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Features - Creative Intranets

By Susan DiMattia, Published on August 15, 2002

Susan DiMattia has been editor of Corporate Library Update since its inception ten years ago and Library Hotline for 14 years. She is a frequent contributor to Library Journal. A former bank librarian and business information consultant, she is a past president of the Special Libraries Association and founding member of the Long Island and Fairfield County chapters of SLA. At various times, she has been on the adjunct faculty of the library schools at Long Island University, Pratt Institute, and Southern Connecticut State University.

For more information, see the PowerPoint presentations from the Creative Intranet Applications program presented at the Special Libraries Association 2002 Conference.

"One of the main lessons learned with first-generation web sites is that getting content up on corporate intranets isn't all that hard. Keeping that information current and maintaining it is a constant challenge."

With that statement, Cindy Chick, Information Resources Systems Coordinator at Latham & Watkins law firm in Los Angeles, summarizes an increasingly important challenge facing corporate information specialists.

Nina Platt reinforces the notion of change and dynamism voiced by Chick. "Today, the most powerful law firm library is on each lawyer's desktop…. [T]he centralized paper library is rapidly giving way to a distributed network, where lawyers, staff, and clients share targeted information." Platt is the director of library services for law firm Faegre & Benson, headquartered in Minneapolis.

First Generation

FaegreNet grew out of an internal study and was under development when Platt joined the firm in 1998. Because most of the initial content was to be research oriented, she was given responsibility for the intranet. A primary objective for FaegreNet was the creation of customized practice group research pages that provide access to free Internet sources as well as subscription services with research content. A current awareness service, knowledge-sharing capabilities, and access to information about the resources in the firm's libraries and other internal repositories were also part of the content.

The libraries at Reed Smith started "pumping" for an intranet in 1997, according to Business Research Librarian Robert Sullivan of the Pittsburgh office. By October 1999, the director of systems announced creation of an intranet and decided that the library should post the first pages. The systems analysts provided html coding and overall design; the library provided content, with input on design. After the intranet was launched, several practice groups developed their own sections. Administrative groups also entered content. Sullivan characterizes the current intranet as "the end of the first generational stage, looking at a redesign." There is no one person or group in control of the site. That is one of the first issues for intranet long-range planning to address, Sullivan says, "or the intranet will become a hydra!"

Latham & Watkins was an "early adoptor" - launching an intranet more than six years ago. The firm already had a strong technology platform and a focus of uniting widespread offices using technology. Chick joined the firm two years ago as the first library technology coordinator, charged with maintaining the collection of links as well as other library content. At the same time, the firm's web group was looking to take their first-generation web site to the next level. Chick participated in the design process.

Teamwork/Partnerships

These three law librarians represent a range of involvement in and responsibility for the evolution of their firms' intranets. However, they all stress the value of teamwork, and their experiences and insight are applicable in all types of libraries.

At Reed Smith, the director of libraries reports to the chief information officer. Sullivan recalls a conversation with a systems person who, after the intranet site was underway, declared, "Systems is the King of Technology, while the library is King of Content—we need each other." This recognition of the teamwork required for a successful intranet was a real breakthrough.

"We learn from the technology group," says Chick. "They need us, too, but they may have just come to that realization. It's a good time to take the initiative to work closely with the technology side, because of that awareness." Suggesting that outside help can sometimes be needed as well, Chick advises finding a consultant to help when your time and expertise are limited. Few people can create and sustain a dynamic intranet on their own, she says. Good people on both the library and technology side are required.

In addition to the internal team efforts for creation and maintenance of FaegreNet, Platt describes another very productive partnership. At the time FaegreNet was being created, online vendors were designing a new generation of products. In this environment, the Faegre library staff drew up specifications for innovative ways to integrate news and research, building partnerships with vendors to create new online services for law firms.

Faegre became a test site for West's "Intraclips," a clipping service, and a companion product, Westnewslink, which provides web access to newspapers and periodicals as they are published. Westlaw content appears seamlessly on FaegreNet. Platt's team has also worked with West and Lexis Nexis to build systems for printing cases that eliminate the obstacles of entering user identifications and passwords. Faegre's customized version of WestFind&Print uses authentication through a password pool. A similar partnership with West, focusing on customization and integration of information from a variety of sources, tailored for the research needs of individual practice groups, resulted in a new product line called Westlaw Integrated Solutions, a collection of tools for use in developing customized access to Westlaw content.

