I’ve created small and medium-size intranets using plain HTML, ColdFusion, Active Server Pages, Microsoft .NET, SharePoint and WordPress. Over the years, I’ve often had to answer the question of what content management system (CMS) companies should use for an intranet.
In this article I discuss a set of guidelines that will help you pick an intranet content management system that works great for your specific business situation. They cover five key areas you need to address to have a healthy and successful intranet:
- Content organization
- Integration with the employee directory
Let’s dive in.
Content Creation and Organization
What you see is what you get
Consider how easy it is to create and edit content with the CMS. The people responsible for adding and changing content on the intranet must have an easy-to-use high-fidelity tool to do so.
In some companies, content editors are programmers in the web development team. These people would feel comfortable coding content straight into HTML, but they would save time if they had a WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) tool where they can edit and preview content formatted with the exact visual styles used in the intranet.
A WYSIWYG tool is even more important for companies where content writers and editors are selected individuals from different functional teams. These people usually aren’t HTML experts. They need a tool that allows them to produce the intranet’s visual styles with little effort.
Most companies can’t afford full-time information architects to organize the intranet’s content. The CMS you choose should promote organization and findability for editors and writers through features like content categories, tags and labels. It should also provide a version control mechanism editors can use to keep track of who changed what.
Your CMS choice must support restricting content from both the creation and consumption sides. You might need to create secure content areas that only certain individuals can access, or areas that only members of certain organizational units can access. A similar need might exist from the content creation side. There might be pages or media files that only certain editors can work with.
Search Engine Configuration
Search is one of the biggest problem areas of any intranet. Consider choosing a technology that also promotes content organization and findability form the user’s perspective. It should have an engine with support for full-text search and filtering by content categories and labels.
Integration with content sources
Evaluate whether you want to expose content that’s stored outside the CMS. It could be documents in separate drives, or repositories in document management systems. For these cases, your search engine should support integration with the file system or the application programming interfaces (APIs) of third-party document systems.
You want to have a consistent navigation experience across the intranet. Consider how easy it is to change menus, link bars and other navigation elements, with the CMS. You should be able to modify these elements without having to edit the HTML code of individual pages by hand. Many content management systems have visual menu designers that make this task easy.
You also want to show the user’s current location in the site. Consider using a CMS that automatically inserts location indicators such as breadcrumbs on each intranet page. In addition, the system should have a means of generating a full site map.
Offering shortcuts to popular intranet areas is a way to improve content findability. Consider a CMS that allows you to create shortcuts lists based on an automated analysis of site usage and content structure. Many systems will allow you to add “related pages”, “popular pages” or “recent pages” lists to any page on the site.
Employee Directory Integration
Access the employee directory is one of the most common intranet use cases. The content management system you pick for your intranet must make it easy to integrate with your directory.
Directories hosted outside the intranet are based on third-party vendors, or custom-developed by internal teams or consultants. Many such directories provide APIs or data feeds you can use to search and pull employee profiles. Your intranet CMS should support integration with these APIs.
Things get trickier if your directory doesn’t provide APIs, or if you use a custom-built directory. In such a case, you will need to have programmers code the integration with the intranet. This means you want a CMS that gives the programmers access to the underlying HTML and database code that powers the intranet pages.
Some content management systems have built-in employee directories. Others offer the feature through add-on modules. Consider these systems if you don’t already have a directory or if you can afford to migrate your existing directory to the intranet.
Be mindful that migrating an existing directory to the intranet is usually a complex project. Many companies make their employee directories data hubs that feed multiple backend systems that need employee data. If you fall in this category, migrating your directory means you have to replace the existing employee data feeds into other systems. You will need new feeds coming either from the intranet or from another master source of employee data.
Ease of Maintenance
Ease of maintenance deserves a special place in this discussion. In particular, how long it takes to upgrade to a new version or apply patches to the CMS. Most intranet teams are small and have their plates full with the daily intranet content updates. Lengthy and complicated CMS upgrades put tremendous stress on them.
Some content management systems require that you prepare an entirely new site for the upgrade, install the new version and then move content from the old to the new site. This process takes time and usually requires the involvement of the teams in charge of provisioning servers and maintaining the network infrastructure.
Other systems are capable of automated in-place upgrades, where the system brings itself to the new version with minimal human intervention. Prefer this type of system because automated upgrades take little time and require less people involved.
Resilience and Scaling
Intranets are a combination of high-availability and relatively low traffic websites. Consider a technology that supports a level of infrastructure redundancy that allows to you address web server and other failures by activating a backup site. You should be able to replicate your intranet to a backup site with ease. File system-based content is the easiest to replicate. Databases are relatively easy to replicate, but require installation and maintenance efforts you want to avoid if you can.
Operating system upgrades, infrastructure changes and other factors will force you move the intranet to new servers eventually. Consider a CMS that you can easily re-deploy to the new servers.
Growth over time
The most common growth intranets experience is in content. To tackle this, prepare for growth of the content stores, whether they are database or file system based. The best approach is to estimate your future space needs before you provision your intranet infrastructure, and use those estimates when you produce the provisioning requirements.
A file system-based store has an advantage in this area over a database-based store. It’s generally easier to estimate file system space needs, as it is to expand file system drives later, than it is to estimate and expand database size.
Summary and Next Steps
In this article, I presented a set of guidelines that will make it easier for you to pick an intranet content management system. These guidelines focus on five key areas you need to pay attention to for a healthy and successful intranet:
- Content organization
- Content security
- Integration with the employee directory
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