Intranets and urban sprawl: a postcard from down under

This month I’m taking a bit of a break before starting my new job  in the new year. In desperate need of some sunshine, I jetted off to Sydney, Australia.

After spending some time lolling about on the beach, throwing shrimps on the barbie and wandering around town wearing a hat with corks on, I decided to head out of the city for the obligatory bush walk.

As I drove out of the city in search of some bush to hike in, I realised that Sydney is huge. It takes literally hours to reach the city limits. My (Australian) host explained that this is a result of Sydney’s short history.

Sydney

Sydney: this is where it all began

You see, although the area around what’s now Sydney Harbour was home to Aboriginal settlements for many hundreds of years, the modern city is a relatively new one.  The roots of today’s city began with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. This was a ragtag band of soldiers, convicts and a few entrepreneurs looking to make a few quid.

They set up camp in the area that is now central Sydney, naming it New Albion. From these humble beginnings the city has grown. And grown. And grown.

As a city built largely in the age of the car, on land that is seemingly limitless, Sydney has  become characterised by urban sprawl. In fact, it’s now the third-largest urban agglomoration in the world.

It struck me that the story of Sydney is very much like that of your average corporate intranet. Most began life, like New Albion, as a bit of a side project, with no clear aims or objectives.

Sydney's urban sprawl

Sydney's urban sprawl 1917-2031: a bit like your intranet

And just as land and resources seemed limitless to those looking for their quarter-acre plot on which to build a family home in Sydney, so too does seemingly limitless server space encourage intranets to grow exponentially.

An explosion in car ownership enabled Sydney to grow to its present proportions. Similarly, the emergence of piss-easy CMSs meant that anyone can be an intranet’s content author, allowing them to add to the urban sprawl of your corporate intranet.

So, just like Sydney, the history of many intranets means they’ve become bloated and difficult to navigate.

But this is where my metaphor falls down.  Sydney householders would certainly be a bit miffed if you were to knock their homes down or move them to somewhere a bit more sensible. But for intranets, that’s certainly possible.

Here’s are some ways to prevent or fix urban sprawl on your intranet:

  1. Decide what your intranet is for. An obvious point, perhaps, but it’s important to set clear objectives for your intranet.  Think not only about what you want to achieve, but how the intranet will help you get there. Be both specific and realistic.
  2. Get to know your audience. The intranet should reflect the culture of the organisation. Adding discussion groups to your intranet will not make people want to participate if there is no existing culture of participating within the organisation. Find out what users want, but speak also to those who don’t use the intranet much to find out why.
  3. Best before end. Set expiry dates for all content pages, with owners or authors required to review them at set intervals to ensure they’re still accurate and up-to-date.
  4. Is this yours? Pages without owners are the intranet equivalent of those boarded-up houses along the North Circular. If no one cares enough about the content to take responsibility for it, it’s likely few would miss it if you were to delete it.
  5. Remember the law of diminishing returns. Every additional piece of content added to your intranet makes it a little bit harder for the user to find the actual information they need.
  6. Help people find their way around. Investing some time and money in getting your information architecture right will soon pay for itself.  Don’t just rely on the main menus, though: use the left-hand navigation lists and the footer of each page too. Help people get back to the section home,  the home page, and to other related pages. But people have different ways of looking for things, so a good search engine and A-Z are needed too.
  7. Raze your city to the ground. It’s not an option that’s open to city planners, but there are strong arguments for scrapping your intranet and starting again. A clean slate gives you the chance to get your information architecture and governance structures right, before developing your content from scratch so it really meets the needs of your audience. This nuclear option is an expensive one, but one that shouldn’t be dismissed entirely.

Over the coming months I’ll be thinking a lot more about intranets and how we can make them better. What are your tips for keeping your intranet fit for purpose?

One thought on “Intranets and urban sprawl: a postcard from down under

  1. Pingback: Interesting elsewhere – 17 December 2009 to 6 January 2010 | Public Strategist

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