A Technical Communicator’s Role in Planning, Developing, and Maintaining a Corporate Intranet Site
Corporate intranet sites can be very powerful tools for employees. If designed well, intranets can provide a valuable means for communication by distributing information to and among employees in an efficient and usable way. Specifically, intranets can be efficient vehicles to communicate company, departmental, and team information and goals. Excellent planning, development, and maintenance of corporate intranets can ensure that the intranets are successful, that they are cost-effective, increase productivity, and employees like and actually use them (Theo Mandel 1).
Unfortunately, many corporate intranet sites have not been successful; in fact many intranets are just the opposite, costing companies money. Often, intranets fail because they do not contain information that is useful to employees or they are too difficult or impossible to use. In 2000, Jakob Nielsen had estimated that in the year 2001, $100 billion would be lost because of poor intranet usability (1). This can be due to: “employees wast(ing) inordinate amounts of time trying to find answers to their problems, and most companies have no active programs in place to improve their intranets or make them into productivity tools” (Nielsen 1). Lisa Ann Jackson also sees the importance of a well-designed intranet, stating that “a poorly designed intranet can quickly frustrate and disillusion users, sending them back to previously learned methods of accomplishing tasks” (qtd. in Jackson 212).
Why does this continue to happen? Corporate intranets have been around for a little less than a decade, yet they do not seem to be fulfilling their potential. An important thing to think about when trying to answer this question is how publishing has changed. Intranets, and the Internet, are types of publishing, and as Daintry Duffy points out “as Web publishing tools proliferated, people throughout the company started cranking out content like crazy and posting it willy-nilly” (2). Richard Colvin also points out that web publishing is missing some important aspects that can be found in traditional publishing, that “traditional publishing has been very organized and its steps are well understood…” (338). This is very similar to what happened to desktop publishing in the 1980s; prior to desktop publishing tools, professionally trained writers and graphic designers were the only ones with access to publishing:
The almost overnight proliferation of desktop-publishing technology has attracted and, through management expectations, forced many people with no training in the visual arts to take responsibility for a wide range of printed material. Increased access to publishing tools (Ronnie Shushan and Don Wright xi).
Often, there are no organized steps in corporate intranet publishing, such as planning, developing, and maintenance. Some companies do not know how to plan and develop an intranet, they “have very vague ideas about intranet deployment plans” (William P. Wagner, Q.B. Chung and Todd Baratz 141). Another possible reason for this poor maintenance is “most intranets have grown undirected and unchecked” (Mandel 1).
In order for a corporate intranet site to be successful, I believe there should be a project manager, an individual who could lead the planning, development, and maintenance stages of the project. I also believe that the single most qualified professional for this position would be a technical communicator. Much of the existing literature prescribes partial strategies to improve the well-known issues surrounding intranets, but there does not seem to be an established, complete strategy, one that includes specific stages and roles. The remainder of this paper describes a methodology that can be used when creating an intranet. The proposed methodology describes possible stages of an intranet project in a large company and the roles and contributions a technical communicator could provide.
The Planning Stage
The planning stage of a corporate intranet would include obtaining buy-in from senior and middle management, the formation of a cross-functional team, and defining the goals and requirements of the intranet. Each of these actions could be necessary to set the stage for a successful corporate intranet.
Buy-in from Senior and Middle Management
Buy-in from senior and middle management could be very important. First of all, management is responsible for and creates the company’s budgets. Sometimes intranets can fail due to a lack of resources. By appointing a project leader for an intranet project, part of this is taken care of; there is a person whose job responsibilities include working on the intranet project. Also, as a project manager, the technical communicator could plan and forecast not only for the planning stages of the project, but also for the developing and maintenance of the intranet.
