Case Study: Is That Any Way to Build an Intranet?
- 05 June, 2000 16:46
Lifting his eyes from his laptop to grab the last slice of Chicago-style pizza, Matt Beveridge caught a glimpse of the clock. It was midnight, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 1999. Beveridge had been grinding since 8 a.m., and the high- spirited manager of Motorola's E-Strategy was ready to go another eight hours. After all, he thought, how many times in his life would he get to try something as radical as this: Gathering 58 people from various offices and keeping them holed up for four marathon days and three nights in an effort to build a brand-new intranet.
And not just any intranet. The intranet that the Schaumburg, Illinois-based Motorola had in mind would be a portal that would connect 130,000 people in more than 50 countries and provide them with everything--facts about their dental coverage, travel planning tools, new product information, local news and weather, the inside dope on their heavy-hitting customers. This intranet, in short, was a monster.
Beveridge washed down his pizza with a sip of Sam Adams beer and surveyed the room. Three twentysomething Web developers keyed in code around the table they shared, tapping their toes to Eric Clapton's guitar riffs. Hired help from Microsoft and Epicentric, the San Francisco-based company that had built the intranet's out-of-the-box back end, stood by, ready to offer advice the moment it was needed. Beveridge was optimistic. With all the talent and effort going into this, it just might work.
Not everyone in the room was so sure. Greg Goluska, Motorola's VP and director of customer support systems, anxiously searched for signs of progress. He turned to Beveridge for reassurance, and Beveridge reported that things were moving along nicely. Both men knew that this night's session, their second of the four-day workshop, would be the busiest. And the toughest. The intranet has a module design, Beveridge told Goluska, which meant that everyone's work on the site's six sections wouldn't really come together until the very last minute, when those engineers and communication experts handed Beveridge the paper templates they had filled with content ideas. Beveridge and his crew would stay late, weaving the work of the others into Epicentric's portal. Tonight was crucial because the day crew had to review the entire site Thursday morning and suggest final adjustments before presenting it Friday to Pat Canavan, Motorola's senior VP and director of global leadership and organisational development. Canavan, the corporate sponsor who had promised to bring the intranet before the operating committee for funding, was the key to the project's continuation and the intranet's implementation.
WHOSE BRIGHT IDEA WAS THIS?
Planning for Motorola's intranet had really begun four months earlier, in June 1999, when upper management decided that it wanted to use an intranet to help employees simplify tasks like changing offices. Goluska, who also wanted to foster collaboration on customer-driven services, formed a small committee to plan the site. His group of customer-focused Motorolans included Beveridge, the technology point person, and Susan Marie Ballun, Motorola's manager of customer support systems, the project's logistical manager.
The intranet committee immediately realised that their biggest challenge would be creating the content for the site, but first they needed to deal with the technology. After meeting with several ASP portal vendors, Beveridge decided that they wanted to host it on their own servers and have the ability to change content at will. That is, they wanted to own it. To do that, they turned to Epicentric.
After playing with Epicentric's Web portal product for a while, Goluska discovered how easy it would be to publish with it. He got the itch to force a quick development.
"I realised that using the technology wasn't rocket science or earth-shattering," Goluska says. "We didn't want to make technology the arguing point, which usually happens at Motorola," explains Beveridge. "By using this portal product, we were able to focus on the business and process-delivering needs. We pretty much knew what we wanted to do with the portal." All they needed was the meat to go in the pages.
As his committee conducted their weekly meetings about the "official" companywide intranet, Goluska kept hearing about vertical intranets that were sprouting up all over Motorola, reinforcing the autonomous, self-reliant nature of their publishers. And Goluska was supposed to be helping employees work together, across boundaries.
Goluska, who prides himself on running things his own way, decided to force the portal's development by getting a lot of people together to do it. Knowing he couldn't take Motorolans away from their duties or keep them focused on the project for even a week, he planned the group development process around four tightly scheduled days, divided by narrowly defined sessions. "I've been involved in initiatives before where we'll meet one day to plan what we'll talk about the next two," says Goluska. Why bother now, he thought, since we have the tools to publish.
