I read a good quote on Twitter last week posted by Pauli Kongas (@pkongas). He said "Intranets are not built -- they are grown. More like plants, not like buildings."

I like this quote because it gave me the answer to something that has been nagging at me since I read the NNG annual 10 best intranets report article earlier this month.

In this report, one of the conclusions is that "Great intranets require years to create." The report goes on to say that "Since 2001, we've tracked the length of time it takes to create a great intranet from inception to launch. On average, the process lasts for 42 months -- or about 3.5 years. This year, the average was 27 months, or about 2.3 years to create the winning designs."

Something about this conclusion didn't seem quite right to me (and was also slightly depressing!).

There was a discussion on LinkedIn about whether 3.5 years to create a great intranet was right. Maybe the answer was here? Some people felt that great intranets can be developed more quickly than that, others questioned exactly what was meant by a great intranet, while a few more people felt that user adoption and change management was the time consuming part and could possibly justify this lengthy time frame.

The Organic Intranet is an Intranet that Grows and Evolves


I posted a comment to the discussion where I mentioned that the #1 ranked Worldwide Intranet Challenge intranet -- Weston Solutions -- only took 12 months to develop their award winning intranet.

However, I have since looked at the case study again and realized that in fact the Weston Solutions intranet had existed since the late 1990's. So in fact from 'inception to launch' -- which is how the NNG report defines the time frame -- it has really taken around 15 years to build a great intranet (not the 12 month SharePoint upgrade project that is the topic of the case study).

But what is interesting is that the Weston Solution's intranet greatness wasn't a linear path where it gradually went from inception, to good and then to great. It was more of a sine wave.

They did in fact already have a great, award winning intranet in the early 2000's. However, over time the intranet was neglected, technology moved on, end user expectations changed and the quality of the intranet declined until they launched a project to re-build the intranet in 2011.

The Answer!

I then realized what had been nagging me about the NNG article -- the implicit notion of the intranet as a big "project." A project where there is a start date, a launch date, some activities in between, a time frame for achieving an end result and then the intranet is "finished." Done!

Intranets are not like this -- they are organic, like the Weston Solutions intranet. They ebb and flow. Intranets are more like children or plants than buildings or projects. They need plenty of attention and maintenance. Without this constant attention, the quality of an intranet can decline pretty quickly -- just as the Weston Solutions intranet did in the mid 2000s.

So putting a time frame to create a great intranet is like saying it takes 3.5 years to raise a great kid. While it does obviously take time to develop a child's character, time is not something that is usually a major consideration.

As Chris Wright comments in his recent CMS Wire article -- 3 Steps to a Great SharePoint Intranet -- "Don't ever finish your SharePoint intranet project. If you disband the project team once your Intranet is built, your project will ultimately fail. If you ever even consider an Intranet finished, you might have well not have bothered in the first place."

The Long Wow

Luke Mepham also makes the point in his excellent article, Big Bang Theory for Intranets, that a big bang approach to delivering intranets is not advisable. He says "A long period without any improvement means the perception of the intranet is poor and getting worse. Every week that passes people become more disillusioned."

He goes on to say that "It seems that a big part of the problem with big bang is that the size of the change is too high, and the frequency too low. The obvious alternative is small frequent change. An approach known as ‘the long wow’ is about implementing changes more regularly. This approach is popular with many highly successful and admired brands. Nike+, Google and Apple are all renowned for their regular,incremental upgrades or feature releases."

Eric Ries and the Lean Startup Movement

Eric Ries, author of the best selling book -- The Lean Startup: How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Businesses -- and now leader of the Lean Startup global movement, is also an advocate of the 'long wow'. I have written before about intranet lessons that can be learnt from successful web startups and I believe many of the ideas in Eric's book can be also applied to intranets.

In his book, Ries argues that many startups (and this also applies to intranet owners) waste time and energy implementing ideas and features that people don't want (for intranets, this could be content that never gets read or online discussion forums that no one uses). And that there is a better, leaner approach to decide what should be implemented and what should be discarded.

Three of the basic principles of the Lean Startup are below:

  • Minimum viable product (MVP) -- what is the maximum amount of validated feedback you can obtain from your customers (staff) with the least amount of effort.
  • Continuous deployment -- updates and changes should be continuously implemented -- the long wow. Facebook, Google, LinkedIn: many successful websites continuously implement new features. This approach would bring many benefits to intranets.
  • Split testing -- offer different versions of a feature or product to staff at the same time to determine which one is most effective.

You can read about other techniques at The Lean Startup Movement web page.

The important thing to emphasize when delivering successful intranets is not a pre-occupation with a long-term project mentality. Instead, it is more important to focus on ensuring effective systems and processes are in place so that the right features are being continuously and quickly implemented and that your intranet is evolving and improving to meet your changing user needs.

Image courtesy of mexrix (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: To read more of Andrew's thoughts on intranets, check out If Your Intranet Offers the Right Value Employees Will Use It