Intranet Design Annual 2017

The first thing that struck me as I scrolled through the 2017 Intranet Design Annual from the Nielsen Norman Group (all 490 pages) was the diversity of the organisations included this year. The featured intranets range from a small 150 employee tourism agency to two very large financial institutions and one of leading global IT companies. Something for almost every one. The platforms are equally diverse, and include SP2010, SP2013, Liferay, Open Text Web Experience Manager (ex Vignette) and two custom builds. It will be interesting to track the Goodwill Industries intranet on SP2010 as there will need to be a migration, and Bank of America uses the Google ESA for search.

The full list is

  • Bank of America (USA)
  • Encana Corporation (Canada),
  • Goldcorp, Inc. (Canada)
  • Goodwill Industries International, Inc (USA)
  • IBM Corporation (USA)
  • JetBlue (USA)
  • Kerry Group plc (Ireland),
  • Latvian Railway: (Latvia),
  • Santander Group (Spain),
  • Tourism New Zealand (New Zealand)

One of the features that I always welcome on the Design Annual is the extended analysis by authors Kara Pernice, Amy Schade, and Patty Caya on the trends that they see among the featured intranets. Almost all of them provide access to multiple applications, though often this is a result of evolution rather than intention. This raises issues of strategy and governance, and also the decision about what platform the intranet should be built on. It also requires some careful thought and testing around the home page. Personalisation is increasingly common and mobile is now so core to an intranet it scarcely gets a mention.

In some respects the term ‘design awards’ conceals aspects of the report which I find to be of especial interest, These include time lines for both the evolution of the intranets and the milestones of the project schedule. Governance structures are considered in some detail and there are good tabular views of the development and management team roles and the technology suites in the server room. This formatting makes it much easier to get an initial sense of the intranet before moving on into the detail. That makes me wonder if more about the key features of the intranet, and in particular why it was an award winner, could be presented on the first page, as well as (or perhaps even in place of) the teams involved. The reason for suggesting this that I think it would help to have this synopsis as you start to read the profile, rather than pick it up somewhat piecemeal as the story is told.

When (not if!) you purchase the report ($248)  you also get a ZIP file of all the screen shots as high-res png files, which is a neat idea. As I keep saying each year the value of this report is not to benchmark your own intranet.  Do not look just at the achievements but how they were accomplished, from user requirements through to specification and then to delivery, all within a very supportive governance structure. As with search, it is not about the technology but about the people. This report does not set out to describe the top ten intranets in the world,  but through telling the story of ten excellent intranets it should inspire others to set a much higher barrier for their objectives. This year I have blogged separately about the search implementations on these intranets, and Susan Hanley has written a very perceptive review in Network World.

The case studies have been added to our Directory of Case Studies, which now has almost 200 entries

Martin White


Ten intranet search case studies

It is very difficult to track down good case studies of intranet search implementations that when eight come along together it was well worth spending a couple of hours to read through them, They are published in the Nielsen Norman Group 2017 Intranet Design Annual. I will review this report from an intranet perspective in due course, but for now I just want to look at some of the highlights, and low lights, from the way ten very different organisations have provided intranet search. In the introduction to the report the authors note that search is starting to be taken seriously (my words, not theirs) and that is very good news.

The stand-out case study is that from IBM. The IBM intranet is on a vast scale in size, reach and user numbers, and search has always played an important role. The description of the way in which the Blue Pages people directory has evolved is worth buying the report for on its own account, and then hand delivering copies of the pages to your HR Director and your CEO. Of course a huge amount of research and development went into the development of the directory but the result is probably the definitive people/expertise directory for you to benchmark your own vision and achievement. If you want to learn more about the technical background to the Blue Pages track down the papers authored by Ido Guy when he was at IBM Research Haifa. However in the case of IBM it’s not just about the technology but also about vision, governance and user research. The technology is in fact bespoke and built on the Amazon Web Services platform (interesting!) but IBM Watson is about to be implemented. One of my current clients is about to use IBM Watson and I will be very interested to see how well it works as a people and expertise finder.

