Archipelagoes of Information
As do most of his books, James Michener's Hawaii starts at the dawn of time. He describes how the lovely Hawaiian archipelago grows over millions of years from humble, organic beginnings, each island birthing and dying in explosions of lava emanating from beneath the Earth's crust.
Large, complex web sites and intranets have similarly organic beginnings. These sites are loosely connected archipelagoes of information, starting slowly with one island, coming from sources often unseen, exploding with change and growth, out of control. It often goes like this: someone in the MIS department gets a web server, sets it up, builds a small, experimental web site, and starts having fun. Other early adopters check out this unofficial site and get ideas of their own. The MIS boss finds out and, horrified by his or her lack of control over the situation, forces the free-thinker to terminate the maverick site, while enlisting someone from Graphics to help start up the official intranet. The MIS boss later learns (to her dismay) that the pesky Marketing Department has already decided to contract their advertising firm to build an external site, and the Human Resources people aren't far behind. And there are rumors that both the Hong Kong and Hoboken divisions are setting up their own sites....
Sites that grow this way within an organization are really a collection of sub-sites. Their complexity runs deeper than you may think. Indeed, the biggest challenge is often the degree to which organizational politics intrude into the process. This isn't surprising if we consider the differences between the ways modern corporations and the World Wide Web work.
Corporations and other large organizations are traditionally modeled hierarchically, structured as single entities with clear chains of command. The power of a corporation lies in its ability to leverage the sum of its independently working parts while laboring to keep those parts from completely splitting apart. The Web, on the other hand, goes completely against the grain of centralization, serving instead as an agent of organizational chaos. Because web sites are cheap and easy to create, corporations have a difficult time controlling them.
As some poor souls try to bring all these separate efforts together under the venue of a single corporate web site or intranet, the politics can get especially ugly. Marketing wants links to its news releases to go on the main page. Human Resources is convinced that most of the users are going to be employees, and wants the employee handbook front and center. And MIS's content already blankets the main page. Meanwhile the Information Center has trashed the look and feel of the site because they don't have the budget to pay for professional graphic design. Have we left anyone out?
Oh, yes. The user.
The user, as we know, doesn't care about organizational politics. The user wants information to be made accessible the way he or she thinks, not the way the corporation thinks. Instead, the user is often confronted with corporate jargon and organization schemes based on corporate organization charts, and the site's value to users and to the sponsoring organization plummet.
Unfortunately, this is a common situation. Fortunately, the principles of information architecture can address and solve many of these problems.