizations will give you a hint of what's coming and how to prepare for the next wave in your intranet's evolution. Be careful, some of these trends may already be moving across your organization. Make sure that you're ready for them.

1. Intranets return to the domain of the departments

Over the last few years, as companies centralized their technology initiatives and consolidated their employee communication channels, most intranets gravitated from being below the radar department efforts to centralized, corporate-wide programs driven by corporate communications, human resources and IT departments. But now as more organizations discover that the greatest business value is derived from intranets that reflect the needs, nuances and processes at the individual department and team levels, publishing, designing and governance will be pushed back to the departments. Technology infrastructure will be the only piece that stays with a centralized team.

2. The records management and the legal departments get involved

Expect a phone call from either your corporate lawyers or your records management department somewhere in the near future. The Sarbanes Oxley Act of 2002 has changed how legal departments view corporate intranets. They can no longer be considered informal repositories for unstructured information that don't need to be looked at. Your legal department will want to review the intranet and establish corporate wide rules for content publishing, ownership and content lifecycle management. Similarly, your records management group will want to establish a practice for archiving the intranet and querying your business managers about content that they feel can be removed. Expect to devote a lot of time to this in the next two years.

3. All employees become intranet publishers

So far intranet publishing has been limited to IT departments, administrative assistants and technology enthusiasts. In some cases, employees have been hired specifically to manage all the publishing activities for the intranet. This is about to change. The evolving information publishing and retrieval needs of knowledge workers is going to require a more a democratic and distributed publishing process. Existing intranet publishers will not be able to keep pace with the publishing needs of their departments. Publishing tools will have to mature so that all employees from the CEO to the security personnel can directly communicate and efficiently distribute information via the intranet. Employees that do not publish efficiently in the appropriate location and with the right contextual information on the intranet will appear out of touch.

4. The corporate telephone directory loses its luster

If you are still talking about the corporate telephone directory as being the killer application on your intranet, you've got a problem. Corporate telephone directories are extremely important and provide tangible value to its users but there should be other reasons driving intranet usage. In the next year, we will see organizations create more meaningful, business centric killer applications for their intranets as they migrate more client server applications to it. An intranet will finally become a lot more than a message board, a phone book and a fancy file server all rolled into one.

5. The new killer app -- the knowledge management tool

Intranets need killer applications to survive and grow. The killer applications that replace the corporate telephone directory and the cafeteria menu will be knowledge management tools. Irrespective of your organization type, employees will perceive knowledge as a key mechanism to stay competitive with their peers and competitors. Effective knowledge management initiatives delivered via the intranet will take advantage of this trend. Furthermore, CEOs will treat employee productivity and knowledge levels as their only surviving competitive advantages as they attempt to limit the damage done by off shoring. Knowledge management tools will gain more prominence in this business environment and the corporate intranet will be the natural place to house them.

6. Real time information delivery becomes a priority

Probably one of the most overlooked business trends affecting intranets has been the delivery of real-time key performance indicators and customer information. Executives are asking for precise, real time information and see it as a necessary tool to make smart business decisions. As a recent Harvard Business Review article discussed, depending upon the nature of your organization, this real-time information need can take the form of real time customer transaction information, progress reports on product developments, productivity metrics, subscriber lists and cash flow. Delivery of select real-time information is not difficult given the right technology tools, the hard question to determine will be what information is really needed in real-time and for whom and how should it be delivered.

7. Information retrieval remains unsolved but there's hope

IDC recently reported that 40 percent of an intranet's users cannot find the information they need to do their jobs on their corporate intranet. IDC also mentioned that searchers are successful in finding what they seek just 50 percent of the time or less. It is obvious that even with a plethora of enterprise search solutions in the marketplace; the information retrieval problem still hasn't been solved. There is good news though, employee weblogs are transforming how organizations perceive, interact, value and share information. The emphasis is moving away from searching for specific pieces of information occasionally to scanning information across a variety of sources (primarily weblogs) on a daily basis. This weblog phenomenon reduces the importance of information retrieval while raising knowledge levels across the whole organization.

8. Employees demand a more aesthetic user experience

While most intranets are generally usable and efficient experiences, few are aesthetically pleasing environments. Managers argue that aesthetics don't matter with business productivity tools. But as employees are forced to spend more time each day on their corporate intranet, they will react to them not just behaviorally but also viscerally and reflectively. Just as employees demanded aesthetically pleasing work environments in the past, so to are they going to demand the same from their intranets. Organizations will be forced to upgrade their intranet user experience so that it better reflects their employee brands and meets the emotional needs of their employees.

There is never any magic answer to the question of where and how you should invest your intranet budget. Each organization is uniquely different and a variety of factors such as your organizational culture, your existing portfolio of applications and your business priorities drive those decisions. But keep these trends in mind because irrespective of the nature of your business and the design of your current intranet, some of these trends are probably coming your way and you are going to need to respond to them.

Marseille 06-09-2004
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