While Beveridge worked with Epicentric and configured a straw portal, the rest of the intranet committee started brainstorming on content. They began their conceptualising (as Motorolans often did) by talking with the big management consultancy groups. But KPMG, Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers all recommended a path Goluska was unwilling to take. They advocated building a consensus and defining a vision, which Goluska figured would take a month, if not years, of meetings. So the intranet committee blew off the advice. The fateful decision was made. They would build their intranet their way and they would build it fast. They'd concentrate resources, grind and crunch. They'd do it in four days and three nights.
Step one, they agreed, was to figure out what information would help employees of a huge, segmented company do their jobs better. They decided that what the intranet had to contain included leadership messages, information on business unit initiatives and structure, profiles of Motorola's customers, tools that allow employees to execute cross-departmental tasks like planning trips or changing offices, an area for employees to swap project ideas and access to Motorola's 35-plus vertical intranets.
The intranet committee now had to gather Motorolans to create and structure the information. Ballun called the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), a technical college within an hour's drive of Motorola's headquarters, and arranged to use one of its downtown Chicago classrooms in mid-October. She then began contacting Motorolans around the world, inviting people to represent their business and geographical interests in a hands-on, results-oriented workshop. The committee deliberately steered clear of IT-inclined people, inviting instead those who, as Ballun says, "own content, collect content and disseminate content." Within a few weeks, she had assembled a group of 48 staffers with titles such as manager of employee communication, data librarian, Internetologist, director of strategic employee communication, director of knowledge management and corporate enterprise messaging specialist.
In an effort to encourage these contributors to focus on specific topics rather than the site's overall rationale, the intranet committee took it upon themselves to determine the structure of the site. They divided the site into sections that they would later name Home, Business Info, Customer Edge, Internal Services, Knowledge Caf and My Stuff. They divided the group into eight teams, one for logistical issues, one to tweak Epicentric's portal and six to plan the content for each of the site's six sections. Though each team's leader began attending the intranet committee's meetings, most workshop attendees did not learn about the project's specific goals until they arrived in Chicago for the beginning of the workshop. When they did, many doubted they could pull it off. Most Motorola engineers and communication experts had never forced the development of anything, and their 72-year-old company was known more for process and QA than for speed to market.
...GO! In the chilly Tuesday morning when the workshop began, Vesna Arsic, Motorola's new director of corporate marketing strategy, found herself in a room full of white boards, projection screens, configurable group production stations and 57 total strangers.
"I was pretty pessimistic when I saw what we had to do," say Arsic. "I thought, Oh no, all these people, how are we going to get consensus on anything?"
As workshop attendees were assigned teams, Arsic found herself on the Customer Edge section, which was intended to provide information about Motorola's customers.
It was a section that had not been on the intranet committee's planned list, and there were precious few ideas about what exactly Customer Edge might contain. Arsic sat through a morning of icebreakers, a straw portal review and a benchmarking session wondering how she and her seven Customer Edge teammates would tackle the task of creating content that was meaningful for Motorola's far-flung employees. Goluska told all content collaborators to limit their scope and try to think of the intranet as a USA Today for Motorolans. This intranet, he told them, would be a tool for over 130,000 employees in more than 50 countries working on an inestimable number of projects. "We don't want to build a detailed collaborative site for specific topics," Goluska said. "We have to figure out how to bring everybody up to speed, to give a general view of Motorola."
Arsic's team knew that there was no way they could present information on all of Motorola's customers, a group that Arsic estimates includes every Global 1000 business. So they decided to provide only high-level information on those customers that generated the most revenue. Within the Customer Edge section users would find a customer's (for example, General Electric) location, a general profile, its sales and product lines, its relationship with Motorola and the history of this relationship. They were making progress, but slowly.
