"Do We Really Need An Intranet Portal?" – How Valuable Is The Technology You Represent?

Sean R. Nicholson

Sean R. Nicholson

A couple of years ago, I was involved in the selection and construction of a new Intranet portal for a large telecom company. The organization had nearly 25,000 employees at the time, distributed all over the United States and they had previously relied heavily on an Intranet portal to communicate corporate events, share HR information, and collaborate on business documents.  The project I was working on at the time was focused on creating a brand new Intranet portal for a spin-off company.

One of the most memorable moments of the project occurred during one of the initial funding conversations, when a Senior Executive at the company asked a very simple question. Amid all of the discussions about functionality, Identity Management, timelines, user adoption, and vendor selection, the Senior Exec simply asked “Do we really need an Intranet portal?”  The question was powerful enough to quiet a room of 25 people and, for an uncomfortable 30 seconds or so, I mentally wrestled between blurting out a visceral response like  “Are you kidding?” and taking a more tactical response explaining the value of a portal. Luckily, while I was pondering the choice, one of my IT Execs jumped in and provided a quick, concise answer as to the value of the Intranet portal, which was good enough to get the funding conversation back on track. Eventually the project was funded, proved to be wildly successful (on time and under budget is always a good thing), and that particular Senior Exec got to fully realize the value of the portal in ways that had not previously been used in his organization. I still kick myself every once in a while for not having an “elevator speech” response prepared for the occasion.

Question Why

How often do we question the value of the technologies we support?

An interesting aftereffect from that meeting, however, were that rumors of the conversation quickly spread throughout our IT organization. I can’t tell you how many times I got on an elevator with other IT professionals and, after a few moments of silence, one of them would turn to me and ask “So…do we really need an Intranet?”.  We’d have a good laugh and part our separate ways on different floors.

To this day, I often reflect on the power of that simple question. The more I think about the situation, the more impressed I am with the fact that one person, in the midst of turbulent conversations had the courage to ask the simple question of “why”. Too often in IT, we press forward with technology, especially when it comes to legacy systems, without asking why we’re doing it. Sometimes we feel like we’re trapped by a proprietary platform, or maybe our end-users are resistant to change, so we simply pour money into costly upgrades or development efforts without raising our hand and asking “Why?” or “What is the alternative?”.  Different options always exist, so in these rough economic times, maybe it’s an ideal time to take a closer look at the technologies that are fueling your organization, compare them to the feature-functionality of new products, and determine whether a new product could actually do the job better for cheaper…or maybe whether you actually need the technology at all.

The second reason I often think about that situation has to do with a mindset of automatically assuming that the technology we advocate for is invaluable to the company. Regardless of whether your area of experience is Intranet, Business Intelligence, Data Warehousing, CRM, or any of the other IT realms, you need to be prepared for the question of “Why”. As your business partners begin to look for places to cut costs, reduce their overall application portfolio, or move to a Software as a Service (SaaS) model, you need to be able to realistically justify the technology you support.

To that end, here are my top 10 justifications for a corporate Intranet portal. I’d be very interested to hear additions that readers feel are important.

