People: The Heart of Your Portal

by Toby Ward — Don’t fall into the trap of relying on out-of-the-box solutions for solving all of your problems. Successful portals have a foundation built on people, not technology. Portals must be based on employees and the work they undertake during an average workday. If a portal could be likened to a house, then technology is equivalent to the wiring and appliances while people serve as both the foundation and the inhabitants.
At the risk of oversimplifying, an intranet portal is a web gateway and source for online information, business tools and people collaboration. Despite the success of portal vendors such as Plumtree and up-and-comers like TiCorp – and the benefits their solutions offer – the majority of intranet portals to date have been custom-built by internal IT teams. However, while IT should be a portal’s best friend, IT should never be the starting point for planning a portal.


Portals start with people and planning (for more information on the planning process, visit Intranets).

Critical to the planning process will be your ability to restrain IT folks from technical specifications and evaluations until a proper plan is constructed. Just as communications people should not be involved in choosing the supporting technology based on the ‘look-and-feel’ of vendor case studies, IT staff should be limited to a participating or secondary role while determining the intranet’s purpose and function as a business tool. Planning falls upon the shoulders of the business owners.

“Those who view an intranet project as a technology project will fail,” writes Eric Brown and James W. Candler in the The Elements of Intranet Style. “An intranet is a communication project; technicians make it happen. Exclude technical specialists from early intranet planning.” Perhaps a little harsh, but the point is made.


Not surprisingly, intranet ownership continues to be a hot-button issue and source of adversity at many organizations today. Without engaging and involving all user, content and application stakeholders, you will risk running into many political roadblocks. In the majority of organizations, technology is not the biggest intranet challenge. The biggest challenge is politics – competing priorities and most specifically, the issue of ownership and governance.
IT or Corporate Communications has traditionally ‘owned’ the intranet. As intranets have grown in importance – touching all aspects of an organization – the single proprietor model makes little sense. More often than not, a centralized governance body with representation from all business units and content stakeholders is required to govern the portal. This central body, often called a ‘steering committee’ or ‘web council’, should serve as the centralized, policy-making body. More importantly, the committee should serve as the voice and representation of the diverse employee population.

Sprint PCS knows how important portal ‘ownership’ is and addressed the issue before a single line of code was spit-out. After undergoing a lengthy assessment phase that included team meetings and one-on-one interviews with stakeholder, Sprint PCS had a consultant develop a master plan for developing the portal. As a result of the plan, Sprint PCS formed a web council called the Intranet Process Owners Group (IPOG). The formation of IPOG didn’t happen overnight, however, and underwent five major steps:
  • Council sponsor appointment
  • Definition of the Council’s mission and vision
  • Definition of the roles and responsibilities of Council members
  • Recruitment of council members
  • Ongoing measure to ensure the continued success of the Council
Sprint’s IPOG has been extremely successful with a core group of some 15 representatives from IT, Marketing, Customer Solutions, Sales & Distribution, Finance, Legal, Human Resources and more. A complete listing of all IPOG representatives with contact information is available on the intranet portal, Connected. While Sprint PCS uses multiple channels to measure the performance of the intranet portal including metrics and feedback, employees are encouraged to become involved via the IPOG representative for their department or business unit.

“IPOG is instrumental in decision making and bringing new ideas to Connected.
They're also key to identifying and solving challenges,” says Julie Nurski, Connected’s ‘champion’ and Internal Communications Manager at Sprint PCS. “Without IPOG, I think the centralized intranet would be impossible to maintain.”

IPOG representatives have broad responsibilities include developing strategy for their own department sites, providing input on site goals, day-to-day content management, as well as usability testing. “IPOG doesn't deal with IT or network issues and doesn't get into database driven sites or high-end-development sites,” adds Julie. “The content management is for simple sites only. If it gets complex, the Web Development Team (IT) steps in.”

Today, Connected is home to more than 30,000 Sprint PCS employees and accessed by more than 80,000 total Sprint Corp. employees. It’s a personalized portal built using Macromedia’s Cold Fusion. Users can customize different elements of their home page including news, links, weather, and more.


The better you understand user needs and expectations, the better your chances of deploying a successful portal. User surveys are excellent qualitative and quantitative tools for gauging user requirements. Surveys need not be long, or sent to all users (a representative cross-section will suffice), but are valuable in determining the strengths and weaknesses of the current intranet environment. This survey is usually best conducted online – saving time and money, and guaranteeing a higher rate of response.

P.G. Daly, a regular Intranet Journal columnist, recently conducted an online survey at her company (read What Happens When the Intranet Users Have Spoken?). After constructing an online survey using an off-the-shelf product, she e-mailed all employees with a link to the actual survey and an incentive – a random drawing for a DVD player. 650 respondents completed the survey – an impressive 33% response rate. “Most importantly, it managed to get people who weren't even aware the intranet existed as well as people who very rarely use it to provide valuable feedback,” adds P.G.

Survey results provide a great macro view of user needs and expectations, but focus groups are excellent tools for digging deeper into the consciousness of your employee body. While user focus groups were used sparingly in the early days of intranets, they’ve become standard in many organizations that demand a more intimate knowledge about their target audience for better tailoring the portal – maximizing use and ROI (see  Measuring the Dollar Value of Intranets for more information on intranet ROI). Issues that I’ve explored with client employee focus groups range from home page color schemes, to content preferences, to page download times and the use of scrolling.

American Century Investments recently undertook a redesign of their enterprise portal. Before doing so they conducted formal and informal focus groups with more than 150 employees – or approximately 5% of their users (“Pulling in the reins”, Virtual Business Magazine, November 2001).

Toby Ward, a former journalist and a regular e-business columnist and speaker, is the President and Founder of Prescient Digital Media. For more information on Prescient’s CMS Blueprint service, or for a free copy of the white paper “Finding ROI”, please contact us.