Other companies which have an interesting story to tell include Bank of America, Encana, Goodwill Industries, Jet Blue and the Kerry Group. The range of search software is wide, including Google Search Appliance (Bank of America), SharePoint 2010 (Goodwill Industries), PostgreSQL (Jet Blue), SharePoint 2013 (Kerry Group) Solr (Latvian Railways) IDOL 7.5 (Santander) and Office 365 (Tourism New Zealand). Which means that Bank of America and Goodwill Industries are in for an interesting 2017 and maybe Santander needs a Plan B.

The not-so good news is that when you look down the teams running the intranet there is never a mention of who is taking responsibility for search, and in particular search analytics, even though every other aspect of intranet management is listed out. This probably means that IT are taking the search lead but IT need to be able to call on user feedback and business requirements to put the search log analytics in context – which of course assumes that IT are actually running any search analytics.

Martin White

Do virtual teams benefit from face-to-face meetings?

I’m in the middle of a project to examine the reasons why collaboration adoption seems to be slower than anticipated. A report on the research will be published in February. I’ve spent some time looking at a very considerable amount of research into collaboration and virtual teams but only today came across a paper that seems to challenge conventional wisdom and good practice in virtual team management. It has long been the assumption that off-line face-to-face bonding was crucial to achieving high performance virtual teams, but now a paper by Professors Olaisen and Revang at the Norwegian Business School, Oslo, causes me to think that this might now be an out-dated approach.

Their paper is entitled Working Smarter and greener: Collaborative knowledge sharing in virtual project teams and has just been published in the International Journal of Information Management (Disclaimer – I’m a member of the Editorial Board). One of the very important aspects of the research is that it was a longitudinal study in which four virtual project teams with a total of 42 members were tracked quite intensively over the period from 2014-2016. Most studies of virtual teams and collaboration are undertaken over a much shorter period of time. There was one team each from Banking, Insurance, Oil & Gas and Biotechnology sectors. The paper sets up a number of propositions which are then tested against the way in which the teams operated and delivered results.

In the discussion to the paper the authors comment that “the quality of communication has replaced the need for physical meetings”. In effect, we are now so used to virtual communications that we have built up ways of assessing the extent to which we trust people virtually that initial face-to-face meeting are no longer of value. In this regard it is interesting to note that in the 2016 RW3 Global Trends in Virtual Teams survey 41% of respondents stated that they had no face-to-face meetings during the year. The survey goes on to suggest that the lack of face-to-face meetings does have an impact on team performance. Who is right, especially given the small scale of the research project.

I think that what we are seeing in the apparent conflict between the research study and the RW3 survey is that we are at a tipping point. Facebook and a host of other social applications are providing a virtual community that we are becoming adept at working with and in. The same is increasingly true in the enterprise environment. Much may depend on the age generation of participants and research is now being undertaken to explore the extent to which the age profile of a team has an impact on performance, for example Toward a More Nuanced Understanding of the Generational Digital Divide in Virtual Teams (download) . More research is needed both from in-depth research and surveys that record the attitudes of a wider based of respondents. But we may be getting to the stage where off-line meetings may have a more limited benefit, with savings in travel costs and probably less time being required to establish an effective team.

Martin White






So how does search work?

When I wrote the first edition of Enterprise Search in 2012 I only provided enough of an outline about the inner workings of search to support the recommendations I was making in the rest of the book. Comments from many readers encouraged me to write about what I would call the technology of search in more detail in the 2015 2nd edition. In many respects writing about the technology was the most difficult section of the book as I needed to work through how best to present the technology in a way that made sense to a business manager. The phrase ‘the technology of search’ is a misnomer, because it is actually about the mathematics of search as delivered in some quite sophisticated software programs, often using a blend of computational linguistics and applied probability theory. My contention has always been that a search team has to understand much more about how search works than the teams supporting any other enterprise application as most of these are build around a relational database plus a lot of extras. If enterprise search is complicated then the step up to text mining is quite substantial. The subject is covered in depth by ChengXiang Zhai and Sean Massung and Deep Text is a very good introduction to the topic by Tom Reamy.

