Beating back the political challenge of intranets

by Toby Ward — The greatest barrier to intranet success is politics. Technology, budget, skillset are all secondary barriers. The intranet is a political football.
Most intranets are still viewed as cost centers and they don’t grab the attention and focus of senior management. As such, the current state and evolution of the intranet is left to middle managers mostly in communications, IT and HR who have limited power and decision-making ability, and a limited budget.

However, the intranet represents the entire organization, not just a department, business unit or silo. Therefore, communications, IT, HR and all the other business units and corporate departments are left to cooperate and collaborate on a single channel representing all.

This cooperation and collaboration is of course usually in the absence of little or no direction from senior management. So, the kids are left to themselves to play nicely. Uh-oh.

Of course we all know by now that….

  • Communications sees the world quite differently than IT
  • IT views the intranet far differently than HR
  • HR are not technologists and are focused on people
  • Business units have a laser like focus on their own markets and profit & loss
  • Finance cares about the bottom-line which is not a driver of intranets
  • Etc., etc.

And so the predictable happens: conflict.

  • Conflict over vision
  • Conflict over ownership
  • Conflict over application priority
  • Conflict over content
  • Etc., etc.

With predictable conflict, little consensus and no direction from senior management, the intranet stalls. Often, it stalls for years.

Centralized vs. Decentralized

A 2001 study of 500+ intranet managers by Melcrum Research of London, England, found that 74% of them identified “content management” – the creation, publishing and management of content on the intranet – as the top intranet management issue. “Insufficient control and ownership” of the intranet, was cited by 46% of managers, making this the 6th ranked issue. Number eight on the list, with 43%, was politics. Inexorably intertwined, ownership and politics together rank number one on the issues list.

“If you don’t have structure, you’re going to constantly run into politics,” said Terry Lister, Partner and Leader of IBM Canada’s Business Consulting Services at an IQPC Intranets for Corporate Communications conference in Toronto, Ontario.

“Without a governance structure with standards different silos try to do something in parallel (their own thing) and it costs more… and will lessen the user experience.”

The need to resolve political and ownership issues has driven the demand for a defined governance model, a structure outlining the ownership and decision-making process. Three governance models in particular stand out: decentralized, centralized and collaborative or federated.

Centralized, more common in early stage intranets or smaller companies, is characterized by single ownership consolidated in a single department, often IT, HR or corporate communications. Centralized intranets are highly controlled, regulated and bureaucratic with one department acting as the lone sheriff and boss of all publishing and design. While process rules the day and there exists more consistency across the intranet, a centralized intranet is not as responsive to the needs of stakeholders and content owners and highly restricts creative freedom and ingenuity.

The “wild west” or “intranet sprawl” approach to development and management is often the end result of decentralized intranet ownership, which is more common in larger organizations.

“Everybody had their own server or intranet site – hundreds or thousands – that allowed many intranet ‘flowers’ to blossom,” says Lister. “The problem was that a lot of the flowers went stale and withered but stayed on the vine, and it became increasingly difficult to find the right information through all the stale clutter. And I don’t think we helped a lot of employees through this approach.”

Ultimately, the decentralized model has no one owner and promotes maximum freedom for content owners and publishers, but promotes a sprawling mish-mash of sites with little or no standards and an increasing amount of resources to create and maintain many separate and disparate intranet sites.

Collaborative or Federated
The emerging next generation model of intranet governance is a collaborative or federated model most often taking the form of a cross-representative steering committee representing the major functional stakeholders in communications, human resources, operations, IT and business units. This model is most successful when the committee is championed by one or two key executives, often the CIO, the head of communications or human resources. Instead of no owner, or one single owner, a collaborative team governs the intranet through the application of policies, standards and templates.

Intranet sprawl

An additional problem lies with the traditional growth and evolution of the intranet. Initially, when intranets first came online in the early to mid-1990s, they were nothing more than a web brochure (a.k.a. “brochureware”) that sat on a small server under the desk of a web developer who served as designer, writer and webmaster.

Over time the intranet grew into disparate fiefdoms of many dozens or hundreds or thousands of independent intranets with incredibly confusing and differing navigation schemes, layouts, designs, etc. Dozens if not hundreds or even thousands of intranets in the largest corporations (at one time IBM had 9,000 intranet sites) proliferated on the corporate network.

Understandably, some CIOs and corporate bean-counters .took notice and began wondering why they were wasting so much time, money and resources operating a host of disparate intranets servicing the same employees. And so began the rationalization of intranet sites and resources that led to the likes of IT, Human Resources, Corporate Communications and other departments and business units having to cooperate and cohabitate together under a single structure.

“It’s ironic,” adds Lister, “we wouldn’t have these difficulties in a building where you have different groups existing together in the same space. But partly because of the way the intranet grew up, we didn’t create a corporate view and you have to struggle to pull the intranet back and find something better.”
Eventually someone catches on and says, “Hey – this is crazy! We have to consolidate these sites!”

With the rational consolidation of intranet sites and services under a central site or portal, disparate departments and stakeholders such as corporate communications, human resources, IT and varying business units now must cooperate under a lone umbrella with a single intranet home page. Along with this “forced” cooperation comes the predictable politics and competition for ownership of the intranet.
There are two principle methods for beating back the political challenge.

  1. Do it yourself. This is more difficult because you are an intranet stakeholder – a competing stakeholder with the others and therefore not non-partisan.
  2. Hire a consultant. A consultant has the outside expertise (hopefully the one you work with has extensive expertise. If not contact us and we can steer you to the right consultant, give you some free advice, or give you a quote).

Learn more on this subject by reading the following:

Toby Ward writes for several news blogs including from which this article was adapted. His other news blogs include and Toby is the President of Prescient Digital Media which specializes in Internet and intranet strategy, technology and total site management. For a copy of the free intranet white paper Finding ROI, please contact us.