Social Networks And Group Formation

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This is the first in a three-part series on academic research that illuminates social networks, one of the most important trends in design today.

Humans suffer from information overload; there’s much more information on any given subject than a person is able to access. As a result, people are forced to depend upon each other for knowledge. Know-who information rather than know-what, know-how or know-why information has become most crucial. It involves knowing who has the needed information and being able to reach that person (Johnson et al. 2000).

In this context, understanding the formation, evolution and utilization of online social networks becomes important. A social network is “a set of people (or organizations or other social entities) connected by a set of social relationships, such as friendship, co-working or information exchange.” (Garton et al., 1997) While the Internet contributes to the information overload, it also provides useful tools to effectively manage one’s social networks and through them gain access to the right pieces of information.

This field is of particular interest to researchers working at the intersection of information systems, sociology and mathematics. These researchers study the uses of social networks and the ways in which they are mediated in society and in the workplace through information communication technologies (ICTs) such as (but not limited to) the Internet. This literature review explores how social networks that take advantage of information communication technologies—specifically, web based technologies—begin, evolve and are utilized.

The online social network field is broad, and any literature review can only focus on a selection of articles. The present article highlights recent research in the field and focuses on centrality, linkage strength, identity, trust, activity and benefits. By no means is this review comprehensive, but it should give practitioners some useful concepts to consider as they design social network based web applications.

The Strength of Weak Ties

Social networks were first researched in the late 1940s. With the advent of the Internet, online communities and social networking websites, their significance has only increased. Any review hoping to be meaningful must begin with the normative contributions of the sociologist Mark Granovetter and the mathematician Linton C. Freeman who both wrote influential articles well before the Internet was popularized.

Granovetter (1973) argued that within a social network, weak ties are more powerful than strong ties. He explained that this was because information was far more likely to be “diffused” through weaker ties. He concluded that weak ties are “indispensable to individuals’ opportunities and to their incorporation into communities while strong ties breed local cohesion.”

Granovetter’s doctoral thesis demonstrated that most people landed jobs thanks to their weak ties and not their strong ones. It was the people that they did not know well, the ones with whom they did not have shared histories and did not see on a regular basis who were of most help. This is because people with strong ties generally share the same pieces of information and resources. Therefore they are of less help to one another.

Similarly, Granovetter identified absent ties (also called nodding ties) – those ties that lack the emotional intensity, time, intimacy and reciprocity to even qualify as weak ties. Someone living on the same street that you nod to everyday is an absent tie. An absent tie is someone that exists in your life but with whom you have no connection whatsoever. That person is not helpful in the way that a weak tie can be.

Depending upon the type of application you are building, you may want to design it so that people are encouraged to form weak ties with people that they do not know very well. They are more likely to benefit from those weak ties than from strong ones. But it is important to recognize the difference between a weak tie and an absent one. On social network sites like MySpace and Facebook, where self worth is garnered through the number of ties, the difference becomes important. Yet, the fact that you can search and connect to all kinds of ties on these networks has influenced their growth.

According to Granovetter’s theory, there would be value in the visual depiction of weak ties. LinkedIn tells you how many ties you have at each degree of separation, but other than that you are not given much information about those ties. Are they strong, weak, or absent ties? LinkedIn has another problem too: It makes it difficult for you to connect with your weak ties. You often have to ask a common friend for permission to establish that connection. No wonder LinkedIn is being eclipsed by other social network services!

Centralization in a Network

An understanding of social networks needs also to include accounts of centrality and of one node’s relationship to other nodes in a network. This is why Linton C. Freeman’s article on centrality in social networks is important (Freeman, 1979). Freeman explored how “graph centralization” was based on differences in point centralities. He also outlined three competing theories regarding the definition of centrality based on degree of a point, control and independence.

Degree of a point refers to the number of nodes connected to a given node. In simple terms, this means counting the number of friends you have in a social network. The more friends, you have, the more important you are.

Control refers to the extent to which nodes depend on one specific node to communicate with other nodes. For example, if hundreds of friends are connected to each other only when you serve as the bridge connecting them, then your centrality is high. You are the node that controls the communication flows.

And finally independence means that a node is closely related to all the nodes considered – so that it is minimally dependent on any single node and is not subject to control. This means you can reach the maximum number of people through the shortest number of links, without being dependent on a particular few nodes.

Figure 1: A depiction of centrality.
* Degree point: C and K have the most nodes connected to them.
* Control: D serves as the bridge between the most nodes and controls the flow of information.
* Independence: K is most closely connected to the other nodes by multiple nodes (I and Q).

Because social networks are fundamentally social tools in which people are constantly monitoring and growing their social network, most social network media depict growth using the degree of point definition. However, control and independence can be more useful definitions. For example, a person who controls information flows is more important than one who may have more friends in the network. Centrality can also indicate which members are the most useful or well connected and therefore the best information resources.

Learning from Flickr & Yahoo

The principles of node structures, tie strength and centrality have been applied to understand nodes in modern day online social networks. A good example of this is in the explanatory research conducted by Kumar, Novak and Tomkins (2006). They compared two online social networks, Flickr and Yahoo 360, which together had more than five million users at the time. These researchers noticed that the social networks follow a standard pattern of growth, namely, rapid early growth followed a period of decline and then slow but steady growth.

Kumar, Novak and Tomkins also saw that network activity is of three types:
* “Singletons,” who have no connections and are least central
* The “giant component,” which is the largest group of nodes tightly connected to the central nodes and to each other
* The “middle region,” which represents isolated groups which interact amongst themselves but not with the rest of the network, forming isolated stars. These groups grow one user at a time. Over time they merge with the giant component.


Figure 2a: The red section represents the giant component. The blue is the middle region comprising of isolated networks while the gray are singletons.

The node analysis of these networks showed that more than half of a social network is outside the giant component where the greatest centrality lies. They used the “control” definition of centrality to determine this. The research also highlighted a prevalence of “stars” in the middle region which are mini social networks, typically driven by one dynamic member who serves as the point of centrality with others serving as satellite nodes – connected to the dynamic member but not to each other. In Kumar, Novak and Tomkins’ analysis the middle region represented one-third of users on Flickr and about ten percent of users on Yahoo! 360.

Also keep in mind that the most growth happens in the middle region where dynamic members influence others to join their network. These sub-networks can gradually join the giant component over time. Once they do, the importance of the dynamic member diminishes. Even if that dynamic member were to leave the network, the others would stay in the network.


Figure 2b: A connection is made between one of the isolated networks from the middle region connects to the giant component.


Figure 2c: The formerly isolated network becomes part of the giant component.

What are the implications of this? When designing your social network, be aware that most of the network will be outside the giant component. In a sense, social networks themselves are thousands of sub-networks. The more mechanisms that you provide for those sub-networks to flourish, greater the overall network growth. Social networks are fundamentally virtual ghettos. Networks like MySpace and Facebook that encourage ghettos grow the most. Ning, which lets you create your own network and join others too, cleverly understands this concept and leverages it.

Live Journal, DBLP & Adoption Behavior

Most online social networks grow based on the initiative of early adopters who transfer their offline networks online and serve as “stars.” But it is also important to look at the evolution of social networks based on intentional activity within a network. Backstrom, Huttenlocher and Kleinberg (2006) analyze group formation in large social networks. They used LiveJournal data from its ten million users and DBLP, a database of co-authorship in conference publications to study how the communities grew based on the underlying social networks. They showed that a person was more likely to join a social network if friends of the person were already closely linked together on it. Having several friends closely connected in an online social network builds trust. For those of us who are active members of social networks, this makes obvious sense.

The article conclusively showed that the most growth happened in the giant component (without using the term explicitly) where the nodes were most central. In highlighting the importance of the giant component, Backstrom, Huttenlocher and Kleinberg validated the Kumar et al. (2006) theory. Their article raises a critical question: Once a node becomes aware of its neighbors’ behavior, under what conditions and based on what network relationships will the node adopt that behavior itself?

Another group of researchers who studied the DBLP database were Cai et al. (2006). They pointed out that each node belongs to several different social networks, with the other networks affecting the group formation patterns, evolution and information sharing on the social network. As a result, they felt that a network can’t be analyzed independently but needs to be studied in the context of other networks. It may also influence whether a node leaves a network based on the activity of nodes on its other networks. This raises an important question for practitioners: Do you know how much of the activity on your social network is influenced by activity on other social networks?

