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Mar 01, 2005: Stop the Pendulum: I Want to Get Off

Although Gerry McGovern makes good points in his latest article and elsewhere, I'm really uncomfortable with this statement:

The natural home of the intranet is in communications.

I'm not sure that any single department can be the home for a multi-departmental intranet or, for that matter, a large public web site. Can Communications really be responsible for the accuracy of the highly technical documentation that Product Development is churning out? Can it manage the tuning of the intranet's search system without some help from IT staff? Can Communications (or any one business unit) conceive of--much less assemble and manage--the kind of multi-disciplinary team required to design and manage a truly quality information system? What about organizations which don't have centralized Communications departments?

Maybe I'm not clear on what a "natural home" means. I do know that much of the Web's success can be explained by its decentralized nature--in effect, web sites exist because they don't require a single home or owner. If this wasn't true, wouldn't the Web have been nipped in the bud by some centrally-administered enterprise application years ago?

There are really many natural homes for different aspects of our information systems, from design to branding to evaluation to the workflow of content creation and publication. Some of these aspects benefit greatly from central control, such as branding; others require local and even multiple owners because they simply couldn't or shouldn't be owned by one unit. Content creation is a good example.

I realize that provocative statements have their uses. They're easily consumed, digested, and remembered. They make for nice quotes in other people's PowerPoint presentations. And they are certainly useful to forward to lunkhead managers who won't listen to similar pleas that their own employees have been making for eons.

But it's way past overdue to acknowledge that complicated problems require more subtle, complex, and often hybrid solutions. In the case of intranets and other large web sites, degrees of centralization and local control can, must, and already do co-exist in countless combinations. The challenge is to step back and look for opportunities for improvement through two things: more rational centralization where it makes sense, and more rational decentralization where it makes sense. The alternative is to continue with an either/or mentality, swinging continually from failed attempts to impose central control to failed efforts to empower departmental and individual employee autonomy.

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Comment: Jane McConnell (Mar 1, 2005)

Gerry makes some good points in his article, but I don't agree with him on the underlying conclusion of "who should drive the intranet". Based on the very points he makes in his article about the problems with many intranets, the answer is to have a "total enterprise ownership' concept. This means a steering group made up of high level representatives of all business and support functions of the organisation. The communication-driven intranets I've seen have been (unfortunately) too top-down, and often emphasize polished, approved content over living, dynamic content. Those run by cross-company teams are much stronger business tools.
Ownership should be defined according to the natural extension of the departments' business areas, which means that Corp Comm will own the home page, or major parts of it, as well as other communication areas within the intranet. Businesses own specific work areas, and in the case of personalized portals, users themselves own major sections.
And of course the varying degrees of centralization and local autonomy (which you speak of, Lou) come into play within the larger domains of "ownership". A nice, complex issue for IA experts!

Comment: Dan (Mar 1, 2005)

To further unpack Gerry's statement, I'm not sure what he means by "home of." Perhaps it's semantics, but an intranet (or a public site for that matter) have a lot of responsibilities beyond content ownership. Who pays for it? Who manages the infrastructure? Who develops and enforces the business processes that support the technology?

Beyond simply contributing to the effort, other groups in the organization need to feel ownership of the intranet or it will not be nurtured in the way it needs to be. Creating co-ownership relationships ensure that all groups are contributing their expertise to the effort.

I wrote a piece responding to Gerry's article on IT vs. Marketing:

http://www.greenonions.com/index.php?p=99

Comment: Chris McEvoy (Mar 1, 2005)

I would rather ask the question "Who owns the soul of the intranet?".

There will be a person in the organisation that cares passionately about their intranet and will have a very clear idea of how their intranet should evolve.

This person could be in any department in the organisation and will organically form a team of like minded individuals from various departments who have a shared vision for their intranet.

In an organisation with a healthy intranet this multi-disciplinary team will end up owning the intranet because they care enough to make themselves the natural owners of their intranet.

Comment: RTodd (Mar 1, 2005)

Who has the passion to ensure the quality, usability, and utility is integrated into the Intranet framework? Does it really matter where the ownership goes into the corporate hierarchal daisy chain? We have implemented over 45 Intranetís within the corporation and I can usually tell within 15 minutes if this person is going to commit to a long term effort of delivering quality content or if they are here because someone told them too.

Comment: Chris McEvoy (Mar 2, 2005)

test post using iRider browser

Comment: Chris McEvoy (Mar 2, 2005)

test comment from IE6

Comment: Mike Jaixen (Mar 2, 2005)

Speaking as someone who moved from IT to Communications 4 years ago to help them manage the web, I think Jane hit the nail on the head. We use a cross-functional team to delegate control of each section of the web, but Communiations maintains the high-level framework. I see this approach more and more, and I just haven't seen a better alternative. As long as there is a commitment from Communications to do it, I don't know of another group better qualified to do it.

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