Intranet Design Annual 2016 – Nielsen Norman Group

Over the years there has been quite a lot of discussion about whether the Intranet Design Annual from the Nielsen Norman Group actually represents the top 10 intranets. The short answers are that it doesn’t, it doesn’t claim to and the task is impossible. Nevertheless it is a very important resource for any intranet manager. The Annual describes in great detail the best 10 intranets of those submitted. The level of detail is extraordinary, and must have taken Kara Pernice, Amy Schade, and Patty Caya (the lead team members) and the NNGroup team an equally extraordinary number of hours to compile. Imagine how long it would take you to write a similar description of your own intranet! Come to think of it that might be a good exercise!

The organisations profiled in the Intranet Design Annual 2016 are

• American Cancer Society (US)

• Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP (US)

• The Co-operators Group Limited (Canada)

• dorma+kaba (Germany)

• Enbridge Inc. (Canada)

• Intermountain Healthcare (US),

• NAV Canada (Canada)

• Repsol S.A. (Spain)

• Salini Impregilo SpA (Italy)

• The Swedish Parliament (Sweden),

There is much more to the Annual than the project descriptions and screen shots, an approach that has been consistent since the first Annual was published in 2001.The report starts with an overall assessment of the intranet development and implementation trends, and comes up with a quite complex formula that relates intranet team size to total employee numbers. There are also observations on the speed of the development process and the scale of the use of external contractors. At the end of the report is a summary of the reasons why other intranets that were submitted did not make the final selection.

You can of course read the report from cover to cover.  However I think the best use is not even just to look at organisations that are close to your own but across all of the intranets for elements of vision, strategy and design that could enhance your own intranet.  I’ve already had three of my clients comment about the value they have gained from the Annual, which in one case was just an idea for the layout of the employee profile pages. So much intranet good practice is transferable good practice. You will pay $248 for 500 pages and 166 screen shots. Doesn’t your intranet (and its users) deserve that level of investment in cash and team time? The 2016 winners have been added to our list of intranet case studies, bringing the total to 168.

Martin White

The philosophy of information

On my desk stands a copy of A Very Short Introduction to Information by Professor Luciano Floridi just to remind me that the concept of information is very broad indeed, down to the genetic information encoded in our DNA. The book stops me focusing on the minutiae of information and instead to look at the bigger picture. A step up from the book is Professor Floridi’s contribution on the semantic conceptions of information in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I should at this point note that Luciano Floridi is is currently Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford. There is a wonderful sentence in the Stanford entry that starts “Information is a conceptual labyrinth”. I am very tired of seeing a simplistic data/information/knowledge/wisdom view of the world being positioned as the definitive map of the information universe.

In 2011 Professor Floridi’s book The Philosophy of Information was published by Oxford University Press, and was reprinted (the sign of an important book) in 2014. I gave it to myself as a Christmas present this year as it is not the sort of book that you place on Christmas list. As some readers will know I am quite passionate about music, especially in playing the music of J.S.Bach, Rachmaninov and Duruflé. If you can read music and have the necessary technique then it is entirely possible to play their music. Giving a performance that communicates the intentions of the composer is much more difficult, which explains why my bookshelves contain around 40 books on Bach and many on both Rachmaninoff and Duruflé. You have to dig beneath the surface.This is exactly what Professor Floridi does in this book and in his more recent book The Fourth Revolution

The Philosophy of Information is not an easy book to read, and I’m having to take it a sub-section at a time, not even a chapter at a time. To get a flavour “Information is still an elusive concept. This is a scandal not by itself but because so much basic theoretical work relies on a clear analysis and explanation of information and of its cognate concepts”. The book, almost 400 pages long, sets out to provide this analysis and explanation. Will this book change the way you solve today’s information puzzles? No. It is not a handbook to information management success. But for me it is a book that I know I have to read even if some (probably many!) of the sections are very difficult to cope with because without this philosophical grounding we are managing information in a way similar to science before the quantum theory was established. It is time we took a wider look at what information means to society and the individual. I sometimes think we use the word ‘content’ because we don’t want people to ask us what ‘information’ is.