This is of particular interest when examined in the context of the new Google lab efforts around Social Stream, which hopes to be a meta-social-network aggregating different networks together. Developed in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, Social Stream s currently in private beta. The question that social network designers worry about is, once you can understand network activity on different networks via a single, consolidated interface, how will that affect your own network preferences?

It is clear that online social networks are always evolving because of both outside influences and activity within them. Butler (2001) emphasized this when they showed that network size has a complex influence on the network such that more member gains results in more member losses too. They argued that it is necessary to balance the positives and negatives of size and communication activity. A final question to consider is which type of membership activity and where (giant component, middle layer or among singletons) most affects an online network?


Researchers studying group formation have incorporated the normative social network theories discussed by Granovetter and Freeman. They recognize that these are socio-technical systems that must account for human agency, meaning that the ability of human beings to make unique choices heavily influences a network’s evolution. As a result, one can apply social networking theory to a web product, but one must remember that because these are human systems it is difficult gauge the potential success of a given network.

The next part of this series will explore information-sharing patterns on social networks. The third part will cover some workplace scenarios.

Authors Note: By no means is this review comprehensive, moreover it should serve as just a starting point for gaining familiarity with some of the academic contributions.


Backstrom, L., Huttenlocher, D., Kleinberg, J., and Lan, X. (2006.) Group formation in large social networks: membership, growth, and evolution. In Proceedings of the 12th ACM SIGKDD International Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining. ACM Press: Philadelphia, PA, USA.

Butler, B. (2001.) Membership size, communication activity, and sustainability: a resource-based model of online social structures. Information Systems Research, 12 (4), p. 26.

Cai, D., Shao, Z., He, X., Yan, X., and Han, J. (2005) Mining hidden community in heterogeneous social networks. In Proceedings of the 3rd International Workshop on Link Discovery. ACM Press: Chicago, Illinois.
Freeman, L. C. (1979.) Centrality in social networks conceptual clarification. Social Networks, 1 pp. 215-239.
Garton, L., C. Haythornthwaite and B. Wellman. (1997.) Studying online social networks. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 3 (1).
Granovetter, M. S. (1973) The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Psychology, 78 (6), pp. 1360-1380.
Johnson, B., Lorenz, E. and Lundvall, B. (2002.) Why all this fuss about codified and tacit knowledge? Industrial and Corporate Change, 11 (2), pp. 245-262.
Kumar, R., J. Novak and A. Tomkins. (2006.) Structure and evolution of online social networks. Proceedings of the 12th ACM SIGKDD International Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining, pp. 611-617. ACM Press: Philadelphia, PA, USA.

A Web 2.0 Tour for the Enterprise

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“The architecture of participation is baked into the architecture of the software.”

Thanks to the hype generated by Business Week, The New York Times, Fortune, and Newsweek (among others), Web 2.0 has captured the imagination of consumers and businesses alike. But knowing how to leverage Web 2.0 concepts to fuel collaboration and innovation among employees, partners, and customers is another story. Web 2.0 can change an enterprise but recognizing how, and determining whether you should, do so is confusing. This article aims to dispel some of the myths surrounding Web 2.0 while discussing its practical applications within organizations. Then the enterprise—businesses and their practices—can embrace and extend Web 2.0 to Enterprise 2.0.

What is Web 2.0?
To paraphrase a definition by Tim O’Reilly, who was one of the first to use the term, “Web 2.0” is web-based software which is continually collaboratively updated. This means that the software gets more useful the more people who consume and remix it. Remixing is a key concept of Web 2.0. In music, remixing means taking established songs and editing them together, potentially adding your own elements as well. With Web 2.0, individual users add their own data and services to collaborative web software, remixing the Web 2.0 sites into increasingly useful tools and creating an exponential growth effect.

For example, Digg publishes news stories from around the web. Users contribute their own news stories as well as noting other publications’ stories, and all users “digg” or rate them. The Diggers also add comments to the stories and rate the comments of others, too, determining the stories’ prominence on the site. The more users who contribute and rate stories and comments, the more effective the service gets.

The unique properties of the web—rolling releases and nearly universal accessibility—gave birth to the Web 2.0 architecture of participation. The web has always been a fertile medium for collaboration but new technologies have increased the possibilities—as well as the complexities. AJAX in particular, is being used to make the web experience faster and richer. This combination of XML and JavaScript frees interaction from slow page refreshes, creating a desktop-like responsiveness, but it also breaks down the simple click-read-click model. Ajax can create a more satisfying user experience by offering drag-and-drop, resizing, and partial-page refreshes, or a significantly worse one as designers struggle to communicate this new behavior to visitors who are used to clicking, not dragging.

Ruby on Rails is another groundbreaking technology. A combination of an elegant programming language and a framework for speeding development of web applications, Ruby on Rails is allowing dozens of tiny start-ups to create potential businesses overnight. Those web applications, from blogging tools to photo galleries to wikis, are turning site visitors into site participants. Ruby is an remarkably clear language, readable by designers as well as programmers, and Rails has many best practices built into the framework, so that these new applications are more accessible and usable than ever. Meanwhile RSS and APIs are freeing data from presentation on sites all over the web, making it easier than ever to get information the way you want it, or to remix it with other websites’ data into something new and exciting.

It’s a mistake to think Web 2.0 is all about the technology, but it’s also a mistake to dismiss the technology. The architecture of participation is baked into the architecture of the software. Web 2.0 lets you share and incorporate multiple voices— your customers, your service reps, your employees—who quickly take the product, service, or idea in a direction that you could not alone. Often the technology will let you behave no other way.

It seems most important aspect of Web 2.0 is the values it espouses. Web 2.0 purports to be collaborative, participatory, simple, accessible, efficient, lightweight, approachable, action-oriented, and user-driven. These values are found in companies like Google, Yahoo!, Netflix, Flickr, Technorati, Skype, and eBay. When you think about Web 2.0, first think about the values before you think about potential applications of the technology. The technology is nifty; the values are competitive.

What does it mean for the enterprise?
So far, other than the new technologies associated with Web 2.0, very little of the Web 2.0 advances have been brought to the internal workings of business. At first blush, it appears that the concepts don’t apply to the enterprise. The open, freewheeling discussion of a Digg seems inapproapriate for a corporation. But closer examination reveals some key opportunities.

First, Web 2.0 can change the way you reach your customers, build relationships with them, and further your brand objectives. Successful companies are using Web 2.0 concepts to encourage their customers to build communities around their products, provide feedback on products, and, in some cases, even inform strategy. But Web 2.0 concepts are not effective unless you examine how you are connecting with your customers and relinquish the idea you can dictate to them. It takes courage to let go of control, through collaborative design with the customer, or through communication within the enterprise. Rather than “aligning supply chains, communications, marketing initiatives” what if you co-create new supply chain approaches with your suppliers, or what if marketing initiatives come from the customers? While pronouncements and offerings feel safer and more familiar than participation and collaboration, the rewards are higher when you open your processes up to more input.

Take General Motors. They have been running promotions inviting customers to create advertisements for their Chevy Tahoe brand. The customers visit a website where they can choose a video clip, add sound, text, create sequences, and publish the result as a complete advertisement. Recently a number of anti-SUV customers used this platform to create ads about global warming, to protest the war on Iraq, and to demean the product. This has resulted in numerous new articles and remarkable traffic. While this violates most brand managers’ rules-of-thumb, General Motors is leaving all but the profane up on the site. This repositions them as unafraid and honest, and allows the traffic to continue unabated. PT Barnum said any publicity is good publicity; we’ll see if General Motors agrees.

Companies are also using Web 2.0 approaches to communicate more effectively with customers. The Sun Microsystems CEO, Jonathan Schwartz, publishes a popular blog in which he discusses his company’s strategies, products, opportunities, and challenges. Customers can then follow the company’s progress via a more intimate and digestible form than a press release which then becomes a format for open dialog between the company and the consumer. Normally corporations shy from allowing customers to express their opinions publicly, much less let the CEO engage in published discussion with them. Sun promotes loyalty and gains invaluable knowledge with this simple tool.

The collaborative value of Web 2.0
Consider how your enterprise works with its network of partners. Whether it is with suppliers, distribution partners, or service providers, there are opportunities for collaboration. Ask yourself how you develop your go-to-market strategy for new products. How are you involving your business partners? And more specifically, how are you involving the foot soldiers in your partner companies?

