Taming the Monster: Creating an effective Government Intranet

All organizations that disseminate information start with a dream: multiple websites integrating seamlessly into an intranet that minimizes the effort of managing content and maximizes stakeholder satisfaction
But for too many operations, the dream has become a nightmare, a Frankenstein’s monster of mismatched components that lurch onto monitors, terrifying audiences and causing managers’ sleepless nights.
Government organizations face unique challenges when setting out to tame the monster, starting with the focus necessary to organize the task. They can’t work with the obvious profit-drivers that enable private sector organizations to assess the damage being done when a monster enters their midst, or develop the return on investment (ROI) models that tell them the dream has been realized.
The ROI for a government intranet may not be derived from increased sales or profits, but it can be rapidly developed based on improving the efficiency of sharing and disseminating information, especially during an era in which political leaders promote government efficiency. After all, government departments exist to propagate information, so any initiative that demonstrably improves this core function will have an obvious impact on organizational goals.
Thus, the dream of intranet success may be more attainable for government organizations than their private sector counterparts because they are information-rich and often have well established organizational flows for sharing that knowledge. Conversely, the damage caused by a rampaging monster can be severe.
So what are the steps necessary for taming the monster? The first task is to determine if you have a monster that needs taming.
Take the test: here are five signs your intranet is more like Frankenstein’s monster than it is like a best-in-class government site:
  1. Its parts are bolted together from various sources, some of which aren’t quite official.
  2. Some of its parts are missing and some expired a long time ago.
  3. It lacks a brain and has taken on a life of its own.
  4. Your audience runs screaming when told to interact with it.
  5. It frightens its creator.

Technology: part of the solution or part of the problem?

After confirming that a monster requires taming, the appropriate technique must be deployed to tame it. And in this case, it’s important to recognize that the beast won’t be brought under control with technology. In fact, it was technology that spawned the fiend in the first place.
The theory of intranets is that the same technology that made the Internet a success would save internal communications. To a large extent, that is why the monster has parts bolted together from various sources, some of which aren’t quite official.
The technology makes it very easy to create content and link to other sources, encouraging a rapid proliferation of content with no consistent guidelines, design templates or structured databases. That phenomenon is wonderful for enabling the rich and eclectic world of the intranet, but it can become a productivity killer in a government organization.

The monster doesn’t have a brain, but you do

Two key ingredients were required to bring the monster into existence: technology that enabled the proliferation of content, and the absence of a plan to manage the creation and dissemination of the information. Obviously, the answer isn’t to destroy the technology: the solution is to develop an intelligent plan.
The plan must be grounded in a solid understanding of the organization’s goals and clear links between the intranet plan and overall objectives. The blueprint must be informed by a deep understanding of what the technology can do, an objective understanding of what the organization needs it to do and clear guidelines that ensure the resulting intranet achieves and sustains its potential.

(Re)assembling the monster’s parts

One of the most common cries heard from anguished users in the wake of an out-of-control intranet monster is “I can’t find anything!” A multitude of sites, and pages of information, hundreds of documents…all out of sight from the very audience the site purports to support. Without a defined information architecture (IA) — a roadmap that forms the basis for navigation, structure, labeling and categorization of content on your site — users will run screaming from the internal communication source that should be providing comfort.
Developing an IA is not easy, but it’s not so difficult that a little time, effort and feedback can’t be used to create a useful backbone to site content organization. Start with a full content audit, and take the time to document what exists, where it lives, and whether it needs to be changed, thrown out, or left in will help define an inventory of information.
Then using iterative techniques like: card sorting or a thorough examination of the current site hierarchy, defining possible cross-links, gathering feedback from current content owners, and defining content keywords that can be later used for building a search engine lexicon, the details and direction of your content structure and site navigation can be fleshed out.

What instruments will you use to tame the monster?

Once the content has been gathered, and its structure has been organized and defined, tools to help control all that information, in the form of a content management system (CMS), can be acquired and deployed. In other words, what materials and instruments are now needed to tame that monster?
But knowing what kind of CMS will meet the individual needs of users and the idiosyncrasies of your particular information monster requires more planning before bringing the site back to life. Again, knowledge of the site audience and content, determination of who is going to use these tools, and what business requirements are going to be met are all needed.

Keeping the monster caged

The question of how to keep the monster tamed, and for how long, can be answered with ongoing analysis of site ROI. While an imperfect science at best, engaging in ROI benchmarking and analysis can eventually lead to an intranet’s inherent value being a ubiquitous as the telephone, a PC, or email.
ROI measures can be split into hard savings (measures that are easily quantified such as reduced costs or increased revenues) and soft benefits (harder to measure and quantify like employee efficiency, morale and satisfaction, access to information and reduced frustration). It’s simple enough to calculate a figure for the reduction in time spent looking for information or the savings from not printing and distributing hard copies of documents. It is more difficult, but not impossible, however, to illustrate the soft (and more common) ROI of an intranet.

Taming the monster for good

Intranets deliver such demonstrable productivity wins for government organizations that they will remain a top-of-mind topic for the foreseeable future. And, like any good monster that has learned to thrive in its chosen environment, they will continue to evolve and mutate, challenging their creators to constantly keep them tamed.
Trends like blogging and building communities of practice are emerging as appealing enhancements to intranets, if those sites are guided and managed by the rigorous plan described in this article. If allowed to grow without the right controls, they could also allow the monster to break out of its cage.
So how does the creator stay ahead of this constantly evolving creation? Constantly remain up-to-date. The web contains numerous resources dedicated to intranet best practices, such as Prescient’s President, Toby Ward’s well read intranet blog.
Reading this information and applying it by using an intelligent methodology will allow you to use the key advantage you have versus the monster: you have a brain and it doesn’t.

Prescient Digital Media is a veteran web and intranet consulting firm with 10+ years of rich history. We provide strategic Internet and intranet consulting, planning and communications services to many Fortune 500 and big brand clients, as well as small and medium-sized leaders