Single Source of Truth

Although this sounds vaguely poetic, it has a specific meaning in the world of information systems. It has particular relevance for large systems.

Done well, it makes content management a whole lot easier.

I’ve heard this used most often in relation to company intranets – large companies where the intranet must serve a mass of information to thousands or hundreds of thousands of employees.

In many large companies intranets grew rather randomly, each business line created their own intranet site, as connectivity improved these were joined together allowing employees to browse from one site to another. But the business retained control of all the information that was available on their site, and employees tended to enter the maze of the the company intranet via their business line home page. Very often this works out well.

In companies of this size there are a policies and defined processes on a wide variety of subjects. Many relate to the employee’s own situation; holiday/vacation entitlement, performance review processes or claiming expenses. Others relate to the company’s operations; finance, brand guidelines, recruitment. Often there is a potential legal penalty if the employee does not follow the policy.

In an intranet that is a collection of connected sites the policies tend to be copied and republished multiple times. Which means keeping those versions up-to-date and consistent becomes difficult and introduces operational risk. Imagine an employee in a far-flung office following the finance policy she has downloaded from her local intranet, relying on it to conduct business, and finding out later that it’s months out of date.

The idea behind the single source of truth relies on improved connectivity between local intranets, and a strong information architecture so that a piece of content – in this case a policy – is published in just one place. It may appear in more than one place across the intranet, but in fact each appearance of it is drawing from the same place; that single source of truth.

To deliver this companies must have a connected intranet, a fully thought-out information architecture, a good content managements systems, technical know-how, and governance on the publication and storage of documents. It’s not easy to put this in place in large companies, particularly as intranets are often the “poor cousin” in terms of digital spend.

Obviously the content management should become easier and cheaper, but the really big benefit comes from a risk and compliance stand-point. Having a single source of truth means that you know people are using the same policy across the company, this lowers the risk of errors being made, errors that might leave the company financially liable or create a reputation error. It’s a cost avoidance benefit that can be hard to quantify – until such an event occurs in your company.

Image: truth / Jon Starbuck / CC BY-NC-SA-2.0

What matters on your Intranet?

At the Interact Intranet Conference we played a game of “intranet tetris”, putting together the pieces needed to run a successful intranet, as a bit of a fun exercise. This is the finished jigsaw, as deemed correct by the presenter.
I could quibble with the labels – knowledge management is meant to cover all forms of content – but my bigger issue is with the hierarchy the presenter tried to imply.

  1. Governance
  2. Intranet objectives
  3. Business objectives
  4. Roles and responsibilities
  5. Knowledge management (content)
  6. Information Architecture
  7. Toolkit
  8. Brand (look and feel)
  9. Engagement
  10. Analytics

Shouldn’t business objectives be the starting point? How can you decide governance or intranet objectives if you don’t know the business objectives? Let’s face it; if you’re creating an intranet that does not serve the business objectives you’re destroying company value.

Another presenter asked what was most important about an intranet; giving options such as finding information, interaction, processes, brand and performance.

Most of the room suggested “finding information” upon which he whizzed through some data proving the room wrong. According to his comprehensive survey of users the right answer was “interaction with colleagues”.

I’m all for a bit of colleague interaction – I’m keen on coffee chats rather than meetings. But I have two problems with this conclusion.

(1) it’s rare that an interaction on an intranet can be so neatly categorised;

Imagine; Sue posts a question on a collaboration platform and a colleagues answers pointing her to the IT service site where she can make a request online for a new secure access card. She completes the process and gets her access card in the next day’s mail.

Was that finding information, interacting with colleagues, supporting a process? I suggest the part Sue remembers is the personal contact, but in fact there was more than the interaction making her visit successful.

(2) I have a theory that users don’t rate items like “finding information” very highly because their intranet already does that well. You can test my theory; remove the information on your intranet site that relates to paydays and holidays. See how long it takes for someone to complain.

I think users list what their biggest wish for the intranet is, not what they actually use.

Actually there’s no need to experiment. Our intranet went down a week or so ago. I’m pretty sure my colleagues would have listed “performance” as their biggest need at that moment.

Screen Shot 2013-09-26 at 12.37.39 PMAnalysing intranets is a bit like that old tale of six blind men describing an elephant. There are a number of ways of doing it, none of which are wrong per se, but no single list is right. To make a hierarchical list or define a single “most important” item seems to imply that setting up an intranet is a linear process. A tightrope walk from one side of the big top to the other. But setting up an intranet, like most digital projects is a messy and iterative process. More like the plate spinner with 9 towers of plates all spinning at once.

The thing that is most important for your intranet is the next step in improving it to match business goals – and serve user needs.

Image; Like Spinning Plates / BY-NC-SA 2.0