Martin White

Enterprise search information portal

In the process of writing the 2nd edition of Enterprise Search I accumulated a substantial amount of information that did not make it into the book. The list of documents in my research file has now reached over 800 and less than 10% of these appear at the end of the chapters in the book. So to help me, and to help me help you, there is now a website for the book called (not surprisingly) EnterpriseSearchBook. I must emphasis that this is not an official O’Reilly website, and you will not find sections of the book on the site. The book only costs $25.99 and if your organization can’t invest in a copy it’s not going to be easy for you to make a business case for enterprise search enhancement!

The site brings together information that was already on the Intranet Focus site, but with a significant amount of additional information. What is missing by intention are links to briefing papers offered by search vendors. It is easier to exclude all of them than have to explain to certain vendors why I am not highlighting their sales literature. There was an inadvertent announcement of the new site this morning so I’ve brought the launch forward by a day as once things go social it’s more than a challenge getting them back into Pandora’s box. As a result there may be a few more 404s that I would have liked.

There is a roadmap for the future development of EnterpriseSearchBook, including adding a more powerful search application. However the roadmap ideally needs to be driven by users The chances of every link being correct are small but I plan to update the site at the end of each month. However  if you see a link that is incorrect or more importantly a resource that is missing do let me know.

Martin White


Collaboration overload

Is it just me, or are meetings getting larger?  I’m increasingly finding that meetings with clients start small but then everyone in the project team wants to be present. With the widespread availability of Lync and other conferencing tools the days of finding that the available meeting room space placed limits on attendance are over. So I was relieved to see that the front page of the January-February 2016 issue of Harvard Business Review carried the alert notice “Collaborative Overload – Your most helpful employees are burning out”. There is a set of four articles in this issue under the subtitle of The Emotional Organization that look at some of the implications of the emotional aspects of working together. All are well worth reading but I want to focus on the article on collaborative overload.

The authors are Robert Cross (author of The Hidden Power of Social Networks), Adam Grant (Professor of Management and Psychology at Wharton) and Reb Rebele, a research fellow at Wharton. In their view over the last two decades the amount of time that managers and employees spend on meetings has ballooned and at many companies people now spend 80% of their time in meetings. (Just take a look at your own calendar at this point). They go on to suggest that although the benefits of collaboration are well documented the costs often go unrecognised. These may well not be direct costs but more likely to be workflow bottlenecks (where progress comes to a halt because of difficulties in getting a meeting set up with a large attendee roster) and employee burnout from the top experts always having to be in meetings. There is a fascinating chart in the article which shows that people regarded as the best information sources and more desirable collaborators have the lowest engagement and career satisfaction goals. They have no time to get on with their own work! I find that companies love the concept of expertise databases but never check with the people who are providing the expertise about how they are coping with being in the limelight.

One of the recommendations of the authors is that it is time that companies appointed Chief Collaboration Officers with a remit to ensure that the benefits are in line with the personal investments being made. I find it strange that companies that have a policy of stimulating collaboration and making use of virtual teaming to support wider collaboration rarely offer any training in effective collaboration and in how to get the best from virtual teams. Nor is there any attempt made to assess the outcomes of collaborative working to identify what types of training are needed and whether the adoption of social networking applications “because we need to be better at collaborating” actually make any impact on corporate performance. The HBR article has promoted me to revise my Research Note on Virtual Team Management

Will it prompt you to reassess the value of a visible collaboration policy supported by evaluation and training?


Martin White

Design thinking and enterprise search – some commonalities

There is a great deal of interest at the present time about design thinking, and James Robertson has made a good case for incorporating design thinking into intranet development. There was a good article on design thinking in the September issue of Harvard Business Review by Jon Kolko. This was summarised in the Interaction section of the November issue.