Luxury brands like Chanel and Estee Lauder work very closely with their retailer partners to make sure that their brands are accurately represented in the department stores. These luxury brands share their marketing strategies with the senior executives from their retail partners. Maybe it is time for them to share those plans with the employees at the retailer who will actually be tasked with selling the product? Most of this communication happens over the phone, through email, and with on-site visits. Web 2.0 technologies increase the reach and improve the richness of the interaction.

Imagine if the next time Estee Lauder was determining the look of its retail presence at a Macy’s or a Bloomingdales it used Web 2.0 technologies to ask saleswomen to evaluate or even remix counter display concepts. By asking the saleswomen to vote on counter display concepts via a dynamic Web 2.0 website, Estee Lauder would learn vital information. If it allowed saleswomen to rearrange, add to, and combine those display concepts, Estee Lauder might discover new ways to reach the consumer. In fact, if the communication on the Web 2.0 sites were allowed to live on post launch, Estee Lauder salespeople could continually refine the concepts based on store usage patterns, and could share the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t across stores almost instantly.

The audience within
What Web 2.0 values should be corporate values? The more collaborative the employees of a company are, the more successful the company becomes over time. Employees that collaborate efficiently by leveraging each other’s intellect and resources create stronger and more successful products. Unfortunately, it is also recognized that current communication and collaboration “solutions” are woefully inadequate. Most software touted to enable collaoration is difficult to use, cumbersome, limiting, and does not empower employees to share their content. Rather than fueling collaboration, they hinder it.

Why do these existing approaches fail? They fail because they’re driven by technology requirements rather than by human needs. Because the current crop of tools are built on values of control, containment, and secrecy in environments where employees are encouraged to compete more than collaborate with one another, installing another knowledge managment tool does little to remedy the problem. Until the enterprise is willing to examine its values and its behavior, poor choices in policy and in technology are inevitable.

Web 2.0-driven solutions for collaboration are different because the values are baked into the functionality. RSS feeds do not force employees to visit an intranet or website but can bring the information to them in the employee’s choice of format. By allowing anyone in a company to publish RSS feeds, and by letting employees choose which ones to subscribe to with the tools they want, the best feeds rise to the top, employees are better informed, and the employee authors get the recognition they deserve. In this manner, the company itself also learns what’s valuable, instead of telling employees its abstract ideas of what employees should value. Courageous companies could even learn what direction to take the corporate strategy by tapping into the “wisdom of crowds.”

Similarly, a company that uses a wiki-based solution for collaboration will have more success than a traditional, highly permission-driven intranet tool. Wikis allow anyone to edit anything, and require no special privileges or knowledge to contribute. They work the way a smart team does, permitting people to riff on each others ideas and expand on each other’s knowledge. Moreover, if wiki authors have a comprehensive profile describing their professional interests, listing their previous posts and their contact information, an atmosphere of trust and familiarity arises, and employees will be more likely to collaborate and share their personal knowledge.

In a nutshell, Web 2.0 concepts like wikis and integrated chat can make a big difference in acheiving Web 2.0 values. Companies that are more collaborative, participatory, efficient, user-driven, and action-oriented are recognized as the most successful. IBM, for example, has just launched “Innovation Jams” where thousands of IBM employees are encouraged to participate in virtual chatrooms simultaneously on a given day. IBM hopes to uncover transformative business ideas through these virtual discussions. As discussed in a recent Businesssweek article, IBM CEO J. Palmisano believes that the opinions of 100,000 IBM employees will result in “catalytic innovations” that can lead to new business for IBM.

But what can you do today?
It’s all well and good to discuss major shifts in corporate culture, but we all know those take time. What specifically can you do today to understand Web 2.0 better and to learn how to use it in your company to support employees, customers, and partners? Don’t task your information technology department to make every web-based application Web 2.0 ready, or push your product managers to start blogging 25 times a day. Instead, step back and learn more about this space, then think how the underlying concepts can help you improve in small ways. And the easiest way to do that is to look at a few examples currently on the web.

Revolutionizing the phone book
The first place to start is with a networking site like LinkedIn. Sign up and invite your peers to join as well. Create a profile of yourself. Play around with some of the linking features. Try searching for someone. And then ask yourself whether your company would benefit from an application like this for all employees and partners. Is it easier to use than your current intranet employee directory? Does it have some nifty features you wish you had on your intranet? By making the internal social networking more explicit, employees will discover connections with each other and further knowledge management between departments and offices.

Simplifying the spreadsheet
The second place to visit is the Google Spreadsheet application. At first glance, Google’s spreadsheet application may seem lacking in many respects. From a functionality perspective, it does pale in comparison to Microsoft Excel. However, after playing around with it for a while, you’ll discover that it includes the most-used functionality of Excel and offers something a bit different. Click on the “share this spreadsheet” link, and suddenly you’re collaborating in real time. This can be invaluable now that companies’ business units are seperated not just by buildings but by countries.

Web 2.0 applications are optimized for multi-users, easy to use, and mostly free. Now ask yourself, are there any applications in your work environment you wish were web-based with more collaborative features and better usability? Are there applications that have unnecessary gating features, locking out great minds? Are your most important documents living in people’s inboxes and on their hard drive? You may discover that you don’t need to upgrade to the next version of Microsoft Office again. A Web 2.0 application similar to Google’s spreadsheet application may meet your online collaboration needs.

A bottom-up knowledge management system
Once you’ve finished playing around with the Google spreadsheet application, make your way over to Wikipedia. Wikipedia is the largest living encyclopedia on the web. From the home page of Wikipedia, search for the word “collaboration.” You’ll be taken to a page filled with definitions, explanations, and references. You may even notice that the collaboration article has been written in collaboration with another wiki called Now try it yourself: click on one of the edit links on the right-hand side. You can edit the page yourself in real time. Click on the History tab at the top of the page, and you can see who else has edited the page. Now leave your mark and see how fast it’s corrected.

Imagine if you had a wiki to share information and brainstorm with parts suppliers. Wouldn’t they feel far more invested in the success of programs that they had co-created? Imagine if your whole intranet was a wiki where anyone could create, edit, or even remove a page. You’d probably get a lot more content publishers and a lot more tacit knowledge online.

Afraid of vandalism? Because wikis have revision histories that contain who has done what to each page, responsibility for good and bad acts is transparent. An employee who might vandalize an intranet is one who might be doing worse privately. An employee who tirelessly caretakes the accuracy of the wiki is someone to appreciate, and work to retain.

Getting news that you want when you want it
Next, visit Technorati. You will discover that Technorati is the largest directory of blogs. Search for a word—maybe something like innovation—and in a matter of seconds, you’ll see which of 46 million blogs contains it. Go to one of those blogs and bookmark the RSS (really simple syndication) feed. If you use a browser such as Firefox, you’ll be able to view live news feeds from that website right in your bookmarks panel.

Alternatively, you could use a reader like Bloglines, which allows you to not only watch but share news feeds. You could also start publishing in RSS—sites like Feedburner make it easy. Think about how you could communicate with your employees or your partners using news feeds. All they would have to do is subscribe to a newsfeed, and they’d get news from you or your department as soon as you published it.

Training tapes in the car
Talking about staying on top of news, jump to Business Week, and scroll down to the bottom of the page. Choose a podcast—maybe the CEO’s Guide to Technology—and download it to your machine. Plug in your iPod and listen to the podcast on what Web 2.0 is. If you can learn about Web 2.0 via a podcast, there’s no reason why you can’t publish podcasts about products, communication strategies, training, and industry statistics for your employees. National Semiconductor recently issued iPods to all 8,000 of its employees for this purpose.

Group decision-making on steroids
The last website to visit on your Web 2.0 tour is Yahoo! Tech Buzz. Tech Buzz is a prediction market, taking advantage of the wisdom of the crowds concept. This means users can buy and sell a concept’s contract which is similar to buying a stock for a company. The value of the contract can be interpreted as a prediction for a future event. The people who think the idea is a good one invest in it driving the price up and vice versa. So go invest your fantasy dollars in trends you think are going to flourish. Use the prices of other trends to understand what the rest of the world thinks of those trends. It is like the stock market, but instead of trading shares of a company, you’re trading concepts.

