Controlling the Coming Chaos of Intranets

FRAMINGHAM (03/03/2000) - I was just digging through the data from International Data Corp.'s annual survey of technology adoption and found a mind-boggling statistic on intranet adoption that should set off alarm bells in the IT community.

Internet access is already a done deal.

More than half of the employees at small, medium and large businesses had access by the end of last year, and three quarters will have it by the end of this year. Making the Internet available to workers isn't all that tough. A few high-speed lines, a firewall or two and browser downloads to the desktop, and you're done.

But intranets are something else. They require management, design, authoring and hosting - all the toil associated with an external Web site but for nonpaying customers. According to the survey, the percentage of employees accessing intranets will jump from 18% last December to 69% next December. That means more than half the workforce will get intranet access within 12 months.

This isn't a migration - it's a stampede!

For those of you who are in the middle of this stampede, here are some of the headaches you can expect:

-- High expectations and low budgets. Few CEOs will fund intranets as they would their Internet Web sites, yet employees who are used to sites such as Amazon.com or eTrade.com will be looking for the same performance, navigation and search tools, personalization, hot links and the like in their companies' internal Web sites.

-- Site design will become a political football. Who decides what goes into the intranet? Which departments control which areas? How will a corporate look and feel be maintained?

The two customary solutions - one corporate standard or each department develops its own - are incompatible. Yes, we can deploy intranets of intranets (like those at Microsoft and Boeing), but try getting search tools and navigation bars to work across them. And don't forget registration, security and analysis tools.

-- Authoring will be a huge bottleneck. Unless every employee can post to the intranet, someone will have to play editor or traffic cop. Who will be the gatekeeper? If every employee can post his or her own content, how will it fit into a larger structure? Who will pay for the extra tools and design skills to make that happen?

As this chaos spreads among end users, CEOs will more often than not turn to IT departments to fix the mess.

My advice?

-- Hack away at users' expectations at every opportunity. Make sure they realize that Version 1.0 of their intranet will be rudimentary. A chargeback system might help get this idea across.

-- Create a site design that has a corporate shell around spaces that are set aside for user-generated content that's created through a common authoring package. This will provide some sort of integrity to the overall design but will give end users some site control.

-- Develop a resource center to help user departments create that content.

Resources can include training courses, best practices examples, templates and consultant directories.

-- Partner with some key, high-profile end-user departments on their projects.

Bend over backward to make them successful. This way, you'll be seen as supporting your company's intranet adoption without being controlling. Since you won't be able to control it anyway, you may as well get some good public relations from your cleanup work.

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