“Design thinking is moving closer to the center of many enterprises. Its principles include a focus on emotional experiences, testing with prototypes, tolerance of failure and and making complex technology easy to use. But a design-centric culture requires understanding that the ROI on design is hard to quantify – and appreciating what design can and cannot achieve”

So now let me replace ‘design thinking’ with ‘enterprise search’

“Enterprise search is moving closer to the center of many enterprises. Its principles include a focus on emotional experiences, testing with prototypes, tolerance of failure and making complex technology easier to use. But a search-centric culture requires understanding that the ROI on search is hard to quantify – and appreciating what search can and cannot achieve”

Perhaps the search community should be tracking how design thinking is being adopted by enterprises and seeing what lessons can be learned. Incidentally if the ’emotional experience’ in design thinking seems not to make sense in search just look at the face of a user when they have found the information they need to drive the company forward. I’ve seen more strong emotions in search than I have with users of ERP systems!

Martin White

Four polar bears and two purple martins

As a search consultant I put great stress on the need to have informative titles. The title of this blog post is informative but the link is visual rather contextual. In 1998 I was starting to become very interested in intranets, co-authoring a report for TFPL on intranet management. I could see there were possibilities as a consultant in this area but at the time I had very little knowledge of information architecture despite (or perhaps because of) a career in information science. In 1999 I attended the first Intranets conference in San Francisco, met up with Lou Rosenfeld and discovered ‘Information Architecture for the World Wide Web’, the book that he had co-authored with Peter Morville in 1998. The book was a revelation, as it brought together information science, librarianship and web design, producing a tool kit for intranet managers and would be intranet consultants,

The book was immensely successful and in 2002 a second edition was published, followed by a third edition in 2006. Somehow the third edition did not quite work for me but it was still 500 pages of invaluable insight and advice. Peter Morville had by now moved into the findability sector and Lou Rosenfeld had started up Rosenfeld Media. Now we have a fourth edition, with Jorge Arango added to the writing team, with the subtitle transformed to ‘for the web and beyond’. Although the core principles remain the same the book has been tightened up (50 less pages) and yet remains immensely readable. The writing style is also consistent throughout the book, which is no mean feat with three authors. I’ll be reviewing the book in the next week or so.

As an author of an O’Reilly book you do not get to choose the colophon on the cover. The IA4WWW has been known as the ‘polar bear book’ since it was first published. Someone in the O’Reilly art department had a nice sense of humour with my book on enterprise search, as the picture is of a purple martin. The second edition is has just been published, having grown from 160 to 280 pages. Because of a change in O’Reilly house style the bird points to the right on the first edition and to the left on the second edition. The strap line, Enhancing Business Performance’ remains the same.

The challenge in writing a book is not what to include but what to leave out. As chair of the Enterprise Search Europe conference last week I gave up trying to maintain a list of items mentioned  by presenters that I should have included but didn’t. Luckily there is an Errata section on the O’Reilly website and I will be launching a new enterprise search website in the next couple of weeks. All I can do now is wait for the reviews and the emails.

The second edition of Enterprise Search is my seventh book. Will there be an eighth? You’ll have to come to the IntraTeam Event in Copenhagen in March 2016 to find out.

Martin White

Enterprise Search Europe 2015 – themes and reflections

As Chair of Enterprise Search Europe 2015 I am inevitably biased, but in my opinion this year the quality of the papers and of the discussions, was very high indeed. The conference took place in the Olympia Conference Centre in west London, and as usual the exhibitors were arranged around the main conference area. This year we ran just a single parallel session other than three roundtable sessions on open source search development, SharePoint 2013 search implementation and the use of search logs to enhance search performance.

I’m not going to try to provide summaries of the presentations, other than to say that the presentations by Charlie Hull (Flax), Steve Woodward (Astra-Zeneca), Dayle Collins (PwC UK), Ian Williams (NHS Wales) Anni Waarst (COWI), Lesley Holmes (Nottinghamshire County Council), Alban Ferignac (IFCE, France)  and Paul Cleverley (Robert Gordon University) were outstanding examples of how search can make a significant impact on business performance.