To obtain management buy-in, the project manager should meet with each of the departmental managers. During these meetings, the project manager should gather information regarding the managers’ ideas for how the intranet could be of use to their department. At this point, the project manager could also bring up that the departmental managers could enforce that employees use the intranet by utilizing the intranet as a way to communicate information. (Wagner et al. 142). As the project manager acquires this information, not only is information gathered to create a successful and useful intranet, but the departmental managers also realize how the intranet could help, contributing to their buy-in. During the meeting, the project manager should also provide additional information regarding how the intranet could be used. Some common uses include promoting effective communication, providing quick and easy access to correct information, help project planning and tracking, and promote cross-organizational teamwork (Michael Harvey 2). An additional goal for this meeting could be for the project manager to ask each departmental manager for a qualified representative to participate in the intranet’s cross-functional team. The departmental representatives should possess effective communication skills and be qualified to represent their department’s needs and requirements.
Technical communicators have the skills to obtain management buy-in because we are effective communicators and we are excellent at communicating information across departments. Technical communicators can also be effective at planning projects and some can know a lot about web technology.
The project manager should lead for the cross-functional team. Corey Wick states that “(technical communicators) are exceptionally talented in working across functions, departments, and disciplines” (524). As mentioned above, the cross-functional team should include a representative from each department. This individual would be responsible for communicating the department’s needs to the cross-functional team as well as communicating relevant information regarding the intranet back to the department. In addition to departmental representatives, the cross-functional team should also include developer(s) to design and create the starting intranet pages—the home pages. Often times a technical communicator can fulfill this role if the technical communicator possesses intranet development skills. Developers serve an important role on the cross-functional team because they will be involved in the development and maintenance stages. The developers’ involvement at this point of the process should be to make sure ideas are technically feasible and that they will be able to develop the proposed ideas for the intranet.
Another representative that could be a part of the cross-functional team is a usability engineer. Some technical communicators are usability engineers and would be capable of fulfilling this role as well. A usability engineer could ensure that the intranet is designed to be user-friendly. It is the usability engineer’s responsibility to represent the users—the employees.
The tasks of the cross-functional team are to come up with the goals and requirements for the intranet, and to develop and design the intranet, mainly the home pages.
The first task for the project manager and the cross-functional team is to define the goals and requirements for the intranet. The project manager already has valuable input regarding information concerning the intranet’s goals and requirements. The project manager obtained this information during the one-on-one meetings with the departmental managers. Also, each member on the cross-functional team could contribute additional ideas.
The goals and requirements define what the intranet is designed to do (Wagner et al. 142). The usability engineer could act on behalf of the users to ensure that employee goals and requirements are being represented and that the employees can easily use the intranet. The usability engineer should conduct user studies to determine audience needs and wants, as well as meld the corporate goals with the users’ needs (Jackson 214). The departmental representatives could act on behalf of the employees from their department. The developer(s) could contribute to defining the system and functional requirements for the intranet.
Nielsen brings up a good point to keep in mind while coming up with the goals for an intranet, “bottom-line efficiency must be the only design goal for intranets” (1). This means that each goal and requirement should promote efficiency by ensuring that employees could use the intranet easily and effectively. The cross-functional team, especially the usability engineer, should keep this in mind when developing the goals and requirements for the intranet.
The Development Stage
During the development stage of a corporate intranet, organization, content guidelines, standards, departmental involvement, and design need to be completed. Each of these tasks can be very important to ensure that the intranet is successful, and they also set the stage for maintenance of the intranet.
An intranet should be organized well to help ensure success. Without great organization, it could be difficult for employees to easily use or locate necessary information. If information is difficult to find or access, employees may resist using the intranet.
An easy way to determine organization is to figure out “how potential users are already communicating with each other…structure the intranet around that natural flow of information” (Jackson 216). By organizing the intranet in this way, employees may have fewer problems associated with figuring out a new process to complete the tasks they have already been performing. Often intranets have been organized by functional categories. This type of organization could contribute to the failure of corporate intranets because many processes employees complete reach across departments. I think organizing information by what employees want to do keeps the focus on the process and is conducive to completing it.