Over the last few months I have noted a number of blogs that provide very good descriptions about how search works. These include a series by Daniel Tunkelang published on the Query Understanding website and by Maish Nishani on the Olasearch website. Patrick Lambe has written a very good 15 page summary of search technology in Behind the Curtain: Understanding the Search and Discovery Technology Stack on the Green Chameleon website. In addition Charlie Hull and Udo Kruschwitz are in the process of writing a book on this topic which should be available from Now Publishing in 2017. If you want a really deep dive into the technology then the recently published book Text Data Management and Analysis by Professor ChengXiang Zhai and Sean Massung runs to 500 pages, which gives you a sense of how much detail there really is!

The importance of understanding what is going on under the bonnet has been emphasised by two recent blog posts, one from Mark D. Anderson and another from Marcel Meth. Both these blogs illustrate that sorting out problems in search applications requires a significant amount of technical knowledge and a lot of patient detective work. First you need to know when there is a problem, because search does not break, it just fails to return the results you were expecting, and that requires you to know what you were expecting. Second you need to work out where in the complex series of search processes and sub-processes the solution to the problem may lie. One of the attractions of the Google ESA was that the underlying technology was behind a very robust security firewall so there was no point in having technical expertise on the search team because there was nothing they could do except dust the server casing from time to time. That is now just history as the Google ESA begins to fade away and replacing it is going to need more than rack space and a feather duster.

All the signs are that search, in its various forms, is gradually being recognised for the critical role it plays in enhancing business performance, especially in supporting decision making and identifying expertise and knowledge. Taking advantage of search does require an investment in understanding how it does what it does. That will also stand you in good stead for the arrival of artificial intelligence. I would argue that it is even more important to understand the principles of AI than of search because you are going to need to trust the black box you have invested in. A good place to start is the 3rd edition of Artificial Intelligence – a Modern Approach by Stuart Russell and Peter Norvig. This is now available in paperback but runs to over 1000 pages. So start with search and be well prepared for an interesting future.

Martin White




Eight good books on search management

Over the vacation I reorganised my office, including adding a bookcase specifically for the 60 or so books I have on various aspects of information retrieval and search. In the process I updated the list of books on the Enterprise Search book website, highlighting eight which I regard as a core collection for search managers. These are listed here for convenience. All the books have been reviewed on the Intranet Focus blog and some have a dedicated website. They cover the spectrum from a deep dive into the technology, the optimisation the user experience, search evaluation and text analytics and mining. With a couple of exceptions they have all ben published in the last two years, which indicates the level of interest in the subject. Publishers publish to make a profit!

Deep Text 
Tom Reamy, 2016, Information Today (Review)

Designing the Search Experience.
Tony Russell-Rose and Tyler Tate, 2012 . (book website) (Review)

Enterprise Search
Martin White, 2nd Edition 2015. O’Reilly Media (book website)

Interactions with Search Systems
Ryen White 2016. Cambridge University Press (Review)

Relevant Search
Doug Turnbull and John Berryman. 2015. Manning Publications. (book website) (Review)

Search Analytics For Your Site.
Louis Rosenfeld. 2011. Rosenfeld Media (Review)

Text Data Management and Analysis
Chengxiang Zhai and Sean Massung. 2016. ACM Books (Review)

The Inquiring Organisation
Chun Wei Choo.  2015. Oxford University Press.  (Review)

I am also looking forward to a new book on the underlying technology of enterprise search from Charlie Hull (Flax) and Professor Udo Kruschwitz (University of Essex), to be published by Now Publishers

Martin White

The Intranet Focus 2016 good cause

As many of you know each year I donate the money I would have spent on Christmas Cards and postage to a good cause.

I expect that most of you will have stood in Trafalgar Square, looked up at Nelson’s Column and across to the National Gallery. However I suspect that few of you will have spotted a large church on the north-east side of the square with columns as the façade that faces onto the Square. This is the church of St. Martins-in-the-Fields, which it certainly was when the first church was built in 1222. The current church dates from 1762, and so is older than the Square, which was not completed until 1844.

