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Collaborating or Communicating?

One of the questions I increasingly encounter with intranet governance is when to use team sites (collaboration areas) and when to use publishing sites (‘intranet’ pages). It’s important to be clear about when somethign is still work-in-progress and you want people to make changes (collaboration), and when it is a product that you are disseminating (communication).

A variant is when to put content on a department site vs. the corporate intranet. “What goes where” is a fundamental design decision for any intranet, and somehow SharePoint in particular seems to tie organisations in knots more readily than most.

I’ve found it helps to think of content as a layered pyramid. The higher up the pyramid, the wider the audience so the more governance we need around it.

Without clear governance what typically happens is something like this:

  1. Joe in HR is asked to draft a new paternity leave policy.  He’ll typically keep this on his local drive until he’s ready to show it to others (the bottom pyramid layer).
  2. When he’s worked on it for a while he puts it in a private collaboration area (a team site if it’s SharePoint, but it could equally be any other collaboration tool) and asks a small group of colleagues to contribute to it (the 2nd pyramid layer)
  3. Hopefully they will add some extra sections and revise it until the point where it is ready to be disseminated: version 1.0.This is the point where things can go horribly wrong.
  4. The temptation is to change the permissions on the collaboration area and publish a link to it. But what this does is bring everyone into a working space, and there may well be other working copies or even the draft policy v1.1 that you don’t want people to use by mistake.
  5. Recognising this, Joe may decide that as it’s an HR document, it should go on the HR Department Site (the 3rd pyramid layer). But this has two drawbacks:
  • The HR Department site should be for people working in HR. This means information relevant to everyone gets buried in more specialist content such as updates on employment law.
  • It requires that employees know who produced a document in order to find it. For a paternity policy this may be OK, but what if you want to order a new laptop. Is that IT? Finance? Maybe Procurement? What really needs to happen is for Joe to ask himself where the audience already goes to and publish the document there. As it is aimed at all employees, this would be the company-wide intranet (top of the pyramid). In recognising that publishing step, he is going from a collaboration mode into a publishing mode. Have a clear mindset for this prompts him to ask not “where would I keep it?” but “where would my audience look for it?”.

Another way to think about this scenario is like making goods in a workshop. If you made a sofa and it was ready to sell, you wouldn’t bring customers into a workshop full of glue and springs, you’d take it away from the area of production and put it into an area for consumption; a shop window where your consumers are already passing by.  The top of the pyramid is your shop window.

[this blog was originally posted as an article on IntraTeam]

Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

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