By Troy Dreier
What if you threw an intranet and nobody came?
That was the problem facing Jeffrey Henning, co-founder and chief operating officer for Perseus Development Corp. Perseus’s first attempt at an intranet, in 1998, was a failure, unused by the employees it was mean to serve.
Built with the Cobalt Cube, the company’s first intranet was too complicated and time-consuming, Henning says. Plus, while it was crucial that everyone in the company be able to modify and create content for the site, its very openness created it’s biggest problem.
“The first intranet was really designed so that anyone in the company could use it and contribute to it. Unfortunately, nobody did,” Henning says.
As the head of Perseus’s marketing department, including the department’s intranet site, Henning knew it was important that people be able to add their own ideas to the site. But finding a system that would spark contributions rather than inhibit them was a challenge.
Perseus Development began small in 1993, with a few employees conducing business surveys on laptop computers. When the World Wide Web became a global medium, Perseus released its first product, a $179 program for conducting any type of survey over the Web.
That product, SurveySolutions, has since grown into three versions: low-end, medium, and high-end. Henning says it’s a horizontal application that can be used for a variety of sites and purposes — “everything from ministers using it for church membership surveys to Fortune 500 companies using it for Web site feedback.”
If at First You Don’t Succeed, Re-launch
The Perseus intranet, dubbed “TeamWeb,” relaunched in the first quarter of 2000. While not an extravagant site, it did have a few clearly delineated goals: to better solicit employee contributions and to increase communication between departments. “People were always saying to me, ‘What’s marketing doing right now?'” Henning says. With the right intranet, they wouldn’t need to ask.
The open quality of the first intranet was replaced by a system of gatekeepers. Three people in the company were responsible for posting new material to the department sites. Henning is in charge of the marketing and operations departments. “You send us stuff, and we put it on the site,” Henning says.
Henning uses two different tools for the marketing department site. First, he uses Trellix to organize all the various static pages that the site needs to hold.
“Trellix Web is great because it dynamically manages a whole site,” he says. He appreciates that he can maintain long lists of documents that are easy for users to navigate. If he wants to change the order of documents, or add or delete pages, Trellix manages the links so he doesn’t have to.
His second tool is Live Journal, an open-source program that creates online threaded discussions. He’s found it to be just the thing to jumpstart group input.
For the backend, the new intranet uses a secured version 7.1 distribution of RedHat Linux, which runs an Apache Web server, says Barnaby Claydon, Perseus’s technical project manager. Hardware is a Pentium III, 450-MHz HP server.
A Digital Fine-Toothed Comb
As an example of what Live Journal has done for his site, Henning points to a recent e-mail campaign from the marketing department. Perseus has a list of 20,000 names of customers and potential customers, and sends out e-mail every two or three months. From an online brainstorming came the suggestion to announce via e-mail that Perseus’s products were now sold at Amazon.com
“We hadn’t done any HTML mail,” Henning says, “so one of the suggestions was to do an HTML mailing to people who hadn’t downloaded our latest version, which came out in June, and put together some screen shots, and have a button where they can click to download version four, a free trial.”
Other suggestions were to keep the Amazon message, but to make the e-mail plain text, and that’s the one that won out in the end. Once the message had its format, the next step was to create the text. Again, Henning says, online brainstorming was especially effective.
“Once we decided to go with the Amazon one, there was a lot of word-sniffing. Not everybody gets into that detail, but there were three people who gave ideas for better subject headings, tweaked the words, and helped sharpen the message. With an e-mail going out to 20,000 people, we always want to make sure that we have as many eyes looking at it as is appropriate,” Henning says.
The resulting mailing drove new purchases to Amazon and garnered many clicks for the free trial version.
The Power of Online
For Henning, the new intranet is a win-win situation. Not only does he get better suggestions from his marketing department, but he doesn’t tie up the whole group in meetings. People can work on new ideas when they want. With group dynamics no longer a problem, he doesn’t need to worry that some good ideas will go unheard.
“People don’t always say what’s on their minds in a group,” he notes, “and they do on the intranet. For those people who have an opinion, we want them to be able to express it.
“Before the intranet, people were often surprised, saying ‘I didn’t know you guys were doing that. Here’s a suggestion I would have made.’ Now when people say ‘I didn’t know you were doing that,’ we say ‘You didn’t keep up with the intranet; it’s your own fault, ‘” Henning says with a laugh.
Troy Dreier writes for Intranet Journal, an internet.com site where this story first appeared.