Thursday, 26 February 2009

Freehills - how to create a classy intranet with a laughably small amount of time and money

Yesterday I attended the NSW KM Roundtable, which is always good value for ideas and networking. The absolute standout presentation for me was how Freehills put together a fantastic intranet using Sharepoint within 9 months. I nearly fell over when I heard how little it cost them despite having both a usability consultant and professional sharepoint developers.

So how did they pull it off? Here's a few points.

  • They engaged a usability consultant (Janders Dean) with expertise in law firm intranets because they couldn't engage their lawyers in user consultation (not billable hours you know!)
  • They determined that phase 1 would be a fairly shallow intranet that really focused on core information and they refused to be distracted by Sharepoint's bells and whistles.
  • The Sharepoint consultants, usability consultant, Freehills IT folk and the KM folk all co-located for the duration of the project. This cut out the time-consuming process of the consultants taking the spec, going away, building it and then coming back to present it and request changes/clarification. They could spec directly with the writer of the spec for any clarfication they needed and show them the progress of the model before they got too far down the wrong track.
  • The final result had to be so easy to use that no user training was required.

So what did the final product look like? Not Sharepoint, that's for sure. With the exception of a small amount of news and navigation on either side of the screen, the front page looks like Google. That's right, lots of white space with a big search box in the middle. The aim is to encourage searching over browsing.

That said, the structure of the content is great, and based around function rather than organisation structure. There is a "How Do I?" section for forms, policies etc. There is also both a "white pages" AND a "yellow pages" directory - so it's easy to work out who to call eg when the aircon breaks down. There is a company page that is kept rigorously up to date with information on board members, financial situation etc (this was in response to a perceived lack of transparency around business processes). The front page also has constantly updated company and external news AND a regularly updated mulimedia presentation. Oh, and most importantly it has a "Did you find what you were looking for?" link to solicit feedback on improvements.

The most important lesson from their consultants was to make sure you had a vision of the future while designing the first phase. Sharepoint is very flexible, but the way you design an element in phase 1 WILL affect your ability to scale/expand its functionality in the future. If you want to continue to grow the intranet over the next 5 or more years, you have to be thinking about how you want to do that from day 1. The value of their usability consultant was to show them the potential of the technology and challenge them to think of ways to improve efficiency that they didn't even think were possible. Amazing stuff.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Media companies realising new media is well and truly here.

Just thought I'd share this quote from an article in the Australian Financial Review, "Opportunities in a mix of old and new" (17/2/09, p31). It's from Caroline Little, CEO of Guardian News and Media North America.

"Multimedia platforms are no longer the future, they are here and the focus is not necessarily to preserve newspapers, but to preserve core journalism values while stretching out into the new media."

The article discusses how businesses see the incredible potential of the new media landscape but are "struggling to turn unprecedented reach and audience into revenue streams". AFR is certainly one of the more backwards examples, with all of their content locked behind a subscriber wall with an astronomical price tag attached (as most of you would have discovered if you clicked on my link above). Are THEY feeling challenged?

I've spent the last few days writing an article on these very issues within the general publishing world, drawing on Sherman Young's analysis of the core values of the book. It also gave me the opportunity to really mull over and draw from Sarah Lloyd's article "A book publisher's manifesto for the 21st century". I think this will be a defining work for publishers looking to the next generation of publishing. My article may not be quite so seminal, but I'm reasonably happy with it and it will probably appear in a Wolters Kluwer publication later this year.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Metadata out of control - not a pretty sight

One of my projects for the next few months is to develop a collection of business-related resources in Sharepoint. For those of you unfamiliar with Sharepoint, Microsoft itself describes SharePoint as Collaboration, Portal, Search, Enterprise Content Management (ECM) , Business process management (BPM) and Business intelligence (BI) (thankyou AIIM for that definition).

My business development collection is just one part of a larger process of rolling Sharepoint out across the company. And high on my personal agenda is to ensure there are appropriate guidelines to ensure a consistent approach to metadata across all teamsites (ie make sure we have consistent titles and subject terms etc for documents loaded into Sharepoint).

