Does Your Company Suffer from “Silos of Knowledge”? A Look at Intranet-Style Thinking for Corporate Efficiency

Back in the late-90's, I worked as a proposal writer at Deloitte. (See here for details.) While I’d been in the corporate world for years by then, this was the first time I recall having the idea that HTML technology could prove handy for organizing documents internally within an office.

So, I established a simple public folder on the company network, and began organizing files I found myself needing regularly into a hypertexted visual index of sorts. The project grew into a personal portal to pretty much all of the information that would come in handy for people in my position, and the others there eventually saw the utility of it as well. I called it “JimNet.” Little did I know at the time, this was called an “Intranet” — basically, a private web site (or HTML-based area on a network) meant for internal access only.

Later, I learned that the firm (coincidentally) was at work on a similar project — although worldwide in scope. It was built on the Lotus Notes platform, which I believe is still around today. While I recall the global effort being absolutely awkward and barely useful, the training that came along with the rollout did nonetheless illuminate a number of concepts that rang true. One in particular was that corporations tend to suffer from what was termed “silos” of knowledge.

Picture, if you will, a high-level aerial photo of several miles of farm land. In the landscape, you see vast fields and, every now and then, a silo. The image is meant to illustrate how individuals within an office (or offices within a multi-location company) tend to develop private repositories of information and processes. It’s fairly easy to grasp how this is an inefficient practice, as so many people (and, collectively, offices) are essentially “reinventing the wheel” with respect to numerous files, processes, etc. Not only that; there’s usually a huge waste of paper, as well.

Real Estate Agency Example

In terms of reinventing the wheel, consider the case of a real estate firm looking to sell a house. Without an intranet system, some marketer designs a flyer, and then sends that flyer via email to all of the agents who might need a copy. Each agent then files it on his or her machine, in who knows what kind of disorganized mess of a hard drive that no one else would ever be able to sift through, and maybe keeps it up to date and maybe not. Also, remember that the file is only available from within the office. If an agent is out at a showing, there’s no remote access. Multiply that by 20 agents, 20 computers, and 50 homes for sale, and you can see the file disaster immediately.

Enter the Intranet. In an Intranet scenario, a webmaster creates a private web site. It can be internal on a network, of course. But, for enhanced use, let’s assume that it’s on a web site somewhere, only behind a password-protected area. So, now the marketing person posts the fyler there one time, and it’s instantly available to all agents, both inside and outside the office, 24/7. Oops… typo on page 4? No worries… The file is fixed, and replaced once, thus always having the most up-to-date version in one convenient place.

Non Profit Board of Directors Example

Let’s look at another common pet peeve … wasted paper! Consider a typical board of directors at a nonprofit organization. Ever serve on a nonprofit board? I sure have. And, quite often, that means you’ll get one of the old dinosaurs — the “board book.” Just what you need as a busy executive, right? — a huge binder with the bylaws, the minutes, the D&O insurance info, the strategic plan, the budget, the directory of other board members, the economic impact studies, and on and on and on … Oh, and how wonderful that, at each meeting, you receive a new stack of papers that has to be inserted, or that replaces certain pages. And you think to yourself, “Wow, I actually donate money to this group to participate in this?!”

Enter the Intranet. Suddenly, you post all of this information one time, and your board members can go fetch it whenever they like. And, since it’s all password protected, it’s easy to control access. If a board member leaves, no worries… Your webmaster just deletes that user. Likewise, if another joins, he or she gets a new username and password. I’ve personally done this before, many times! And it’s wonderful. Everyone loves being relieved from the big old nasty binders (which, by the way) no one has to lug to meetings any longer.

Other typical uses for intranets would include HR administration, communicating with investors, company CRM systems, and general dashboards for various custom “command central”-type administration within a company. These systems run most efficiently when built on the company web server, as they usually integrate with the web site in various synergistic ways. I’ll post some separate articles illustrating that soon.


Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. Photo atop piece is adapted from “Silos” by Susan Dussaman (Flickr, Creative Commons).