Monday, June 1, 2009

What your intranet needs is a publisher!


J. Jonah Jameson

Originally uploaded by OntologicalDoubt

While I work with companies from many different industries, most of my clients media and publishing companies. I like working with publishers for many reasons — not the least of which is the fact that this is an industry in transition and it is exciting to see my clients innovating and re-inventing themselves. But the main reason publishers are so interesting to work with is that they, more than any other industry, understand the value of content. It is their business. While you could make the argument that a publisher's key asset is its audience (not the content), it is the content that attracts the audience. Publishers push their organizations to produce content that an audience wants to read and then look for ways to monetize that audience.

Compare that with other types of companies. How many marketing organizations think of their website copy as only a modest improvement over the Latin text that the web designer left behind? Internal content is worse. Updating the intranet is the last priority for the average knowledge worker. People have more gratifying responsibilities than contributing to a web site that nobody wants to read. In most companies, employees are not recognized for their intranet contributions. Take, for example, a knowledge base. If you have a brilliant piece of information, depending on where you work, it may be better to share it with individuals you know and have them "owe you" than to leave it to rot a in a place where nobody will benefit from it.

Companies fool themselves when they think that if the tool makes contributing easy, staff will all of the sudden think contributing content is their number one priority. You might get a slight uptick of activity when you deploy a new publishing system, but after the novelty wears off, people will go back to their old habits. Writing content is hard work no matter how "fun" the tool is to use. Employees will gravitate to work that is either easier to do or more rewarding (that is, things that are measured by their bosses).

Assuming that enterprise content has value and is worth managing, there needs to be someone in the organization responsible for maintaining that value. Enterprise content needs someone to represent the audience and ensure that they are being served. Enterprise content needs a publisher. Pardon the geeky comic book reference but think of Peter Parker's (aka Spiderman) obnoxious boss J. Jonah Jameson (pictured above). He relentlessly pushes his staff to create content that he knows his readers want to read. Granted, nobody wants to work for a jerk like that. But is it any better to work for someone who doesn't care about what you produce?

In the media and publishing world, Clay Shirky theorizes that the role of the publisher is becoming unnecessary. The Internet has solved the journalist's problem of reaching an audience. But that assumes that the journalist wants to become his own publisher. The blogging phenomenon has seen just that. Bloggers (citizen journalists) put up their own websites and invest large amounts of time building and cultivating their audiences. They look at traffic stats; they think about wording for SEO and click through; they tag; they obsess over establishing their personal brand. They didn't do this just because the blogging tools were easy to use. The first generation of blogging tools stunk. But the first generation of bloggers really wanted to publish and they were just happy for the opportunity. Inconveniences and poor usability were not going to hold them back from having their voices on the Web.

Many Enterprise 2.0 advocates predicted the same thing would happen inside the firewall; that employees would self publish with the same zeal on the Intranet as they did on their personal blogs if they had similar tools available to them. It didn't happen — not because they couldn't figure out the tools but because they were too smart about managing their time. They knew that they would gain more during their 9-5 work day from doing other things. They satisfied their inner publisher during nights and weekends at home where they could reach a much larger audience and own their content. If they could get away with it, they would sneak in a post to their personal blog from their cube.

There is only so much you can do to motivate your employees to "want" to publish on your Intranet. You can make it part of their job description; you can recognize their efforts. But you will probably not be able to create the hunger for attention within your firewall that will unleash that entrepreneurial publisher spirit. If they have that spirit within them, it will be expressed on their personal blogs. To get your employees to act like journalists, you need a J. Jonah Jameson type. Maybe not as abrasive, but just as passionate. Have your internal publisher imagine that he is in a circulation war with a competing intranet and that he should do whatever it takes to capture and enthrall subscribers. Just tell him to 86 the cigar; he will never get that approved by HR.