Building the Places for People intranet

By : Nigel Hodgetts

In the beginning
Over the last three years intranets have become a key component of the communications backbone in many organisations. One author writing on the popularity of intranets put it thus: "…organisations are embracing intranets with an enthusiasm usually reserved for good news from Wall Street. Whether or not a company has an intranet has become a determining factor in judging it as an old-world or a new millennium organisation".

In this article we’ll look at some general points to consider when planning an intranet. We’ll also examine how we addressed these issues during the development of our own intranet within the Places for People Group.

The seeds of the Places for People intranet were sown over three years ago when our Network Manager of the time built a small demonstration intranet to show to a group of managers within the IT Department. This was a simple affair: Just a few files on a shared network drive. There was no real content, just dummy pages. There wasn’t even a web server running – just a shared folder on a network drive. However, it was enough to plant the idea firmly in the mind of the department head and when a major programme of work was being defined, development of a new corporate intranet became one of the core projects within that programme.

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picture of balloonsBlue skies
Having decided to develop a corporate intranet, the first question to be answered is what to put on it. That might seem pretty straightforward but get it wrong and you have an expensive white elephant that nobody uses. You need to find out what people think would be useful to them. What could an intranet deliver that they don’t already have AND that would make their lives easier?

The first thing we did at Places for People was to put together a project team to take the corporate intranet forward. The team members came from a cross section of business functions and geographical locations. This was a key factor in ensuring that the final product would reflect the needs of the business rather than be a showcase for the technologies used. In fact I was the only technical person on the team.

To establish the content that should be delivered on the pilot of our intranet we sent a questionnaire to all staff. The question sheet gave them a simple explanation of what an intranet was, some suggestions for the kind of things that it might feature and space for them to suggest other types of content.

We believed that it was important to make the question sheet short and easy to understand, to encourage staff to complete and send it back. By keeping our questionnaire down to just one side of A4 we were able to get a good response. We were also fortunate to be launching the project at the same time as our staff conference was happening. This gave our team a captive audience of over 300 staff to approach and interview in person.

The interviews and questionnaires were completely open and allowed staff to put forward anything they could think of that might be featured on the corporate intranet. Using this ‘blue sky’ approach to identifying possible intranet content generated a list of nearly 150 potential intranet applications. As we had hoped, many of the ideas that came forward were ones that nobody in the project team had thought of.

From the list of 150 suggestions we needed to identify just five to ten to deliver on the pilot system. After taking out the applications that weren’t technically possible we were still left with over 100 to choose from. We needed a way of prioritising these suggestions that was objective and relevant across the business. To accomplish this the project team devised a scoring matrix that could be applied to all of the potential applications. This system allowed us to identify a ‘top ten’ list of applications to develop for the pilot intranet.

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picture of gearsNuts and bolts
If you have a computer network in your workplace you already have the backbone of an intranet. If your network is using the Internet standard protocol (TCP/IP) for communications then you’re almost ready to go. All that’s needed is a web server to host the content and the content itself.

<Warning – geeky, technical stuff ahead!>

Intranets work in exactly the same way is the Internet. At one end is the server – a central computer that stores the content to be shared by the intranet users. At the other end is the web browser – a program that runs on a user’s computer. These two computers talk to one another using a common language, or protocol, called Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol, or TCP/IP for short.

The browser on the user’s computer sends requests to the server asking for web pages to be delivered to it. These requests are handled by the web server. Just to confuse things, a web server is a software program – NOT a piece of hardware! Of course, the web server program must have a computer to live on – but that computer could be used for other purposes as well. However, let’s keep things simple and say that the ‘web server’ and the ‘server’ are one and the same.

When planning the development of your intranet you’ll need to decide on the hardware and software you’re going to use. Your hardware choices will probably be set by your purchasing policy but you may have more flexibility in your choice of software. The two things you need are your web server software and your web browser software.

You probably already have the browser software on your desktop computers (and if you haven’t, they’re freely available). You may not have web server software but the good news is that there are many flavours that are freely available. Your choice of web server software will be steered by the type of computer you are using for the server. If you are using a UNIX-based system you’ll probably go with the Apache web server. If you are using Microsoft NT servers you’ll probably go with Microsoft Internet Information Server.

