Getting Started on Your Intranet


I am increasingly of the opinion that no knowledge management effort can avoid the intranet. It is a vital and central instrument of any large scale knowledge management effort, and the ability to work with and through the corporate intranet is also a test of whether knowledge management can really integrate with the work of an organization, rather than being seen as an ancillary – sometimes distracting – exercise. (This means, by the way, that if KM is just a section of your intranet, you have a long way to go). The intranet is not the only instrument of KM, but it is a critical one.  And so when I saw the announcement of James Robertson’s new book, What Every Intranet Team Should Know, my attention lit up.

This is a long overdue book from James Robertson. For several years, he has been publishing in the form of short articles his luminously clear (and, one suspects, hard won) insights into the complex work behind making intranets functional and useful. He has also been publishing commercially longer reports and developing a range of methodologies, which lie behind the success of his company’s consulting services.

What’s been missing is the big picture, the integrated view, a simple approach to a complex job, presented in one easily comprehended sweep. This book, in just over a hundred beautifully clear pages, provides just that. James Robertson writes like the intranets he advocates: the book is direct, clean, attractive, simple – and above all, useful. 

The insights and the organized way that James presents them are not just applicable to intranets, by the way. There is much here that knowledge managers and information managers can learn about how to approach their own jobs – knowledge management systems and interventions have complexities that go beyond those of intranets, messy as intranets can be, but many of the principles for success are the same – achieving clarity of goals, being ruthless about prioritizing usefulness over bright ideas, recognizing that what people say they want is not necessarily what they need, making sure that your sponsor is positioned to drive success, building relationships, delivering a constant stream of improvements in value to the business.

Some of the insights are strongly put and may seem startling to the intranet novice: for example, he argues that “intranets do not need to be ‘sticky, ‘engaging’ or ‘interesting. They must be useful.” He declares that finding out what people want from their intranet is a futile exercise, because they probably don’t know very much about how intranets work. They know more about their own jobs and the way they use information in that job, and this is what the focus of enquiry should be. “Beware of opinions” he warns – a principle that knowledge managers and taxonomists should also take to heart.

You will not get the answer to all your intranet improvement needs in a book of this size. Treat this book as a launching pad to get you started and to start communicating with your sponsor and stakeholders in how to get started in a principled, well-designed way. James provides references to deeper resources that will help you through the detail of the different areas of work.

Here is the only real drawback of the book, where I am left with a sense of shortcoming. With one exception, James only provides references to material produced by himself and his colleagues. While it is true that he and his company are among the most prolific and comprehensive contributors to current thinking on intranets, he is not the only one, and there are other useful resources out there. Good friend Maish Nichani is just one example close to home.

Indeed, the lack of reference to external resources belies the wider community of thinking and practice around intranets, within which James is an influential thoughtleader. More varied references would help to legitimate this book as sitting at the centre of broadly validated thought and practice, and not simply an individual’s point of view.

Intranets have always been messy work. It is a mark of the skill and experience embodied in this book that it can bring a sense of simplicity and confidence to the enterprise, without in any way over-simplifying. The pointers to more detailed resources help to establish this sense of realism.

And as all good introductions should do, it also leaves us with a much clearer sense of what we need to know. In particular, it left me with an appetite for more detailed guidance on aspects of intranets not yet covered by James and his crew, specifically, the competencies and activities of the intranet team; content migration; supporting collaboration through the intranet. I’m sure it will follow.

I will be recommending this book as standard issue to my clients, and will keep it close to hand. I can think of no better endorsement to give.

8 Comments so far

James Robertson

Hi Patrick, I agree completely with your suggestions on improvements for the book. The lack of references particularly struck me after the book was published.

As is always the way, the effort to get a book out becomes all-consuming. It’s only when a 2nd edition is produced does the author get the chance to make much-needed enhancements…

Thanks, James

Posted on May 25, 2009 at 06:14 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

All-consuming is a mild way of putting it! I received the hard copy at the weekend, and it’s already gone as a gift to a knowledge-thirsty client! This is a great contribution to a strong gap in the market, I’m sure it will sell like hot cakes.

Posted on May 25, 2009 at 07:35 PM | Comment permalink

Nancy White

I was all set to order one, but somehow 89 dollars seems pretty darn steep for the book. Am I cheap or simply unrealistic? As we consider pricing our new book, Digital Habitats: stewarding technology for communities, we were thinking in the 30-40 dollar range and were still worried it would be inaccessible to many (we have deep roots in the NGO/Nonprofit world.)

I’d love a reality check from the rest of you!

Posted on May 30, 2009 at 07:12 AM | Comment permalink

James Robertson

Hi Nancy, pricing is a tricky thing!

On Lulu, the costs of a full-colour book are pretty steep, and they take a cut of the sale price.

B&W hugely slashes the price of production, so that would be the way to go if you want to offer a lower price…

(I would also look at “pricing for value”, rather than on production cost. $40 or $89 is not much in terms of the value in can impart!)

Hope this helps, James

Posted on May 30, 2009 at 07:47 AM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Self publishing tends to up the price above commercial publishers, since either (a) you are taking some risk in burying a bundle of cash upfront in getting stock printed (if you go the traditional printer route) and therefore need to break-even quickly without the commercial publishers’ access to traditional marketing and distribution channels or (b) as James says if you go the print-on-demand route and are selling by online order with mailing costs, the unit cost goes up.

Have you figured out how you are going to produce the book?

As you are also considering accessibility in your pricing, one thing to consider might be different pricing models for different delivery formats or markets - eg ebook version, or overseas licenses sold at locally accessible prices. Look for a print on demand publisher that has access to overseas distribution channels. I have had some contact with but haven’t used them… let me know if you’d like more info about them.

Posted on May 30, 2009 at 11:36 AM | Comment permalink


I do wonder about intranets.. you may need a central space like a starting space. But will it not be distributed conversations in companies too? Not on a central intranet? Does the book talk about that?

Posted on June 01, 2009 at 10:47 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Those distributed conversations will indeed take place but I am increasingly seeing the intranet as the common core around which those conversations orbit, and from which you can reach them. The intranet can even give you visibility into the highlights of what’s happening in those conversations (something we’ve called the “sidewalk effect").

James’ book focuses on the central job of how an intranet team should tackle its role, so doesn’t get into the KM and collaboration possibilities in depth. However the principles he espouses are powerful ones for judging the focus and direction of effort, and many of them can be applied to the KM/collaboration investments as well.

Posted on June 02, 2009 at 09:14 AM | Comment permalink

Nancy White

James and Patrick, thanks for the thoughts and sorry about my slow response. I think I have slow-email disease with the onset of nice weather here in Seattle.

Knowing there is color on the inside answers some of my question - that really raises the costs. Our book is around 7x10 inches, color cover, B&W inside and I’m guessing around 250 pages when the index and ToC are all complete (we are at that stage of editing.) We have chosen to self publish (for a laundry list of reasons - some good, some very silly in hindsight) and are going to use either Createspace or Lighteningsource. 

Accessibility is really important because we all do some or all of our work in the non profit and development sector.  Our alternative is to price the book higher and give away PDFs to our colleagues who can’t afford them. 

Personally, I am not an astute businessperson when it comes to this book stuff - we have poured so much time and love into it, there is no way it will “make money” in the traditional sense. A contribution in some small way we hope.

But this pricing thing is tricky. wink

Posted on June 06, 2009 at 07:34 AM | Comment permalink

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