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Intranets: That Giant Sucking Sound

Intranets are places where someone – usually a customer, partner, or employee – signs in and then tries to do something.

Given my own experience as the user of intranets, and as someone who rebuilds broken intranets, here’s my take on the current state of intranets.

Intranets, on the whole, are TERRIBLE.

Most executives visit their company websites occasionally, but they never go to their company’s intranets. They especially never try to do anything on those sites. They simply don’t realize how difficult it is to use their intranet.

They don’t see one of their employees spending 20 minutes, 5 times a day, to do something that should take 30 seconds each time. They don’t see the domino effect that this has on their organization and how much money is being sucked out of their business because of it. They don’t see the business partner, who has a hot prospect on the phone, frantically searching for the answer to the prospect’s question on the intranet – and not being able to find it. And, they aren’t sitting there when the customer, who comes to the intranet to pay their bill or manage their account, becomes furious after only a few minutes, because they can’t figure out how to do something that should be simple.

They are just not aware that the skinflint budget they have earmarked for their intranet is not even getting the intranet to the point where it is functional.

Why are intranets so dysfunctional?

Irrelevant Content. The lack of management scrutiny makes it easy for intranets to become a content dumping ground for marketers and others who are measured on the amount of content they create, rather than the quality of the content. In short, there’s way too much of it, and what’s there is not as useful as it should be. As Gerry McGovern says, “Giving an intranet to a communicator is like giving a pub to an alcoholic.”

Old Content. If it’s online, it should be up to date. On most intranets, the content is stale – rancid, even – because there is no content management system in place. A true, functioning content management system includes frequent and persistent pestering of content owners, with the threat that if the content isn’t refreshed by a certain date, it will be removed. More importantly, the best content management systems maintain a list of the content that the users want, and the intranet manager has the power to make sure that content is on the intranet – and can be accessed in a couple of clicks.

Bad Navigation. I have plenty of experience untangling intranet navigation spaghetti. Bad navigation is a direct result of misguided management decisions. Someone without enough political clout is put in charge of the intranet, and must take in content from all the various departments. Each department’s VP wants their content to be “on top.” Content owners are the drivers of the decisions, rather than the content users.

It’s like a highway system where Chicago has more political clout than New York, so even when you’re in New Jersey, all the signs point to Chicago. The only signs to New York are tiny signs that suddenly appear about two feet before the onramp, as an after thought. “Oh, yeah, if you want to go to New York, you should take this turnoff.

Even worse, in the first quarter of the year, Chicago was the hot location, but in the second quarter, it’s L.A. (new VP, dontcha know). So all the signs in New Jersey are changed again, at great expense, so that L.A. signs are all over the place, while Chicago and New York signs almost disappear.

This is exactly what happens with corporate intranets. What a stupid waste of precious intranet resources. The intranet manager simply doesn’t have the clout to say “NO” – or the budget to do it right (in other words, have someone interview and survey users to find out what they want to find and how they want to find it, then to design a navigation infrastructure and nomenclature that actually makes sense to them).

Misleading Links. If I could clone myself, one of my clones would start a university focusing on the language of navigation. Link names driven by politics are at least confusing, and often downright misleading. A link is a promise. When the promise is too general, the user will think it means one thing, while the link creator had something altogether different in mind. Link names that only make sense AFTER you click on the link are not good names.

Unusable Tools. Once a user gets to the part of the intranet where he should be able to do what he came to do, it should be easy to do it.

Most of us do all of our banking and bill-paying online now, and we all know how seldom the online “application” makes it easy. There are a lot of cases where you simply can’t do what you should be able to do. For example, let’s say you split your business and personal expenses for tax purposes. When you go to the utility company site to pay your utility bill, you want to make two different payments – one deducting from your personal checking account, and one deducting from your business checking account. Too bad the utility company won’t let you do that. They simply don’t let you send them more than one payment in a given billing cycle. Unfortunately, these kind of functional restrictions are quite common.
Your company = their intranet experience.

Intranets are far more important than top executives think they are. Why? Because they are used by people who are very important to the success of your company – and they are often the only part of your company that those folks ever see. Therefore, your company = their intranet experience.

Who are these important people?