What is not visible is a vast Crypt, with a 200 seat cafe/restaurant and it can also host conferences and meetings. All the profits go to support the outreach activities of the church. If you enjoy classical music you may know of the global reputation of the Academy of St. Martins-in-the-Fields, a chamber orchestra founded and directed for many years by Sir Neville Marriner, who died earlier this year. The church gave it space for rehearsals and for its first public performance in 1958.

So why have I have chosen a church in the middle of London for my good cause this year? Well once again this year digital workplaces have been centre stage, now enriched (!) with social networks, cognitive search and artificial intelligence. Work (we are assured) is going to be so much more productive and enjoyable in the future.

But do we think for a moment of the people who do not have a home, let alone a job? We talk of the Future of Work, but not of a future without work for those who for usually no fault of their own are now alone and have no future, or have no access to the training needed for digital working. Will the digital workplaces we are building create a the digital divide?

Even in the centre of London, one of the most affluent cities in the world, there is despair, poverty and homelessness. It is easy to say that the UK Government should be doing more. However it’s not just a question of money but of community. Someone to talk to who will not judge, a hand to shake and be hugged by and a sense of security and peace within one of the most beautiful churches In London.

For 90 years St. Martin’s has cared for these people, especially at Christmas when it usually raises over £2.5 million with the help of the BBC.  As well as the support it provides for people in the immediate area of the church (Connection at St. Martins) this church in London cares for people across the UK.  It makes small grants available within days when other sources of support have failed. These grants are often to buy a cooker, a bed or a fridge for people moving into unfurnished accommodation. If the funds I have donated buy someone a cooker or a bed then that is a gift that could  be one small step for them along a road to a brighter future.

I would ask that in the year ahead we never lose sight of the fact that every employee in a digital workplace has a family. I feel we sometimes see ’employees’ as a sort of persona, and forget they are individuals, people who are trying to keep a balance between their commitment to their work and a concern about what the future will hold, not just for themselves but also for their families.

With my best wishes to you for 2017

Martin White


How will digital workplace autonomy satisfy corporate compliance?

The focus of the current interest in social networking is to enable the individual to make decisions about how they work, who they work with and what they share to achieve personal and business objectives. Working Out Loud is a fast-emerging element of this support of internal autonomy. There is a wealth of survey and anecdotal evidence that this fosters innovation and is good for employee engagement. One of the 2016 surveys was published by McKinsey & Company and was entitled “How social tools can reshape the organisation”. At the time of writing this blog the report had been dropped from the McKinsey website but there is a summary on the Consultancy UK website. It does rather read like a paean of praise for social networking at a time when other surveys (for example Digital Culture Clash from Cisco) are indicating that it is not quite as simple as some observers would have us believe.

No matter how much autonomy individuals have to create teams and make decisions on their own account  all organisations work within some form of compliance.  There will be a board of Directors that have defined responsibilities towards the organisation and towards shareholders and stakeholders. At some point a hierarchy will kick in. Hierarchies, like bureaucracies, have a poor reputation but have a role to play in the process of reviewing decisions that are going to commit the organisation to a specific course of action. Among the outcomes of the McKinsey survey was that 25% of respondents predicted that in the next three years strategic decisions would be made from the bottom up and that organisational hierarchies would either be much flatter or disappear all together. Call me old-fashioned but I can’t see major strategic decisions (21st Century Fox acquiring Sky is in the news today) being made bottom up when there are shareholders and regulatory authorities to take account of.

The challenge I see emerging is defining and managing the processes where autonomy and compliance meet. At what level within the organisation does this take place, and is it a hard transition or a soft transition? I’ve looked back through around 20 recent surveys on corporate collaboration and digital social working and I cannot find any discussion of this topic. It is not going to happen by magic. As a component of an overall social strategy for an organisation decisions are going to have to be made on how information and knowledge from autonomous working is sifted, verified and presented up the chain of management. In the final analysis the directors are responsible, in compliance terms, to shareholders, laws and regulations. This is enshrined in corporate law. An implication is that there is an audit route back to the decisions that were made leading up to the action being taken. When autonomy escapes compliance you end up with the Volkswagen story and a very large hit on corporate performance. It will be interesting to read the full Volkswagen story in due course.

