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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.