Housingnet - Camden Housing's Intranet out of a box, and owned by users

The Context

Within the last year Camden Housing department, along with all other services in the Authority, has undergone a major modernisation of its desk top systems and hardware. A year ago, our 1000 housing staff were using dumb terminals to access Officepower for word processing and emails, now they have modern PCs running on Windows NT with MS Office, Outlook and Internet Explorer browser. The department recognised the opportunity these new tools offered, and high level sponsorship was given for the development of the Housing Intranet, now called Housingnet. A key success factor for Housingnet was that it tied in with Investors in People: improving communication across the department and helping staff at our 64 sites feel part of one team.

Housingnet was to be launched at the Staff Event on 25 May 2000. This meant that there were just 6 months to get the system up and running.

Why choose a package Intranet?

Three options were considered; developing the Housingnet in - house, using a third party to develop it, or buying a package. Given the tight timescale, a package approach was preferred, but the package intranet concept was relatively new on the market. Two incomplete packages were looked at before a Danish product, "Intrasuite", was chosen. Intrasuite was already being widely used in the Danish public sector, with 25 mainly public sector sites , including the Danish Ministry of Transport.

Apart from the rapid implementation, Intrasuite was a good fit to our requirements for two other reasons. The cost of the Intranet out of a box was about half that of a custom Intranet developed by a third party. In Camden Housing's model, there was to be no central 'gatekeeper' or 'webmaster' to administer the Intranet on an ongoing basis, therefore user administration had to be kept to a minimum. The close integration of the Intrasuite with Outlook and Exchange meant that user and group details were updated from Exchange overnight, so there was no additional administration required to set up users on the Intranet.

Finally, the fact that the package came with pre-defined modules allowed the content to be built up very quickly, as well as user friendly standard templates for loading content. Instead of starting with a blank sheet, the project team had a framework on which to build the content. It meant that the prototype was built very quickly, content refined, and the prototype then launched as the live system. Only minimum training is required for a member of staff to become a content author or 'superuser'. The control of content is helped by standard facilities which, for example, remove News Items after a specified period.

So, if you are thinking about choosing a package intranet consider these advantages:

What does Housingnet do?

The Housingnet server was purchased in February 2000, and a project team started work immediately.

It was decided to launch Housingnet with the following modules:

Housing Calendar
Discussion Forum
Links to Useful Websites

Each of the five service areas within housing also had their own area to load procedures and service - specific information.

part of the present home pageThe structure of the home page currently looks like the image on the left. Click on the image to go to a snapshot of the full screen (which may take a little while to download here, although not when it's live on the intranet!). The home page will be changing soon (see under 'who's looking at it?').

Care was taken not to duplicate information held on the Corporate Intranet or the Camden Website. For instance, as the 'phone directory was held on the corporate intranet, a simple link ensured that it was available within Housingnet.

Technical details: Intrasuite is developed on Microsoft's NT server, IIS, and SQL database. The system will also work with Novell. It is developed in C++, Active Server Pages (ASP) and Component Object Model (COM). To connect to Housingnet the client requires Internet Explorer 4.0 or a later version. Its not currently compatible with Netscape but this is in the pipeline. The server is a Compaq Proliant 3000 with a single Pentium III 600 MHz processor, 500Mb Memory and tow 18 Gb hard disks. When we move to the release of Intrasuite, this will be upgraded with an additional 600MHz processor and the memory will be doubled to 1 Gb.

Promoting ownership

Housingnet is very user friendly for publishing content. 26 staff members were trained as 'superusers' and given responsibility for loading content for their teams. This was done in workshops where the superusers brought along their procedures etc and started loading them in the training sessions. It met the required launch date of June 2000, and prior to the launch, all content was reviewed by the project team and by superuser peers. In the three months prior to the launch in June 2000, over 80 Mb of information, about 4,000 pages was loaded; proof that it has really caught the imagination of staff. In September 2000 this has now reached 130 Mb.

Unlike many Intranets where the content is very thin, Housingnet is lively with constantly changing content. This couldn't have been achieved with a single webmaster administering it.

It does mean that clear guidance was needed for superusers, to ensure that content was appropriate and that common styles and standards were adopted. The standard styles were reinforced through the templates used for content loading. Now that Housingnet has been launched, the Policy and Information team leads on co-ordinating its development. Superusers meet regularly for workshops and editorial sessions and communicate between meetings through a discussion group on Housingnet itself.

The wide range of content (the examples may be a little slow to load here, though they aren't on Camden's Intranet!) includes

With all this to see and do - who is looking at it ?

Housingnet was demonstrated to users at the Staff Event in May. In addition, superusers have been carrying out one to one coaching with staff in their locations. Our statistics show that initially, about one fifth of our staff were looking at Housingnet in any one week; this has increased to over a third. This probably represents those staff who are already comfortable with using browsers and have access to the Internet at home. Staff have had a very challenging year with major changes to their IT systems, so it's perhaps not surprising that they haven't all embraced Housingnet yet. We recognise that we need to do more to ensure that every member of staff uses Housingnet regularly.

We are going to address this in three ways:

What difference has it made to the way we do business?

This is what Housingnet users have said about it:

"A useful information tool, whether about other people and their roles in the department, but also for info like standing orders and other procedures."

"I think it's great - informative and extremely accessible way to keep on top of Camden's day to day affairs rather than have lots of paper floating about."

"Useful within an organisation this size."

"People are still coming to grips with it. It will prove a useful tool to enhance our performance in the long run as well as being interesting to use."

"Useful and easy to access. I especially like the provision of DETR circulars."

Comments from a superuser:

"The Housingnet means that we can publish abstracts from professional journals much more quickly and to a much wider readership than before. We used to publish a monthly bulletin of abstracts and circulate hard copies to about forty managers. With the intranet we are able to update the abstracts on daily basis, and they are instantly accessible to hundreds of staff in the department."

Thanks for information.