Making your intranet useful

Agency systems that run on internal networks using Web technologies are often called intranets. An intranet may host a number of applications for such things as human resources, finance and training.

However, more and more, intranets are starting to be used like traditional Web sites, complete with home pages, agency news and personalized features.

And just like Web sites, some intranets are good and some are bad. What makes for a good intranet? Two characteristics stand out: constantly fresh information and dynamic content delivery. Fresh information is important because it gives users a reason to keep coming back. Dynamic content delivery means that the site can be largely maintained by users changing data in a database, rather than programmers changing HTML (or CFM or ASP or JSP) files daily.

For a commercial Web site, keeping the site fresh usually involves buying content and spending a lot of money on a content management system. But agency intranet sites can rarely justify such expenditures. So, how do you keep the content fresh without spending a fortune?

One way is to provide mechanisms by which the users can create and update content. Consider an employee directory: Why not give users a way to submit corrections to their own information? That way, the information in the directory stays current for all users.

Or take frequently asked questions, or FAQs, a common feature of intranet sites. FAQs provide answers to common questions about the agency, its policies and similar topics. The traditional approach is to have an HTML, Word or PDF document that is maintained by one staffer. The problem is that the answers may be wrong or irrelevant, or the questions may be out dated because they were put up once and never changed.

One solution is to provide a feedback mechanism whereby a user can tell the system whether the answer was useful or not. That way, reports can be run to highlight problem areas, which can then be fixed.

An even better approach is to allow users to submit their own candidate questions and answers. Suppose a user researches an issue and discovers an answer that took a little digging. Wouldn't it make sense to capture that knowledge and make it available if the issue is likely to come up for other users?

These same features allow for dynamic content delivery. Once the information from the site is coming from a database, it is easy to customize the presentation of the information, and changes in the data are reflected on the site almost immediately.

When users can maintain much of the data on their own intranets, agencies actually save money in content costs and in programming updates, even ifit costs a little more to build the intranet initially. But the real payback is intangible: A dynamic site will be used, but a static site will become boring and will ultimately be ignored.

Bragg is an independent consultant and systems architect with extensive experience in the federal market. He welcomes your questions and topic suggestions at tbragg@acm.org.

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