Yes, that's a very frank title. But I'm annoyed to distraction, and
I need to get this off my chest. Here's the story of my company's
I write software for a multi-national telecom company. I'm going to
avoid naming the company as I haven't researched their blog policy
yet. We're a company that takes tremendous pride in our technological
prowess - we've developed a number of truly innovative products,
ancient and modern. We have an entire Class-A block of IP addresses,
that's how long we've been involved with IP networking. We work with
internet protocols day in and day out. But I'm really starting to
wonder if we, as a company, understand the value of the internet,
specifically the World Wide Web (when was the last time you saw that
spelled out?). A company with this much technical know-how shouldn't
have an intranet as terrible as ours.
Six years ago, our company had many, many internal web servers
scattered about. While the servers themselves where managed by
professional IT staffers, the content of these servers was "managed"
by amateurs throughout the company. When I joined the company, I took
one look at my team's site and volunteered to clean it up. Our site
was typical of the content I saw on our intranet at that time: an
unorganized and unmaintained mess of non-validating HTML pages, 25% of
the links on these pages being dead. It took a month to mop up the
mess and build something usable. Our site was tailored for the needs
of two dozen people and wasn't particularly well-connected to related
sites or corporate sites.
Multiply our messy site by approximately 1,000 and you have an idea
of the scope and organization of the company's intranet. There was one
shining beacon of hope however - there existed a half-decent search
engine. If the content you where looking for existed, the search
engine would almost certainly find it. Our intranet of that day wasn't
pretty, but it had content, and you could find that content. In short,
Quite rightly, our IT department did not like managing several
hundred web servers, each running different software. An announcement
was made that we would begin a server consolidation program. At the
same time, the powers-that-be chose a new Content Management System
that would become the default storage system for all static
media. They choose Livelink, from OpenText.com, for this
task. Livelink has a long list of CMS features, but it's primary
purpose is to store documents (HTML, Word, Excel, PDF, etc) in a
hierarchical folder layout.
Let's start the rant, shall we?
Repeat after me: The web is NOT a folder of Microsoft
The web is a highly interlinked set of HTML documents that are
accessible via HTTP and can be viewed in a web browser. Obviously, the
web includes content types other than text/html, but the web page is
what makes the web interesting and usable. You know now the web works:
users click from page to page, using the contextual information on the
page to decide what link to click next. Our corporate IT wizards have
replaced a real web-like intranet with a web-accessible directory
tree of documents, the majority of which aren't even in HTML.
Let's discuss how our new CMS ruined our intranet.
[Caveat: I suspect many of the criticisms I will heap upon
the CMS are due to a misuse of Livelink as our intranet
replacement. Perhaps Livelink is a perfectly fine product for some
The Hierarchical Folder Structure
At first glance it doesn't seem so bad to structure your intranet
in a hierarchical structure. For example, one of my documents lives
under a directory structure similar to this (names have been changed to protect the
That seems logical enough. However, there is a big difference
between structuring a small set of content into folders and forcing
something as large and diverse as a entire corporation into one. I
have several problems with pushing the entire intranet into
- The corporate structure changes constantly - and the intranet's
folder structure doesn't keep up. This makes it very difficult to
navigate up and down the folder tree. One day, you move "up" from your
project to discover that the enclosing folder no longer has any
relation to your project. In theory, the folder structure could be
kept up to date, but this risks breaking everybody's bookmarks.
- Frankly, no one cares about the folder structure, no one uses it
to find content. Most people are interested in a handful of projects,
each project having one or more Livelink folders. They keep bookmarks
to these folders. In effect, each real "project" (which is often one
level up from the leaf nodes in the tree), is considered a destination
in and of itself. The layers above "projects" have little content and
are mostly irrelevant. The individual projects should be autonomous
"websites" instead of buried in a pointless directory structure.
