Tail wagging the dog: the role of IT in intranet redesign

A brochure project came off the rails the other day because the printer told us he didn’t like to print pages with the dimensions we asked for. It was technically possible, but his “policy” wouldn’t allow it. And he couldn’t assemble the pages in the order we wanted. Didn’t make sense to him. We had to redesign the structure and shape of the brochure.

Of course, this isn’t a real story. This kind of thing never happens with print. Now re-read the paragraph, substituting “IT department” for “printer” and “web site” for “brochure,” and you’ll understand why I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about IT departments.

I’ve been working recently on several internal website projects directed at employees and involving content and content strategy. Needless to say I’ve been spending a fair amount of time with corporate IT. I’ve decided that they are the dotted-line rainmaker of any project. I don’t care what anyone says. The best content strategies, the best wireframes,  the best functionalities, the best site structures can all wither and die in seconds when IT utters those fateful worlds: we can’t do that.

And they always do, or at least they always seem to. I fantasize about IT guys saying: “That looks great. It’s about time someone changed the site. Sure, it’s a departure from what we’re used to doing, but times have changed and so have users. We’d be proud to be associated with such a great web site.”

Instead they throw up road blocks and bandy around jargon to scare project sponsors. They explain that they can’t stream video. That they can’t provide a comments function. That they can’t embed objects. That page templates are coded in stone. That the site map can’t be changed. They wield the list of no-nos like a whip, until we relent and agree to scale back the project and our ambitions.

But if you listen closely to the whistling of the whip you can pick out something else. First, you can hear hidden pleas for recognition. Maintaining an IT system is a thankless job to begin with. Why would they gladly accept the hassle of implementing a change, espcially when they weren’t involved in the project from the beginning? Also, you can hear nervous discomfort. Often the IT department sees the intranet as a library, not as a community center. It’s not a noisy gathering place, it’s a quiet repository of information. It’s as if the library’s value lay in the Dewey decimal system, not the ideas contained in the books. When they say “we can’t do that” they’re actually saying “we’re not comfortable doing that and we don’t see why we should.”

So on my next project I’ve made a promise to myself to get IT involved right away (even if they don’t want too). Also, we’re going to stop seeing them as printers — and hopefully they’ll  stop seeing themselves as librarians.

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