Next time you need to make a decision between two advertising concepts, consider publishing them on an internal predication market on your intranet. Let your employees buy shares in each concept based on which one they think is strong. Before you know it, you will have learned which one is better. Hewlett-Packard pioneered applications in sales forecasting and now uses prediction markets in several business units.

Making sense of it all
There is no doubt Web 2.0 concepts are starting to have an impact in the workplace with blogs, wikis, and prediction markets cropping up everywhere. Just as the original spreadsheet changed business, Web 2.0 will find its place in the corridors of some of America’s largest companies. Already companies like Ernst & Young, Nokia, Kodak, Lucent Technologies, and IBM are testing different Web 2.0 concepts for their enterprises.

The technology is relatively simple to adopt, especially thanks to open source, service-oriented architectures, and advancements in XML and presentation layer technologies. Out of the box Web 2.0 wiki and blogging solutions geared for the enterprise, such as Social Text and Traction Software, also make the move easier. You can dabble with the tools first before committing to complete adoption of a Web 2.0 approach.

Web 2.0 (its technology and values) is here to stay. The web is not about publishing content and making it available to employees, partners, and customers. That was Web 1.0. This time it’s about letting those customers, partners, and employees take control of the online experience.

Allow it to happen. It may change your business forever.

For more information

Making Knowledge Management Work on your Intranet

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“ …a genuine commitment to knowledge management (KM), a KM strategy centered in the application of knowledge towards specific business objectives, and tactics that use the company intranet as a platform to further those KM initiatives, will go a long way in realizing new organizational value.”

In the information economy, the longevity of an organization is based as much on the sophistication of its knowledge management practices as it is on traditional differentiators such as the strength of its products, the talent of its employees, and its marketplace reputation and partner relationships. Simply speaking, as actionable and insightful information becomes the currency of an organization, there are few other ways to tap into any latent potential lost in the office corridors.

There is no one-size-fits-all, cost-effective knowledge management solution; nor is there a specific technology, product, or vendor offering that can help you differentiate yourself through your knowledge management practices. But a genuine commitment to knowledge management (KM), a KM strategy centered in the application of knowledge towards specific business objectives, and tactics that use the company intranet as a platform to further those KM initiatives, will go a long way in realizing new organizational value.

This article discusses typical KM challenges facing large organizations and how a company intranet can be leveraged to create lasting and measurable business value. It does this by examining the relationships between two aspects of knowledge management and how they contribute to a goal-oriented knowledge management initiative. The aspects of knowledge management discussed are people (in the form of communities of practice) and enterprise intranets as knowledge platforms.

What is knowledge management?
The first question often asked is what really is knowledge management? Is it simply the cataloging of all the documentation that resides on server hard drives, Outlook inboxes, and the filing cabinets of employees? Or is there something more scientific and strategic about it? Is it an archiving function appropriately delegated to a support team, or should it be something on the CEO’s radar?

The American Productivity and Quality Center defines knowledge management as “the strategies and processes of identifying, capturing and leveraging knowledge” (APQC, 1996 cited in Atefeh et al., 1999 p.172). For the learnings to be retrieved and reused, they need to be qualified and codified so that they are accessible and searchable. Furthermore, knowledge management can also include strategies to foster a culture of information sharing and the implementation of tools that make it easier for employees to share their learnings and, in turn, to learn from each other.

Typical KM challenges
All organizations are practicing KM in some fashion today. Sometimes these are management mandated, focused, and structured initiatives such as procedures to capture customer feedback on product features to help design new products. In other cases, they are basic grassroots efforts by enterprising managers who, for example, may encourage their teams to publish best practice documents on a file server. But while these organizations understand the importance of knowledge management, many of their initiatives produce mixed results. In fact, most knowledge management initiatives do not last more than six to twelve months. This is often because of the following factors:

  1. The knowledge management initiative lacks mass appeal — the initiative doesn’t have enough enthusiastic supporters or institutional support to reach critical mass where the benefits outweigh the time and dollar cost to support the endeavor.
  2. The initiative simply lacks depth — the repository isn’t large or diverse enough for its use to become a habitual activity for many employees. They visit once and never return.
  3. The knowledge isn’t qualified — the knowledge captured by the initiative is not validated, resulting in each individual employee having to expend energy in searching and filtering to identify the actual knowledge from the professed knowledge.
  4. Knowledge codification is ignored — the KM teams don’t put enough effort into adding metadata to the documents and organizing the learnings in a single repository, resulting in inefficient and duplicative KM systems from which it is difficult to search and extract knowledge.
  5. Competing systems undermine the effort — the KM initiative competes with too many other internal and external systems and processes as an authoritative knowledge source for employees.

Issues like these not only hamper the KM efforts, but, more troubling, their perceived value to an organization. As a result, many managers are becoming disillusioned with the potential of enterprise wide KM practices.

However, KM is getting a second chance with corporate intranets gaining new prominence in many organizations. As Fortune 1000 organizations recover from the recent economic downturn by consolidating their operations, revisiting their product roadmaps, merging with other firms, and positioning themselves as being more customer-centric and principled, they’re looking to their company intranets to communicate their new values, business objectives, and operational strategies to the rank-and-file. These organizations are also discovering that investing in an intranet is an expensive endeavor and that they must look for other benefits when trying to make a strong business case for an enterprise-wide intranet. This is where knowledge management enters the picture.

The KM opportunity
Some senior executives make the mistake of believing that knowledge management is an end unto itself and attempt to manage and measure KM success with that in mind. Rather, KM initiatives should be treated as intellectual capital investments aligned with specific, long-term business goals. For an organization to do this more effectively, it needs to leverage the Communities of Practice (CoPs) within its organization.

What is a community of practice? Brooke Manville, Director of Knowledge Management at McKinsey & Co., defines communities of practice as groups of people who are informally bound to one another by exposure to a common class of problems. These groups share their learnings and knowledge resources continuously and informally amongst each other for mutual benefit. Every organization has groups like these, which are typically loosely structured, decentralized, fluid, and built on personal relationships.

These CoPs are perfectly positioned to support knowledge management efforts. They are continuously capturing and sharing relevant knowledge with each other. Often, though, the knowledge captured is not directed towards a business objective and isn’t codified or validated in any formal capacity. Nor is the knowledge stored in a format that enables easy retrieval.

An organization can leverage these CoPs to further its KM objectives by stepping back and creating a list of priorities for what types of knowledge to capture and share. These priorities should directly map to the organization’s business goals and should represent what the organization needs to know to be more successful in the marketplace both at the organization and at the individual level. In other words, these priorities should be a list of “if only I knew” types of knowledge.

Once the business priorities have been identified, existing CoPs should be approached to more formally capture and roll out these organizational learnings in a piecemeal fashion using the intranet. If there aren’t any communities of practice naturally aligned to the business priorities, then new ones should be organized. Some large organizations with a history of knowledge management successes have already structured their communities of practice to do this for them on a regular, focused basis. However, these aren’t always successful initiatives because the CoPs have a hard time striking the right balance between knowledge explorations and being focused on the business goals.

Nevertheless, there are opportunities to further focus these communities of practice when using the enterprise intranet as a delivery mechanism. This is because collaborative environments such as enterprise intranets force the participants to be focused, thoughtful, and careful in their contributions. Knowing that what is published may potentially be viewed by the whole organization, or that other users may have the ability to rate the article, forces the participants to be more disciplined in their contributions. In effect, the collaborative, real-time feedback environments of a company intranet encourage self-policing and more strategic information sharing. The downside is that it can also discourage participants from sharing any information whatsoever.

Let’s take a management-consulting firm as an example to study this a little further and discuss how knowledge can be captured and shared.

A consulting firm example
In most consulting firms, knowledge priorities can be broadly categorized as knowledge that:

  • supports the business development and sales process,
  • contributes to the delivery of services in the form of methodologies, tools, and processes, and
  • builds awareness among employees of industry and discipline issues.

