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Top Tips for a Great Intranet

If you're planning an intranet, or looking to build on your existing one, you may find the following tips useful.

It's a tool, not a dustbin

Too many corporate intranets are driven from the top down and are full of information employees should know, but will never read. Don't fill up the intranet with PDFs of company reports and glossy corporate brochures - but focus on the tools that will make life easier for your staff. An easy win is an online telephone directory. It can be implemented in a number of ways, but as long as it is easily searchable and managed by those closest to the information (see Devolve responsibility for content) it will drive people to use the intranet.

Remember - your first goal is to convince staff that the intranet is a useful aid to their working life. Delivering simple tools that help their day-to-day work will convert the non-believers. Focus on these tools. Could staff fill out absence forms, room bookings, or stationary requests online? What will save them from walking to the admin office, or the filing cabinet?

Don't be afraid of forums - even if the messages seem frivolous. Once people get used to sharing information on the intranet it will help engender an online culture. When your intranet is casually referred to by staff as a primary communication tool, that's when you can think about disseminating minutes, documents and business knowledge online.

Give it a name

The intranet is part of your business. The last thing you want is people walking around saying 'It's on the intranet', because it's technical, impersonal and the subtext is '.and it may as well be on the moon.'

This is not an excuse, however, to spend fourteen hours brainstorming and ordering in pizza. Trust me, it doesn't really matter if your intranet is called "Spot" - as long as it encourages your staff to take ownership and refer to it colloquially.

Build in metrics

Your intranet should never be finished, because your business will always be changing. You'll want to build on the elements of the intranet that people use most, and identify the areas of the intranet where information is lacking.

To do that effectively, you need to know which parts of the intranet are hit most. You'll also want to know what people are searching for, and with what success. There are many inexpensive site monitoring tools such as Webtrends that will help you, but you should build them in from the start and monitor intranet usage against targets regularly.

You must know who your users are

If you're trying to deliver an intranet that offers services as well as a document repository - i.e. useful tools, then the first hurdle when you're developing your intranet is authentication. If Don Smith in your accounts department is placing an order for more stationary, you need to know that it was Don Smith who placed the order! For many large organisations, this may not be as simple as it sounds. Your personnel database may be a legacy system that doesn't talk to your intranet, your staff may share computers or work from home.

Fortunately, with the advent of XML and server tools designed to integrate systems, these problems are no longer insurmountable in terms of time and cost; but you do need to consider them from the very beginning.

You may want to issue your own digital certificates to employees - which can be an effective way of offering a unified log-on.

Devolve responsibility for content

As far as possible, you should give control of the information on the intranet to the people who use it. A good model would be to have an intranet evangelist in each department. It will be their role to keep a small area of the intranet up to date with the information that is most important to their immediate colleagues.

Advances in web publishing software such as Microsoft Frontpage mean producing simple webpages is little more complicated than writing Word documents. With minimal training staff can confidently take ownership of the part of the intranet that relates most closely to them. That means your intranet will be strongly focused.

Regular meetings with your intranet evangelists will drive intranet development from the ground-up, encourage staff to share ideas and identify cross-departmental needs.

Invite contributions

Increasingly, UK businesses are information-led. Often that information is in your employees' heads - so you need them to share their knowledge and increase the value of your business. It's a great application for your intranet, but the challenge is getting people to open up and put their ideas and knowledge online.

Consider ways in which you can encourage or reward contributions. Peer rated contributions could lead to bonuses - for example. Some companies even include contributions to the intranet as a metric during staff appraisal and target setting.

Investigate your current applications, and make them work harder

You don't have to think of your intranet purely in terms of web-pages or web technologies. You probably already have applications you think of as network tools that can be stretched a little further.

Many companies use Microsoft Exchange and Outlook to manage their email. But you may not be taking advantage of that application's capacity to serve newsgroups, act as a telephone directory, a room booking service (through shared calendars) - or display a customisable, dynamic start-up page. Shared folders can include web-pages, and rich forms can be created with a little knowledge of Visual Basic.

Outlook, of course, has the added advantage that email is already the internet's number one app - and will be the first thing that employees open when they log-on in the morning. The interface is already second nature.

Investigate new technologies

There are many off-the-shelf packages designed to help you build an effective intranet, but the most effective are those that enable intranet activity and knowledge sharing without requiring your staff to learn new skills. Organisations with bigger budgets should investigate Microsoft's Share-Point Portal Server, for instance.

It enables the sharing of documents by extending the menus of common office applications such as Word, Excel and Powerpoint.

When your staff go to save their document, they will have another option to 'Check In' the document they've just written in Word. When they hit that option, the document will be uploaded, catalogued and effectively published on the intranet for other users in your company to find.

Of course, other nice features include authorisation routes, where documents can require the approval of a series of managers before becoming public, indexing of your company's server resources (such as shared directories, Exchange mailboxes, etc), and even indexing of useful sites out on the internet.