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In Step with Your Intranet - Information World Review, July 2002

In his second intranet report Gary Flood looks at a couple of success stories. In both, he discovers that company culture and employee attitude to intranets is at least as important as the technology that's used to build them. Written by Gary Flood - Information World Review - July 2002

Last month ("Is your intranet working?", IWR 181) we posed the question, what's gone wrong with the intranet? There seems little dispute that something has. According to Martin White, managing director of consultancy Intranet Focus, DTI figures suggest 60 per cent of the 450,000 intranets in the UK are under-used.

So what to do? Last time we also heard a lot from technology suppliers who had their various pitches to make. These are often very valid. But if you are an information or knowledge manager struggling to make your intranet or enterprise information portal, if you've progressed it that far - used, read, valued and updated then abstract promises of success aren't enough. What we need is some real world stuff here.

What are actual real-life customers doing, right or wrong? And what can be profitably learned from these case studies? The last point is important. It would be all too easy to rehearse the carefully worded PDFs of all the vendors' success stories. Instead, Information World Review has spoken to some key UK customers of intranet technology to get their views. Avis and KPMG are two that have clear messages.

There's nothing simple or stupid about how car rental giant Avis is using intranet technology but its implementation is a great example of how apt the implementation cliche 'Keep it simple, stupid' often is. Avis is a company that depends on procedures and rules on how it conducts business. When a customer rolls up to the desk there are as many as 30 different variables in completing the hiring process, so those procedures and rules come in a somewhat complex manual. In fact, it's a lot more than a manual - it's a useful, indeed core, everyday tool that users need. The firm has used an intranet to put all this information online in its 140 locations, it has trained 800 staff and it has employed UK consultancy OCS to build a customised content management system to maintain and extend this functionality.

'When we looked at intranets in the past they always seemed very whizz-bang, says Sharon Rigler, Avis's IT customer account manager. 'We didn't want any spinning cars or any of that kind of thing on screen. We'll get to the nice soft side of what you can do with an intranet. But we wanted to make sure our users, the content owners, had something useful in front of them straight away. We tried to make all the information they need no more than three clicks away.'

If Avis concentrated on a small, practical start, management consultancy KPMG has taken great pains to try and integrate all intranet activity within the scope of a general but focused business strategy - not from scratch or a lovely greenfield perspective, but even after a lot had already been put up.

That strategy is based on a clear goal: the intranet must give individuals the information they need to do their jobs. Yes, this is the mantra of all intranets, but Ian Simpson, KPMG's UK information architect, says this is a reality in his organisation. 'There are 12,000 people in offices and about another 4,000 working on client sites who have to use the intranet to get information they need. In our tax practice, you have to go to the web site to get documents - they're just not available anywhere else,' he says. Simpson stresses that KPMG takes great pains to measure and track use of content, and has a lot of feedback mechanisms to make sure this isn't so much a bind as a useful platform to aid productivity.

This all sounds great - but on one at KPMG sat down with a blueprint or vision in the mid 1990s when the intranet project was begun. Anyone with a scattered or broken intranet scenario should take heart from this. KPMG started as many have (or are); what's clever is that it has imposed order on the chaos by imposing, centralised control and standards. That includes an editorial panel and direction from the knowledge management team in the firm - which sounds like quite a lot of extras for an organisation that never set out thinking it would need them.

'We didn't want an intranet; we didn't know what it could do,' recalls Simpson. 'There was a lot of grass-roots activity going back six or seven years, with local information and local contacts with different departments or individuals trying to out do others. We ended up with 60, 70 sites.'

This is a situation all to familiar to White. ' In the UK and Europe the intranet is all too often seen as a hobby, with no senior manager wanting to take charge. You end up with intranet "black holes" as I call them, that collapse under their own weight. Yet intranets are an ideal way to get staff to work together and build collaborative business models. How else could this be done apart from with an intranet?

Note that neither the Avis or KPMG examples feature magical technology fixes either. Indeed Simpson is quite forthright on the subject. 'We had a beauty parade of portal vendors, and every single one tried to sell us a black box that would solve all our problems,' he says. 'But every business is unique and you can't be sold a black box. All they can give you is a toolkit; there are no off-the-shelf solutions. We see technology as being the forth in importance of all the things you need to worry about to get this right - the others are process, control and culture. A good intranet or portal isn't what you get out of a CD-ROM of software but the processes and business practices it can enable.'

You have to bear that warning in mind. It's a false dichotomy to say the intranet problem is a conflict between technology and business practices. It's more a matter of where you place the emphasis. But putting technology too high in the mix - by thinking what you need to do is just buy some new portal or content management or applet or what have you - is just not going to work. 'It needs to be a business tool, not something with sexy icons,' says Colin Brown, account director for OCS Consulting reminds us.

Business tool is a great phrase, but what does it mean? Well, it would help if it makes the company money. Put aside KM and the sometimes ineffable claims of collaborative work for a second. If the intranet can enable a discrete process as Avis and KPMG have found - it will get used, noticed and valued.

Analyst firm Meta Group has provided some clues on how to get there. 'Senior management of many businesses expect payback within six months to a year,' says David Yockelson, its senior vice president and service director of electronic business strategies. ' It is important to encourage a more long-term view, particularly when portals are categorised as a feel-good technology, often to capitalise on knowledge management initiatives, to create communities for geographically dispersed employees and to assist merger and acquisition activities. This means that showing how they will pay off can be a difficult challenge but not an impossible one.'

Meta says that improved productivity is often a gain from intranet/portal deployment, but this is just one aspect. It uses the example of a global PR firm that has earmarked $13 million for its worldwide portal over the next fours years. Meta says it forecasts this company will recoup a cashflow return of $29 million during the same period due to increased sales (64 per cent), improved information access (18 per cent), faster enterprise location, global collaboration, streamlined publication processes, travel savings, shorter time to new employee productivity (15 per cent) and anywhere / anytime access.

Here's a specific to ponder: 'A common practice at the firm was to issue an email to all staff to find those with particular business experience in, for example confectionary, for a new client prospect. This information can now be found in five minutes via the portal. Measurable benefit is found by comparing the number of emails issued previously against improved productivity.'

So what are we saying? That many firms have intranets but may not make the best of them. The value is there if you organise things. Technology can help - for example, look at how video content and other rich media can be added to intranets, with companies as diverse as Yahoo, Divine and Plumtree offering such add-ons if you want them - but it's not a be-all and end-all. 'An intranet could run on photocopiers and string phones if the will were there. The final word isn't technology or business process, it's collaboration, and the desire to make it work. Don't blame the jet if the pilots can't agree on where they're going.

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