posted 15 Sep 2009 in Volume 12 Issue 10
The right choice
In the first of a two part series, Scott Donovan provides a step-by-step guide to overcoming the challenges associated with intranet technology selection and implementation
1. Setting the scene
I was recently tasked with a project and given the brief “we want you to implement a WCMS [web content management system] and redesign the intranet to make it work for us”. My initial response was to think ‘what a great opportunity to do what I have always wanted – build a new intranet from scratch, with a user-friendly WCMS, and provide lots of user-focused dynamic content. That is the model that I believe we should aspire to, so that is what we need’.
It turns out that what I want and what the business actually needs (timescales and budget considered) do not necessarily align particularly well with each other. It is true that the overall concept of the model is sound and generally considered standard practice for an enterprise-level design, but in order to select the right systems and technology we need to work within specific parameters and ensure we deliver core requirements, before looking at all the bells and whistles we might wish to have in addition.
A quick recap on the focus of a law firm intranet
At the outset, let us review what we mean when we talk about an intranet. The fundamental purpose of an intranet is to provide information about your business to your business. We need to focus on the core business functions of fee-earning, matter-centric or client-centric information and knowledge aspects for the legal community, as they provide the business revenue stream. However, the intranet also needs to provide data such as strategic information, work life, social events and HR, plus include all the other support functions that make up the entire business community, in equal measure.
It is clear that the intranet must be usable, navigable and highly searchable. Content should be concise and presented in ways that assist users to carry out activities in task-oriented ways. If you are attempting to direct people through your intranet as part of their daily activity, you must support them in their work and make sure that the intranet provides them with the tools and information they need – when they need it. If you want people to look at the intranet regularly you need to provide them with views of information that update regularly, and consider sending them messages to prompt them when something new – in which they have expressed an interest – is added.
Can you reduce e-mail traffic through improvements to your intranet? Will e-mail alerts about updates to content create more traffic? Maybe this is a moot point, but I suggest that managing e-mail traffic comes down to good user education about what messages to send and in what circumstances. But it is the case that clear information on the intranet may reduce e-mail traffic of one type – for example, questions such as ‘how do I…?’. There is also the opportunity to add functionality to your intranet to broadcast e-mail alerts about content that is relevant to certain people based on their preference or interest – so the intranet may increase e-mail of another type (calls to action). Personally, I see the latter as a step forward – the overall effect is to increase the quality and accuracy of messaging which brings clearer communication and efficiency to the business.
The business case or mission statement
Prioritising functionality and features (so as to define what technology is needed) is a difficult task if it is not clear what these will be at the outset of the project. A business case containing high-level specifications and a mission statement is absolutely necessary to ensure that all parties concerned are aware of what the project will cover (the scope) and the deliverables you expect at the end of the project (the product). But when does the project end – how do we decide what is the ‘end point’, and how can we progress the design so that it grows with the business in the future? These all need to be covered and specified in the business case (and indeed in the requirements documentation). The project is unlikely to be given approval without the business case, and the purpose of the documentation is to distinguish fact from fiction and set an overall objective that you can come back to and validate against.
Defining the requirements
In order to select the right technology for your intranet you really need to be clear about what you need that technology to deliver. The answer will vary greatly depending on what you have today and where you want to be tomorrow.
That is to say that the systems and technology that you choose for your intranet should be based on your requirements and an understanding of which systems you already have and what they can provide. This will help you identify any shortcomings exist and what you need to add to achieve your goals.
2. The intranet in not only about choosing a WCMS
A common mistake is that people think only about providing a WCMS to fulfil their intranet requirements. But in its simplest form this is really just a tool to manage content and structure – and offers only half the potential that an intranet can actually be used for. In addition to the WCMS we also need to consider other information sources that can provide content for the intranet.
In other words, the intranet environment can be used to bring together and present different sources of information that exist within your business in useful and meaningful ways in addition to content provided by the WCMS. Other core systems, such as HR databases, DMS [document management systems] or CMS [client matter systems] can provide content that is user focused, accurate, timely and, most importantly, of value to your business community. This needs to be included in the specification for your intranet or WCMS project if that is what you are looking to achieve. A more typical definition is system integration.