You don't have to look far to see how messy an inconsistent approach to metadata can get - just check out my "tag" list to the left. There's probably about 40 tags, some of which I remember to use consistently and many which I don't (meaning that if there are multiple posts on a topic they may not all appear under the relevant tag). Plus it doesn't look very appealing at all. And this is after only a few months of active blog posting by one person. Can you imagine what a collection with multiple contributors might look like after a year or two?

Now I am actually a pretty big fan of tagging items with as many relevant terms as possible, a la Delicious. But it helps to think about consistency as you go - tag with either "blog" or "blogs", or you'll end up with two separate collections which defeats the purpose. OR you tag with both so people can find them, but then that's extra work (not much, but it all adds up). And the graphic interface of Delicious is a big help in searching through the collection.

Sharepoint out of the box is not as flexible as Delicious and may not compensate quite so effectively for metadata shortfalls. While I haven't had much actual experience with it yet, I'm anticipating its metadata will be presented in a manner closer to my blog tag list - ie in a big list without Delicious' ability to combine and filter tags. So we're back to that big mess again - unless we get in early with some appropriate standards.

My next steps? Clean up my blog tags (sigh) and come up with a few standards for them. Then continue to establish and promote some standards for Sharepoint metadata within our company. I'll also be spending some time reading Mark Schneider's Sharepoint Taxonomy and Governance blog, which looks like it will be a good resource!

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Featured in Law Librarian News...

Thanks to Sean and Joy from Law Librarian News who listed me as an interesting read in their latest edition. This is a real honour as I'm a long time reader of Practice Source.

Speaking of Law Librarian News, readers may remember that there was an article in the December edition on an upcoming CCH whitepaper, Professionals and Web 2.0. This whitepaper is now available from the CCH website - check it out!

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Information alone is not valuable - targeted information is

Don't you love how patterns form from random things? A sample of four or so blogs and articles I read over the last week lead to this epiphany for me.

Item 1:
Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 blogged on "The declining value of redundant news content on the web". He takes an example of a news story about Google that currently has 2000 separate articles tracked on Google News - and how for most of those 2000 journalists the cost of commenting and reproducing the news will not be matched by return readership, simply because there are so many other versions to read.

Item 1.5:
Sean from House of Butter observes in the context of the legal industry that while excessively duplicated news has little value, "Human editors specialising in a segment(s) of the legal industry will we think still find favour with time poor readers".

Item 2:
Hal Varian of Google was recently interviewed by the McKinsey Quarterly. There are heaps of interesting insights in the interview, but here are two that stood out for me:

We have to look at today’s economy and say, “What is it that’s really
scarce in the Internet economy?” And the answer is attention. [Psychologist]
Herb Simon recognized this many years ago. He said, “A wealth of information
creates a poverty of attention.” So being able to capture someone’s attention at
the right time is a very valuable asset.....

I keep saying the sexy job in the next ten years will be
statisticians. People think I’m joking, but who would’ve guessed that computer
engineers would’ve
been the sexy job of the 1990s? The ability to take data—to be able to
understand it, to process it, to extract value from it, to visualize it, to
communicate it—that’s going to be a hugely important skill in the next

Sensing a theme here? Information hasn't got much value when it's just floating around out there. In fact it can have negative value -the cost of "publishing" it may outweigh the return (even on the internet!). But information that reaches the right person at the exact time they need it, thus capturing their attention - that's where the money is.

Dave Weinberger recognised this in Item 3, "Everything is Miscellaneous" (p223-4):

Miscellanized information is informaiton without borders. That means we've
been misleading CEOs for the past fifteen years by drumming into their heads
that every business is an information business. Of course information is central
to businesses, but business's reflex action has been to wall off what they know
as if it were gold. Now that information is being commoditized, it has more
value if it's set free into the miscellaneous. For example, airlines do better
when their prorietary scheduling and pricing information is made available to
travel sites...It gains even more value when innovators can combine it with
other data..."

Statisticians, innovators, librarians, publishers - whatever title you want to use, these are the people who can collect and present information in a meaningful way, at the right time, to the right people. And it is that skill that will be valuable, and valued, in the information economy of the future.