Intranet Focus Ltd – the first fifteen years

Intranet Focus Ltd opened for business on 22 September 1999. My interest in intranets started in 1997 and in 1998 three colleagues at TFPL Ltd joined me in writing Intranet Management – a Guide to Best Practice, based on some consulting projects and a significant amount of research. The report stimulated considerable interest but not a great deal of work. By late 1998 I was corresponding with Howard McQueen, who was creating what turned out to be the first major intranet conference, scheduled for San Francisco in February 1999. Since 1999 was also our 25th Wedding Anniversary Cynthia and I decided to spend it in San Francisco and take in the conference at the same time. By the end of the conference I was hooked on intranets. TFPL were not keen to move into a more technical consulting area from their work in knowledge management (at the time the right decision) and so I left the company and started up on my own. The first challenge was to find a company name that also had .com and web addresses available. It was Simon, one of our sons, who came up with Intranet Focus.

I’d have to say that the first couple of years were scary. I worked on some projects but none of any size. Then in 2001 I won a contract to redevelop the intranet at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, starting work the day before 9/11.  It turned out to be a challenging project in many ways but the team I built up for the project delivered on time and to budget despite the after-effects of 9/11. That was the turning point for the business as the IMF was the definitive ‘reference client’. Just as important I learned a huge amount about intranets and the management of intranet projects.

Over the last 15 years I’ve worked on projects on a dozen countries and enjoyed myself enormously. Working inside an organisation is a fascinating experience, be it a major pharmaceutical company, a Gulf State conglomerate, a convent or a global law firm. I’ve worked with some very talented and generous colleagues, including (amongst many others) Jane McConnell, James Robertson, Howard McQueen, Paul Corney, David Gilroy, Gerry McGovern, Michael Sampson and Jed Cawthorne. Janus Boye, Kurt Kragh Sorensen, Kristian Norling and the Information Today teams in the USA and in the UK have all been very supportive and given me many opportunities to run workshops and speak at conferences. I would also like to acknowledge three clients who were an especial pleasure to work with – Christiane Wolff at Boehringer Ingelheim, Kristin Dom at Atlas Copco and Stavri Nikolov at the European Commission. Helen Carley at Facet Publishing and Simon St. Laurent at O’Reilly Media guided my work on four books, each of which has been an invaluable calling card. However none of what I hope I have achieved would have been possible without the support of Cynthia and our sons Nick and Simon.

Most of the ‘best practice’ guidance in the TFPL 1998 report is still applicable. This is not because my colleagues and I were especially insightful in 1998 but because we all had a background in information and knowledge management consultancy, and in publishing. We brought best practice from those disciplines into an intranet framework that has stood the test of time. Rarely do I now come across an intranet manager who is unaware of best practice. However intranet managers (and search managers) remain lonely people with very limited resources, recognition and career opportunities. My role is not to teach them but to work with them in gaining the support of the senior managers of their organisations, very few of whom seem to understand the value of information in achieving business objectives, the role of an intranet in managing information and the need for effective search.

Shortly before I announced my departure from TFPL an experienced senior business manager I knew advised me not to move into intranet consulting as people would quickly work out how to make use of the technology. Fortunately for me, and for the only time in his distinguished career, he was wrong. One of my favourite quotes comes from US President Lyndon Johnson. He remarked that the fire of progress is lit by inspiration, fuelled by information and sustained by hope and hard work. All I can do is provide the information. The inspiration, hope and hard work is down to my clients.

Martin White

The 20 minute presentation – they are not as easy as they seem

All the presentations at the Findwise Findability Day and many at Intranet Now were just 20 minutes in length. There seems to be a trend towards shorter presentations so that more speakers can be squeezed into a day rather than have delegates take two days away from their office desk. In theory that’s a good approach but my experience at a number of recent conferences is that many presenters fail to understand the implicit rules of the game and end up either saying nothing of value or so much that the value becomes invisible. In writing this blog post I checked out how many presentations I have given over the last six years (the rest are archived off line) and was surprised to find that it was over 300, though quite a number of these have been internal presentations to clients. Over the course of a career behind the podium I have developed an internal clock that enables me to time a 40 minute presentation without looking at my watch, and that is mainly because I’ve worked out how much information I can deliver in a single PowerPoint slide.