Let’s say that of these three knowledge priorities, the consulting firm identifies supporting the business development and sales process as being of the greatest importance. Further, it determines that actively sharing business proposals and case studies, along with the individual learnings regarding each one, is most important to satisfy the KM needs in this area. The organization can implement this knowledge priority via their intranet by doing the following:

  1. Choosing the right employees — Identify four to six employees who have been enthusiastic and informed KM supporters in the past to serve as community gatekeepers and monitor the publication of content if no existing CoPs exist that cover this subject area. If an appropriate CoP does exist, then gatekeepers from that community should be identified.
  2. Coaching the gatekeepers — Educate the gatekeepers on how to develop and nurture a new community of practice with a focused objective — in this case, capturing knowledge that can support the business development and sales process. The business objective should be further studied by the gatekeepers to more deeply understand what types of relevant learnings can be captured.
  3. Designing the collaboration environment — Create a collaborative space on the intranet for the distribution of these learnings. This space should allow for the submission, categorization, rating, and discussion of content. Careful attention should be paid to the structure of this workspace, from the labels used to who can access it and how much categorization is needed.
  4. Establishing rules for participation — Actively encourage employees to publish their relevant content to this collaborative workspace. These employees should be invited to join the community. The rules of participation, the organizational and personal benefits for getting involved, and the “safety net” guidelines to prevent discussions from spinning out of control should be explained. This collaborative workspace should support notification features so that users can be alerted when new content is added.
  5. Providing incentives — Tie in each participant’s KM involvement with his or her annual bonus. Reviewing how active the employees have been, whether they have been responsive and responsible community participants willing to share and learn from each other, and the quality of their contributions in relation to the business priorities should be included as contributors effecting their annual bonuses and raises.

An initiative like this doesn’t cost much and wouldn’t take long to implement. Once one knowledge community has been established, the organization could seek similar opportunities to create knowledge communities based on other business priorities. Thus over time it may have a network of interconnected communities that capture organizational and individual learnings related to specific business priorities. Remember that the more tightly defined the business priorities and the more motivated the community gatekeepers are, the more likely the initiative is to succeed.

Intranets as knowledge management platforms
Well-planned intranets make perfect platforms for your knowledge management initiatives. But most intranets aren’t deliberately planned, as they start out as grassroots, divisional efforts that are then leveraged across the whole organization. Many of these intranets hold valuable information but are wild, decentralized, and unstructured spaces. This can be a problem, as employees will only use the intranet as a learning, collaborative platform if they have confidence that it will consistently provide them with authoritative, validated, and qualified knowledge in return.

Your intranet can be optimized to support knowledge management initiatives if you make changes to the existing content, publishing processes, and information architecture of the intranet.

Evaluate your content
Existing content is the trickiest to deal with, as it is hard to know how much content is published online. Removing meaningless, orphaned, dated, and irrelevant content that is of little use to the employees is the first step in this process. This type of content has no place on the intranet and should be removed as soon as possible.

Another problem with the content on an intranet is that it could be published in the wrong place, in the wrong format, and potentially with the wrong amount of emphasis attached to it. Use professional content strategists and information architects to help you understand, manage, and evolve this content.

Make publishing more democratic
Publishing processes can really make or break the success of your KM intranet. Do not push the publishing of content down to the bottom of your corporate hierarchy. For the intranet to become a knowledge management platform with knowledge communities, every intranet user should know how to publish content and provide feedback on content already published.

Publishing should not be left to administrative assistants who don’t understand the content well enough to know where to publish it or whether it should be published online at all. Also pay attention to the actual publishing process, as this is your opportunity to codify individual learnings by forcing publishers to add metadata, categorize, and edit the content before publishing it.

Tweak the information architecture
Finally, if you hope to use your intranet as a knowledge platform to support your business objectives, pay particular attention to the information architecture. Research your users’ needs and, just as importantly, how the users relate to the current content and nomenclature on the intranet.

Consider categorizing all content by use rather than subject. Categorizing the content by the context of its use, the depth of the information, and the target audience will result in more distinct, intentional, and goal-oriented user experiences. It will also naturally limit the amount of redundant content published. Most intranets today organize content either by department or by Internal processes that only the process owners understand.

Knowledge management is becoming immensely important in today’s fast-paced, disruptive business environment. In fact, recent research conducted with 182 work groups at a Fortune 500 telecommunications company by Jonathon N. Cummings, assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, showed that teams that share knowledge, both intra-group and externally, perform better. These findings validate previous research and underscore the importance of knowledge management.

Still, organizations have struggled with implementing knowledge management effectively. Overly ambitious projects, a lack of attention to organizational cultures, and unsophisticated technology have doomed KM efforts in the past. The company intranet has been ignored or treated simply as a file server when it comes to sharing learnings.

But approaching knowledge management in a simpler, more tactical fashion where the emphasis is placed on the application of knowledge can be the key. Identifying your organization’s KM priorities, carefully focusing your communities of practice on these priorities, and upgrading your intranet to be a more of a knowledge platform will help you quickly develop a relevant, meaningful, and beneficial KM initiative.


  • Kluge J., Wolfram S, and Licht T. 2001. “Knowledge Unplugged: The McKinsey & Company global survey on knowledge management,” Palgrave Publishing.
  • Cummings, Jonathan 2004 “Work Groups, Structural Diversity and Knowledge Sharing in a Global Organization,” MIT Sloan Management Review Winter 2004, Volume 45, Number 2, p. 5

Shiv Singh has been with SBI.Razorfish since 1999 and has worked in its Boston, New York, San Francisco and London offices. He helps clients leverage digital technologies to develop meaningful and value driven customer and employee relationships. Shiv primarily focuses on intranet and extranet design and likes to work at the intersection of business strategy and information architecture. If you want to learn more about him, visit his website at

Value-Driven Intranet Design

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Fundamentally, your intranet must be tied to value creation like other business services within your organization.

Within most corporations, taking ownership of an intranet is an unglamorous, exhausting, and thankless job for a new intranet manager. Many corporate intranets lack thoughtful, focused, and disciplined design and are often extremely large and unwieldy. Fixing these intranets can seem an impossible and futile task.

Furthermore, with new terminology proliferating from the armies of IT consultants, software vendors and business professors in the marketplace, it is becoming even harder to define an intranet, determine what it should accomplish, and measure those accomplishments. In the domain of company intranets, terms like empty portals, peer-to-peer sharing, smart enterprises, digital dashboards, social networks, taxonomy design, and knowledge management all come together and compete for attention and dollars. These buzzwords capture the imagination of senior executives who force you to devote dollars to intranet-related initiatives that the organization may not be ready for or that do not benefit the employee community.

Managing these internal and external challenges and developing your intranet into a meaningful, measurable, and relevant business tool can be difficult and draining. But if you reduce your intranet to its essence, use consultants smartly, manage your stakeholders and users effectively, and approach it with the same rigor, discipline, and focus you do with any other business initiative, your task can quickly become much simpler.

Defining the intranet’s value

Fundamentally, your intranet must be tied to value creation like other business services within your organization. If it does not result in value creation for your business, the intranet is a failed service. Establishing value creation can be tricky. Intranet objectives such as increased employee communication, collaboration, and knowledge management are hard to quantify and measure. As a result, some corporations choose to establish tactile goals in the form of metrics such as page views, total hits, and customer satisfaction ratings. This approach is not effective for understanding and measuring the value creation driven through your intranet. Measuring the value is difficult, as the intranet’s greatest benefits to an organization are not in a measurable, packaged, and corporeal form. So how do you determine the value of an intranet?

A recent MIT Sloan Management Review article by C.K. Prahalad and Venkatram Ramaswamy introduces an approach to understanding value creation, which can be applied to understanding an intranet’s value as well. Prahalad and Ramaswamy discuss how value is increasingly being defined through the co-creation of experiences in which the consumer (in this case, the employee) triggers value creation through the combination of a personal event-based need and the actual services being provided. The nature of the individual’s involvement, the personal event that leads to the interaction, and the personal meaning derived from the interaction are what determine the value creation.

This theory applies to the intranet domain where the intranet alone doesn’t create value, but the site’s efficient, able use in the context of specific, individual employee needs does. The use of the intranet in the context of other services provided by the organization also affects the value creation. Unlike a product or service that is sold to a consumer and therefore has an easily recognizable cost and perceived value, the use of an intranet rarely costs an employee anything. As a result, the value is not assessed at the point of purchase but rather at the point of use, and therefore is tied directly to how it is used.

This approach for understanding an intranet’s value can seem to make it still harder to measure the value because the value creation happens at a personal, individualized, non-structured, and non-measurable level. Also, measuring the value of the intranet at the point of use puts the onus on the employee to create value by using the intranet more effectively. With such a definition of value creation for your intranet, can the value be measured at all?