  1. A centralized location for corporate communications – This is more important to larger organizations than it is to companies of 25 employees. The larger and more distributed the organization, the more important it is to the corporate culture to have a single place where all employees can go to find information on company strategies, announcements, HR information, and special activities.
  2. Application and information aggregation – There is nothing more frustrating to employees than to have to open 15 different browser applications and 10 different application clients to find the information they need. Employees (especially those facing the customer) need to find information quickly and almost need the information to find them. Case in point, one of the more recent Intranets I worked with allowed the employees to look up a customer by name in the Intranet portal. The resulting page created a mashup of application information including links to the customers service contracts, open service tickets, and even a Google map of where the customer was located with the closest service technician shown on the map via an integration with a Global Information System (GIS) application. All of this information came from several different applications, mashed into a single view of relevant information.
  3. Federated Search – A good Intranet portal offers a federated search model, allowing end-users to use a single, simple search interface to find information stored in a variety of applications. For instance, the portal should be able to leverage APIs from the corporate HR system, document management system, as well as CRM and ERP applications. The value of locating information stored in disparate systems makes a strong business process improvement case for the ROI of a portal.
  4. Identity Management (aka “simpler sign-on”) – Modern portals provide a single point of entry to corporate applications and information, so they should either include an Identity Management (IdM) solution, or leverage a third party system. To ensure a high rate of user adoption, end-users should be required to authenticate as few times as necessary to support corporate security policies. This “simpler sign-on” schema reduces the number of times a user has to log in, saving time, and enhancing employee satisfaction.
  5. Knowledge Management and Collaboration – Through the use of collaboration tools such as knowledge bases, Wikis, forums, chat rooms, or blogs, Intranet portals capture the corporate knowledge of how things get done. These collaborative tools ensure that commonly repeated solutions are captured in a searchable manner that can be discovered easily by future employees. In addition, these tools mitigate the danger of allowing knowledge to “walk out the door” when employees leave the company.
  6. Decentralized Content Management – Intranet portals with integrated security and content management systems allow each department within the organization to manage their own content creation/management strategy. Long gone are the days where every article published to the portal had to be scoured and approved by a Content Manager in Corporate Communications. Instead, the Corp Comm group often establishes guidelines and best practices for the departments (and sometimes at the individual level) to follow. This allows for information to flow more freely within the organization and updates to the content to made in a more timely manner.
  7. Organizational Transparency (aka “silo-busting”) – An added bonus to the decentralization of content management is a transparency factor. The more content that is published by each department, the better the chance that the rest of the company will gain an understanding of their goals and strategies. This helps drive cross-departmental communication, reduces the amount of overlapping work being done, and drives organizational collaboration.
  8. Environmental Sustainability – More information stored in electronic format that is easily searchable naturally results in fewer file cabinets full of paper. Intranet portals can serve as document repositories for smaller companies and integrate with third party document management systems in larger organizations. The end result is less paper, and a better solution for the environment.
  9. Employee Satisfaction – The easier information is to find, the more likely an employee will be able to resolve the business problems they face in their daily duties. Whether it’s locating customer information in order to resolve a customer issue, or locating research information that the employee can leverage in their next presentation, the more business information that is available throughout the organization, the better decisions employees can make in their jobs and the more successful they will be.
  10. Customer Satisfaction – Last, but by no means least, is customer satisfaction. By centralizing information and providing access to federated search tools, customer-facing employees can reduce the amount of time it takes to locate customer information and can make better business decisions that reduce call handling times, increase first-call resolution in call centers, and lead to upsell opportunities that provide customers with enhanced services that meet their needs.

Comments And Reactions

  1. Dan Kneeshaw says:

    I love the statement about having to have “courage” to ask “why”. We need more people doing that.

  2. Great post Sean.

    A few more:

    11. Centralized coarse grained authorization policy enforcement (who has visibility to what apps).

    12. Tailored user experiences (HR employees should have a different experience than Sales)

    13. Process centric user interfaces – a portal can front many back end applications with a unified app experience. This eliminates the need for a CSR to be aware of the myriad of legacy apps necessary to complete a single task.

    Also, on the topic of alternatives…

    An alternative to the master intranet portal that sometimes is proposed is the master intranet wiki. The wiki is expected to become the single source of content within the org. This is attractive because it is cheaper than a custom portal deployment. Some wikis are powerful and can be extended with macros, so are attractive options.

    I am a big fan of wikis, and believe no organization should be without one (or many!) but I believe some of your 10 points speak to requirements that aren’t satisfied by using a wiki instead of a portal. Specifically: 2, 3, 4 and my 11, 12 and 13.

  3. Good post Sean!
    Often we forget the basics and talk only the latest creamy thoughts. If we actively think through the basics, lot of ideas would evolve.
    Keep Helping

  4. Great article. I think the question can be asked by asking further questions:

    – does the company need to communicate with its employees?
    – does the company need to allow employees access to information?
    – does the company need to have a system for knowledge management?

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