Column: Does this intranet belong to you, sir?

The question 'who owns the Internet' has been asked over and over. Perhaps more to the point today is who owns the intranet?

The question "who owns the Internet?" has been asked over and over. Nobody, really ... it is a loose confederation of inter-connected networks. The question of the moment, for many organisations, is "who owns the intranet"? Like other empowering technologies, such as geographic information systems, intranets provide a model for the decentralisation of responsibilities within an organisation. Staff members can create and publish information for dissemination to others within the organisation. In theory, great. In practice, a nightmare. Issues such as standards, maintenance, indexing, prioritising and quality control all enter into the equation. Who should be responsible for all of this?

Traditionally, it is the IT people who keep track of all computer-related initiatives. They look after the PCs, load application software, keep the printers going and so forth. But the IT group usually doesn't deal with issues of content. The closest they get is guidelines on directory management and file naming conventions. Issues such as indexing and quality control are over and above the call of duty.

At last month's Internet/intranet Expo in Auckland, intranet workshop attendees were asked what were their top three concerns about implementing an intranet. Overwhelmingly the responses dealt with "soft" issues like planning, quality control, management and training. Technical concerns were almost non-existent. Managers wanted to understand how to make the business case, keep the project under control and make sure that the system was being used effectively.

But given that the management of the intranet infrastructure will still reside with IT, who will take control of content, standards and indexing? What skills are required? Usually, organisational standards are developed by upper-level management. Standards for letters, proposals, reports, presentations and so on are a function of corporate culture. Controls over the corporate intranet will also be a function of corporate culture. More importantly, controls will be a function of the purpose of the intranet. If the reasons for developing an intranet are clear-cut and well-defined, chances are that issues such as standards and quality control will be fairly easy to define. But if the intranet gets implemented on an ad hoc basis, quality and standards will be ad hoc as well.

Another issue which will come to the forefront is indexing and summarisation of content. It is all well and good to develop content, but the documents must be indexed as well, otherwise users will not find them. Again, is it the responsibility of the author to index the document or should there be a centralised indexing facility to ensure standardisation. These questions can only be resolved by a very close examination of the resources available and the ramifications of decentralised management.

In summary, managing an intranet is more like managing a newspaper, library, publishing house and design shop all rolled into one as opposed to a computer network. Different skills than usually reside in the IT group are required. And most importantly standards, once defined, must be adhered to, otherwise the system will quickly become a vast junkyard of data.

Who owns the intranet? Ultimately it is the person who pays for it. So the person who signs the cheques must give out clear direction as to what uses the intranet is applied. It is not up to IT, marketing, sales, or human resources to define the intranet's role in the organisation. It must come from the top. Upper-level management has to grasp the concepts and provide direction. Otherwise the focus of the project will diffuse. Staff can carry out the work, but ownership and the responsibilities that come with it, reside at the top.

(Parent is an Internet consultant at Auckland-based Creative Data. Contact him via the Creative Data Web site (http://www.cd.co.nz/cd) or email him at pjp@iprolink.co.nz.)

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