Content

Nearly every library page of the Reed Smith site has a "What's New on the Intranet" box and other navigation aids. The other pages are not as uniform, because "administration" pages are not mounted by the library. Each of the firm's legal practices and administrative departments covering 13 offices—11 in the United States, two in Europe—has the capability of mounting its own pages. The intranet includes forms and human resources policies and client-matter information. It also allows people to schedule conference rooms and equipment online. It includes the lunchroom menu and staff birthdays for the week. On one corporate-wide page, all attorneys and staff are listed, with detailed information, including what languages they speak and write, essential information in a global organization. A Logo Shop merchandise list guides staff in selecting gifts for clients and others.

In stage one of the Latham intranet, the web links portion was the first priority in terms of research content. The need for guidance in conducting research was obvious. The "Link Library" is still the second most used area of the intranet. In terms of general content, the most used, and "killer application" for the intranet has been the Facebook - a directory complete with phone numbers and pictures of all employees of the firm. "It's a great application for getting people back to the intranet, usually several times a day," Chick says. Today, research content that is useful enterprise-wide has the highest priority for development. Other priorities are identified based on what the users say they need and want.

Content maintenance had become a big issue by the time Chick arrived at Latham. The web team took a custom, database-driven approach, rather than resorting to the portal and content management systems on the market at the time. Database-driven content offers the best way to keep web content current, providing the option to reuse and customize the information for different parts of the intranet. Information is pulled from a database and displayed on a web page, without intervention by "the web group."

   

Design

"Consistency in navigation is essential," Chick explains. "In most intranets' infancy, there was a notable lack of consistency, as many departments were striking out on their own, doing their own thing." By moving to a template model in the redesign stage, office sites can mount their content with a consistent look and feel while offering some flexibility. That goal of consistent yet dynamic and flexible content is a hallmark of the Latham intranet.

In displaying sample pages from the Reed Smith intranet, Sullivan is very open in his critique of some of the design elements. There is no standardization at Reed Smith between what is put up by the libraries and what is generated by the practice groups. As a result, similar terms may be used in different ways. Core materials are not meaningful across practice groups. The icons used on the library pages don't mean anything to the lawyers, Sullivan admits. He also points out that the Reed Smith site uses a mix of fonts and type sizes, which confuses the user.

Costs

Faegre spent about $40,000 on the server and software needed to develop FaegreNet. In addition, they have a full-time staff of four people who are devoted to FaegreNet and FIDO (Faegre Interactive Documents Online), the firm's knowledge management system. The goal is to improve service and reduce costs to clients by making use of the collective knowledge of the firm. Platt is quick to point out that the staffing level wasn't achieved without a lot of work to convince the firm of the potential value of the intranet. In addition to the staff of four, the research librarians at Faegre participate in application development, current awareness, and maintenance of the research pages.

 

Tips for a Dynamic Intranet 

Create consistency in navigation and look— it's essential

Establish a simple, clean interface that will aid users

Provide meaningful content

Give people the ability to browse and search

Minimize content updating functions

Test before launch—can people use it easily?

Design applications that can meet everyone's needs

Appoint a point person or team for overall responsibility

Foster interdepartmental teamwork

"I honestly have no idea as to the real cost of the intranet," Chick admits, saying that Latham has a substantial number of employees who are completely devoted to developing intranet applications and databases. One key to minimizing costs, in Chick's view, is to make sure that you integrate the collection of the information with normal procedures. "You don't want to duplicate information in a separate location or database and then double the work you have to do to maintain it," she advises. "In terms of keeping staff to a minimum, yet still maintaining fresh content, it is important to consider how you can make available information that you're already collecting in some form."

 

   

Librarians' Intranet Role


Platt articulates the ongoing role of the librarian in sustaining dynamic intranets.

