Finding Intranet Solutions: Do You Know The Way To San Jose?

There is nothing quite as daunting as the prospect of spending over ten hours in a 747 flying from London to San Francisco and then driving thirty miles south down 101 to get to the Santa Clara Convention Center. Note that I arrive at San Francisco at around midnight according to my body clock and that in the UK we have a preference for driving on the other side of the road. However, once again this year, it was well worth the effort and risk to attend the KM World & Intranets 2003 Conference and Exposition, co-produced by the parent company of this magazine, Information Today Inc. The conference site provides links to some, but by no means all, of the presentations given at the conference and no doubt that reading a presentation is no substitute for being there. I want to reflect on three of the presentations that were given and the issues they raised for intranet managers.

The conference includes a broad range of pre-conference workshops. This year I attended a half-day seminar on usability testing given by Darlene Fichter (University of Saskatchewan) and Frank Cervone (Northwestern University), which was one of the best managed workshops I have ever experienced. The presenters emphasized the differences between intranet and Web site users: Intranet users are primarily expert users and don't want fluff. In addition they are diverse in their experience, usage patterns, and the nature of their work. This workshop was the first time I had heard the expression "search accelerators," which means navigation techniques to bypass the fluff and get to actionable information.

There were a number of other usability presentations in the main conference, and talking to delegates it was clear that usability was very much on the agenda at present. It needs to be. One intranet I looked at in the UK used 10 point Arial text on a black background with a very long sentence length. It was virtually unreadable and hence, unusable. Time and time again I find that organizations fail to carry out even the most basic of usability tests often because they have not allowed for time to undertake the tests at the design stage. If staff cannot use an intranet effectively they rarely complain; they just find a work-around, which is usually through sending an email or making a telephone call.

Much in evidence at Intranets 2003 was a little something I call PPIs: Power Point Intranets, which are the edited versions of real intranets used in presentations. This goes to the heart of one of the fundamental problems of any intranet conference—how can an intranet really be demonstrated without compromising the commercial interests of the organization? I have no immediate answer for this; it seems to be a problem without a solution.

Well, almost. One of the best attended sessions of the conference took place after the main sessions had ended. Hosted with great skill by Elton Billings, it consisted of a number of live presentations of real intranets, with the presenters ready to answer questions about what they had got wrong as well as the things that went right. Without this level of bravery intranets simply won't evolve because no venue exits to share successes and the failures from which others will learn. A related problem is that the sheer diversity and scale of an intranet means that even a 30-minute presentation cannot do justice to even a modest intranet.

In my view perhaps the best paper of the conference was given by Joshua Duhl, a Research Director at IDC on the subject of content integration: the how of bringing together information from a range of different sources. Some of the examples Duhl gave included content integrators such as Factiva and OneSource, desktop integration through Microsoft Office 2003, integration through a search engine, using a portal, and many more.

I have to admit I had not given much thought to the importance of content integration and the range of tools becoming available until I heard this presentation. It was a classic example of how just one paper justified the epic trek to Santa Clara. Duhl made the point that in considering content integration it is essential to think of just what the task is, whether integration is to be performed at the back end, in middleware or the front end, and how important a taxonomy is to support the integration.

I can't drive down 101 without singing the Dionne Warwick hit, Do You Know the Way to San Jose. This year, as in those previous, the drive was worth it. However delegate numbers were not as high as I'd hoped, much the same as the December London Online Information conference. Travel budgets remain tight and yet, for intranets in particular, the need for managers to gain ideas and techniques is essential. So start saving for the 2004 conference now. (P.S. I don't get a sales commission from Information Today.)