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The unfilled promise of corporate intranets

Both users and creators of corporate intranets are frustrated. In a recent Moreover survey, 58 percent of respondents said the Internet was their primary information resource at work, but only 11 percent considered the intranet to be their main source of information. Given all the money and effort that has gone into intranet sites, why do users find so little value in them?

By 1998, companies were already spending billions on intranets under the assumption that they would improve communication and lower costs. Soon private intranets began to look pretty much like the public Internet, an un-navigable mess of links and pages. Merrill Lynch, for example, recently reported having 200 separate intranet sites – sites, not pages. It’s not surprising that busy users vote with their mice and head for Google.

What is surprising is that intranets have made so little headway, despite the availability of many software solutions. Content management applications allow managers to control the look and feel of their sites and slow page proliferation. These tools may lessen the administrative headache, but they don’t seem to be making the intranet any more attractive to employees. Perhaps it’s time to set technology solutions aside and find out what the users want.

We know that people have come to associate the Internet with research and information delivery. The Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that of 126 million users in the United States, 80 percent have used the Internet to answer a question. People seek all sorts of information on the Web, from health advice to product information to government forms, so it’s not surprising that when workers have a question, they also turn to the Internet. It’s fast, familiar and easy to use.

If users are satisfied with the Web as an information resource, it’s tempting to let employees use the Internet for research and the intranet for in-house content. However, searching for business information is more complicated than personal research. According to the Intranet Journal, users tend to underestimate the difficulty and overrate their own skill. Expert searchers know that search tools vary and a different tool will often yield a better result. However, few users try more than one search engine, even if the results are poor, according to authors Chris Sherman and Gary Price. Web-skills instructors report that users often depend on simple search strategies and pick an answer from the first page of results, assuming the search engine got it right. Simple search strategies are fine for locating a recipe for mango chutney, but inadequate for comprehensive research about a competitor’s new product.
Persistent users may be willing to put in more effort, but that’s time consuming. Outsell, Inc. reports that the average knowledge worker spends about eight hours a week searching. Most people are paid to find -- not to search -- so it’s reasonable to help employees access information more efficiently and recoup some of that time. Both the worker and the company benefit from an intranet that offers search training and on-demand assistance from information professionals.

Another important barrier to serious research is the invisible Web. For every page available on the free Internet, Bright Planet estimates that there are 500 pages behind firewalls or registration screens. Many of the best resources, from The Wall Street Journal to the prestigious journal Science, are not free because publishers wish to make a profit. The more credible and important the information, the more likely you will have to pay for it. One approach that addresses both searching proficiency and efficient use of for-fee services is to treat the intranet as a virtual library, and use the time-tested methods of information management and provision that librarians have established over decades of information management. Users gain quick access to reliable sources, and managers can assess both the cost and the usage. A virtual library can help turn the intranet into a real portal with both key internal and external information available in one place.

Users have come to depend on the Web as an information resource for its speed and ease of access, but many of them need help to use it as a business tool. The thoughtful selection and organization of information resources gives users a good reason to go to the intranet—it saves them time. They don’t have to filter through all the stuff on the Web. Instead they know that by making the company intranet the first click, they will have the best chance of quickly finding what they need.

Sandy Plisch is a principal at Coherent Partners, LLC, a technology management-consulting firm in Madison, Wisconsin. She can be contacted via the web at or via telephone at 608/442-0120.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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