Planner—bringing the organization into the intranet environment

Marketer—understanding segments of the organization and their unique needs

Leader—envisioning and communicating the value of the intranet, guiding management to an understanding that allows the process to move forward.

Risk-taker making decisions with no clear path to follow

Partner—cooperating with users and vendors.

Salesperson the most important role in creating an understanding of the value of an intranet; should consume 50 percent of the effort

 

 

 

Training

Whatever the actual investment in intranets, there is little to no return on that investment if staff do not use it at all or lack the expertise to use it effectively. Successful training efforts vary by organization, but individualized service tends to be most effective.

Once FaegreNet was developed, it went through a test process. Individuals were given tasks to accomplish. The intranet manager watched them navigate the site in order to determine their success in finding the information they were looking for. Several changes were made based on the feedback from usability testing.

Faegre's staff have found that classroom training and conference room demonstrations aren't very successful. Sullivan agrees that group training doesn't work at Reed Smith. Instead, Faegre's librarians have a multilayered approach to training. New attorneys and staff are required to take intranet training as part of their orientation. The library services staff continually attend practice group meetings to demonstrate new resources and to create awareness. Finally, they offer "@YourDesk" training, working with individuals "just in time," at their point of need.

Early in the history of Latham's intranet, a combination of library and technology staffs conducted sessions on how to search the intranet and the Internet as a whole and guided users to content. Group sessions were held for the legal practice groups, such as tax and environment, and for specialized staff groups such as paralegals and secretaries. A great deal of one-on-one training was also offered, particularly as individual attorneys decided it was time for them to learn the intranet. Now, all new associates to the firm, as well as large groups of summer associates, receive at least one hour of intranet orientation during their first week in the firm.

Marketing

Chick views training and marketing as companion efforts in the search for a dynamic, successful intranet. She says the Latham intranet has never been marketed in a strict sense but has been allowed to grow gradually in content and value over the years. In the process it sells itself as a key information resource. "The more information that's published on the intranet, the more necessary it is for employees to use it to get the information they want, whether it's about policies on vacation time or to research a legal issue. The more that employees turn to the intranet and find what they need, the more they'll come back." Chick has not done organized evaluation of intranet use and satisfaction. However, each portion of the intranet has been developed with substantial input from its main user group, and each group continues to be involved in maintaining and updating its site.

An open house to launch FaegreNet was a disappointment. "We found that the excitement we had for the project wasn't shared by all," Platt says. In a continuing effort, over the past three years, the library services staff have made repeat visits to group and department meetings, hosted scavenger hunts, held contests, sent e-mails, written articles for the firm's weekly newsletter, and featured individuals in "FaegreNet: Behind the Scenes" articles in the library newsletter—to show that while the library manages content, they look to contributors throughout the firm to provide that content.

Sullivan says part of his marketing effort involves subtly nudging people toward the intranet. "If someone asks a question, answer it, but then say, 'Did you know you can find this on the intranet.' " The Reed Smith libraries are leading the way in the redesign and rethinking of the intranet. An intranet revision committee was formed earlier this year to evaluate the current status of the intranet and where it needs to go. A questionnaire was sent to all practice groups, using Zoomerang software. Short term changes in the intranet have been implemented while a long term direction and goals are being planned.

Future Challenges

Delivery of intranet content to PDAs is definitely on the horizon, Chick says. "The development that I'd like to see most is the ability to search a wide range of information and resources on the intranet, including web pages, SQL databases, and perhaps even external web sites, in one search." Learning from Amazon and Google, she would like to provide guidance, such as "others that asked for this also asked for that." She also wants to move beyond making people choose which database to search. "That assumes they are aware of the wide range of resources that are available. They shouldn't have to choose a source," says Chick. "The source should choose them, so to speak, based on the search terms that they've used and the information that's available."

"As we move from a printed collection to a more electronic library, we will need to use the intranet to develop that library," Platt says. "We've only begun to figure out the design for the virtual library. As we try to create access to the hybrid library [print and electronic], we have user needs that are not being met. What does that mean for the future of the library? I don't have the answer or even a prediction but I struggle with how we will provide a library experience that will still have meaning for our patrons."

Copyright 2002, Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Library Journal. This article appeared in the July 2002 issue.