The theory of intranet personalization is wonderful. The practice is generally woeful: hugely expensive implementations that totally fail; massive maintenance overheads and very little employee uptake.According to the Jakob Nielsen report, Intranet Design Annual 2007: The Year's 10 Best Intranets, "Many entries and almost all of the winning intranets offer extensive personalization features." This is certainly not my experience of working with intranets. Personalization and portals have delivered enough White Elephants to fill an Elephants' Graveyard the size of the Sahara.
Now, I respect Jakob Nielsen an awful lot but I found his 2007 report somewhat strange. It felt a bit like a 1997 report. Common themes of the winners such as the ability to send e-card greetings to other employees, and view photos of the day, are reasons why many senior managers see intranets are productivity drains rather than productivity gains.
But back to personalization. Tony Ward, an intranet pioneer, recently wrote: "Very few organizations have actually enacted or properly implemented user personalization once they've purchased a portal product … The difficulty with personalization is that it requires a phenomenal amount of work and planning; the technology component is relatively simple. Organizations that roll-out personalization have to identify and define multiple roles and content and then map all the content to those roles and ensure that the content is provided on an ongoing basis (writing, updating, publishing, formatting, etc.). Even more troublesome is that while employees like the idea of personalization, few will ever use it."
James Robertson, another intranet pioneer, also takes a somewhat sceptical view of personalization, writing that it is "very much in fashion at present. It is used by vendors to sell their products, and promoted by website and intranet managers as a way of delivering a brave new era of functionality." However, James goes on to state that, "Contrary to the impression one gets at conferences and when reading technology oriented websites and magazines, portals are not yet a reality in many organisations."
Martin White, yet another true intranet pioneer, states that, "Over the last few years one of the ongoing issues in intranet management has been the extent to which users need to have a personalised view of intranet content. I have seen some good examples in the case of employee self-service applications, but on a broader level I have yet to see a convincing business case based on a survey of users."
Jane McConnell, the final intranet pioneer I'm going to reference here, does a very helpful annual intranet survey. In her 2006 survey, she asked the question: "What proportion of the content on the homepage is identical for all employees?" 68 percent said "almost all" was.
Personalization is an extremely powerful concept, and over the next 10 years, I'm sure the best intranets will use it extensively. Today, it's a different matter. It's about getting the basics right. You don't need personalization to have a high quality staff directory, and that's what most intranets badly need right now.
Personalization is like building one of those fancy super-yachts. It's fun, it cool, it's a challenge. But employees are drowning in a sea of unusable applications, PDFs, and badly written, out-of-date content. They need a life buoy, not a yacht.
Gerry McGovern, a content management author and consultant
, has spoken, written and consulted extensively on writing for the web and web content management issues since 1994.