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by Barbara Solomon
All intranet efforts start out with the best intentions. Organizations envision an information hub for their community made up of easy to find websites that are simple to create and maintain. A one-stop shop for all their information needs, if you will. Many of these efforts fail, causing the end users to shudder at the mere mention of such an attempt again. And for government organizations, there are additional challenges when creating an intranet as part of a Digital Government Strategy. This got me thinking about the top three challenges public sector agencies are facing with intranet efforts:
1. Technology enables content proliferation without organization
The most commonly available technology in this space makes it very easy to spin up content that, in turn, creates pretty links to -- you guessed it -- yet more content. As if that weren’t bad enough, the search utilities which accompany most intranets (and indeed most communities generally) are woefully inadequate to assist users in finding the content they seek.
The next thing you know you have an unwieldy beast that lacks a consistent user interface and contains next to impossible to find content. This rapid proliferation of content with no consistent guidelines, design standards or a structured database underneath it can defeat the purpose of such an effort, killing productivity -- and most likely the entire project.
2. Security, Security, Security
It is only natural that a system meant to share information in a world where information has to be protected is a very real concern. The intranet has to be locked down tight to the outside world where necessary and users must be managed according to their appropriate level of access; people must only be able to see, contribute, and share things they are authorized to. It gets even more complicated when intra-agency communication is desired, so not quite to the outside world, but not just to those particular agencies. When creating and maintaining an intranet is already challenging at times, adding security can be completely overwhelming and maybe even paralyzing. Unfortunately, many times the necessary permission structure isn’t thought through until late in the launch process which can create a security and permission management nightmare.
3. Keeping up with the constant evolution of intranet technology
Forums, message boards, Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, microblogs, Tumblr, user groups, communities of practices… So many ways to communicate and share. How do you keep up? To stay ahead of the proliferation isn’t just taming the lack of organization we spoke about earlier, it’s also about not making the evolution of your intranet beyond painful. Once that happens, you will risk your users going elsewhere, and when they start going to public places like Facebook or LinkedIn, security is completely out of your control.
Drupal, an open-source Content Management System, is often chosen to help power public sector websites, because it helps keep the information and content vital to the website organized, well structured, and easy to use and reuse. It also allows for the consistent creation of websites through theming. In a sector that is naturally rich with content and structured in such a way that the flow of information is already determined, it makes sense that so many use Drupal to help them corral and distribute it. So why not take it one step further than a website, and do what many in the technology sector themselves have already done, and build a community with Drupal. In addition, Drupal is very secure, used by many public sector organizations as well as many in commercial enterprise.
Many public sector organizations have already adopted Drupal, sometimes managing the technology internally or sometimes with the help of a company like Acquia, which offers Drupal Commons. Drupal Commons is a special Distribution of Drupal designed for rapid deployment communities of all types which can then be customized to meet an organizations specific needs. Because Commons is open source, the communities built on it can be customized at the speed of the web to meet organizations' ever-evolving needs.
Drupal as I mentioned is open source and one of the greatest things about open source is how flexible and agile it is. There are over 29,000 developers actively working on Drupal, so you could say Drupal in and of itself is a community. That is far more than any proprietary software company has working on any one product. For example, when Pinterest sprung on to the scene, there was a Drupal Pinterest capability ready for download for free nearly overnight. The closest proprietary solution took a month and most likely involved an “upgrade.”
So as you plan to launch or upgrade an intranet for your government organization, here are some things to keep in mind.
- Your intranet will generate a ton of great content; make sure your intranet enables users to find what they’re looking for quickly and efficiently. If you don’t, they’ll go elsewhere.
- Make sure you’ve thought through the security needs and the permission structures you’ll need to have in place to allow members to access the appropriate content mix.
- Consider community platforms that make your community’s content an asset which can be reused according to your needs, rather than an administrative nightmare.
The opportunities and potential benefits of government intranets are tremendous; with appropriate planning and the right community platform, those benefits can be realized.