Rethinking internal information portals

* Bypass internal black holes with a company home page

Portals were going to save the world, but popped as loudly as any other over-hyped Internet business idea back in 2000. But a company portal can bypass the office manager black hole (Shirley, Sandra, and Margie) we discussed last week (http://www.networkworld.com/net.worker/columnists/2005/0620gaskin.html).

Don't think of creating a fancy "company information and human resource portal." Think of displaying your company bulletin board on every company computer. This portal can be for internal use only (like the bulletin boards in the break rooms) or even viewable by customers and partners (like your sign out front).

Costs? Nothing for a basic company home page portal, since you can create the page with a few HTML commands created with any text editor (like the Notepad app included with Windows). If you prefer, look for one of the many free graphic Web design utilities or use a copy of FrontPage, which you probably already own (it comes with many Microsoft Office suites). Any internal Web server (or even retired PC running free Web software) can host the page.

What should you put on your company's electronic bulletin board? I suggest all headlines you want people to read, such as major new business developments. Put your leading salesperson's name there (they love a bit of applause). Put your employee directory there or a link to a second page with all the appropriate phone, e-mail and address information. Put links to all publicity and news coverage for the company. List contacts for insurance coverage questions, expense account rules and human resource information changes. List company holidays and who's on vacation and their backup contact. Link to a page where employees can announce personal information such as births or garage sales (or births at garage sales).

The more reasons employees have to use the portal the better it works. Someone should change the portal daily, even if it's only a new MOTD (Message of the Day for those who don't remember early Unix terminal features).

The key trick to making your internal portal a success? Make it the home page for every company Web browser. Then announce that everything put on the portal is considered information all employees should know. Portal headlines should be the same as announcements in a company-wide employee meeting.

If all your employees are in one building, put the portal on a Web server inside your firewall and make it private so no one on the Internet will be able to see it. If you have multiple locations, put the portal on the company Web site on a page with no link from the main Web site home page. If you put any private information on the portal, you can add username/password authentication. If you're too small to want to do that level of programming, then leave the public information on the page and link to more secure pages so outsiders can't get to private information.

Everything that fosters a sense of teamwork and family, such as a basic portal, helps your company. If this idea takes off, you can jump into a portal-specific application to include threaded discussions, a real-time calendar and even a stock level fed by reports from your accounting software. But all you need to start is a page that says, "Glad you're reading this, and here's more info than you'll get around the water cooler."

One last important point: Shirley, Sandra, and Margie will fight this portal unless you get them on your side. The smoothest route is to appoint someone else to do the portal and convince the office manager(s) that the more information on there, the easier their jobs will be. Even if you can't get the office manager(s) enthused about the idea, you can make sure they don't horde the information needed to make the portal valuable. One Web page can beat a black hole when the Web page has management support.

PS: Don't forget our Road Show for small and midsize businesses in July (http://www.networkworld.com/events/smb05/index.html).

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