In the preface to the 1852 edition of Christmas Stories Charles Dickens observed that he found it much more difficult to write a short story than a novel, and that he had to go about writing a short story in a very different way. I know how he feels. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has a very large collection of presentations from which slides can be extricated and reassembled. In the case of my Findability Day presentation I started from scratch and every slide was created from a blank format. With a 40 minute presentation I can usually end with perhaps two or three ‘messages’ and I have the option to speed through or slow down at points where I feel the audience needs less or more information. A 20 minute presentation has to be very carefully timed and needs to work towards a single theme. Listening to 20 minute pitches over a number of events this year it is clear to me, and I suspect the audience, that the presentation has been redacted from a much longer one with the result that there is no coherent structure. There is a very helpful post on how to develop a 20 minute presentation by Carmine Gallo on the Forbes website.

However the responsibility is not just on the side of the presenter. The conference organiser knows (or should know!) what the audience is expecting. It is essential that the organiser actively works with each presenter to review their content in line with the overall objectives of the event. That takes time but the audience deserves this level of attention. Of course that also means that the presenter cannot leave it to the last minute to compile their slide deck. To my mind two of the presenters at the Findability event had failed to take a user-centric view and you could sense the immediate increase in heads-down on handsets, not to Tweet but to catch up with emails. The problem nowadays is that as a presenter you do not know what use is being made of mobile devices until later on the day when you see no tweets with your name and the event hash-tag.

One final thought. There will be fewer questions after a good 20 minute presentation because a) it will be mono-thematic and b) there is a sense that a question will throw the entire agenda into confusion. So I would suggest to organisers that there are gaps for a general Q&A with perhaps a group of speakers so that themes that have emerged can be discussed in more detail in an open session. I’d also suggest having a speaker’s corner where after each session a group of speakers could meet up with delegates who might want to have a one-on-one discussion rather than ask a question in an open session.

Martin White

Findwise Findability Day 2014 – conference report

This year Findwise moved the venue of its Findabilty Day to Copenhagen, and attracted an audience of over 200 along with a thousand or so who logged in to the live streaming. The day started at 10.00 with a summary of the 2014 Findability Survey. I’ll comment on the survey shortly when it is live on the Findwise website, but the core message is that adopting information management good practice will have a significant benefit on search performance and satisfaction.  That was very much the theme of my opening keynote in which I used the website search of the UK Office of Communications as an example of what happens when you ignore the precepts of information management.

Following me were a further eleven speakers, each with a 20 minute slot, and I cannot do justice to all the presentations. They ranged from improving an e-commerce site with better search, how graph databases work, using text analytics to improve a legal information service, the use of search-based applications in the Swedish Court system and the implementation of a search portal approach at Scania, the truck manufacturer. From my perspective there were a few that that really stood out. Nicklas Ericksson talked about the use of a search-based portal to implement what will become a digital workplace in Scania as the company seeks to double the annual number of trucks built whilst not expanding the workforce. That’s a strong business case for a digital workplace. David Montag (Neo4J) described the technology and applications of graph search very elegantly indeed.  I had seen Tony Russell-Rose’s presentation before on search use cases (you have all read the book that Tony wrote with Tyler Tate of course!) but I heard many positive feedbacks on his approach.  I also enjoyed the presentation on the way that search had boosted the revenue of Sprell, a small Norwegian e-commerce toy website by its founder Alexander Arnesen, which illustrated brilliantly that search is not just for big companies. The final paper was on IBM Watson, which intrigued me technically and concerned me ethically. The demo failed to work for technical reasons!  Sadly there were just a few papers which were really disappointing. I won’t embarrass the presenters and their organisations as I’m sure they will find out the errors of their ways in the evaluation form feedback.

I know I was attending as a guest of Findwise but I found it quite an exhilarating day because of the positivity of the presentations regarding the business impact of search. Both the Findwise survey and the AIIM survey (which I have seen but will not be released until 16 September) suggest that organisations are beginning to get the message and are taking a more strategic and business-focused view of search even though at present the quality of the search experience from a user viewpoint remains very poor. Findwise put a lot of effort (and investment) into the organisation and although most of the presenters were Findwise clients the company made sure that the Findwise presence was light-touch. My only disappointment was that the programme was so good I did not have an opportunity to enjoy Copenhagen bathed in Autumn sunshine. I still feel embarrassed by the actions of Admiral Nelson in destroying much of the city in 1807!