Another tool to keep in mind while developing the organization of an intranet are the searching capabilities. While it may not be wise to rely on the search tool as a way for users to find information, it could be a valuable supplement to the usability of the intranet. The usability engineer can help determine the employees’ searching needs.
A good way to organize the intranet would be to anticipate how the user would find the intranet most useful. The usability engineer could conduct user analysis to figure out how employees would use the intranet. And technical communicators often fulfill a role of process analysis, a necessary item to figuring out how users currently perform their jobs.
Many of the steps mentioned above help in deciding which content to include on the intranet. A lot of this information could be derived from the manager meetings conducted during the planning stage and also from the goals and requirements obtained and created by the cross-functional team.
All information should be present on the intranet for a reason. Information that is going online may require some additional changes. Jackson states that information present on an intranet should go through the following process: “turn facts into information and information into communication, thus helping the intranet achieve its purpose as a new medium for communicating in an organization” (212). It is important to design information to be appropriate for online use.
All information on an intranet should focus on offering value to employees and the company. Common types of valuable information present on an intranet include policies and procedures, technical documentation, style guides and other standards, newsletters, announcements, press releases, and departmental and project information (Harvey 1).
Another important item regarding the content of an intranet is duplicate sources of information. To ensure that information is both consistent and correct, information that is present on the intranet should not be accessible to employees in other places. This also “ensures that employees draw upon the new content and services, companies should shut down access to that information by other means” (Duffy 4).
Deciding on and managing the content of an intranet falls under the area of knowledge management. As Wick points out, “technical communicators’ core competencies enable them to become legitimate contenders for leadership roles in knowledge management” (527). Some technical communicators could fulfill the role of the intranet’s knowledge manager.
Standards can contribute to an intranet’s success. Standards for an intranet can include information about allowed content, style guidelines, linking, navigation, and even actual web site templates. Often, intranets that do not have standards may not succeed. Duffy observed that there is a need for “consistent design templates, style guidelines, navigational techniques or structured databases to provide any semblance of order” (2).
A technical communicator is very qualified to identify and design a set of standards to adhere to for an intranet site. Technical communicators typically fulfill this type of role and have obtained professional training and experience in this area.
Style guidelines would outline requirements for each web page. The requirements can include information about font type and size, colors, graphics, linking depth, etc. The templates can be setup for web site administrators to use. They could enable employees who are not web developers to administer their own individual web sites.
There have been many different strategies and occurrences regarding the involvement of different employees. One method that is common in the intranet literature is for the department or person most involved in the intranet to maintain the starting intranet pages—the home pages. This leaves the individual departments and process owners in charge of their own web sites. Typically, these web sites can be accessed through the home pages via links. The individuals also decide how to link their content:
to further improve organization, individual Web site administrators will be able to specify to what categories their sites should belong. This will allow the people closest to the information to decide how to best categorize it (Wagner et al. 143).
This method seems to make the most sense, and may be the most feasible, especially in larger companies. These individuals should also abide by the style guidelines and could use the templates to develop their sites.
Another benefit to this method is it relieves the project manager of the enormous, impractical responsibility of the entire corporate intranet, allowing the much needed time for the maintenance stage.
In addition to the efforts listed above, the design of the intranet’s home pages should be carefully thought out and planned. It should facilitate growth, goals and requirements, and organization. The intranet’s home pages should also act as an example for other web pages, including adhering to the style guidelines. An important thing to keep in mind while designing the intranet are the users. Usability engineers are trained to keep the user in mind, and most use a user-centered design approach to make sure the intranet is designed for great usability.
The Maintenance Stage
The maintenance stage of an intranet project can often be unplanned for. Some companies may not plan or budget enough for the maintenance of their intranet sites. The model I have been discussing so far has set the stage for maintaining an intranet site.