Over the two days a number of themes emerged, and these included

  • Search is a superb integration platform, capable of bringing together unstructured and structured data with equal ease
  • This integration capability is most evident in the development of search cards, in which information from multiple repositories is brought together into a display that presents information, not just a list of results
  • This integration capability puts search as the core platform on which to develop digital workplaces, and indeed both the Astra-Zeneca and PwC applications were far closer in both concept and delivery to a digital workplace than to either intranet or enterprise search
  • Making sure that user requirements are fully understood is essential, because search has to support the way in which they work, not just the way they query a repository
  • There needs to be the staff resources to undertake the user research, train and support users and make full use of the capabilities of the technology, The search team for PwC UK was so large that I had to clarify with Dayle Collins in mid-presentation that he was just talking about the UK operation and not PwC world-wide!
  • There are no quick fixes in search implementation. It is a long journey of multiple steps and the direction has to be set by users and not by the IT road map of the technology.
  • Open source search and commercial search can both provide excellent solutions. In planning the conference I made sure that both search business models were equally represented. Jeff Fried made the point that it is not one or the other, but possibly both in concert.
  • Migration from one content platform to another, and/or a migration of search application, are complex tasks and need both very careful planning and excellent communications with users and stakeholders.

Two of the most lively of the many discussion periods were about the value that information retrieval research can bring to enterprise search and possible approaches to making a business case for search investment. It was interesting to note that the best attended round table was the search logs session facilitated by Helen Lippell. You can catch up on comments from the conference at #eseu2015.

Martin White

The intranet users everyone ignores – publishers

This post is the result of listening to some of the comments made in the discussion sessions at IntranetNow on 13 October. Several of the presentations highlighted the importance of undertaking user testing with real users, preferably with video recording. There were also references to the benefits of using personas as a way of segmenting user needs at the outset of an intranet launch or re-launch. There was a mention of empathy mapping, which I am only just getting around to using, but it seems to be potentially a very useful tool. So far, so good. But there is one group of very important users that is never taken into consideration.

Publishers! An intranet without content has no value. An intranet with outdated content or incorrect content has an even lower value then zero because it then becomes dangerous. Time and time again I hear questions raised about how publishers can be incentivized to contribute in the same breath as a comment about the challenges of the publisher interface. In the case of a website there is often just a small team of content publishers who know the CMS inside out, including all the short cut keys. An intranet has a mix of publishers which may include

  • Publishing content on a regular basis which has a consistent structure and format
  • Publishing content that they have no idea about what it is about because their manager does not want to be a publisher themselves
  • Reviewing and revising content where the person who should be doing it has left the organisation
  • Publishing content that is for the team/department they work for
  • Publishing content about the team/department for the wider benefit of the organisation
  • Publishing content on an ad hoc schedule and to various different formats
  • Creating new types of content
  • Publish content in a language that they may speak but cannot write with the same ease (English is easy to speak but a challenge to write well)

All of these requirements need a careful combination of training and user interface design, and it’s the user interface design that rarely gets much attention. Even with initially good training a poor publishing UI (welcome to SharePoint!) will inevitably take its toll on publisher enthusiasm and quality management. In a number of recent projects I have persuaded the intranet team to work up some publisher personas along the lines of the examples above. All too often I find that they have relatively little knowledge of the varieties of publishers and have not specified the user interface on the new intranet, just taking whatever the IT development team think is a good generic interface. I think it is time we gave the publishing process much more attention throughout any intranet redevelopment project, especially where the reason for the redevelopment is that content quality is poor. We may be fixing the wrong problem.

Martin White

Introduction to Information Behaviour – Nigel Ford

I have had the honour of being a Visiting Professor at the Information School, University of Sheffield since 2002. Every time I walk into the department I am in awe of the calibre of research and teaching. I’m saying this up front as I am inevitably biased in reviewing Introduction to Information Behaviour by my colleague Professor Nigel Ford. I’m going to start this review in three related places. The first was a fascinating presentation at the Findwise Findability Day by Abby Convert on information architecture, the second is a recent blog post on a paper by Professor Reijo Savolainen about cognitive barriers to information discovery and the third is a book entitled The Organised Mind by Daniel Levitin. The commonality of all three is the mental models we use to manage the process of interpreting the semantic content of information.

This is a particular issue for the design of search applications. I would argue that company of 12,000 enterprise search users does not deliver a single application but 12,000 different versions as each user will have their own mental model. The concept of information behaviour was first proposed by Professor Tom Wilson, Head of the Department of Information Studies at the University of Sheffield (which is now the Information School) in the early 1980s. It is important to understand that information behaviour is not just about information seeking, though that is where much of the research has been focused because of the need to optimise the performance of search applications as information overload became a feature of daily work and living.

