Who Owns Your Intranet?

As companies march ahead with efforts to link employees through internal Web sites, they are learning a key design principle: If you want your intranet to take off, then take a hands-off approach. The case for intranet democracy.

Corporate intranets are becoming vital parts of most businesses. And that leaves top managers itching to put someone — or some department — in complete control of these hot properties. After all, the finance team "owns" bookkeeping, and the marketing team "owns" advertising. So shouldn't the IT department "own" the intranet? Or should it be the folks in human resources, legal affairs, or public relations who triumph? Shouldn't some small group of specialists decide how an intranet operates and what users can and can't do?

Maybe the right answer is no. In a world full of turf battles, it takes real courage to stand up and say, "Our intranet doesn't need an owner. It belongs to all of us — and to none of us." Fortunately, that freewheeling approach is picking up surprising support from managers, consultants, and intranet users.

"I don't believe that there should be a single owner of our intranet," declares Phil Sandoz, head of intranet services at Anadarko Petroleum Corp., an exploration-and-production company in Houston. His team keeps the company's intranet infrastructure running. Otherwise, its style is strictly hands-off. "We don't want to police everything that goes on the site," says Sandoz. "Employees here do their own policing."

So what happens if a company disperses control of its intranet? Letting go, it turns out, enables the intranet to fulfill many roles at once. For top executives, it can be a powerful tool for communicating with rank-and-file workers. For rank-and-file workers, it can be an efficient way to handle benefits, taxes, and the like. And for all of the managers and skilled professionals in between, it can be a device for breaking free of hierarchy and stirring up ideas. By serving all of those functions, the intranet can do more than just solve specific problems; it can nurture the entire corporate culture.

That's a lot more appealing than a situation in which users' needs constantly take a backseat to other priorities. If overseers have too firm a hand, they will draft rules that can make it harder for people to create new pages, post new content, and generate new ideas in concert with colleagues. The result: The site will become tightly controlled and essentially lifeless.

Eric Hards has seen that dynamic firsthand. He is the senior Web designer for the intranet at Lockheed Martin's systems-integration facility in Owego, New York. Every day, employees come to the site looking for information about medical benefits, salary-savings plans such as 401(k)s, and other HR matters. When they go to the HR section of the company's intranet, however, they are met with four choices that can be real puzzlers: "Education & Resource Development," "Human Resources," "Site Administration," and "Other Related Links."

Those labels match the way that the facility's HR department is set up. But users needed something that they could understand. "HR is one of our 10 most visited areas, but the most common complaint was 'I can't find what I want,' " Hards says. So he designed a parallel system in which employees can look up a phrase like "salary-savings plan" and be whisked away to relevant intranet pages.

For Hards, creating a second pathway into Lockheed Martin's online HR services was simply good site management. "I'm a big believer in redundancy," he says. "You need to give users as many ways as possible to find something." Even so, his alternative route now attracts more traffic than the official channel to the site. And it's a nifty reminder that using guerrilla tactics can sometimes be the best way to help intranet users.

It's hardly surprising that such an approach would take hold at Lockheed Martin. During World War II and then during the Cold War, Lockheed was famous for its skunk-works operation — a remote outpost in the eastern-California desert where engineers designed and built advanced military aircraft. Far from headquarters and largely free of bureaucracy, engineers simply did their thing.

Keeping authority figures at bay is especially crucial when it comes to building communities where like-minded people can exchange ideas, even if they are thousands of miles apart. "To make that work, you need a community leader, and it has to be someone on the front lines," says Richard McDermott, a consultant in Boulder, Colorado who has worked with Hewlett-Packard, Shell Oil, and other companies. "It can't be a corporate person, or the whole dialogue will dry up."

Schlumberger Ltd., an oil-field-services and IT company based in New York and Paris, has taken that principle a step further. Three years ago, its CEO and chairman, Euan Baird, authorized the creation of Eureka, an intranet-based grouping that brings together technical experts from around the world. "At the time, he was fairly disillusioned with the management of technical people," recalls Henry Edmundson, director of the technical communities at Schlumberger. "He wanted to have a community that was as self-governing as possible."

The result is a loose but fast-growing association that now numbers some 5,500 people. At last count, Eureka encompassed 19 different communities, with discussion topics ranging from physics to geomatics (the science of applied geography). "It's fairly chaotic, and that's good," says Edmundson. "You can't force these things. People will use groups the way they want to — or they won't use them at all."

Eureka can help a Schlumberger engineer in Vietnam who wants to know how to do geophysical interpretation in granite. "It's a real freak of nature to find oil in granite," Edmundson explains. "Perhaps the only major places where that occurs are Vietnam and Libya. But put out a query to the reservoir-interpretation community, and someone who worked in Libya a few years ago — who might be anywhere on the globe now — can reply with some answers."

The chairman's original mandate has had a powerful effect, says Edmundson. "There's been a message to management that says, 'Don't mess with this. Don't tell people what groups they have to belong to, or how they should use the groups.' Our technical population is our most vital asset, and past programs have failed because they were too top-down. So we went for a bottom-up approach."

Managing an intranet, it turns out, is an organic process — one that revolves less around owning a patch of online real estate than around carefully tending what grows there. At Anadarko Petroleum, the IT department has standardized certain formal elements of each intranet page: where the tool bar goes, how users are guided back to the company's home page. At the same time, says Phil Sandoz, Anadarko's frontline employees call the shots with respect to creating actual content.

"Think of it this way," says Sandoz. "Our IT team maintains the trunk of the tree. But each department is in charge of maintaining its own branch."

George Anders (ganders@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior editor.

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