Measuring the intranet’s value

In this context, breaking up your intranet into discrete, tightly defined services is the first step in measuring its value. These discrete services should provide tangible benefits to narrowly defined target audiences. They should be as self-contained as possible and ideally should be designed, positioned, and perceived as co-services in the context of other services provided in the offline space to the target audiences.

Let’s take the case of sales information in a drug company to explore this point. Intranets are commonly used as platforms to distribute market share and sales information to field sales representatives. The effective and efficient dissemination of timely sales information segmented by product and region is, in this example, the means for determining the value creation.

In this case, the business objective is to share the sales information. This objective can be divided into a series of discrete services by information type, namely the broadcasting of general market share information by brand and region; market-specific sales and competitor trends to representatives in a particular region; and finally real time, sales-representative-specific raw sales data that is used to motivate each sales person and communicate progress towards individual monthly targets.

The next step is to take one of these services—for example, the communication of sales-representative-specific sales data—and ask yourself and the specific target audience questions such as:

  • Is this service being delivered in the offline space?
  • If so, how effectively is it being delivered and is it reaching all of its target audience?
  • Can the service be delivered more effectively and efficiently via the intranet?
  • Will it reach a larger percentage of the target audience?
  • Will the offline service need to continue once the intranet service is launched?
  • How does the target audience benefit from access to the service?
  • Under what circumstances will they use this service?
  • Does it make a meaningful difference to their jobs?
  • Does it enable them to create measurable value for the company?
  • Do they have the right tools, usage patterns, and motivations to use the service?

The questions above are designed to help you truly understand the need for the service, the context in which the service will be used, the tie to the business value through the service, and the personal event triggers that will motivate use of the service. Without looking at each of these elements in the context of each service piece on your intranet, it will be hard to determine value creation and prioritize future enhancements.

As you go through the exercise above of dividing your intranet into discrete services and determining how they create value for the organization, you will quickly uncover certain trends that are commonly seen across large corporate intranets.

These trends include:

  • Value creation is optimized around a small set of high-value core services, which provide dependable value to tightly defined target audiences.
  • These high-value core services are not expensive to deliver and manage. Their success lies in their recognition of basic employee needs and the simplicity with which they respond to those needs.
  • High-value core services share similarities in how they serve their audiences, the personal events that trigger their uses, and the methods of generating value through their use. This is because these services are most in tune with the organizational behavior and culture of the organization and fit neatly into that modus operandi.
  • Services with extremely narrowly defined audiences based in one location are less successful, as offline and unstructured mechanisms for communication, collaboration, knowledge management, and task performance needs take precedence. There’s often a direction correlation between the size of your target audiences, how geographically dispersed they are, and the value of a particular service.
  • Similarly, services that have carelessly defined target audiences fail because the broader and more loosely defined the target audience, the more challenging it is to identify common personal event triggers and design a service to meaningfully respond to those triggers.

When you complete the exercise of identifying the high-value core services—i.e., the services on your intranet that result in the greatest value creation for the organization at the least cost—you will discover how your intranet is currently being perceived and valued. If your intranet is not providing much value, it is a sign either that there’s lots of room for improvement or that other tools and processes within your organization are serving your employee needs effectively enough.

Managing and nurturing talent

Once you have determined where your intranet’s value lies, the next questions are what should it do for your organization, and how do you create optimal environments for value creation. This is where two fundamental business drivers come into play: managing your talent pool and listening very closely to your customers.

Managing and nurturing talent is always challenging, and it becomes even harder when providing a technological service to an internal clientele. How do you identify the right resources to deliver on the promise of your intranet? How do you find them in the first place? Do they reside within your organization or do you have to bring in consultants enmasse to do the job for you? What about knowledge transfer and providing exciting growth opportunities for your team once the core set of intranet services has been built?

The following steps can help you manage your talent pool more effectively.

  1. Identify an intranet solutions strategist.
    The strategist is an individual who intuitively understands the potential of your intranet as well as the limits of what it can cost-effectively accomplish from a business perspective. This person needs to have enough intranet design experience, preferably in other organizations, to be able to quickly grasp the current state of the intranet, identify the key areas to focus on for improvement, and bring in the right skills to execute on the creation of new services and the redesign of existing ones. The intranet solutions strategist needs to have seen it all before, and should ideally also have experience in project execution and the management of interdisciplinary teams. This person can either be an employee or a consultant.
  2. Organize your teams by services delivered rather than skill silos.
    Interdisciplinary teams are recognized as being more cost-effective and more likely to deliver on-time and on-budget services. Each service team should have the use of the intranet solutions strategist’s time for guiding the design and development of their core services. Roles and responsibilities should be determined in a similar fashion to those defined for the cell teams that are common in manufacturing plants. Cell teams closely locate people and equipment required for certain processing families of like products. The cell’s operators are often cross-trained on several tasks, engage in job rotation, and take more ownership and responsibility than in normal manufacturing plants. Similarly, your intranet service teams must share a common value system, work practices and means of communication. A certain degree of creative dissonance should be tolerated but nevertheless controlled.
  3. Establish measurable objectives for these teams.
    These teams should be given core services to develop or redevelop within specified timeframes. They should be financially motivated for timely delivery, cost control, and customer acceptance. The teams should always have visibility into the work that will follow the delivery of their current project. Creating an atmosphere of professional competitiveness between teams can serve as a motivator, especially if the teams have financial incentives.
  4. Leverage teams across all web properties.
    Your intranet teams should not be confined to intranet design but should be given opportunities to take on the design and development of services related to external website and extranet projects. The philosophies that drive strong intranet design whether in the business analysis, user experience, or technology sphere are just as applicable to other web initiatives.
  5. Encourage and reward cross-pollination with other business units.
    If you manage an intranet in a large organization, encourage other departments to borrow your more junior employees for short periods. The experience in the business will be rewarding for the team members, and it will bring fresh insights into intranet usage patterns, strategies, and tactics for new services that benefit the business and exposure to business processes. Likewise, bringing in employees from the business for short periods will give your teams new insights into the business and how to optimize the intranet around use. Unlike an external web solution, you have the benefit of having your customers work for your CEO just as you do. This provides incredible opportunities for understanding and serving them better — short-term cross-pollination is one such opportunity that should not be missed.

Usually the best person to play the intranet solutions strategist role is an external consultant, as you want someone with diverse experience.

Using consultants effectively

As you have probably observed, the team structures recommended above share many similarities to the way consultancies are organized. This is because consultancies are tightly focused on delivery and cost control. So do you need consultants at all, and if so, how do you use them? This is where things can get a little trickier.

Usually the best person to play the intranet solutions strategist role is an external consultant, as you want someone with diverse experience. This consultant would naturally rather lead his or her own teams than have to shepherd internal employees. Often that can be a condition for a consultant accepting such a position. So how do you resolve this dilemma?

The answer is to either combine your teams with the consultant’s team (which the external firm will resist, arguing that there are increased delivery and quality risks involved in mixing teams), or to bring in the consulting firm to deliver certain services while having your internal team develop other services. In the situation presented above, it is much easier to engage with the consulting firm and leverage the intranet solutions strategist across all the teams. The goal should be to engage with the intranet solutions strategist on a near-permanent basis and bring in consulting teams occasionally to augment your internal talent pool.

What if you do not have the right type of talent in-house? The answer is to invest in training and hiring as soon as you can. Using consultants to solve your talent shortages is an expensive solution, and while it will produce the quick short-term results that you may need to deliver, in the long term it will turn out to be much more expensive. The only exception to this rule is if you find that your intranet initiatives are not complex enough or continuous to warrant full time internal teams.

Listening to your customers

The importance of listening to your customers in business can never be underemphasized, and it matters just as much in the intranet domain. Ironically, because your customers are so close to you, you might be in a situation where you believe that you are listening to them when you actually aren’t. Inter-department politics and clashes over annual budgets make it hard to listen to what the business community is saying versus what you’d like them to be saying.

