Crafting an Intranet 2.0: If you build it, will they come?

First, a disclaimer: we haven’t built anything yet. Unlike other posts, I can’t share any examples of what we’ve done so far toward building a collaborative intranet since we still are very much in the planning phase. That being said, however, I think it’s still an opportune moment to reflect on some lessons learned and solicit advice on what others think about our proposed ideas. After all, if knowledge sharing has taught us anything thus far, it’s that we all have something to learn from one another…

Recently, I was checking out a Knowledge Sharing Wiki, which mentioned four different applications for institutional intranets. They included:

  1. Document sharing across an organization;
  2. Organizational staff directories;
  3. Online conversation space; and
  4. Centrally organized company policies, human resources information, etc.

Of the four, I would label 2 and 4 as the more conventional intranet functions while an increasing number of organizations (IFPRI included) now are clambering for 1 and 3- though not always through the intranet platform. For us, the question quickly became: Why not combine all four to create an all-in-one intranet?

When we first brought up the idea of having features such as customizable staff bio pages and RSS feeds on the new intranet platform, it was met with much skepticism from our IT department. “No one will use it” was their short answer to our proposed ideas. After conceding that it would take time for most staff to become actively engaged, we pointed out that many staff already have such profiles in Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networking software and some are using newsreader software such as Google Reader to stay up-to-date on current journal articles and websites of interest. Rather than building a new Facebook-like platform, we are proposing allowing staff to simply be able to update their bio information on the fly (they currently do so via web-based forms in Access), parts of which would also be automatically published to their public profile on the web. This, we argued, would reduce the time and effort of updating these pages in multiple locations while also giving staff more ownership and greater incentive for keeping the content current. Default content for these pages would simply be imported from the current staff directory, thereby avoiding the duplication of data entry and leaving it up to individual staff members to decide when to adopt the new way of updating their bio pages. Moreover, the addition of RSS feeds and the ability to follow their colleagues’ updated information would create a social networking type environment that would facilitate internal communication.

For online communication purposes, an internal blog using WordPress was launched last year (along with several public blogs), which is now featured on the intranet home page and used by staff for staying up-to-date on both work and non-work related news. Our goal is to fully integrate the blog into whichever intranet platform is decided upon (IT currently favoring Sharepoint due to its ability to be integrated with the Active Directory) and to make the posting of announcements and events as easy as posting a blog entry. Moreover, this type of information also would be shareable via RSS, calendars, etc.

As for document sharing and the online storage of company policies, HR info, etc., some of this already is being uploaded into Sharepoint, which seems to be able to handle document and form libraries rather well, includes RSS feeds, and supports full-text searching. Our concern here (and it’s a big one) is that Sharepoint does not perform well in low bandwidth environments, such as those faced by most of our outposted staff (see KM4dev online discussion of Sharepoint). Other document sharing platforms currently being used by IFPRI staff include Teamspace, wikis and Google Docs & Spreadsheets. Rather than limiting all staff to using a single platform, our idea is to be able to link to all of these services via the intranet portal. In the case of Teamspace, integration with Sharepoint would be quite straightforward while the different wiki platforms could either be integrated directly into whichever platform is used or simply by having their content displayed on a given page either via an iFrame or embedded RSS feed.

In sum, although no single tool or platform fits all the needs expressed by staff and management, Web 2.0 applications allow for outside services to be pulled in, remixed and displayed in various ways within a dynamic intranet platform. These new developments have caused some to predict that the lines between intranet and internet will become blurred and that the “classical intranet” will become history in a few years. At IFPRI, we are banking on such predictions coming true, taking stock in the idea that if information is easier to find, update and share, user behavior will adapt accordingly.

Blogging Good Practices

After promoting blogs and blogging in IFPRI for a while now there seems to be growing interest by staff to try it out. To guide them in planning their blogging endeavors our colleagues asked us about dos and donts of blogging. I started digging in my bookmarks and reader posts to see if I could find a post that sums it all up. I did find a lot of information, but nothing I could just forward to people, so I put together below list of tips. I shared this internally, and I thought it would be worthwhile posting here too.

Do you agree? Did I forget anything? Are there other posts and resources I should point my colleagues to?

One can create blogs for different purposes, and the following tips might not make sense for all possible applications (e.g. closed blog for personal reflection, or archiving for mailing lists), but those blog authors, who want to reach old and new audiences and engage with their readers might want consider them. At the end of this post you can find a list of all the posts I took the ideas from and a couple of blogs that are good starting points to read more.

Writing in the blogosphere is definitely more casual than writing scholarly papers, but also here the number one rule is to give credit to the ideas, quotes and pointers you got from other people. The main way to do that is to link to the original, but you can also name people and thank them in your post. Other tips include:

  • Link to relevant content: It not only gives credit to other’s work but also helps your readers to delve deeper if they want to.
  • Make it easy for people to find what they are interested in: Tag your posts, use categories and add a search box to your blog
  • Be open and embrace critique: If you are not sure about something, say so. Readers are much more likely to engage if they feel that you are interested in real conversation and in learning from and with them and do not just want to broadcast your ideas. That includes dealing with critical comments in the same way you deal with praise. Never delete comments unless they are clearly spam.
  • Ask questions: Questions in your post engage your readers. It helps them to respond with comments or on their own blogs.
  • Watch your language: What you are writing is on the internet for anyone to see, and the internet is a web of connections. So talking badly about colleagues, the own organization or even competitors will come back to haunt you.
  • Only post material when you have the proper permissions: Publications, photos, videos and other materials may be copyrighted. Sharing them on a public website is in those cases not allowed without permission from the person or organization holding the copyright.
  • Search for related blogs in your area and comment: Commenting on others work shows them that you care about their ideas and work and makes them aware that you exist. There is so much going on on the web, that you have to go where your potential readers are to show them you exist.

The posts that I drew on are Tips from a New Blogger, 9 Lessons for Would-be Bloggers, My Blogging Advice to Connect with your Readers, and Weblog Ethics. Good starting points for further reading are ProBlogger, and Beth’s Blog.