The Politics of Intranet Ownership

by Toby Ward — What is the biggest challenge to achieving intranet success? You might be inclined to answer ‘technology’ or ‘budgets’ but, in reality, it is politics.
IT sees the world a little bit differently than corporate communications; communications sees the world a little differently than HR; no one understands marketing's world, except marketing.

How then are all these groups supposed to come together and agree on a joint intranet or portal? They simply cannot without proper mediation, controls and structure – they're just too different.

“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 Intranets for Corporate Communications conference in Toronto. “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.”

A study of 500+ intranet managers by Melcrum Research of London, England, found that amongst the top issues / challenges facing intranet managers were those of politics:

  • 74% 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
  • 43% of respondents cite politics as the top issue

Inexorably intertwined, ownership and politics together rank number one on the list.


Much of the problem lies in the immaturity of this nascent intranet technology. 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.

The 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.

Intranet Sprawl

As the technology grew-up alongside its richer and more popular Internet brethren, corporate intranets began to evolve to include human resource and purchasing applications, collaboration tools, business intelligence and real-time reporting tools. Soon every department in the company had an intranet of its own, thus giving birth to  ‘intranet sprawl’.

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.

Some CIOs and other corporate bean-counters understandably 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.”

Centralized vs. Decentralized

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 Model

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.

Part II Collaborative Governance (Intranet Politics Part II) examines the collaborative governance model and how companies use steering committees to oversee the decision-making process and evolution of the intranet.

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.