Martin White

Enterprise Search Strategy A-Z Topic List

In 2012 I started publishing a series of Research Notes which were typically 10-15 pages long and covered a range of topics from search team membership to the management of virtual teams. The download levels were very good. Then in 2013 I launched the Search Circle, a subscription information service to search managers. Each month I released a Search Note similar in concept to the Research Notes. However there was no time in the month to continue the Research Note series. The Search Circle was not as successful as I had hoped and I closed it down in June this year. One of the benefits was that I had written over 60,000 words of text on a broad range of search topics and most of that text will end up in the 2nd Edition of Enterprise Search, which will be published in April 2015.

I have now restarted the Research Note series, and it will cover both search and intranet/information management topics. This month I have published a Search Strategy A-Z Topic List. I have struggled for some time to develop a structure for a search strategy.  Having written a number of them over the last couple of years it dawned on me that the structure was very dependent on the way that the organisation wanted the strategy to be presented but that the topics that needed to be covered were virtually the same in each case. Many surveys have indicated that only a minority of organisations have a corporate search strategy and my experience is that search managers, especially those in IT, seem to have a difficulty in deciding what to cover in the strategy.

The Search Strategy A-Z Topic List sets out 40 potential topics in 12 pages.  For each there is a brief annotation on why the topic is important and what should be included in the strategy. The list starts at Analytics and ends with Website Search. Included in the Topic List are two topics that I feel should not appear in the strategy but you will have to read the listing to find out what they are. At the end there is a table of all the topics with columns that can be used to note which topics need to be included,  who is responsible for a specific topic (strategy development is a collaborative task) and when the section has been completed. The Topic List can be downloaded as a pdf from the Resources section of this website. Comments on topics that I have missed would be appreciated as this Topic List will be the final chapter of Enterprise Search in due course.

Martin White

Information Governance Initiative Annual Report 2014

The Information Governance Initiative recently released its 2014 report on the state of information governance. The report, subtitled “information Governance Goes to Work” is based on quite a broad research base, and includes data from Canada and the UK as well as the USA. To start with a definition, in the view of the IGI “Information governance is the activities and technologies that organizations employ to maximize the value of their information while minimizing associated risks and costs.” A chart on p13 of the report shows that in total respondents identified 19 different activities under this heading. There are three sections to this 39 page elegantly presented report covering The Concept, The Market and The Work.

A feature of this report is the two-page quick read section at the beginning (other analyst firms take note!) with fifteen highlights from the report. In a brief blog it is not possible to do justice to them all, so I’m just going to focus on those that resonated with my own views.

  • Organizations with complex information environments should appoint a Chief Information Governance Officer (CIGO) to balance stakeholder interests from each facet of IG information governance)and develops an operational model for the organization. Currently only 28% of respondents had such a post, a figure much higher than I had anticipated.
  • IG is a coordinating function for a long list of information activities. By a wide margin (79 percent) respondents see IG as the highest-level description for all information management activities at their organizations.
  • IG should incorporate all the tools needed to better manage information. This includes organizational controls commonly expressed in the form of policies and procedures. It also includes the processes that are driven by these controls and the people who develop, enforce, and follow those processes
  • Practitioners are taking on a wide variety of IG projects, right now. On average, SMBs have four IG projects under way, and large organizations have six. A majority of organizations are actively working on updating policies and procedures, migrating unstructured information, and consolidating and cleaning up data. Other popular projects include implementing a new corporate governance framework for IG.

The amount of research data in the report is almost daunting to read through but it will provide invaluable support to anyone wishing to make a case for an acknowledgement by their organisation that information governance (I still prefer information management for reasons I’ll blog about another day) is a core activity that demands senior management attention and support. The report concludes with the view that IG will be pervasive by 2020. In my view if it is not then organisational productivity and innovation is going to take a big hit.

