Sunday, June 15, 2008

An intranet isn't an information management system, but it has a role to play

A dilemma we're dealing with in my agency is that many projects have placed their documentation within the intranet and, over time, this has become the authoritative source of the most current copy of some documents.

This means that the owners of the content are very sensitive towards any changes to the intranet's structure which might reduce access to their pages - despite having only small audiences - because if there's an ANAO audit the intranet is the repository of the master documents.

I discourage the use of the intranet in this manner as it does not (in its current version) meet the records management requirements of the National Archives. We don't have appropriate version control, documents cannot be locked, ownership is flexible and archiving, while appropriate for an intranet, isn't up to information management standards.

However our Knowledge Management strategy does features the intranet as a major plank as it is an important tool for storing information, and a primary tool for people to communicate information.

I have seen attempts in the past to co-opt an organisation's intranet and turn it into an information management system. In these cases the intranet was developed according to the standards for digital record keeping.

This worked very well - as an information management tool. However it was lousy at communicating information to staff and lost significant credibility (and usage) - essentially nullifying one of the most important communication tools in the organisation.

The last I heard the organisation has hived off the information management parts and is seeking to regrow a conventional intranet.

I can understand why an organisation might attempt to turn an intranet into an information management system.

Good intranets are used frequently by the majority of staff, they store records (pages and files) and they are in many cases relatively easy to author and edit.

Whereas many information management systems are developed like old-style terminal systems, use strange processes to collect metadata, require enormous amounts of time to add records and are not very good at making information easy to find - unless you know precisely what you are looking for.

I've used several in the past and their usability, accessibility, design, search tool and general processes did not impress me alongside the intranet content management systems available at the time.

I can only think of one good reason why this difference exists - because information management systems have to meet lots of information storage standards - an intranet system can ignore them and make things easier for authors and users.

So should your intranet be an information management system?

My view is that it shouldn't - it should focus on what intranets do best, communicate information relevant to staff, facilitate collaboration and support staff in performing job-related tasks through being a central gateway / repository of tools and services.

If possible your intranet should also have a social aspect to help build (an appropriate) organisational culture and build staff loyalty and commitment by helping them feel like family - all work and no play makes Jack/Jill look elsewhere for an enjoyable work experience.

However intranets do have their part to play within an information management strategy.

An intranet is one of the mediums in which information is stored, and is a great tool for spreading information to those who need it within an organisation.

It is also a gateway to tools - such as an information management system - and tight integration between the two helps ensure that teams more effectively collaborate and manage their information.

I recommend that organisations consider their intranet as a 'primer' to help their staff get into the practice of information management.

First get enough of your staff using your intranet to create, store and share information through making the intranet easy to access, easier to author and full of appropriate content and tools.

Then once your staff have gotten the hang of putting content and files into an online system, introduce them to the 'real' information management system, which (in an ideal situation) integrates with the intranet and is almost as easy to use.

This way you'll not only ensure that your intranet is doing its job, but that your information management system is as well.

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