  • They are the customers who have signed up for an account, and who want to bring you repeat business. If they are frustrated by their experience trying to do things on your intranet, they will finally give up and go elsewhere. Their experience will convince them that you don’t understand what they need to do and you don’t care that they can’t do it. All those pretty promises that you paid your marketers to make will be broken. In the eyes of your customers, all those pretty promises were simply pretty lies.
  • They are the partners who should be so excited about how much you “get it” and how easy you make it for them to sell that they sell more of your stuff than anyone else’s. This is so far away from the norm, it’s laughable. Most partners, once they start trying to use the site created “for them” are sorry they signed up. They wish they didn’t have to suffer through the navigation nightmares they encounter while trying to do something simple.
  • They are your employees, whom you need to be as productive as possible. If they are frustrated by your intranet, where they try to do the tasks associated with their work, you are probably paying them double or triple to perform the tasks they must perform every day. If company owners or CEOs had to do their work on the intranet every day, those intranets would get fixed, fast. But they don’t, so they remain broken.

Two big problem areas: Signing in and using the site.

As I mentioned earlier, at their most basic, intranets have two basic modules. The registration/sign-in module, and the “do something” module.

Sign-in problems. In the largest companies, it’s quite common for their business partners to be incredibly frustrated with the sign-on procedure for the partner site.

In a typical business partner portal, there are three possible password types: individual, administrative, and general company. Each type can have its own user names and passwords, and content permission levels. There are seldom solid, well-conceived policies and database management processes to keep all of this from getting terribly out of hand. To complicate things further, Bob in sales management may sign on a partner, and create their account for them. A week later, Jack from another department, who is working with someone else at the partner company, signs up the same partner using different account settings, because there is no central area he could check to see if the partner was already signed up.

When I’ve interviewed partners about this issue, they rant – no, that’s not a strong enough word – they fume for 20 minutes about the frustration they experience just trying to sign on.

Functionality problems.
I’ve already talked about content issues. But the other thing to realize about an intranet is that it is not just a website where information is organized into some hierarchy. It’s an interactive application. The same “best practices” that make software programs successful can make your intranet successful.

Jakob Nielsen, summarizing their findings in their “10 Best Intranets of 2010” report, describes some of those best practices:

“Many of this year’s winning intranets took explicit steps to manage design change and encourage users to try out new and improved features. For example, many teams conducted extensive user research before deciding on their design direction. This definitely keeps teams focused on user needs and lowers the risk of releasing something that people will resist. If you get bad feedback, at least you get it before launch, giving you time to overcome employees’ objections. Besides the actual feedback, usability studies serve a second function as an explicit signal of the team’s willingness to listen. Research is one way to engage stakeholders and let them know you care.

“Beyond user research, several teams engaged a wider range of stakeholders in early communication that continued throughout the design process. As designs became more defined, some teams fielded special early-access programs that let smaller groups of people use the new design before it was rolled out to everybody. For example, SCANA did a one-month beta test with 150 employees who later became “ambassadors” for the new design.

“Finally, once the new design launched, explicit internal marketing campaigns helped promote early uptake.”


All applications must be marketed, to make sure they get used. Intranets are applications – and they must be marketed. At least 10% of any intranet budget should be devoted to marketing the intranet and educating people on what they can do with it.

Many intranets end up in a terrible no-man’s-land, a twilight zone of disrepair. The intranet team is given just enough attention and resources to put it up, and keep it running, but not enough to make it work right. Some of the most dedicated, hard-working, selfless employees I’ve ever met are intranet team members, struggling to provide a positive experience for their users, in spite of political battles raging all around them and the cluelessness of the people at the top.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The change has to start at the top – the CEO has to recognize the importance of the intranet as a productivity tool, has to pay attention to it, understand what it can do for the company, and put the people and processes in place that will make it happen. The smartest CEOs see their intranets as an opportunity to give employees an easy way to get their work done, partners a resource that will help them sell more, and customers a way to accomplish something important – while appreciating the company that is letting them do so.

Customers who find it easy to do something with a vendor will literally look for ways to give that vendor more business. Thus an intranet can be your secret weapon, one of your most important revenue-generating tools.


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