A Radical Reform to Save the Corporate Intranet

Last Updated Jun 11, 2008 3:51 PM EDT

Why is it easier for you and I to share information and find what we are looking for over the Internet than on our corporate Intranet?

One reason: Many Intranets place barriers to contributing or finding information. They often require rigid data entry formats. They don't promote user discussions of the material. They ossify into museums of irrelevant business documents rather than act as living spaces where the talents of members can be tapped to make wiser business decisions.

"It is striking how few opportunities people have to generate, modify, and share information freely and widely on the Intranet," says Harvard Business School professor Andy McAfee in a recent blog entry.

But why?

He advances a theory and a remedy:

People and Information are Deeply Mismatched in Most Organizations
Corporate digital information, McAfee argues, "is either highly structured (customer order records stored in a database), a reflection of the viewpoints and priorities of the formal hierarchy (newsletters), and/or static (document repositories). As a result, this consultable information does not show the current state of the organization as perceived by its members, nor does it accurately represent their views, skills, judgments, experiences, activities, etc."

The result is that Intranets are not designed to inform current decision making, which should be one of its core missions.

Radical Remedy: Create an Emergent, Social Enterprise Information Environment
The solution, says McAfee, is for organizations to create lightly structured information environments where employees can easily contribute without thinking too much about format or headlines or classification. Structure will emerge over time using "linking, tagging, voting, rating, and trading, as well as algorithms that generate recommendations, assess relative popularity, etc."

Check out his advice and feel free to answer his call for comments.

For those of you who use Intranets, what's been your experience? Difficult to use? Worthwhile? How would you fix 'em?

Related reading:

Getting the Most Out of Your Corporare Internet (BNET)

Why Facebook and MySpace Won't Change the Workplace (Harvard Online)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.