At present the IGI is largely US in membership and in governance and it feels slightly biased towards a general counsel/corporate compliance/records management view of the world. I’m sure this will gradually change as my own experience suggests that in the UK is a rapidly growing interest in information management even if the base of active projects is still low. I’d certainly suggest you take a look at the IGI website and track the availability of future reports. There is also a good analysis of the report by Nick Patience on the Recommind site, from which the report can also be downloaded.

Martin White


Howard McQueen – an intranet pioneer

Very few of you will have met Howard McQueen as he retired from his consulting business several years ago. He was very much in my thoughts when I received my award at the Intranet Now conference this week as he was my mentor and guide throughout the period from 1999 to 2009 when we worked together on a range of projects.  I first met Howard in 1997 when we were both active in the use of CD-ROM tower systems. He was already talking about intranets with great enthusiasm, and in 1999 set up the Intranets 1999 Conference and Expo for Online Inc. It was held in San Francisco in April and I was there!  I set up Intranet Focus Ltd later that year and returned to San Francisco for the 2000 conference. Howard made sure that I met everyone of importance in the nascent intranet community, though looking through the 2000 programme only Lou Rosenfeld is still associated with the web community. At that time Howard was the founder and editor of Intranet Professional which was initially published by Online Inc before being acquired (along with the conferences) by Information Today.

In 2001 I won a contract to develop an intranet strategy for the International Monetary Fund and Howard was instrumental in winning the project. It was an immensely challenging project, not only because of the reputation of the IMF but because we started it one day before 9/11. Howard’s calmness in the face of chaos was invaluable. Most of the frameworks I use in intranet projects were developed in the IMF project, usually over breakfast and supper. At both meals Howard would consume substantial quantities of iced tea. It was at the IMF that Howard developed the concept of a persona advocate in adapting personas to an enterprise environment. We used this approach in a subsequent project for the Food and Drug Administration with considerable success, as well as our interview spider approach. A few years later we worked on a CMS project selection for in Philadelphia which turned out to be a personally enriching project.

Of the projects we worked on together the most complex was an intranet (and in the event information management) strategy for Boehringer Ingelheim in 2007/2008. For this project I was able to assemble a ‘dream team’ which included Janus Boye, Jane McConnell and James Robertson. Howard worked on an extensive survey of the North American operations and perfected his persona advocate approach in doing so. Overall we ended up with 176 interviews in 13 countries, including China and Japan.

Following the BI project Howard decided to wind down to his consulting work, moving initially into landscape gardening and then retirement. His enthusiasm for intranets and intranet professionals was infectious and the energy he created in the early intranet conferences were a major contributor to the development of intranets and the ethos of being able to share intranets in an open forum. Throughout the years we worked together it was rare for a week to pass by without an exchange of emails and then a long telephone conversation about some interesting way of developing and promoting intranets. Even now, when I am stumped for a way through an intranet strategy project, I ask myself what Howard would have done in the same situation. So far he has never let me down.

Martin White


Intranet Now 2014 – the afternoon session

Several of the morning presentations at Intranet Now had been about small intranets, so it was a good contrast to have Kim England (Pearson) describing the implementation of a global Jive social intranet called Neo to complement a large number of individual intranets. Pearson has 40,000 staff speaking a very large number of different languages. People prefer to be social in their own language and the Pearson social intranet uses the auto-translate in Google Chrome. Even though the results are not always spot on they are good enough for people to decide whether to follow-up with a call or email. A major benefit of the implementation was a significant reduction in email traffic. The launch was ‘managed viral’. 200 were invited to use the network, and then they had to invite a further 200 and so on. Overall a superb implementation and presentation. Kevin Cody (Smallworlders) talked about the novel benchmarking methodology the company has developed. I have struggled to understand the approach from the documentation on the website but after just 5 minutes all became clear.

The next presentation was from Dan Hawtrey (Contentformula) talking about the work his firm had done on an intranet to support the Smile charitable initiative of Johnson & Johnson. Dan was virtually the only speaker to mention mobile access to intranets. Jessie Punia (IBM) packed a great deal into  5 minutes about the importance of social networking in the enterprise to provide realness (authenticity), trust and to respond to the need for employees to feel that they are being listened to. She quoted Simon Sinek’s view that customers never love a company until the employees love it first. How true. Jessie also mentioned the Edelman Trust Barometer, which I have to admit was new to me. The afternoon session was drawn to a close by Jonathan Phillips (CocaCola Enterprises) doing a virtuoso pitch on digital workplaces with a set of slides on autotimer. I was so interested to see if he survived the experience that I failed to take notes. He did!

