Originally published in Intranet Journal (18-Nov-2003)
When you walk around a company's office building you'll notice something obvious: design uniformity. The carpeting, wall color, cubicle partitions, and furniture look the same from one department to the next. And because of this uniformity, we know that each individual department is only a piece of a larger whole. The huge sign outside with the company's name on it is also a dead giveaway.
An office building's façade acts as a gateway—a starting point—leading visitors into the multi-departmental interior. Similarly, your corporate intranet should act as a portal that enables users to access the various internal sub-sites. And as a portal, there needs to be an overall sense of unity.
I'm not implying that every sub-site should be identical to its siblings; they should each be allowed to implement department or discipline specific functionality. However, don't forget that the goal of most corporate intranets is to consolidate, not fragment, all the internal sub-sites into a single, top-level portal. The last thing you want is to have to maintain a dozen disparate mini-systems that seem to have no relationship with any of the other sites.
Standardization of multiple sites will depend on the size of each individual component, the corporate intranet vision, and the basic business requirements of the company. But in order to successfully combine all these diverse sub-sites into one cohesive, unified portal, you need to:
Most large office buildings have common facilities that are shared among all employees such as elevators, washrooms, and the cafeteria. But can you imagine what would happen if, instead of sharing these communal resources, each department set up and built their own dedicated set of facilities?
The building would not only be an incredible waste of material and resources, but it would also end up being about five times larger than it needs to be and rival a small New England town where employees search frantically for signs to help them find their way back to their desks.
Although this is a highly unlikely scenario, it's precisely what will happen if every sub-site decided to implement its own design with little consideration for the overall corporate intranet vision.
By adopting an intranet into your corporate business culture, you should aim to have it act as more than just a launching pad for independent sites—it should merge all of these sites into a singular environment.
While each individual sub-site will have unique attributes applicable only to their discipline, they should all share certain communal corporate resources—search engine, navigational system, site map—instead of duplicating what's already available.
An intranet's navigational structure is the primary mechanism that enables a user to navigate and locate specific pieces of information—it allows them to get from one point to the next without forcing them to wander around hopelessly lost and in a daze.
But the irony with navigational systems is that they can lead users astray as much as they can help them find what they're looking for. And this is especially true when you try to consolidate multiple sub-sites—all of which have different owners with their personal ideas as to the best navigational solution.
The most commonly found problem with large multi-owner intranets is the "floating menu"—menus that appear in different locations from one site to the next. If users expect to see a left-hand sided dropdown menu, it's crucial to keep this consistent throughout and not change it to a static menu that shuffles its way to the right somewhere between Point A and Point B.
The content of the menu options may be different depending on the department or discipline, but the design and layout must be the same—menu consistency and location are key.
It's also worthwhile to mention that sub-sites with similar menu options should be:
If every department had carte blanche over the design of their office space and sourced their furniture and equipment from different suppliers, you would wind up with an incongruous patchwork or color and form. And you would begin to doubt if they're all really part of the same company.
Individual sub-sites that exist under the umbrella of a corporate intranet need to share the same brand, not dozens of distinct brands. It can mirror the corporate image or, better yet, it can be a uniquely designed brand that's easily identifiable as the intranet's "look."
Your goal here is to maintain a uniform system brand that promotes instant intranet recognition—so that users can take one look, regardless of which sub-site they're in, and say, "Yes, this is part of the same site."
Let's take EarthWeb, the network of sites that's home to Intranet Journal and other IT-related sites, as an example. As you navigate your way through each of EarthWeb's sites you'll notice a uniformity of design and navigation. Whether you're in Intranet Journal, Hardware Central, or eSecurity Planet, there's no doubt that you're in the EarthWeb network.
Notice how similar colors are used along with the EarthWeb logo to identify each sub-site as a member of the larger EarthWeb network. Meanwhile, each site contains a unique logo that makes it easy for users to identify the site they're in, with quick links at the top of the banner representing the other sites.
By maintaining a single consistent design, the process of site-wide updating will also be greatly simplified and can even be automated with the use of scripts that can modify the entire site in one pass. If every department maintained their own standard, each branch would need to be manually updated.
The longer an intranet exists, the easier it will be for one or multiple sub-sites to drift away for the corporate intranet standard so it's important to actively enforce them.
There are two main ways to ensure that your corporate intranet doesn't stray too far over the years:
Most intranets begin as a scattering of pre-existing departmental sites that are eventually merged to form this huge corporate portal. And as a result of having all these different site owners with their proverbial hands in the pot, it may be difficult to get everyone to agree on a single corporate standard. This includes, to some extent, the standardization of technology—trying to manage the mishmash of Oracle, MS-Access, DB2, MySQL, ASP, JSP, and Perl.
As is the case with the unification of multiple systems into one, there will be times when you're forced to compromise between maintaining a corporate intranet standard and allowing each sub-site to implement unique functionality and design.
But if a particular departmental site differs too greatly and is unable to fit into the overall corporate structure without a fair amount of effort, you'll need to decide whether it's worthwhile to expend the effort to make it conform, simply provide a link to that site, or allow it to function as an independent entity outside of the corporate intranet.
Standardization is a give and take process; don't expect to reach a consensus in one sitting. Every site owner will have their own opinion on how things should be done, but decisions must be based on the good of the whole and not on any one sub-site.
Copyright © 2003 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
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