Success Factors for Corporate Intranets

The Nielsen Norman Group say the top trends in the best intranets flip the priority from "information" to "people." Doing so can keep maintenance manageable, costs down, and information current.

A report published this week by the Nielsen Norman Group and usability expert Jakob Nielsen gave awards to the year's top 10 intranets, and also identified the commonalities in those best efforts in knowledge management and productivity tools.

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"It's now a given to have basic features such as an employee directory on a company's intranet," said usability expert Jakob Nielsen, principal of Nielsen Norman Group, in a statement. "What's new is the polish and sophistication that companies are giving them so that they serve even more useful purposes, which in the case of the directory means providing more than an employee's name, rank and serial number, but also his subject-matter expertise, for example."

Among the trends noted in the Intranet Design Annual 2008: The Year's Ten Best Intranets were an increasing amount of attention given to company news, a strong productivity focus and increased personalization.

Covering company news isn't exactly a revelation; it's a mainstay of intranets. According to the report's authors, however, companies are taking news more seriously. "Most winning intranets give it major homepage real estate, and many invest significant resources in editing and maintaining their news releases." For instance, the Campbell Soup company's intranet lets employees browse news by business units and corporate functions.

The design of many winning intranets had a consistent navigation scheme and consistent user experience, according to the report. Typically these replaced "hundreds of individual sites that lacked unified navigation and presented a highly inconsistent user experience. This chaotic state remains the norm on many intranets, which suffer reduced usability and lowered employee productivity as a result."

According to the usability experts, one page—a home page or special user page—should act as the employee's home base and be "the primary source of links to importance activities, schedules, tools and news." That site can do more than support tasks common to all employees, such as vacation request or expense reports. "More recently," write the authors, "we've seen intranet support for more business- and domain-specific tasks. This year, that trend is even more prevalent."

Is it worth the effort? Apparently so. Neilsen Norman Group has found that the productivity gains from a major improvement in intranet usability were 72 percent on average—and 101 percent at Bank of America. "In addition to measuring ROI for intranet redesigns, it's also worth setting measurable goals in advance for what you want to achieve," the report advises.

Many of the most important features on the winning intranets directly support everyday work, says the report. "While advanced applications can boost productivity, smaller tools sometimes do the trick," the authors write. To book a department vehicle for offsite assignments, employees at the Department of Primary Industries used to call a receptionist, who took the information over the phone and entered the details into a fleet management system. Now, a one-page form on the firm's intranet lets a mine inspector (the report's example) reserve the vehicle directly, saving time and increasing accuracy.

Most intranets let employees find information, but what about finding people? In many companies, it's tough to find the right person inside your own organization. Increasingly, says the report, employee directories and other search tools are catering to the need to find a subject matter expert, and make the best use of their organization's knowledge.

Good results can be achieved with just about any technology. The winning intranets were built with a diverse set of tools, including SharePoint, the Google Search Appliance, Red Hat Linux, Lotus Notes and Domino, and Oracle databases, according to the report.

The 10 organizations with winning intranets are based in six countries and have employee populations ranging in size from 200 to 200,000. They include Bank of America (US); Bankinter S.A. (Spain); Barnes & Noble (US); British Airways (UK); Campbell Soup Company (US); Coldwell Banker Real Estate Corporation (US); IKEA North America Service, LLC, (US); Ministry of Transport (New Zealand); New South Wales Department of Primary Industries (Australia); and SAP AG (Germany).

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