Who owns the intranet?

As the popularity of intranets increased, and with it the involvement of more departments and sections within companies, it was clear to see who owns the intranet, with respect to the structure and content of the intranet.  But, who really owns the intranet?

Intranets often start with organic and occasionally chaotic growth, but companies should plan, structure and manage their intranet. For a few years, the question has been raised about governance. From the German Wikipedia entry:

Governance (from the French gouverner, “manage, direct, educate”, from the Latin gubernare  […] It is often used in the sense of control or regulation within any organisation (such as a company).

(Emphasis added.)

Intranet systems were cumbersome and difficult to use until just a few years ago, they were time consuming to implement and maintain, and were extremely expensive. The corporate communications departments in many companies took on the responsibility for the planning, administration and management of their intranet. An intranet was increasingly important for enterprise communications, and the corporate communications department had the budget to spend on it. This made it clear that the intranet belonged to the corporate communications department.

Who pays, orders. – Old proverb

In other companies, the intranet occasionally belonged to IT, or Human Relations.

James Robertson identified four options for intranet ownership in 2004, which, in my opinion, were still accurate in 2010.

Option 1: IT
Option 2: Communications
Option 3: Human resources
Option 4: IM (information management) or KM (knowledge management)

Costs were partly distributed to the various departments through a pay-as-you-go process, sometimes with complicated formulas (with factors like the number of employees, number of pages in the department’s section of the intranet, administrative costs per user and per page, and more). But usually corporate communications still “owned” the intranet. However, other departments increasingly claimed the intranet, both for use (e.g. creating content) as well as specifying its functions. When there was an organizational department for example, they regularly claimed that the intranet had the ability to manage documentation.

When an intranet relaunch was planned, various stakeholders usually had representatives in the project group, and especially in the steering committee. The project was then used to define all the functionality and capabilities of the relaunched intranet, as well as the pay-as-you-go process for the coming years. Those who made the decisions (often who had the budget or political clout), secured their interests until the next relaunch.

Typically, as the system was used, questions and new requirements were constantly being raised, affecting the content, structure, infrastructure and the functionality of the intranet. Sooner or later, an “intranet steering committee” was established to meet regularly and decide on changes. Even in this permanent steering committee, there was usually a power struggle between departments, always breaking the committee into political groups. This was often the reason why corporate communications still owned the intranet.

In order to get rid of the constant individual decisions and political friction, and to reduce both administration and effort, increasingly companies are establishing a type of “intranet constitution”, or intranet governance.

Simply put, governance defines an intranet’s ownership and management model and structure including the:

  • Management team
  • Roles & responsibilities of contributors
  • Decision making process
  • Policies & standards

(Intranet Governance: Ownership, Management & Policy )

Toby Ward sees the necessity for an intranet governance to prevent these “politics” which constantly create friction:

Politics will kill your intranet. Without a well defined governance model (and should your intranet survive the naturally occurring politics of competing priorities amongst various stakeholders – communications, IT, human resources, various business units, etc.) then the value the intranet or portal delivers will be severely hampered.

He proposed the following four governance models:

  • Decentralized (no single owner; do-what-you-like)
  • Centralized a single owner or department controls it all; highly bureaucratic; common in small organizations)
  • Collaborative (shared ownership via committee)
  • Hybrid, centralized (single owner, with collaborative accountability, decentralized content ownership)

The first model rarely exists in companies these days, but the other three are still regularly used.

Jane McConnell, known for her annual report (previously Intranet, then Digital Workplace, and now “The Organization in the Digital Age”), has identified five models:

  1. Single-owner – usually Communication or IT, but sometimes HR or Marketing. No reference to stakeholders in these responses.
  2. Co-owned – almost always Communication and IT. Ditto re stakeholders: no mention of them.
  3. Triangle – 2 owners with one major stakeholder (e.g. Communication, IT, with HR as “the major stakeholder”). The reference to “a major stakeholder” suggests to me that this stakeholder is as important as the owners, in the minds of the intranet teams
  4. Single or co-owned, but strong importance given to multiple stakeholders (the businesses, for example). This feels quite different from the previous response because there’s a sense of “we the team are working for many other managers”.
  5. Informal committee, informal joint ownership – agreement-based, consensus-driven, no strong sense of ownership or territory

(Intranet ownership: 5 “mental models”)

The common models of intranet ownership are ultimately:

  • Centralized in one organizational unit (or a few organizational units).
  • Centralized with delegated responsibilities (specified by intranet governance regulations).
  • Collaborative across multiple organizational units.
  • Collaborative with delegated responsibilities (specified by intranet governance regulations).

McConnell mentioned “stakeholders” as early as 2009, when the “digital workplace” was almost unheard of. The more widespread the intranet usage is in a company, the more stakeholders there are. In many companies, this would include almost all employees. Even companies with production employees try to include them in the intranet.

The idea of stakeholders leads to the understanding that they are not just users, but also those who make decisions about the acceptance and usage of the system.

Tim Eisenhauer doesn’t use the term “stakeholders”, but instead “community members”, when talking about who should “own” the intranet:

Instead, it’s often more effective to use a collaborative model, based on the concept of shared ownership between community members.

(Intranet Governance – What is it? Who are the players? Best practices?)

The tendency of companies is now to take into account the various users and uses of their intranet (or digital workplace), and establish it as an institution. For example, by establishing a permanent body such as a steering committee, with representatives from all of the various interested parties (employee representatives or workers’ council, or distributed employees), or by creating a new independent organizational unit. The steering committee or new unit then takes responsibility for the intranet (and is assigned their own budget).

The goal is that the intranet is not owned by one single department or group of departments, but instead by the stakeholders who together control and manage their intranet.

  • Collaborative through multiple stakeholders.

It is most important to have governance, to clearly define who is responsible for what, the roles, processes, rules and standards.

The original article “Wem gehört das Intranet?” was published in German by Frank Hamm.

Frank HammFrank Hamm is a consultant for communication and collaboration who supports companies in their digital transformation. He has written for INJELEA-Blog about social business, intranets, enterprise 2.0 and company communication practices since 2005. Frank is an avowed nexialist and writes about this at Der Schreibende.

You can find more articles by Frank Hamm in our intranet special.

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