The following steps can help you listen better:

  1. Organize yourself into a result-oriented governance model that includes representation from your business community.
    These representatives should be able to commit at least ten hours each month to prioritize services, support usability testing, and serve as champions for new services rolled out. Do not depend on them for anything else. You might be accused of taking more of their time than you should and, worse still, inviting them to make decisions in areas that they shouldn’t. Making all intranet-related documentation available to them should greatly mitigate the concerns regarding involvement that they may have.
  2. Set up a usability laboratory for monthly testing.
    Usability labs are extremely cheap to set up and manage and they provide immense benefits to your intranet teams. Require monthly usability testing of new or redesigned services; this will put pressure on your intranet teams to deliver something each month, and it will keep your user community involved. Publish the results of these tests for all your intranet teams and the larger business community. Rotate which user representatives get to participate in the usability testing. Invite senior executives and your business representatives to watch the testing so that they understand the challenges of intranet design.
  3. Design and deploy for use.
    Engage with your business community as actively as possible for the design and rollout of a particular service. Make them feel like you are providing them a service and that they are your client. Listen and understand the business needs, and map these processes on paper before designing a digital solution. Promote transparency and engage with them to provide feedback at critical stages. Be careful not to include them to such an extent that your design process evolves into participatory design. The business owners are not your intranet designers; they are your users, and just as car manufacturers regularly bring in customers to view prototypes but refuse to let them participate in the actual design process, so should you limit the participation of your business users.
    This needs to be done tactfully; these representatives need to be your champions, so you don’t want to disenfranchise them. There’s an axiom in the business community that if you want your boss to like your decisions, let him or her make them for you. Don’t fall victim to that axiom.
  4. Always question the value creation.
    Demonstrate to the business community how your intranet is broken into a series of services with core audiences to whom you provide measurable value. Encourage them to think of new services for additional value creation. Keep them updated on releases, delays, and plans for future services. Don’t be afraid to scrap projects midway through if you discover they will not provide sufficient value. While this may hurt you in the short term, as your detractors will consider it a failure, in the long term it will establish greater credibility.


Too often, large corporations approach intranet design like any other technological initiative. You have your end users. You have the technology, an interface, and the usual parameters of cost, time, build-versus-buy decision making, resourcing, and interoperability with other technology. But intranet design is not just another technology initiative. Rather, it is a targeted business service to employees within your organization. Greater emphasis should be put on the strategy and the design and less on the technological implementation. An intranet’s value should never be determined by what technology it uses, how quickly it is rolled out, or how many standards it complies with. Keep this in mind as you design your intranet, establish where value creation lies, and engage with your customers.

Also remember that the value of your intranet might be hidden and not immediately apparent. If designed appropriately, your intranet can provide immense value to your employee base. This was seen in a Watson Wyatt HCI study, which revealed that implementing technologies that improve employee service can increase shareholder value by as much as 2.3 percent (Watson Wyatt’s 2001 Human Capital Index® [HCI] study). This means that organizations can generate an additional 2.3 percent increase in shareholder value by using employee relationship solutions to reduce the costs associated with delivering service to employees. This is not a percentage to ignore.

Fixing an intranet can be likened to trying to repair a submarine while at sea. Your customers will continue to have needs for new services and functionality while you try to fix the existing problems. But by identifying where the true value of your intranet lies, managing your talent pool effectively, and engaging with your business community strategically, you will be able to align your customers with your vision of the intranet, meet their most important needs, and fix the right services at the same time.

  • Prahalad C.K, Ramaswamy V., (2003) “The New Frontier of Experience Innovation”

Shiv Singh is an Experience Lead & Information Architect with SBI.Razorfish. Working out of SBI’s London office, he spent most of 2003 leading the user research and experience design team for an enterprise intranet that is being launched in 50 countries over the next two years. Prior to that, he worked on a large multidisciplinary SBI.Razorfish team that developed a decision support intranet for a Fortune 1000 company. He has been conceptualizing, designing, and building websites and intranets since 1995, and likes to work at the intersection of business strategy and information architecture.

Practical Strategies for Creating a Successful Intranet

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“As an intranet designer, you have one key advantage over your web design counterparts: your users are your coworkers.”Designing, developing, and deploying an intranet can be expensive, time-consuming and organizationally tricky. Complicating factors include: supervising the budget; prioritizing features; addressing user requests; collaborating with other departments to produce and deploy content; and leading interdisciplinary teams of site administrators, information architects, content writers, visual designers, technical architects, and developers. Nevertheless, certain strategies, when carefully executed, can simplify designing and managing your intranet.

The strategies discussed in this article are drawn from Razorfish’s seven years of experience leading intranet projects. Please note, however, that this article’s primary focus is on practical strategies for the design and development of an intranet. The article does not cover related organizational issues that are essential “pre-work” for intranet development, such as executive sponsorship, budget allocation and management, vendor selection, and department-level buy-in. This article instead outlines user-centric strategies designed to build an intranet site that becomes a “living breathing application,” something people really use.

Strategy #1: Your users sit next to you; use that to your advantage, but be careful
As an intranet designer, you have one key advantage over your web design counterparts: your users are your coworkers. You can observe them, talk to them, and understand their needs first-hand. Use this opportunity to your advantage. For example, consider integrating your users into your design process via interviews, card-sorting exercises, paper prototype evaluations, or other participatory tools. In cases where your users are geographically dispersed, use local help desk and IT support staff to solicit user participation and feedback. The help desk and IT support staff will be happy to serve as ambassadors for your intranet initiative, and the sooner you garner their support the better. They often also have existing relationships with users that can be leveraged.

In most cases, involving users in the design process is a productive experience for all involved. But inadvertent risks and challenges do crop up when your users begin to have a say in their intranet’s creation. These challenges may include the following:

Users want to dictate the intranet’s architecture or content. Users who are also business stakeholders may be particularly tough to work with because they might feel directly responsible for the project’s success. For example, your primary business stakeholder might demand that aggregate sales data for all products appear on every senior manager’s homepage. This might sound like a good idea. But most senior managers may prefer to get this data in Microsoft Excel format via email. Instead of sales data, these senior managers may prefer to receive industry news on their homepages. Where possible, research intranet users’ actual needs and usage patterns and provide these to the business stakeholders.

In other words, never let a few individual users—particularly powerful business stakeholders not part of your user base—dictate intranet architecture and design. Remind these stakeholders that the success of the company intranet is dependent upon meeting the needs of a larger user population, one with many diverse and specific needs.

Users can’t find time for you. An organization that needs an intranet is a busy one. Your coworkers simply may not have the time to sit down with you and offer input. If you do reach them, use their time carefully, and demonstrate the benefits of their involvement to them. Show your users how good user-centric intranet design can increase their productivity. Listen carefully to their input and be flexible enough to meet their requests when appropriate. Don’t solicit user feedback if it is too late in the design process to accommodate it; you’ll just be wasting their time and yours.

Users feel disenfranchised or adversarial because they believe their requirements are not being met. Treat your user community with care. More users involved in the design process mean having more complainers or “defectors” among them. Thus, it’s all the more critical that you keep your users apprised on the state of intranet’s development. Make them aware of trade-offs or design limitations, and, where appropriate, of different constituents’ needs. Always let users know how their feedback might be used, and its end result.

User participation can affect your timeline and budget. But the benefits far outweigh the costs. User involvement results in an intranet that is more relevant and cost-effective in the long term. In fact, the rule of thumb in some usability-conscious organizations is that the cost-benefit ratio for usability is $1: $10-$100 (Donahue, 1999). This means that for every dollar spent implementing usability techniques, the organization will realize a benefit between $10 and $100 down the road.

Strategy #2: Measure quantifiable results, not just user satisfaction
How do you balance intranet efficiency with user satisfaction, particularly when those two goals may be mutually exclusive? Too often, an intranet’s design is shaped by questions such as, “Do the users like it?” or “Which feature has the highest number of click-throughs?” Remember that an intranet is designed to be a business productivity tool. An intranet’s success should be measured by the increased efficiency of the employees who use it, not solely by individual user satisfaction.

The first question to ask is, “What is the relative efficiency of building an intranet in the first place?” Will the cost savings generated by the intranet’s use be significant enough to justify its development and maintenance? Or can the same business tasks be accomplished more cost-effectively offline? Just because the technology exists, doesn’t always mean it’s smart to use it.

These are difficult issues to consider, especially if the intranet project is near and dear to you. But to save yourself trouble later, you must determine whether your intranet will create value in measurable terms. Follow the steps below to more accurately assess your intranet’s potential efficiency.