First of all, if possible, a dedicated employee has been assigned to this project—the technical communicator assigned the role as the intranet’s project manager. The project manager’s involvement thus far has ensured that the project has been properly planned for and developed. Now at the maintenance level, the real work begins. It may be appropriate to enlist other technical communicators during the maintenance stage. As mentioned above, the technical communicators can provide the knowledge management including enforcement of the standards and also the maintenance of the home pages. In addition, technical communicators could provide additional services such as editing and writing for the intranet sites, and provide training on how to develop individual intranet sites. The project manager should also evaluate the success of the intranet.
Important maintenance tasks regarding the intranet’s home pages include ensuring that “all the department pages would be properly linked, and all intranet services, like searching, would be readily available to everyone” (Wagner et al. 142). Of all the intranet sites, the home pages may be the most dynamic. In addition to constantly updating and creating links to the other individual web pages, the dynamic content is likely to be present on the home pages.
Another task technical communicators could be responsible for once the intranet is up and running, is to provide services to the other departments and process owners. These services may range from editing and writing content, to training and developing. Technical communicators are often technical writers and editors. This is a valuable service technical communicators could offer to the individuals posting web sites. Through this involvement, the technical communicators could ensure that the published information is clear and meaningful.
The project manager could also provide training to individuals about web site administration, how to use the templates, and inform them of the standards and of the process required to publish their content. The project manager could also teach these individuals how to begin the process for getting a web presence.
In some cases the project manager (or a developer) may be asked to actually develop an intranet site. This will be reserved to departments or functional groups that do not have the skills or resources available for intranet development.
As internal sites are published, there could be a process set in place to verify that all information and content follow the standards. This could also include a notification to the technical communicator when new content is published. The technical communicator could check for problems in addition to the style and content guidelines. The technical communicator should “police [the] intranet for broken links, incompatible technology, large or slow graphics, and other obstacles between [the] employees and the information they need” (Michele Gordon and Brett Fielo 1).
As more and more content is published, a technical communicator could also maintain the style guide to adapt to the content and the changing needs of the company.
One way to evaluate an intranet’s success is to observe users. Gathering information about the users (the employees) could be done in multiple ways. A few common techniques a usability engineer may use include usability testing and questionnaires. Another method is to “provide a feedback link” (Gordon and Fielo 1). The feedback link could allow the technical communicator to see what employees have to say about the intranet, and the technical communicator’s response could provide a means to help ensure employees’ understanding and acceptance of the intranet.
There are other metrics that could be collected and evaluated regarding the intranet’s success. There are many tools available that gather information about a site’s traffic. The technical communicator could study this information to find out data such as how long employees are on the intranet, how they navigate, how often they access specific pages, etc., providing valuable information that can be used to improve the intranet and to evaluate its success.
I have just outlined and proposed a methodology for planning, developing, and maintaining a corporate intranet. I have also discussed important roles people can fulfill during and throughout the different stages of an intranet project. For this methodology, a technical communicator plays a big part. I feel that technical communicators possess many of the skills that can contribute to the intranet project.
Currently, and even more so in the future as corporate intranets become more popular and extensive, their success may become more important to companies. I also think that corporate intranets will become larger (contain more information) and become more complex. Wagner et al., predict “over time corporate applications could be written in languages like Java to run directly through the browser. In short, we have enough evidence to believe that the time has come to pay special attention to Web-based applications” (141). With this in mind, I think technical communicators should start preparing for and fulfilling the roles outlined in this paper, especially for the role of project manager. To prepare for this role, technical communicators can gain knowledge and expertise in web technology including developing intranet sites, usability engineering, and knowledge management. Technical communicators should also focus positioning themselves to be qualified and effective project managers. These skills, in addition to traditional technical communication skills such as, writing, editing, etc., will enable technical communicators to contribute and take leadership positions in the growing importance of corporate intranets.
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Last modified December 30, 2005 at 05:04 PM