Art Jessen's Business Info section team had a different purpose: To keep people posted about new business deals, new products and the structure of the company--information that was sometimes hard to find. The first thing Jessen, Motorola's senior manager of global Internet strategy, learned was that it would be difficult to present truly useful information on each sector without aggregating an enormous amount of detail. Motorola, after all, had three main business units--the Semiconductor Products Sector, Integrated Electronic Systems Sector and Communications Enterprise--and each had scads of functional and regional divisions.
"We struggled with wanting to do so much," says Jessen. "We kept going back to the USA Today metaphor because many people wanted to see certain things for their operations. Many times these conversations got deeper and deeper down narrow paths."
During Wednesday's breakout team meeting, for example, Jessen's team decided to include organisational charts in the Business Info section. They talked about providing five or six levels of organisational charts within each business unit. But with so many divisions and regionally divided offices, no one knew how they fit in the hierarchical food chain.
"The challenge," says Jessen, "was to bring it back to the surface."
While discussing how nice it would be to be able to see what your relation really was to that stranger who just sent you an authoritative-sounding e-mail, Jessen's group realised that collecting and creating hundreds of charts was not within their scope, or even in the company's interest. So the group talked about presenting charts with only the president of each sector and that person's direct report. When team members began to conceptualize this scaled-down model, they became concerned that their employees needed to know several layers of reports. Jessen and his teammates thus began to learn a hard lesson: They would have to distance themselves from ideal practices and do only that which was possible.
A few classrooms away, the Knowledge Caf team was also learning some hard lessons.
"We had the hardest group," says Phil Stockwell, manager of Compass, Motorola's subscription-based Yahoo-type portal. "The subject we covered was the whole reason we were all there--to foster collaborative environments."
But the collaborative environment in which they were working was less than fruitful. The group, consisting primarily of knowledge management specialists, was unable to agree on the content of Knowledge Caf. And when these theorists disagreed, they brought the discussion back to the fundamentals of knowledge management and abandoned the task at hand.
At the heart of their inability to collaborate was the fact that they had no material to work with. Knowledge Caf, they decided, would foster collaborate communities of practice. But Motorola had never identified any such communities of practice, and compiling needed information, the group feared, could take a year or more. In the end, Stockwell's team produced only recommendations for what the Knowledge Caf should do. Beveridge was forced to fill in the section with presentation-level text.
INTRANET IN LIMBO
When Goluska, Arsic, Jessen and Stockwell returned to IIT Thursday morning, Beveridge and his team presented the fruits of their long night. Motivated by Goluska's all too apparent doubt, Beveridge had worked on the portal until three in the morning, posting real content in 80 per cent of the intranet. The other 20 per cent included mocked-up content, like that presented in the Knowledge Caf section.
The final product was a portal full of text links, topped with a blue banner revealing the intranet's new name, RightHere.mot.com, and folderlike tabs leading to each team's subsection. These two- and three-column pages were filled with myriad links to existing vertical intranets, personnel services, database profiles of customers and products, and short teases to sector messages and reports.
The front page's links to press releases and upper management messages were balanced with a customizable interactive calendar. Jessen's Business Info section contained two columns: one with office-specific messages and one with pull-down menus connecting users to other sector-specific intranets. Arsic's basic Customer Edge section offered links to industry and financial news articles in one column, with links to customer profiles on the right. The Knowledge Caf tab revealed what Stockwell's team thought could one day be developed: chat rooms and forums for groups to use when working on projects and links to future libraries of information and project sites. The team that worked on the Internal Services section varied the layout and created three columns in which categories like Order Now and Keep Me Informed and the much-anticipated I'm Moving reside. The tab on the far right, My Stuff, which was to be modified by all employees, contained sample content--NFL scores, driving maps and weather links.
The final product, Beveridge admitted, owed more to a series of executive decisions (his) than to teamwork. As the project came down to the wire, Beveridge posted the content he thought was most appropriate, leaving the stuff that didn't fit on the cutting-room floor. Predictably, his decisions did not please everyone.
"There was a heated discussion in which we debated having a consistent column with personalized stuff in it that followed you around the portal," says Beveridge. "I had to just make an executive decision to not implement that." So while teams were allowed to add banners to the top and columns on the side of their page, those who requested more advanced features, like the Business Info's request for scrollable sections of the site, were denied.