  1. Segment your user community into groups, defined by similar needs.
  2. List the business objectives for each user group.
  3. Outline the actual tasks that each user group performs in order to achieve those objectives.
  4. Identify tasks that can potentially be completed using an intranet.
  5. Compare the amount of time the tasks would take using the intranet, versus completing them offline.
  6. Tally the scores of online versus offline task completion efficiencies, by giving greater emphasis to user groups responsible for more important business objectives. For example, when we completed this exercise at large biotechnology company, we discovered that their senior managers had such distinct needs that it was best to develop a dedicated intranet for them alone.
  7. Account for the behind-the-scenes benefits of using the intranet (e.g., simplifying the content distribution process) in your final analysis.

Now, let’s try a “real-life” example: filing expense reports. Steps involved in filing expense reports offline might include:

  • Entering each expense item into a spreadsheet.
  • Delivering, in person or via office mail, the spreadsheet to a manager for approval.
  • Delivering, in person or via office mail, the approved copy to a controller.
  • A week later, verifying that the finance department has approved the expense report.

Estimate how much time it would take for a user to perform this task offline. Now imagine how this task could be accomplished via an intranet:

  • Expenses are automatically imported from a corporate credit card account into an intranet-based reporting program.
  • User verifies report details and adds non–credit card expenses via a web interface.
  • The report is automatically sent to the manager’s “workspace” for approval.
  • The manager views and approves the expense report on her screen.
  • Upon approval, the expense report is electronically sent to the finance department.
  • The user checks his expense report’s approval status, via his workspace, at any given time.

On the surface, automating expense reports seems extremely efficient. But, by digging deeper, you may discover that only a few dozen expense reports are being filed each week. You may also discover that salespeople file most of the expense reports; senior managers travel less frequently and have their assistants file their reports for them.

Thus, you might conclude that the benefits of automating the expense report process do not cover its development costs: not enough expense reports are being filed each month, and the extra time to file them is not great enough to warrant automation.

“…for every dollar spent implementing usability techniques, the organization will realize a benefit between $10 and $100 down the road.”In other words, think about which user groups would save the most time by using an intranet, and how much time that would actually be. Would those users work more efficiently because of an intranet? Would they make better business decisions? Simple user satisfaction is less important than tangible, measurable, economic benefits to the organization.

Strategy #3: Use fewer vendors and take them more seriously
Some large organizations make the mistake of pitting vendors against one another, thinking that healthy competition among consultants results in better service and higher ROI. However, this may be true only if you have a very large budget and lots of time to roll out your intranet—two very unusual situations these days.

The reality is that you lose too much time and money when you use several vendors. Having multiple vendors carries risk; potentially, they could fight over your department budget or could complete redundant or incompatible work.

Vendors put on the defensive will spend their time protecting their business with you, not focusing on delivering solutions. They are also less inclined to take risks with you or their products. Multiple vendors sometimes disagree with each other over responsibilities and recommendations, blame each other for mistakes, and slow down the development process. Watertight roles and responsibilities between vendors will reduce this friction, but will not eliminate it entirely.

A much better tactic is to bring in just one or two strong vendors. Then, hire a full-time employee who has either worked for a vendor in the same field, or has strong experience with similar vendors. This one employee will keep vendors on their toes—saving you money and stress. He or she will also be able to alert you to potential complications.

Keep in mind, though, that this plan will work only if you choose a strong vendor, and hire a highly experienced employee who is given latitude to run the vendor relationship. If you choose well, your vendors will be more delivery-focused, and will appreciate a client stakeholder who understands their work and specific challenges.

Strategy #4: Deploy your features with your users in mind… but you can’t please everyone
When you develop and deploy an intranet, it’s easy to misjudge which features and functionality to deliver first. Easy-to-implement “quick hit” features such as announcements and local weather modules are often rolled out first, while the “home run” features are put off until later.

Your intranet deployment is more than just a series of easy-to-implement quick hits. You run the risk of losing your users this way, or garnering contempt for your sweat-ridden intranet initiatives. Nothing is wrong with quick-hit features, but there is a lot wrong with phasing in features and functionality based on their ease of implementation alone. Instead, release intranet features and functionality determined by user needs. Think about which features your users require the most and whether your intranet’s feature set will meet their needs. Otherwise, you could alienate user groups who have no quick-hit needs.

An alternate process is to phase in support for different user groups at different times. For instance, before introducing a user group to the intranet, determine the minimum number of their business tasks that need to be supported online. Supporting these tasks via the intranet will create immediate user satisfaction and efficiency gains. After all, no user is interested in an intranet with two hundred quick hits and five deep features, when only two features in total are relevant.

Imagine that one of your primary user groups (your field sales force) has five key business tasks that can be accomplished via the intranet. These tasks could include:

  1. Viewing up-to-date pricing and discount information.
  2. Researching competitor products.
  3. Reviewing client purchases by studying archived sales data.
  4. Sending daily sales totals to a corporate office.
  5. Reviewing quarterly targets and bonus plans.

Now, imagine you have to choose between building functionality to support some of these tasks—and only for the sales force; or building features that deliver industry and company news to the whole organization; or publishing business-unit profitability numbers to senior managers; or upgrading a company events calendar.

We have already discussed why the wrong developer decision is to implement the easiest features first, and roll out the more expensive, time-consuming pieces of functionality later. A better strategy would be to deploy the easiest-to-implement features that affect the most number of users: in this case, the calendar, industry and company news, and possibly researching competitor products.

Making the best choice might involve some very different thinking. What about rolling out the intranet only to the field sales force, and only after at least three of their key tasks can be supported online?

How will you know when to make an unconventional decision? Keep your eyes open and your mind working! Suppose you find out that automating the sales force’s business tasks dramatically affects the company’s bottom line, in terms of time saved. Then, after factoring in the cost of intranet promotion and training for the entire organization, you also determine that implementing other intranet features will not result in significant organizational savings. A good understanding of your users, their needs and your limitations can yield dramatic results.

Trying to please everyone will lead to the deployment of easily rolled-out but unimportant features. Instead, choose a group of users you can please well in the short term, and target those users with features that correspond to their requirements.

Strategy #5: Cultivate multidisciplinary collaboration
Multidisciplinary teams have a hard time collaborating successfully. Good information architects, visual designers, functional analysts, and technologists are all trained to think in certain ways, and often are in conflict with one another. For example, implementing strong information architecture may require compromising certain technology best practices, or vice versa. Will the technologist or information architect want to do this? Can they ever compromise?

If possible, find immediate and efficient solutions to these issues. Otherwise, the closer you get to your intranet’s launch, the harder it will be for the different skill sets on your team to work together, lowering productivity and perhaps resulting in missed launch dates. Below are some pointers to help your teams collaborate better:

  1. Define strict roles and responsibilities early on in the project. Understand where the roles overlap. Map out who should lead in the overlapping areas. Critically assess your team’s skill sets at the start of the project. If you believe that your existing team is not strong enough, bring in new members earlier, rather than later. In other words, don’t wait for team members to drop the ball before bringing in extra help.
  2. Make sure team members are sharing enough knowledge. Don’t allow your team members to use information as a source of power. Be in tune with the inner workings of your project and watch the flow of information between different team members. Every team member should be a source of knowledge for you, not just a few people. Figure out what information each will team member needs, where to get it, and whether they are getting it at all.
  3. Encourage team members to educate one another on their skill sets and deliverables. Make sure that team members are always communicating their own expectations, and managing one another’s. For example, if you are implementing a software package, each team member—regardless of his or her skill set—should understand the workings of the entire package. All should share their documentation. Emphasize that expertise is defined by the educated perspective that a person brings to a discussion, and not simply by owning information.

Multidisciplinary collaboration can contribute in large part to a project’s success. Ensuring good collaboration can be a full-time job in and of itself. As you encourage collaboration, remind your team members that a well-defined team can never collaborate too much.

Designing and managing an intranet is not easy. Most intranets usually require months of planning and development, and large, fluid, multidisciplinary teams. But by staying close to your users, focusing on creating measurable, precise solutions, building harmonious relationships with your vendors, determining how best to serve which user needs, and creating strong collaborative bonds, you will be building the foundations for a successful intranet launch.

Donahue, G., Weinschenk, S., Nowicki, J. (1999) “Usability is Good Business,” Compuware Corporation.Shiv Singh is an Experience Lead & Information Architect in the Boston office of Razorfish Inc. He spent the last ten months working on a large multidisciplinary Razorfish team that developed a decision support intranet for a Fortune 1000 company. In the last seven years, Razorfish has built intranets for clients including Avaya, Cisco, Microsoft, Western Union, a large biotechnology company, and a leading professional services firm.