I have no preconceived ideas about when and where autonomy and compliance should meet. Wherever it is this the pressure on managers will be very considerable as they seek to balance the demands from their own managers with the ambition of being supportive to autonomous work processes that are clearly having an impact on innovation, speed of response and employee engagement. Working out loud is an example of where a document or even an instant message written in the spirit of WoL is taken to be a definitive statement by someone who reads it in isolation. At present the focus on collaboration strategy is about what tools are needed to support this style of working. In my view the success of a collaboration strategy will be the ease with which outcomes from collaborative working can move through and up the corporate structure in a way that safeguards the interests of all stakeholders. This is not a technology issue but about supporting managers who find themselves between a rock and a hard place. If you want to read a story of what happens when ‘top down’ conflicts with ‘bottom up’ download this study of decision making in Nokia that led to the company losing the smartphone battle. What would happen in your organisation under the same circumstances?

Martin White

Frameworks for implementing and assessing collaboration

Ever since the advent of computer-supported cooperative working (CSCW) in 1984 there has been an immense amount of research into the development of a framework for collaboration processes that will assist in both the planning and implementation of collaborative solutions. Wikipedia has a very good survey of the background to CSCW I have been tracking this research for a number of years, and in this post I have referenced just a new of the many frameworks that have been developed, with an emphasis on work over the last few years.

  • Unpacking Team Diversity: An Integrative Multi-Level Model of Cross-Boundary Teaming (2016) Harvard Business School Working Paper download
  • Team Communication Platforms and Emergent Social Collaboration Practices (2016) published in International Journal of Business Communications April 2016
  • From The Matrix to a Model of Coordinated Action (MoCA): A Conceptual Framework of and for CSCW (2015) Preprint can be downloaded
  • Why Supply Chain Collaboration Fails: The Socio-Structural View Of Resistance To Collaboration Strategies (2015) published in Supply Chain Management
  • Metrics for Cooperative Systems (2014) from the Fraunhofer Institute
  • Enterprise Social Collaboration Model (2013) sponsored by Microsoft as a download
  • Factors of Collaborative Working: A Framework for a Collaboration Model (2012) published in Applied Ergonomics, January 2012
  • Collaboration at Work: An Integrative Multilevel Conceptualization (2012) published in Human Resource Management Review, June 2012
  • Enterprise Collaboration Maturity Model (ECMM): Preliminary Definition and Future Challenges (2012) Preprint can be downloaded
  • Group Information Behavioural Norms and the Effective Use of a Collaborative Information System: A Case Study (2010) The link is to a 400 page PhD thesis written by Colin Furness, University of Toronto

Of the many books that have been published on collaborative working Collaboration by Morten Hansen is a very valuable resource and I also find Collaborating in a Social Era,by  Oscar Berg to be full of insights and some very useful graphics.

Martin White

Website search – “Must do better!”

Although most of my projects are internal enterprise search engagements I have just been assessing the website search of a major consulting firm. One of the elements of the project was to compare the website search against those of other professional services firms, The results were very depressing. In total I looked at around 20 firms, and the consistent message was that website search is not important enough to pay any attention to, even though to me the quality if the search experience is an indicator of how important the firm regards attracting new clients. This is because for a professional services firm the major challenge in a highly competitive market has to be finding new clients or new business from existing clients.

As I look through my notes there are some common problems with the sites.

