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  Intranet Communities?
What special considerations are related to intranet communities? My team is tasked with building communities for the service delivery audience. Our vision to create a single access point (portal is a four-letter word) for all service and technical product information. Our hope is that communities will foster a collaborative environment (without collaboration tools) where individuals will share solutions and experiences -- basically, optimizing their tacit knowledge.

This is a great question, thank you so much for asking it.

An intranet community is similar to its counterpart, the public community, with the difference lying within the means of access. Intranets are basically web sites which are accessed from within an organization's own network, often protected by a firewall if they are indeed at all connected to external networks such as the Internet.

An intranet is also distinctly different from a web site in that it relies to a large extent on pre-existing structures which are organizational in nature. Thus, departmental set ups, organizational hierarchies, and physical sub-divisions often will form the basis of the intranet structure. Intranet developers will often have to provide at least comparable analogues in their intranet system, if not exact replications of those real-world distinctions. It makes sense to do so in the intranet environment where consistency with reality is important, whereas it would most likely not make sense from the extranet or internet point of view.

Another key difference in an intranet environment is often the need for multiple content producers and means of producing content. Often the content of an internet web site is provided by a single individual as a webmaster or group of individuals as content producers. More often than not, an intranet has a much more complex structure of content production, ranging from individual users' own contributions in the form of day-to-day communication to the intranet administrator's overall guidance of the intranet and its content.

Lastly, and perhaps crucially, since intranets are likely to be seen day-in-day-out by users, the freshness and relevance of the content is paramount. Whilst organization web sites are not seen by employees every single day, their intranet will be. So, careful consideration of the topicality of content must be made - an intranet that is perpetually out of date or seemingly not being updated will quickly lose the interest of it users.

With that definition and those features in mind, it is important to carefully consider the purpose of providing an intranet for its specified users. This means establishing clear goals for the site and its offerings as well as being clear as to a) who will provide content and b) how they will do so. For example, in the case of service and technical product information, an indexed library structure would be essential to allow for ease of downloading by users at their convenience and in a consistent manner. The library should be easily administered, allowing those that oversee it to upload new documents or amended documents as the information changes. Users too should be provided with the means to suggest library additions or modifications, if not the ability to upload new documents.

Our question implies that the intranet should provide a venue for collaboration, without collaboration tools as such. Collaboration comes in many formats from the casual to the more formal, with more or less reliance on distinct tools or features. These might range from an interactive calendar where users can post meetings and events, to shared information databases (for example, for sales leads or contacts) which users can access and modify to further collaborative efforts.

Some of the best forms of collaboration do involve some form of tool or venue where users can participate in an active exchange of ideas - much like the casual conversations around the water cooler or in an office corridor. In those real-world analogues, there is no tool as such, just a venue which provides access to the informal knowledge management which exists in any organization. On a more formal basis within an intranet, the same could be accomplished by adding a message board facility where your users can post their comments, suggestions or questions in order to gain responses or information in a suitably engaging and efficient environment. A message board, especially when it employs a powerful search function and intuitive topic structure, forms an ever-growing resource and source of knowledge. A visit to the support message boards on, for example, many software developers' web sites will confirm this - they become a first stop for any users requiring technical assistance or simply wishing to share. Peer-to-peer assistance via a message board is a powerful tool for collaboration.

Similarly cost-effective and powerful, chat rooms can form powerful tools for information sharing and collaboration. A chat room can be utilized by your users to hold regular online meetings that produce transcripts that can be later uploaded to your document library as a resource - remaining available for those unable to attend or for review by those who did. In addition, both formal and informal training can be delivered via online chat, which is especially helpful when users are spread out geographically, and/or where there are cost or practical limits to classroom training.

Whichever way your intranet is established it is important to take the following questions into consideration:

- How will the intranet assist our users and what do we hope they will gain from having access?

- What would we like it accomplish with our intranet?

- How will we promote the usage of our intranet? What is going to keep users coming back to it?

- What type of features do we wish to provide? Do we need explicit or implicit forms of collaboration?

- How will these features be managed and by whom? To what extent will members of the organization be able to direct and provide the content for the intranet? How will that content be moderated/monitored if at all?

As we mentioned earlier, since an intranet community is much like a public community, you may wish to consider the following past answers given regarding establishing community"

What Makes A Successful Community?

New Site Community?

We do hope this has been helpful and again, we thank you for posing your question!

- Jon Nix and Pam Thomas
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