Similarly, some team members had content requests that did not fit into the intranet committee's predetermined scheme and were simply ignored. Goluska himself had set up an idea board where anyone could make suggestions. "Some of these ideas were amazing," says Stockwell, "but when we wrapped up the session, the idea fruit was ignored."
ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL? Despite such criticism, RightHere.mot.com was generally well received. "It was amazing," says Jessen. "I was a little like a kid at Christmas, actually seeing the work we had done." As attendees patted themselves on the backs and began to forget their frustrations with their group experiences, a new concern arose--RightHere .mot.com's future.
"We started to ask why we had to sell it," says Stockwell. "We were pleased with the site. So why did we have to convince others? It should've sold itself."
In fact, the site hasn't sold itself. And although Pat Canavan reportedly loved what he saw, and loved the new intranet, three months after the project he still hadn't shown it to upper management and he declines to say why.
All the workshop attendees are back in their respective longitudes and mind-sets. Motorola spokespeople say they aren't exactly sure what will become of the fruits of the four-day effort. But Greg Goluska insists that the plan is moving forward, although not quite as quickly as many who worked on it would like it to.
Still, for four days and three nights, it was a helluva ride.
IT'S THE USER, STUPID
Jakob Nielsen warns about designing portals for the business units rather than employees Is a 58-person, four-day workshop the best approach to building an intranet? Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen warns design by committee is rarely the best approach. A former user interface engineer for Sun Microsystems' intranet, Nielsen now advises companies on their Web initiatives as cofounder and principal in the Nielsen Norman Group. Nielsen talked to CIO about intranet development teams that truly represent the employee and produce a product that improves their productivity.
CIO: HOW SHOULD COMPANIES BEGIN CONCEPTUALISING AND PLANNING THEIR INTRANET? JN: Companies need to realise that they're designing for the users and not for the various departments. They need to learn about the day in the life of an average employee. There's probably several types of employees--those at headquarters, in branch offices, out in the field. They need to pinpoint these employees' true needs.
HOW DO THEY IDENTIFY THESE? I would recommend a study where you identify the main types of users, and you really shadow them for a day or two to see what they do, see what their information needs are, see how they go about their job. You will identify unmet needs, ways in which people do awkward, clumsy things working around problems with the system.
You need to know how the employees think about the different services that are offered, and what they think are related services. Get a hold of 20 employees from different divisions and put them through card-sorting exercises, where they're given lists of services and asked to put cards together in piles [according to which services] they think are similar.
ARE THESE EMPLOYEES, MANAGERS OR END USERS? It has to be the end users because the managers know only how things are supposed to be done, not how they're actually done. Most internal systems are going to be used by the people on the floor, so to speak, most of the time. Therefore, they are the ones you want to test. They're the ones you want to interview and follow around for a day, whatever methodologies you use.
WHAT TYPE OF DEVELOPMENT TEAM WOULD BEST TRANSLATE THESE RESULTS INTO CONTENT? Small teams work well, with experts on Web design and employee communication and Web technology. These small teams make decisions according to their studies of average employees' jobs and their information needs. You should not assume that an uninformed group of managers knows what information people out in the field actually need from their department.
HOW SHOULD AN INTRANET DEVELOPMENT TEAM DIVIDE ITS TASKS? I would want to have a group that focuses on, let's say, the German office. Another group focuses on the staff at headquarters. Yet another group focuses on the needs of the traveling salesperson. The site and development team should be grounded in the human reality, not in the system reality.
SO INTRANETS SHOULD BE MORE FOCUSED ON EMPLOYEE TYPES RATHER THAN ON THE TYPES OF ACTION THAT ALL EMPLOYEES EXECUTE? Exactly. And on the tasks of the jobs these people have. It's not just their jobs in terms of formal job description but what they actually do in a day. This includes viewing their benefits or checking out the menu in the corporate cafeteria. Yes, there are a variety of things that people do, but you need to look at the people's roles. -E. Rutherford.