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13 November 2006

Modernising intranets

Just over a week ago, Microsoft released to manufacture their latest range of products and services that fall under the Office brand, including a heftily revamped Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 (MOSS). MOSS brings together and upgrades two former products - SharePoint Portal Server 2003 and Content Management Server 2002. For an overview of the history behind MOSS and an introduction to some of the new features, please check out the following blog posts:

This release comes at a good time. Information and communications technology have advanced rapidly over the past five years, but most of the benefits seem to have been realised in the consumer world. Internal business systems involving people have been much slower to evolve.

The central internal information system for most organisations is the intranet. And it seems that many organisations are coming round to the idea that the intranet is long overdue for a refresh. But whilst the IT department is ready to install new technology, there seems to be little focus on leveraging new features that mirror some of the biggest successes on the Internet. Instead, the requirements list is based on making some incremental improvements to the existing system - more structured document management, some extra workflow for web content publishing, a little more personalisation within the classic portal interface, some improved search results would be nice....

When I ask if people are familiar with internet services such as eBay, Flickr, YouTube and MySpace, the typical response is "oh yes, we don't let our people access those sites from the corporate network" or "we don't want anything like that - how on earth would we manage it?" or "our users aren't interested in technology, I don't think they have ever used those sorts of sites"... I usually start sighing when that last excuse is rolled out. It never ceases to amaze me how much and how often people underestimate each other.

Refreshing internal systems provides an opportunity to introduce new ways of working. You don't have to be bleeding edge - let the Internet shake out what works and what doesn't. And introducing new features doesn't have to be expensive. Quite often, the opposite is the case. The best way to try out ideas is to keep systems simple - minimal up front design and see how ideas grow as people start to experiment.

A good example of this approach can be found within the BBC, as documented by David Weinberger: The BBC's low-tech KM. And the man behind the process - Euan Semple - is now a free agent and advising other companies on how to adopt his approach. Don't believe me? Book a session with Euan.

Other organisations are also beginning to wake up to the idea of bringing Internet trends to internal systems, as blogged by Jon Husband over on Wirearchy: Enterprise 2.0 - on its way to a workpace near you?

If you are going down the Microsoft route, MOSS includes a variety of features modelled around some of the best successes on the Internet - blogging, wikis, news feeds, social networking tools, easy publishing to team and individual sites, integrated instant messaging are just a few for starters. Why not give them a try instead of sticking with the traditional ways of working?

When helping people design new information systems, I always give out the same advice: "be careful what you wish for". The more managed the environment, the more effort will be required to contribute to it and the less it will be used. The more rational the design, the less it will represent reality and the less it will be used (hint: people behave rationally when asked what they want - "I want all documents categorised so that I can search based certain properties" - and behave irrationally when it comes to the actually doing - "yuk, all these dropdown lists, I'll just use the default setting for my documents"). These days the effect is magnified. Whilst you set up immigration procedures to prevent information from entering your intranet without adhering to strict management rules, your customers will just go search the Internet and find out more about your organisation (and/or your competitors) than your employees know. Is that a good result?

Technorati Tags: SharePoint; SharePoint 2007; Intranet Design