Is your work group also constantly fiddling with the intranet at work? Everybody adds new overview pages, and overviews of overviews, and navigation entries pointing to those overviews. When the pages and the navigation become too long, people stop reading and maintaining them, and slowly, the content becomes outdated. People abandon the page, and it ends up on the pile of “useless digital clutter” that comes up when you try to use the built-in search.
If the search finds something (if!), you cannot easily tell in which context it occurs.
- You assume the search result contains your search keywords — but in which context/sentence?
- Maybe it lets you filter by doc type — might be useful some time, but in most cases, you don’t even know.
- You get the last edited date — OK, you can skip really old docs; but it would be more useful to be able to access similar content from different dates (e.g. the series of a product’s design documents from each year).
- You get the authors’ names — but are these persons relevant to your query? What were their roles when they wrote the documents? Which business units did they belong to?
- Are we supposed to search each sub-site and each sub-wiki individually? — How do you exclude all the Accounting, Sales, and Marketing results when you’re searching for something in R&D, Support, and Services?
So employees complain, “Why can’t our intranet search be like Google, Google always finds something, it can’t be that hard…?” Well, actually, it can, since Google works in a completely different environment. Yes Google always finds “something”, anything — it knows that you have no means of knowing whether the result list is complete, or if it contains the most relevant answers. There is SO MUCH STUFF OUT THERE that any remotely related thing that Google pulls out of its data-center-sized sleeve is good enough. Only because you don’t know better, Google Search seems smart.
In your company intranet however, the situation is different. You know that you uploaded this design spec, and you know that your boss shared that spreadsheet. But where was it? If the search turns up empty, or you get 100 pages of vastly similar results, it’s frustrating. You are looking for one unique, most relevant, needle in the haystack, and all the other “99% relevant” needles don’t help you.
Most intranet sites have grown organically, locally, ad-hoc: “Let’s create a SharePoint for this cross-functional team!” “Let’s share a drive for product related materials!” “Let’s use a wiki to track this local group’s meeting minutes and schedules…” If you could get the whole company to use one centralized portal that would already be 90% of the solution I guess. But in real life, authors don’t know (and don’t care) in which context their content appears later. In the end, Joe from marketing unwittingly creates a personal directory on the busines unit level, and everyone wonders what business unit JOE is. Next door, the developers categorize their specs by product and release number, while the managers sort their planning files by fiscal years; turns out neither knows how fiscal years map to releases, so one group cannot navigate the other’s content.
In Weston Solutions WIC Intranet Case Study: Part 10 of 10 the presenter points out that their intranet thrives due to trained site owners and admins who meet regularly to keep each other informed. The site relies on a very aggressive governance model where admins can move content and shut down communities that are not kept up-to-date. This is a lot of work but basically the only way to prevent “site creep”. I came to the same conclusion when I maintain wikis, you need an admin who’s got the big picture to keep the info flow going.
The problem starts when participants cannot see beyond their own data-sharing horizons. The sharing software itself needs to provide insight into what is already there, and how content stands next to other existing content. Often something as simple as a smart navigation and visualization gives employees the context the need. The Weston Solutions WIC Intranet Case Study: Part 9 of 10 video shows an example, where employees can view global company news by clicking symbols on a map. They also use heat maps in their community forums to visualize “heated discussions” (in something that looks like a calendar).
It helps to have “bread crumbs” or parent-child links as navigational help, but consider that some documents can be in several categories. Again, as in other cases, consistent metatagging solves many search/filter issues with categorization (e.g. author role, audience role, date, product/release, …). Similar to an online shop where you can filter clothing e.g. by size and color before you even start browsing details.
Here’s the case study video that inspired this blog article in part: Weston Solutions Case Study: Is this the world’s best intranet?