The rest of the afternoon was given over to well over a dozen discussion groups, many of which were contributed on the fly by members of the audience. Participants were able to choose four but even then most had 15-20 participants. The only downside of the venue was that there were two groups per room, which mean quite a lot of cross-talk and people finding they were in the ‘wrong’ group. No one minded. Each session lasted 20 minutes, and in my two search sessions I had around 30 people in all, so I was well pleased with the interest in search, a topic that otherwise was (like mobile) noticeable by its absence from the presentations. But then I’m biased!

To round out the day Sam Marshall and I did a double act talking through the papers and themes, bringing into the discussion some of the speakers and other delegates. All too soon the session came to an end. The conference came to a close with an ovation for Wedge and Brian Lambe. A truly 5 star event.

Martin White

Intranet Now 2014 – the morning session

It’s just not possible to summarise the fourteen (yes, 14!) speakers in the morning session of Intranet Now,  and then seven in the afternoon.  This is very much a personal highlights post and not even a reasonable attempt to write a full conference report. In addition to this post I have also written an overview of the event. reasons of space I am not covering all the 5 minute papers. Sorry!!.  For the first time at a conference I used a separate Logitech Bluetooth keyboard on my lap with the iPad itself on the table to take notes and it worked very well. Apart from not having to prod at a screen it also meant that I could see the full screen all the time.

First up was Gerry McGovern talking about the need to focus on tasks. His research across multiple clients showed that the tasks typically supported by intranets were employee self-service, finding people and then 15% about the products and services offered by the organisation. Gerry suggested that this category should be 60%+ if the intranet was going to have an impact on organisational performance. He also talked about the importance of building bridges between silos (why are so many intranets carbon copies of the organisation structure) and the challenges of finding content that people do not want to be found because it may mean they will get interrupted. A very high energy start to the day. He was followed by a superb double act from Elisabeth Marsh (Digital Workplace Group) and Kate Simmons (Allen & Overy). Elizabeth talked about nine key elements of the shift from an intranet to a digital workplace and for each Kate described the experience at her firm. It was all a great encouragement for intranet managers contemplating a digital workplace initiative.

Sam Marshall spoke about seven things he has learnt about intranets the hard way in the course of his career both at Unilever and as a consultant. Sam has posted these on SlideShare, which saves me some words. My favourite quote was that intranets need leaders, not managers. He was followed by Gabriele Sani (Oxfam) who caught everyone’s attention by describing the use he and his team made of an automatic testing application from Selenium in developing a new intranet for the 17 associate national Oxfam charities working within the Oxfam Federation. Aysha Graves (Federation of Small Businesses) brought smiles to faces with the way in which Norris, a chicken, made a substantial contribution to the adoption of a new intranet. The story is too good to try to summarise but sums up the ethos of the day.

The importance of high quality, trustworthy, content was made by Gerry McGovern at the start of the event and reinforced by Luke Oatham (Helpful Technology) who reminded people of the quality of the guidance in the Gov.UK style guide, and I might add in the Clearbox Consulting Guide developed by Wedge. Reg Lewin (Consumers Association) set out the benefits and challenges of adopting open source software based on his experience with Drupal and Lucene/Solr.

The final two papers in the morning session came from Michelle Baillie (The Children’s Trust) and Virginia Henry (UnLtd). The Children’s Trust intranet had been built on Interact Intranet as the result of the charity winning a competition set up by Interact. My main takeaway from this presentation was the need to really understand users in developing a launch/engagement strategy, though  Michelle was still concerned about getting everyone to make use of The Loop. Then it was time for lunch, notable for three things. The quality of the food (thanks to sponsorship from Interact Intranet), the speed with which it was served (excellent organisation by the Radisson) and the way in which everyone left the restaurant inside 5 minutes to get back to the afternoon sessions on time.