For the Places for People intranet we chose to use Internet Information Server as we had standardised on Microsoft Windows NT as our network operating system. We decided to use a dedicated web server for our intranet rather than run it as a service on another computer. The decision was based on getting the best performance on both the intranet and other network services.

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Putting it all together
Once you’ve got your web server installed and running its time to start developing your content and then make it available to your users. Before you start there are a number of issues that you need to deal with:

Making sure these issues are clearly addressed before going any further will prevent problems at a later date. The way you deal with these issues will be influenced by the culture of your organisation. An open cultured organisation will probably adopt policies that allow many individuals to publish content. An organisation with a more procedural culture may define a more closed process.

The process of defining the intranet structure includes setting file naming conventions, setting up a folder hierarchy, defining artistic and functional standards and designing the navigation structure. You need to identify which browsers you will be designing for as different browser versions support different features. You might want to adopt a standard web page authoring package and provide training to staff who will be using it.

These are just some of the things that need to be addressed before moving forward to creating the intranet content.

When setting up the Places for People intranet the business stipulated that there had to be significant control over the content that would be delivered. To support this requirement all content would be published through a single central source. The decision was taken to ensure that all content published on our intranet was in line with corporate policies. It was felt that a more open publishing process carried an unacceptably high risk of disseminating bad practice rather than good. It was also felt that an open publishing process presented a greater risk of publishing inappropriate content.

This restrictive publishing process does have some positive benefits for the Group. By having all content published centrally we are able to ensure that the design of the intranet was consistent throughout. We can ensure that all content is up to date and that redundant information is removed promptly.

For page authoring we used Microsoft FrontPage 98. As with the selection of the web server software the selection was steered by our standardisation on Microsoft products across the corporate desktop. There are some advantages to using FrontPage in conjunction with Internet Information Server. Microsoft has produced a set of server extensions for FrontPage. These are programs that run on the web server and allow you to do clever things with your web pages without the need to know how to write programs.

If we were taking the same decision today I would consider using Macromedia Dreamweaver for page authoring instead of FrontPage. The latest release, Dreamweaver UltraDev, allows you to create dynamic pages without the need for programming. This is a very powerful tool and allows you to use databases on your intranet.

Although we have a centralised publishing process we still consulted users about the interface design – what did they think of the look and feel of the intranet? Was it easy to use? Which bits would they change and how? This process of involving the users continued after launch and carries on to date, chiefly by requesting feedback through the intranet itself.

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picture of cubicle mazeIs there anybody out there?
So you’ve built your intranet, published it to your web server and told everybody how to find it. Now you can sit back and relax? Well, you could if you’re not bothered about the investment you’ve made.

I came across the following term in a computer magazine article – the ‘Field of Dreams’ intranet. The reference is to the Kevin Costner film about mid-life crises and baseball. In the film, Costner dreams about building a baseball field to play a game with his baseball heroes. The tagline of the film went; ‘if you build it, they will come’.

advert for intranetThe trouble with the Field of Dreams intranet is that, while Kevin’s buddies eventually turned up for their game, your intranet users won’t. You need to advertise your intranet throughout your business and then plug it as often as possible. Make staff aware of what’s available on the intranet and encourage them to use it. One way to get staff interested is to deliver content that will benefit them personally. For example, you could put your expenses claim forms on the intranet.

Another example, that we used on the Places for People intranet, was an electronic version of the monthly timesheet that all staff have to fill in. This was not available anywhere else and saved staff from having to try to work out their hours by hand (or calculator).

You can expect plenty of usage for your intranet when it first launches. Curiosity will bring the hits pouring in. But what happens after those first few days? How do you find out how your intranet is being used and do you really need to know?

Understanding how your intranet is being used allows you to tailor future developments to meet user needs by identifying current issues. Sometimes you find that what the user says and what the user does are quite different. Your intranet will also have an impact on your network and your network administrator will want to know things like:

Your keys to getting an insight into all of the above are the log files generated by your intranet web server. These log files are plain text files that store useful information about your intranet users. You can control how much information is recorded and how often new files are created. However, on their own, these files are pretty useless. Manually analysing thousands of lines of text would be laborious to say the least. Fortunately, there are many software tools available for log file analysis. The range goes from simple freeware programmes available from the Internet, to thousand-pound plus enterprise applications.

