Use it or lose it ! How to rustproof your intranet portal

When intranet portals are working up to their potential, they can provide a host of benefits, including improved productivity, lower costs, increased worker flexibility, and even greater corporate agility. But when these same portals are designed incorrectly, they can cost big bucks while languishing from under-use.

Over the last few years, intranet portals have evolved from information and document repositories into primary workspaces for employees. This is where most companies are driving their intranets – from static content to dynamic interaction. Users access the intranet not only to read about the company’s vacation policy, for example, but also to find out how many vacation days they have remaining, and perhaps even to book their vacation time.

The problem arises when users do not avail themselves of this more evolved workflow tool. When it was just an information source, the intranet did not represent a significant investment, so its level of use was not critical. As a portal’s functionality evolves, however, the company has more skin in the game. The productivity and savings benefits outlined in the portal’s business case were predicated on usage. But when you build it and they do not come, that’s when the pain begins.

Here are five ways to make sure your intranet portal is adopted and your company realizes its full value.

1 Select the right functionality

Understand what the most integral and frequently used content and applications are within your company. Avoid obscure functions. Frequency helps develop the pattern or habit of using the portal on a regular basis.

A case in point is Psion Teklogix Inc. of Mississauga, Ont, a global provider of solutions for mobile computing, wireless data collection, and radio frequency identification technology. The company has more than 1,000 employees worldwide, who heavily rely on information produced centrally at the Mississauga head office.

The company built a marketing portal around the essential need of having what the firm’s Director of Information Systems, Grant Ferguson, called “a one-stop shop for product information.” As an information resource, Psion Teklogix’s portal is a great enabler for the company. It helps employees more easily share information, communicate and collaborate with each other.

Psion Teklogix staff work directly with customers throughout the world and often need immediate access to information such as product presentations, spec sheets, and technical product bulletins – information essential to answering customer questions and taking the sales process to the next stage. The company needed an intranet tool that would make it easy for users to find and pull down such information, just as soon as it was needed.

“We could be doing an RFID project in France and the sales people involved are interested in new features we’ve just released out of our engineering and development group,” said Ferguson. “Disseminating that type of product knowledge around the company is absolutely key for our sales and service teams. It enables them to say with confidence that this is what we’re able to do as a company, and have the material to back that up.”

In short, if the portal doesn’t have information or applications to help people do their jobs better, it won’t get used – because it doesn’t have to be used.

2 Understand how people work

Creating a portal that doesn’t get used stems from thinking about the portal from a technology perspective. It’s like saying, “if we install a word processor on everybody’s computer, people will write.”

Too often the decision on which portal to buy is based on a technology perspective as opposed to considering what is really needed of the portal. Is it document collaboration? Or is it more application integration? What’s the key business problem to be addressed?

Then the error is compounded by installing portal technology out of the box, not recognizing that there is a lot of work to be done. A portal is an enterprise-wide application, not just a piece of software. It’s about changing how people work and interact with one another. For example, instead of e-mailing a document or having a meeting with someone, people can use the functions of the portal to facilitate document collaboration.

When implementing the portal, take the time to observe and talk to end users to really understand how they are doing their jobs. Don’t just focus on a function; focus on how that function is to be implemented. You must be diligent in determining important details of the work process – details that people sometimes take for granted, even though it might be an important part of their job or an important step in the process. For that reason, use ethnographic techniques to talk to actual end users and directly observe them as they do the work processes that are going to be relevant to the intranet.

Understanding how people work will enable you to populate your portal with the most appropriate internal applications users need for their jobs.

3 Organize the site with users in mind

A user loses confidence in an intranet when information cannot be found, even if it is the fault of the user looking in the wrong place. That can lead them to the user writing off the portal as not useful. The best way to establish an intranet portal’s credibility is to anticipate how users might choose to find information and applications, thus increasing the likelihood that they will find what they seek. A well-organized site is one that capitalizes on the terminology that users are accustomed to and provides multiple alternatives to navigating the site.

Ferguson admitted that prior to revamping Psion Teklogix’s portal with Microsoft SharePoint in January 2005, it used to be difficult to find product information on it because the portal was not organized according to user need. “A lot of times, rather than look on the intranet, users would just phone or email the product manager here in Canada,” he recalled.

The overhauled portal now has alerts capability, which automatically notifies people when new information arrives in areas they are interested in. Staff in the field are now getting the information themselves or at least trying to get it before contacting product managers in Canada. “The investment has helped our field people self-service, which frees our product managers at corporate to focus on product development, rather than just answering questions they might have answered thirty times before,” said Ferguson.

When redesigning the portal, Psion Teklogix made the information product-centric rather than grouped by the product managers, marketing and communications people. As a result, the information is well laid out and the overall quality of the information is improved. This has resulted in a 40 percent increase in the number of unique visitors to the portal.

To facilitate loading the content, Psion added workplace software for SharePoint from CorasWorks Corporation, which Ferguson said lets the content be entered once although the information might appear in different places.

“If it is really onerous and painful for people to put the information in, it’s going to take away from how well the tool actually works,” he cautioned. A key characteristic of a successful portal is that its document repository is organized in four or five different ways but resides entirely within one file directory. For example, a Psion Teklogix business development representative with an opportunity in a specific vertical can access all relevant information for that vertical, as can a representative with an RFID sales opportunity who needs to see all products and collateral relating to that technology.

Structuring the information and applications in such a task-centric manner gives people a sense of trust that they can find the information they seek instead of the sales rep calling up the marketing department and saying what they need.

4 Get users involved

Intranets are about changing the way people work. Getting people’s feedback helps build their buy-in. The more people buy into the intranet, the more they will evangelize on its behalf. Departmental groups asked for feedback and input on the next generation of the intranet are often more than happy to contribute, provided their input is used to influence the design. Then, when the intranet does transition to the next iteration, they will feel some ownership in it and be more open to trying it out.

Psion Teklogix had a cross-functional group that included a small core team receiving input from all departments that would be contributing to the intranet. This small feedback group also included people in the field who would be needing the information provided on the portal on a regular basis.

5 Manage the transition

A large-scale redesign is an opportunity to reinvigorate interest in the intranet, encouraging wayward or lapsed users to again check out its value. When Psion Teklogix relaunched its marketing portal, management realized they could not just switch to the new version – they had to transition people and promote it.

The company held a scavenger hunt for information in the portal, with emailed responses entered in a draw for a prize. They also conducted training sessions, providing pre-recorded Web-based seminar style training. A 15-minute streaming video introduced the new portal, explaining its main features, how it is organized, and how to search it.

Even when the portal is established, take advantage of opportunities to promote and reinforce its value. If you have an internal information release, e-mail everyone with details on information-sharing or give a summary with a link back to the portal, where it is explained in detail.

In summary, success in launching or revamping an intranet portal largely depends on properly tackling the “people” issues, and a sound business case for it can be made by demonstrating how the portal can make people more productive. Given that your business case is based on the assumption that people will actually use the portal, recognize that it is not technology alone that will make it successful; it is the integration of the technology with how people work that is truly important.

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–Andrew Chak is Information Architecture Practice Lead at OnX Enterprise Solutions Inc. and author of Submit Now: Designing Persuasive Websites, New Riders Publishing, 2003. He can be reached

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