3. What should your WCMS provide?
Many law firms are Microsoft-based and use Active Directory. Share Point comes with integration for this ‘out of the box’ and so will most other WCMS, but it is still a good idea to check what infrastructure you have and what security integration you require.
System integration (core and sub–systems)
Taking information that already exists within your organisation and integrating it with the intranet or WCMS to meet user needs should form a significant part of your approach when considering what you should do with your intranet – and therefore which technology is appropriate. There are many benefits to this, the major points being resource-free dynamic updates, accuracy of information, freshness of information and ability to present user-focused content.
Flexible assignments to workflow
Your WCMS has to provide a governance model or approval process to enable you to manage content in line with your business information needs. The details of what you need should come from your user requirements and business analysis. If you do not review this aspect in detail or do not align it with your needs, you could end up with bottlenecks, which create delays in content going live or result in people publishing content that they should not. This may have a negative impact on quality of information and the time-sensitive nature of providing information to your business.
Think of an intranet page as though it were a document in your DMS. Every time a change is made to a page you should be able to record that change, create an audit or revision list and look back to see the details and history of a page. This helps not only with the retrieval of information that has been overwritten in more recent versions of a page, but helps ensure that authors and owners of content act responsibly as their actions are identifiable.
Does your WCMS have to deliver a search engine? You might have a great search engine already available at your disposal through some other technology within your business. If you do can it be used on your intranet, and if it can what do you need to do to make that work? If you don’t have a search engine already, be sure to pick a WCMS that has good search functionality, because in terms of intranet design, providing a good search experience is as important as providing clear navigation and intuitive site structure.
Consistent layout and presentation will make things clear and support usability. It is also the foundation upon which you can ensure that house style and branding is applied in a consistent manner across your intranet site.
Onpage ‘what you see is what you get’ editing
How do you get content editors and authors to work on the content? You give them a simple tool that makes it easy for them to create and edit pages, link things together and (when ready) submit for approval and publish to the site. This should really include a spell checker too.
Your system should also enable you to preview web pages, content and structure before they go live. There are numerous reasons for this: business sign-off, ensuring the site works as intended, pages link correctly, and so on.
Many WCMS are disconnected systems, whereby you work in a separate area to the intranet and then publish to the intranet site. Publishing may take several hours with disconnected systems (depending on the system). If instant publishing is important to you, choose a technology that supports it. The disconnected approach is favoured from a resilience point of view – as people working on the WCMS will not automatically affect the live intranet site. However, a delay to publishing also means a delay in removing or updating content if it is incorrect or has been published in error.
Do you want to make use of web-based social networking tools and does your technology support this? Can you develop ‘widgets’ or views of information that is entered into these so that users can see any information that is useful to them? Share Point and other products come with a number of these features – for example, RSS readers and data binding tools – but these can be bought off-the shelf and integrated separately. It is worth making the point that these areas of information may generate pools of knowledge – though not necessarily well-structured ones. I would recommend that know-how lawyers review these areas of content and generate formal knowledge as know-how where they see opportunity to do so. Governance that fits with your business need around use of these tools is essential.
Support of common web standards
This is a given – and a ‘must’ – and perhaps so clear that it is irrelevant to mention. If you are thinking of implementing a technology that does not support common web standards then ask ‘why not?’. This is a web-based tool after all!
4. How do you find out what your requirements really are?
From a high-level point of view, choosing the right technology is really about finding out and recognising your requirements. To discover this, the following questions need to be asked.
What does the business want to achieve with an intranet redesign?
A mission statement from senior management will help you focus on what you need to deliver to the business rather than what you would like to deliver. You need to prioritise the strategically important aspects that enable staff to work efficiently before taking on the community-based aspects (while community is important, the bottom-line is a higher priority).
Who actually owns the intranet (or the project)?
If you’re starting afresh or are part way through a project, you need to know who owns the overall project, and who owns the component parts. It is imperative that all are involved and included on a steering committee. They will then able to ensure the successful progression of the project.
What do users need to be provided with?
In other words, what business tools should the intranet deliver? If you already have separate document management, KM, HR and client matter systems, do you need to replicate them within your intranet? You need simple and quick access to information in those sub-systems. This can be provided from views you can deliver via your intranet – meaningful information that takes the user back to the core system to glean further detail. Don’t re-create what you’ve already invested heavily in (in terms of providing functionality and interfaces) but instead provide meaningful views of information and simple access to those systems from your intranet.
