The Intranet — Gee, That’s Exciting

That seems to be the general reaction I get from people when I start talking Intranets. Back in the day we didn’t really think about how we worked to use the web to influence what was going on inside an organization — we were so damn busy just trying to build and launch some sort of externally facing site. I recall our first Intranet at Cogence Media back in 1996 … it was an old Apple FileServer that we discovered we could deep link into via a browser. The funny thing was that we didn’t do this deep linking via web pages, we did it from a bunch of individual Word documents that we kept on the shared space of the file server. I embarrassed to say that I was part of the web team and it just didn’t dawn on us to use real web pages to manage the knowledge of the organization. But when I really step back and think about it, we were doing the best we could with the tools of the day — sort of.

The last couple of years that has all changed though — especially for me. I have become just as interested in the conversations that go on inside an organization as the ones that are directed at customers, readers, audiences, or whatever else you want to call the people you are speaking to on the outside. The emergence of web 2.0, especially in the last year or so has given rise to many new ideas I am banging around in my head related to increasing opportunities for internal dialog. I have started reading more and more about the notion of Enterprise 2.0 (mainly from Andrea McAfee from Harvard) and I have to say it seems to be a perfect blend of my interests in communication technologies, organizations, and people. One of Dr. MacAffe’s posts that I have gotten a ton of mileage out of is a simple profile of one organization’s use of MediaWiki as a very powerful Intranet tools et. In it, he profiles this organization and the way they are using this site as a hub to both changing internal and external communication. To me it is a fascinating, yet simple study in how to get organizations to pay attention to important internal conversations.

One of the things I discovered when coming to ETS 21 months ago is the importance of an online place for sharing organizational information. This stuff takes the form of posts, stories, wiki pages, travel reports, and all the things that make a medium to large sized work-group go. What I found is that without some sort of hub at the center, keeping up on it all is just too difficult. Once we jumped the hurdle of simply providing a platform and the encouragement for people to participate as a part of the organizational story, we have started to think about how to better organize it all.

I have been working with one of my colleague here at ETS to rethink our Intranet space … let me say that I feel our local Intranet (it supports about 100 people within Teaching and Learning with Technology) is successful at helping us all share information in a somewhat organized way. We still struggle with architecture, but we are getting better at it. We are also getting better at bringing content from outside sources in … currently there are dozens of staff who are blogging, tagging links in, and photos in Flickr that are relevant to what we do and we are working on. The goal is to make all that “meta-content” seamlessly integrate with our internal content. It has been fun and an interesting little project. Just today I did a wire frame to share my thoughts on how we could mix the internal with the external to provide access to dynamic and organizationally important content in one location. As it comes to life, I’ll share more of it. Now that people are writing as much as they are around here I am struck with the need to have greater access to it all.

At any rate, the real reason I am posting is a cry for help … I have recently been asked to help with creating a new Intranet strategy for my parent organization here at PSU — Information Technology Services (ITS). ITS at Penn State is a very large and diverse organization that takes residence in no less than a dozen buildings on campus. This creates all sorts of challenges as it relates to sharing information in an efficient and effect manner. We do a good job, but it is high-touch and requires a ton of work. With that said, we are just too big to get together as much as we should and now that many of us are blogging the discoverablility of content is very low. One thing I would love to learn more about from all of you is what type of Intranets are you using within your organizations? How are you leveraging your understanding of information technology, people, communities, and web 2.0 to create new opportunities for computer mediated communication? I’d like to know more and I’d like to find ways to talk with you and explore what you are thinking and how you feel it is impacting the organization. Any takers?

4 thoughts on “The Intranet — Gee, That’s Exciting

  1. We are experimenting with a smart search interface as the user entry point. We have “n” collections of data – websites, document repositories, etc. We’ve developed an auto tagging module that will pull (recommended tags) out of html/word/staroffice documents that a user can edit upon submission. We also have a companion rating service.

    Basically a user can search sets of collections. They can optionally save their collection preferences in a profile. The cool part is that we are reading the various meta data (tags, ratings) as we post process the search results. We can then present categories of things, top rated documents, people involved, and of course a tag cloud.

  2. Mike, how does SUN manage local content for the smaller units within the larger organization? What I mean is that at PSU, we are trying to build a space that supports all the people within the parent organization while still allowing for protected areas for each individual work unit. Does that make sense? I would love to hear how a balance can be constructed between serving the needs of smaller work groups while meeting the needs of the total organization.

    Anyone else have any thoughts on that one?

  3. It is so true that internal communication often doesn’t get the attention it should. A little over a year ago, one of our graduate student TAs came to us with a simple, but very compelling idea: a social networking site built for creating and sharing lesson plans.

    We were setting up all sorts interesting online tools to facilitate teacher-student and student-student interaction, but up to that point, we hadn’t really devoted much attention to teacher-teacher interaction. As we talked more about the idea, it was clear that improving internal communication between teachers would have a huge impact on instruction.

    Those discussions led to L&S LessonShare, an online tool built on Drupal that helps communities of instructors share, organize, and collaboratively improve their teaching materials.

    We’re piloting LessonShare with two departments this Fall, and we look forward to learning more about how facilitating internal dialog between teachers can lead to a richer set of instructional materials. We’re already running into the “local-larger” challenge you mention – each department has very particular organizational and workflow requirements. At the same time, we’re getting requests for a “commons” area to house teaching materials that cross departments and disciplines.

  4. You’re ahead of us already…even with what you’ve currently got. But thank you for your transparent approach to this challenge and for sharing the discussion. I, for one, am keenly interested in both your process and progress on this particular issue.
    While we continue to improve here at WC, I am proud of our efforts here, and (I think) our appropriate use of an ever-growing wiki and blog to record and publish our collective discoveries, official policies and grassroots knowledge-from-the-trenches within the ID&D group. I arrived with the systems already in place, but have been a thankful consumer of the collective wisdom, and a fairly active contributor.
    -Joel G.

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