  • Almost invisible search boxes tucked away on the edge of the page
  • Search box either too short or opens up Google-like on a new page with no warning or search help notes
  • Very little date information on the results and no ability to sort by date to show off how much recent information the firm had available
  • No highlighting of query terms in the results summaries
  • Filters and facets in abundance with little consideration of their value in focusing in on highly relevant information
  • A common filter is file format, which assumes that “web pages” (for example) are of especial importance to search users
  • Poor expertise search. All too often “people search” is primarily a name search feature
  • Very limited use of promoted content to highlight core firm capabilities

Those are of course common to many websites but when I consider the amount of investment in the design of the website and the consultant hours spent on writing briefing notes etc for publication on the website I do wonder why there is invariably not the slightest sense of user centricity about the site and about the role that search should play vis-a-vis the navigation.

A specific problem I came up against was the way in which query terms which are noun adjuncts are handled. For example [risk management], [corporate finance] and [interim management]. Most professional services firms (and it is the same with universities) use these two word noun phrases quite extensively. Of course in a perfect world site visitors would use quotation marks as a proximity function. However my experience with some university websites suggests that search users may be assuming that they can query [chemical engineering] and the search engine will be smart enough either to check “Did you mean School of Chemical Engineering?” or to have promoted content that is specific to the School of Chemical Engineering just in case. These are the sort of issues that user testing and high-quality search log analysis will uncover, but in website search and in enterprise search the lack of commitment to search evaluation is usually very obvious.

As well as the wealth of material on the Nielsen Norman Group site (though it’s not the best example of site search!) Chapter 9 in Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond is a very well-written 50page overview of the business case for website search and implementation good practice.

Martin White

Could Google transform enterprise mobile search?

The presentations at the 2016 Search Solutions conference, organised by the Information Retrieval Specialist Group of the British Computer Society on 30 November, were uniformly excellent. For me the most interesting was given by Dr. Qin Yin from the Google Research Laboratories in Zurich. To explain why I need to provide some context. In general the enterprise search experience on a mobile smartphone is poor. As the desktop UI has become more complex with multiple filters and facets it has also become more difficult to provide a sensible UI for a smartphone. Responsive design is not at option. There have been attempts over the years to develop mobile enterprise search UIs.  Autonomy offered one briefly and Sinequa does have a mobile solution but I remain unconvinced of the value of using a smartphone as a terminal device for enterprise search applications. It may be possible but is it desirable?  Another search product that is now largely history is desktop search, overtaken by improved (in relative terms!) Office search and the challenge of indexing (in my case) 10GB of stored data.

Qin Yin’s paper was about the work that Google has been undertaking on offering users the ability to search content that is already on their smartphone, in effect providing the mobile equivalent of desktop search. Now I know that Apple offer the Spotlight search through Siri but that is not a good experience in my view. Google is now offering the initial versions of what it describes as App Indexing, using its Firestorm suite. In effect you can now search through content you have downloaded into apps on your smartphone. The index is held within the smartphone but is revised periodically when (rather like with software uploads) from Google when there is sufficient bandwidth. There are some case studies on the Firestorm site.

Now for another bit of context. People tend to want their internal enterprise search to be as good as Google. We know that is technically not possible but at least it provides a default benchmark for the user experience. What occurred to me is that as this mobile internal search improves users will start to say “why can’t I have the Google App search on internal content”. I discussed this with Qin Yin after her presentation and the answer is that in principle you could, especially as Google ramps up its enterprise cloud offering. This would give the user effective access to people and expertise directories, policies and task applications, especially where the mobile desktop is getting rather crowded and you just can’t find the app with the information you need. Offline access would also be facilitated.

Now I may be off track with this but I think that as the application develops, along with Google’s enterprise cloud service, there could be a new dimension to enterprise mobile search. Although Apple have something that is sort of similar in concept  (but certainly not in execution) it is not in the enterprise information services business at all. I would be the first to admit that some of the systems architecture diagrams and descriptions from Qin Yin passed me by.  Mobile app development is not among my skill sets and I have to say that it was only half-way through the paper that the enterprise angle occurred to me and I transformed into a very active listener.  Even so I would recommend that you keep monitoring the way in which Google develops this approach so that you can be prepared to respond to the “Why can’t our mobile enterprise search be like Google?” question.

Martin White