Monday, February 11, 2008

"Do We Really Need an Intranet?"

Many studies have drawn attention to the threats to usability that frequently emerge in the design and development phases of IT projects (e.g. Poltrock and Grudin, 1994). This case study goes further by illustrating how, despite the rhetoric, usability issues continue to be treated as a side-show in many IT projects. It demonstrates how the capacity of project team members to satisfy usability requirements may be compromised by the often intensely political nature of processes that are instrumental in getting projects approved.

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The immediate tactical aim of the project was to demonstrate the possibilities for delivering interactive, multimedia-based training materials to staff directly through the bank's branch network. The longer term, strategic aim of the project was rather more ambitious, being nothing less than to convince the bank's Executive Board that there was a sound business case for investing in the creation of a single, integrated corporate intranet. This was to have an important influence on the subsequent course of the project.

BigBank is a large UK bank that prides itself in having a strong track record in technical innovation. As our case study opens, BigBank's Technology Division had just successfully completed a pilot intranet project. Almost immediately, moves were afoot among certain players within Technology Division and the Bank's Corporate Communications department to get BigBank's board to approve the development of a full-scale, corporate intranet. While the pilot project had provided a useful, practical example of the benefits that an intranet could provide, the champions of the corporate intranet project would have to make a separate business case for this new investment. Building a business case for a corporate intranet would not be easy, as one of the project champions explained: "Justification for intranet systems is usually a soft case and this has to be sold to hard-nosed bankers. The cost-benefits of the system are often long term and difficult to quantify."

What the project champions needed was an application that would justify the investment by demonstrating real financial benefits. Having found it, they could then put together a coalition of political support and technical expertise that could ensure the project's survival and eventual success. In the process, they would have to make compromises over the project's technical specifications and set limits on its scope in order to deliver a usable and useful application.

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