Martin White

Intranet Now 2014 – Great expectations exceeded!

By any measure the Intranet Now conference which took place today in the Radisson Hotel, Portman Square, London, exceeded all expectations. That this should be the case is entirely down to an extraordinary level of vision and work by Wedge Black and Brian Lamb. There were around 170 people in the venue at the start of the day and almost the same number at the end of the day. I made a lot of notes during the day which I’ll turn into a conference report en route to Switzerland tomorrow and publish on Thursday.

For now the headlines were

  • A clever mix of a conference and an unconference
  • Excellent presentations throughout the day highlighting both successes and issues still to be resolved
  • A mix of 20 minute and 5 minute papers which created a lot of energy in the room
  • Presentations from organisations ranging in size from small charities to multi-national businesses
  • Over a dozen 20 minute discussion sessions from which participants could attend their choice of four
  • Cabaret-style seating which encouraged networking
  • Sponsor presentations that kept to the script
  • Superb refreshments, with thanks to Igloo and Interact Intranet, and the Radisson kitchens
  • Time-keeping to within 5 minutes of schedule throughout the day.
  • Good space close to the main conference room for breakout sessions and networking.
  • A post-conference bar session sponsored by the Digital Workplace Group

At the end of the wrap session that Sam Marshall and I chaired I asked delegates how many would be coming back next year, and everyone put their hand up. I then asked how many would recommend the conference to others and again everyone put their hand up. Now that’s a success metric!  Was everything perfect? No. The delegate badges kept turning back to front. The challenge Wedge and Brian now face is how to scale the conference whilst maintaining the unconference element. I am certain that they will succeed because the UK intranet community will be totally supportive of this entrepreneurial venture. In my career in the intranet business only the Step Two intranet conferences have been in the same league

Finally Wedge and Brian announced that the conference was instituting an award to someone who had made a remarkable contribution to intranets. To my total surprise I was the recipient. Seldom am I lost for words, but on this occasion that was certainly the case. Thank you so much.

I have also written reports on the morning and afternoon sessions of the conference

Martin White


Intertwingled – a new book from Peter Morville

Water is a very strange chemical. Most people see it as a colourless liquid that is essential to life. As a chemist I am fascinated by its physical and chemical properties and how these give water its distinctive features. After all solid water floats on liquid water. Do you know why? Take a look at the Wikipedia entry for water and I think you will see what I mean. Over forty years ago I moved from chemical science to information science and have never regretted it. As you start to look carefully at information you begin to understand the vast scope of information science and how information, like water, is essential to life. That is not an overstatement. Your DNA, the information about everything you are, is based around the information in a unique coded sequence of just four different amino acids.

Very few people have attempted to explain why and how we create information, and how and why we use it. Alex Wright, James Gleick and Luciano Floridi have made important contributions and now they are joined by Peter Morville with Intertwingled. This book will not help you build a better enterprise social network or design a new information architecture for your website. The key to understanding why you should read Intertwingled is the tag line of “Information Changes Everything”. Peter seeks to explain why this is so and what the implications are for originators and users of information.  He takes the reader on a journey that is only matched by a London taxi driver explaining the street architecture of London and getting you to a destination by a route you will certainly enjoy but would never have thought of using. Along the way you will see both familiar and unfamiliar buildings and spaces.

So it is with this book. I’m not even going to list out the chapter headings. You won’t understand them out of context and you don’t need them to understand the book or justify its purchase. It is a intertwining of Peter’s personal and professional journeys. I know just why he wrote it and have great admiration for his generosity in doing so. This could not have been an easy book to write. It is written by someone with the gifts of a renaissance writer, able to bring together seemingly very disparate elements in creating an illuminating (though not illuminated!) manuscript. You should plan on reading this book several times at the outset of your ownership, and then again at intervals in the future. It will make you think time and time again about how you are using information to communicate and inform and whether there is a better way.  Indirectly you may well end up with a better social network or information architecture.

Peter draws on the work of many writers, thinkers and practitioners in his journey through a world of intertwingled facets of information. I strongly recommend you take the journey with him. So many of us live in the information silos we have created for ourselves, each a “sceptred isle”.  This book will offer you a different perspective on everything that you do because information changes everything.

Martin White