In his book Nigel Ford has managed to maintain academic rigour in his analysis of the research that has been carried out whilst also writing a book that will be of great value to students of any information-related discipline as well as intranet and search managers. There have been a great many different models proposed, each with strengths and weaknesses, the weaknesses stemming primarily because of the need to delineate cognitive processes in the brain in a way that even cognitive psychologists find very challenging. Take a look at this recent paper from Nature to gain an idea of the challenges of mapping cognitive processes in the brain.

The main sections of this 250pp book cover the basic concepts of information behaviour, what we know of information behaviour, and finally discovering and using knowledge of information behaviour. This last section is especially interesting to me as it sets out some of the issues that need to be taken into account when working on projects for clients that involve any element of the use of information discovery applications. I also found Chapter 5 on how information behaviour can be collaborative of considerable interest, especially given my comments on the new book on collaboration by Oscar Berg.

I just wish that Nigel had published his book before I completed the text of the 2nd edition of Enterprise Search as I would have taken a rather different route in a few places, but I have managed to add a citation to the book at the very last stage of production. This is a book that all search managers should read, as well as intranet managers developing portal applications which push the boundaries of the mental models of probably the majority of users. Reading this book will help you understand why you may be finding that user adoption is not as high as expected, and may well turn you into a mind reader as well as a line manager.

Martin White


Collaborating in a Social Era – Oscar Berg

My collection of books on collaboration is quite large. Many are in the loft because the authors have little of interest to say, often scaling up a collaborative working approach in a specific organisation to a generic model. Two books have stood the test of repeated reading are Collaboration Roadmap by Michael Sampson and Collaboration by Morten Hansen. For some years now I have benefited substantially from Oscar Berg‘s blog. He always has something interesting to say and so I was delighted when Intranatverk added a book by Oscar to what has the promise of being a very good portfolio of books. It was only a couple of weeks ago that I met up with Oscar for the first time, thanks to an invitation from Kristian Norling to participate in an Intranatverk event in Malmo.

The subtitle of the book is “Ideas, insights and models that inspire new ways of thinking about collaboration”, which sums the book up in a sentence. The 250 page is divided up into 15 chapters. I’m not going to list them all but just a few will give you a sense of the ethos of the book

  • The curse of physical proximity
  • The struggling knowledge worker
  • The tyranny of email
  • Making change happen

At the heart of this book a collaboration pyramid model that Oscar developed in 2012. The top three layers (act; coordinate; form a team) are elements of a structured team-based collaboration approach. The next five layers (contribute; communicate and connect; find and discover people; share what you know, have, think and do; and make yourself visible and participate) are more social in nature. Oscar makes the point that to enable collaboration to happen naturally across groups and locations an organisation must help its employees perform the activities in these five lower levels. However these are difficult to scale beyond organisational groups and geographic locations.

This book is full of wisdom and diagrams, both of which are usually absent from books on collaboration (the two mentioned above are distinguished exceptions) together with a good collection of references. The literature on collaboration is vast – I was surprised to find that I have collected close to 400 reports and research papers on collaboration in just four years! The wisdom comes from the nature of Oscar’s work as a consultant, where clearly he has stepped back at the end of each engagement to do a classic ‘lessons learned’ exercise. The diagrams are of great value as a tool to initiate discussions inside an organisation and can be downloaded from Flickr. A very generous offer,

I know from our discussion in Malmo that Oscar does not see this as the definitive book on collaboration. To me what is missing is a discussion about the challenges of virtual teams and of organisational/national cultures. As an information scientist and a chemist I feel that the move sideways into information value in Chapter 6, and its metaphor of information being like water, do not quite work. As a note to Intranatverk, your books need a detailed contents page or an index, but having neither makes it difficult to dip into the book.

That apart this is a book that will make you think about collaboration in some very useful ways, and the problem in most organisations is that the technology comes before the thinking. For another perspective on this book read Martin Risgaard’s review.  I can recommend this book very highly indeed. It sits alongside my two established favourites and I have reserved a space for Oscar’s next book on the subject.

Martin White