After reviewing the tools available at the time we decided to use WebTrends Professional to analyse the Places for People intranet log files. (We also use WebTrends to analyse our Internet site log files to see how our external web sites are being used). For our intranet we currently produce comprehensive usage reports each month. Some examples of what we report on are:

Click here to see a typical WebTrends report.

To see what users thought of the pilot intranet and to get ideas for further developing the corporate intranet we carried out another survey three months after launching the pilot. The survey was conducted through the intranet – of course. Not only did we get some valuable feedback but the users felt that they were making a ‘live’ contribution by completing an online form and seeing the results straight away. They felt it was far better than sending out paper questionnaires.

The bigger picture
When building your intranet you should make sure that it is built into your overall communications strategy. Certainly, an intranet should never be seen as the only communications medium within an organisation. The intranet will never replace face-to-face and other off line mediums. You should also beware of creating information ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’: Unless everyone in your organisation has easy access to your intranet you risk excluding people from your communications if they are only available via your intranet.

The Places for People Group is a geographically diverse organisation with around 1700 staff based in over 60 locations throughout England. Although all office-based staff now have access to our corporate intranet there are many site-based staff, such as wardens and care staff, who do not have access o computers where they are based. One of our main internal communications mechanisms is our ‘Team Brief’. This is an internal news briefing, issued ever six weeks, carrying information about what’s going on throughout the Group.

Prior to the launch of our intranet, every member of staff was sent their own copy of Team Brief. When the intranet was launched the brief was one of the first applications to be featured. At that time we stopped sending paper copies to office-based staff but continued to send copies to site-based staff. Once office staff were confident in using the intranet we asked them to print out the brief from the intranet for those site-based staff that needed it. By doing it this way everyone was able to ease over to the new way of getting the brief and nobody felt left out.

Places for People intranet home pageAnother example of how we have used our intranet as a part of our wider communications strategy comes from the recent ‘re-branding’ of the Group. In implementing a new Group structure and identity we needed a cost effective way to reinforce the new identity to staff. By re-branding our intranet we were able to place the new identity firmly in the minds of all staff in a fast and efficient way. Click on the small image to the left to view a larger picture of our intranet home page in a new window (35Kb).

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picture of paper planeTo infinity and beyond
The Places for People intranet has been up and running for two years now. In that time it has grown from a handful of pages to many hundreds. Our intranet now features reference resources from outside agencies such as the Chartered Institute of Housing’s Housing Standards Management Manual. These reference libraries add value to our intranet and provide a cost effective way of making the information available to all staff.

Another innovation on our intranet has been the use of computer-based training. We launched a pilot of the system last year featuring a small number of computer courses. The system we are using (SmartForce Campus) is run entirely from the intranet web server. Staff can log on to a course through their web browser and study at their own pace. The trial has proved very successful and we are extending the number of courses available.

The computer-based training system is one example of how we are looking to extend the way in which our corporate intranet is used. Last year we installed new housing and finance packages across the Group. The finance system we are now using is browser-based. Although staff think of the finance system and the intranet as being separate, they both work in the same way. We could easily say that the finance system is another part of our corporate intranet.

This is one way that we can see our intranet developing and extending in the future. The boundaries between what are currently thought of as separate systems (intranet, finance, housing, etc.) will become increasingly blurred. In future our housing system may be accessed through a browser front-end. We are currently looking at changing our document management system to be browser accessed.

The attraction of browser-based systems is that there is no software to load on to the client PCs. So long as they have the browser loaded they can access all of the systems. One benefit of this may be cost savings on software licences: If a browser is used for access there may not be a workstation licence fee to pay. Another benefit is the reduced maintenance overhead: Instead of having to install the latest release of an application on every PC in the organisation, you only have to update the central server.

It is these kind of benefits that will drive the future development of our corporate intranet. As handheld devices become web-enabled we may see a future where housing officers are calling up tenant account details on their WAP phones and then recording a payment with their smart card.

As the song says – the future’s so bright you gotta wear shades.

Nigel Hodgetts
Intranet Developer

Places for People group logo

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