What do users want to be provided with (to make the intranet work for them)?
In the main this covers personalisation. It could be that you want everyone to go through a global homepage rather than choosing which page to have as their homepage. This is because you have global messages and information you need people to view across the business community.
To provide real personalisation you need to have good security integration – you will know who a user is and what department, practice group and office they are in. Armed with this you can query and generate content from the many core systems you have to provide the personalised content the user wants, which in turn brings people back to the intranet time and time again.
Which subsystems will provide content?
It is important to know what technology your systems are based on and who owns the systems. Identify both the technical and business owners of these in order to find out what you can access, what requirements the business owner has, and how this fits in with your intranet project.
What sort of governance and workflow will be needed for content approval across the business?
There are two parts to this:
The workflow for publishing content;
The workflow for user updates to system.
This needs to include local and global roles and responsibilities if you have a need for them. What works for one location may not for another; do your policies meet the needs of everyone?
What is the IT strategy?
What technology will IT be able to support and where necessary develop for you – or will you be able to use external resources? When you come to choosing your technology platform you need to work in close partnership with your IT team. This is because they need to understand your requirements and you need to understand their strategic goals over the next five or ten years in terms of IT infrastructure. This will help you to shortlist the types of products you should be looking at and help make informed decisions about which products fit with your business infrastructure.
What is the life expectancy of the system and when will it next be reviewed?
An intranet might be intended to live forever, but how long should this incarnation of the intranet live? You might decide five years, since software developments mean that there might be more appropriate tools after this period, but expect that this sort of project will probably not get that sort of cycle of investment due to the cost and effort it takes when set against other priority business systems.
Typical core and subsystems that may provide content or feeds
Your requirements gathering should identify what information is needed by users and in which systems this information is stored.
These will need a great deal of business analysis. You must identify who owns the systems and to whom you need to speak in order to leverage data from these systems.
Systems you should consider (based on your business) are:
HR system (people information and contact data);
Finance system (billing and WIP [work in progress];
CMS [client matter system];
DMS [document management system];
KM system (subset of DMS);
Contacts system (marketing contacts/client intelligence);
Events database (activities and so on);
RSS feeds from other internal systems (or those above); and
RSS feeds from external systems and/or other websites.
Figure 1 shows the data flow of information from different systems and how these systems can be used to provide information in the form of business intelligence to the intranet alongside your WCMS. This data can be presented in user-focused meaningful views, whether it relates to a person, deals, clients, matters, associated documents, billing information, contacts, events or news. You can present all of this as real-time accurate dynamic content. This reduces the impact on resource that would usually be required to manually duplicate and reproduce information, and avoids the introduction of errors when repurposing or duplicating content.
Localisation of content
Figure 2 is designed to help visualise the complex information architecture that represents your business using a relatively simple illustration. The entities such as deals, matters, clients, financials, documents, contacts, news and events are all contained within locations and practice areas and are related to each other. The purpose of the diagram is to reveal the nature of these relationships:
All items are related to each other either directly or indirectly;
All items belong to locations and practice areas;
From a personalisation point of view, a person should be able to access a list of clients, matters, deals, documents, financials, contacts, events and news items related to them;
From a localisation point of view, a list of clients, matters, deals, documents, financials, contacts, events and news items should be available for each office and practice area.
User scenarios include:
‘When I visit the intranet global homepage I want to be able to view all news, deals and events that have been set as belonging to a global view’;
‘When I visit an office page I should see the local office news, deals and events that are related to that office’;
‘When I visit a practice area page I want to be able to view the practice area news, deals and events related to that practice’;
‘When I visit either an office or practice area page I want to be able to view a list of people related to that practice, their seat location and contact details’;
‘I want to have my own view on the intranet where I can see any news, deals and events that are related to me’.
These are an example set of user requirements and speaking to your users will reveal which, if any of these, are actually necessary or should be included in your design.
In the next article, we will explore the pros and cons of custom, off-the-shelf and hybrid systems, plus how to select the right technology provider.
Scott Donovan is e-media manager at Norton Rose. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org