Ten years of trial and error has brought us one unassailable conclusion regarding the corporate intranet. For an intranet to be successful it must not only be accepted by users, but driven by them.
Just as the World Wide Web is driven by those who frequent it, the corporate intranet relies on the input and management of those who use it on a daily basis. The history of the corporate intranet has shown that it closely follows trends set by the World Wide Web. Early intranets were static, driven by mission statements and followed a top-down, tiered approach to content dissemination. Intranets of today are following the portal-style information aggregate model popularised by sites such as Yahoo! in the early part of the twenty-first century. Organisations can extrapolate this trend to their own advantage today to pre-empt the next trends in corporate intranets.
Looking at the emerging trends on the World Wide Web today there are a number of central themes. Key amongst these is the notion of being driven by the consumer. Blogs, Wikis and folksonomies are replacing the traditional content outlets. The power to contribute content to the internet is no longer solely in the hands of those who can master HTML. Just as current-day internet users host their photo galleries on a flickr.com or photobucket.com account and publish their daily journal on their livejournal.com accounts, next-generation intranet users will demand the same power from the corporate intranet that they come to expect from the web today. Intranets that fail to embrace these technologies – and, by extension, the corporations that manage them – will be perceived as somehow lacking by tomorrow’s technology-savvy intranet user.
The challenges faced by an organisation looking to capitalise on these trends involve as much of a cultural shift in the attitudes of knowledge management professionals as they do an acceptance of technological change. Knowledge management professionals must be prepared to exchange the role of information gatekeeper for one of information facilitator. Organisations need to recognise their employees as valuable sources of information instead of potential sources of disinformation. Editorial control can be relaxed for such user-driven information management to the level that an organisation exercises over water-cooler chat rather than the level required for media releases.
Folksonomies play a very important part in user driven knowledge management. A folksonomy (or folk-taxonomy) is a classification system that reflects the terminology in use by the user-base rather than that which either the business itself or external subject matter experts may impose on a knowledge management tree. The use of a folksonomy in conjunction with – or even in place of – traditional knowledge taxonomies not only allows users to tag content with categories that make sense to them, but to search corporate knowledge bases using contextually appropriate terms and queries. That the folksonomy can be applied across all facets of the corporate intranet makes it a very powerful tool for not only defining terms within the contextual bounds of the organisation but for aggregating content across disparate systems according to the terminology that is most relevant to employees and their job functions.
In practise, facilitating a folksonomy entails allowing users to tag a piece of information with metadata that is relevant to them. Employees of an organisation, as a part of each individual organisation’s culture, share a common vocabulary of vernacular and job-specific terms. A folksonomy plays an important part in firstly capturing, and then leveraging, this information toward a better knowledge management system. Initially this may mean that the same piece of information is tagged with widely differing terms. As more tags are applied to the document – and as more users apply the same tag – the relevance of those tags to the document becomes apparent through attrition and repetition. Unlike a traditional taxonomy, which is devised and imposed, the folksonomy follows an evolutionary path.
Blogs (short for web-logs) are a mechanism by which a user can conveniently keep a journal or log of their activities, thoughts, opinions or anything else they feel like articulating. Blog sites are traditionally distinguished by their simple interface. Publishing a post to a blog is usually a single-click process, allowing the user to articulate, format and publish their entry without the use of complex HTML design tools. The browser experience of a blog site is usually similarly uncomplicated. Navigation is limited to simple categorisation by date and category – allowing the folksonomy again to come into play – with the initial view simply being of the most recent entries.
The ability to allow other users to comment on blog entries is key to providing the user feedback and encouraging communication across individuals with common areas of interest. The fact that peers are providing feedback on their entries encourages blog authors to maintain the rate and quality of their entries.
Forums are another technology available to today’s web user that will be a critical component of the corporate intranet. Forums and associated derivatives such as team spaces provide a collaborative environment for users to discuss issues and ideas while having the outcomes of those discussions remain as a searchable knowledge base for future reference.