I understand how hard it is to create a session titled "Building a Great Intranet", but I can't say I think the presenters at the Microsoft SharePoint Conference 2009 took the right approach. Here are my thoughts:

I think intranets in organizations should be spelled Intranets. Notice the change? The capital "I"? I'm sitting in a session about building great Intranets, and I can't help but think that I'm stuck in some 1995 intranet design session. It's an example of how many folks still treat the "Intranet" as a sideline business system that should be "solving problems" like a hammer looking for nails. There was a slide that said (paraphrasing) "Ask the users what they want." Did the 500 people in the room not know that? If the Intranet were a body part, I'd describe this perspective as giving the business a "hand".

Intranets are complex. No longer, top down knowledge dissemination systems, they now deliver a wide range of business value that "used" to be delivered by a plethora of other business systems. If your ERP system is the "backbone" of the company, your Intranet should be the legs. Those big support structures that hold up the rest of the body. A rock solid, great Intranet isn't about good navigation (but without good navigation you'd have a bad Intranet?). See, complex.

A great Intranet needs a heck of a lot more than the right Intranet governance structure and a 30 minute demo of how to create an information architecture. If you want to know how to create a great good IA, take a week long course and then practice for 5 years. Yeah, promote. Yeah, train. Those are givens. But how do you really get a good Intranet? Here's what we've learned at Habanero:

Value creation

Learn how to talk Intranet business value. Learn the value of application consolidation. Discuss the value of organizational alignment. Chat about that aging workforce and new gen x worker you're trying to lure. What is your current infrastructure TCO? Find out. Think you can't quantify the value of those faddish 2.0 tools? You'd be surprised how much you can find if you dig enough about how companies are quantifying the value of those tools, or at least creating rock solid qualifying criteria. As your Intranet grows, and more and more solutions come "on board" to your Intranet, run them through a value to TCO process.

Inspiration and advocacy

Let's face it, an executive has a lot on his (her) mind, and spending money on that business-system-that-replaced-our-company-newsletter isn't likely the first thing on their mind. They need to be inspired to act. Better profits talks. So does greater sales. So if you didn't notice, your value creation exercises need to come before those executive briefings. But, there's more. What are your competitors (or industry relatives) doing? Get screen shots, stories and evidence. If you look hard enough, you'll find it. Your company doesn't think they need to add tools to lure the gen X worker? CHANGE that perspective. A good Intranet will require hard work and drive. If your executive team hasn't told you to research how you're going to deal with that aging workforce, TELL THEM. (Framing that conversation in a business value wrapper is pretty important).


Who "owns" your Intranet? The IT group? HR? Communication? I was once working with a client that was dealing with a HUGE issue within the organization around the findability of policy information.  Folks would literally spend HOURS each week looking for the right information because it was poorly organized, improperly written and had no search. The problem was, the policy department was too busy updating policies to think about doing something about this issue. Business value? You bet. The business could save the company millions each year. The problem was IT didn't feel empowered to drive the solution because their job was to "listen" to the business, and the P&P department just wasn't talking. So here's the thing: Ownership means you've got the capability and capacity to drive the business in the right direction, and this means the organizational structure of your Intranet team, no matter who they are, may need to change.

Think ahead

When should you rollout blogs and wikis? How about Social networking? Consolidate that DM / RM system that no one uses? How about when you should integrate your Intranet with your extranet? So here's the thing. There IS no right answer. Many people think that there's some standard Intranet Capability Maturity Model that dictates your traditional publishing Intranet should come before your application, business process Intranet, which should come before your collaboration Intranet, which should come before your social Intranet (I saw that in a Gartner slide once). Not in my experience. Our customers have unique needs, and because technology is changing so quickly, it is no longer appropriate to think of adoption of these technologies as linear. Put the people search first? come on? go ahead? it may be what you NEED. A good roadmap will explore your business imperatives alongside your Intranet roadmap and will evolve. Let's leave the "Ask users what they want" stuff for people who build okay intranets.