Finally, and most damningly, projects need far more than a folder
to shove documents into. The majority of the content in Livelink
exists as files referenced in simple directory listings - just a list
of files in a directory. No context or explanation for the files is
provided - beyond the file names themselves, of course. Livelink does
have the capability to do "index.html"-like things, but no one uses it
(perhaps because of the URL problem described below). How different
this is from a real site! Ordinarily, you'd see a portal-like page
explaining the purpose of this collection of information. The HTML
pages would provide clues about what content is available and
why. All this is missing from a typical Livelink project
folder. Unless of course you can guess that "ProjDoc14.doc" is the
Livelink URLs look like this:
Try keeping that URL in your head! Try to guess what sort of
document that link addresses. Try to guess where in the hierarchy of
the site that URL belongs. URLs like these violate every guideline for
URL design I've ever seen:
- They are loooooong
- They are un-guessable and completely opaque
- They do not follow the site structure
- They do not allow upward navigation by chopping off the end of the URL
It would be a major improvement to have the URLs follow the
directory structure, even though that would still give long URLs.
But even better would be to provide meaningful, project-oriented
URLs. Perhaps something like:
On the plus side, I believe the Livelink URLs are persistent. The
document or folder referenced by a particular object id is always
accessible using the URL format above. Then again, I don't know of a
way to redirect a URL to the location of a moved document, so maybe
they're not that persistent.
No More Websites?
It is tremendously hard to do a traditional "website" hosted in
Livelink. This is really a shame. How do we publish information to a
wide audience of people in the 21st century? There's only one real
answer: we build a website. What's a website anyway? I'd say it has
the following characteristics:
- It is addressable via HTTP at a well known, descriptive URL.
- It has a default entry point, the "home page", that explains the
- It is composed primarily of interlinked HTML pages.
It usually follows well-understood navigational conventions. Each
page let's you know:
- What site you are in
- Where you are in the site
- How to navigate to the main areas of the site
Obviously, a Livelink directory full of files provides none of
those features. The CMS lacks a unity of style and purpose, and it
has removed all context.
Why have very few people attempted to build a site within Livelink?
Perhaps they are deterred by the URL problem. But I'm guessing the
biggest reason is that the structure of Livelink, its accepted format
as a directory tree of mixed file types, discourages them from even
trying. From looking at randomly selected folders, you'd never know
that building a site is possible.
No Dynamic Content
Livelink doesn't support user-written dynamic content. No CGI
programs, no forms on web pages, not even server-side processing of
documents (i.e., Apache's server-side-includes). Understandably, the
IT department isn't fond of uncontrolled CGI scripts - they can easily
introduce security holes. But there are real business needs for
dynamic content and if you don't have hosting apart from Livelink,
you're out of luck.
Livelink has access control lists enabled for every single folder
and document. One has to login to Livelink to view any
document, regardless of its ACL. ACL's are occasionally necessary for
business reasons, but I believe most content could be safely shared
with the entire corporation. I believe that, by default, a Livelink
object should be viewable by all.
Setting the permissions for a folder can also be a tremendous time
waster. Recently I put a document on Livelink and sent out the URL for
review. Within minutes, I had several people call me complaining they
where not authorized to view the document. According to the ACL list,
the entire corporation could view the document. After some debugging,
I discovered that "the entire corporation" doesn't include specific
groups of overseas contractors. It took over an hour of trial and
error to fix the permissions.
Finally, the ownership model imposed by Livelink is quite
restrictive. If you upload a document, only you will be able to modify
the permissions on a document. I don't know of a way to enable "group"
ownership of a document.
Where's the HTML?
As mentioned several times by this point, Livelink encourages use
of directories packed full of documents. Many of the documents
uploaded are in formats not natively understood by the browser:
Microsoft Office documents especially. There are obviously good
reasons for sharing Excel spreadsheets, but Livelink does nothing to
discourage posting Word documents - or any other proprietary textual
document. What's the harm you ask?
- Posting proprietary documents excludes them from search engines.
Livelink has only limited capabilities to index Microsoft
- Proprietary documents have to be viewed in their proprietary
applications. This doesn't cause much trouble for business people who
all have Microsoft Office, but many of our engineers have Linux or
HP-UX on their desktops.
- Posting a document that could have been written in HTML
incurs the opportunity cost of not helping build a more usable intranet.
Searching for Search
There are over a dozen Regional Livelink servers; the root of every
Livelink tree starts with a Region name. Searching across
servers is not supported! If you don't know where a document is
located, you may get to enjoy doing 12+ separate searches. Need
I say more?
Returning to a HTML-based intranet would enable the search
methodologies that work so well on the internet. Google offers a
search appliance for the enterprise that I'd love to try.
Ugly is a Productivity Waste
I have one more criticism, and it may sound trivial, but I beg to
disagree. Livelink is not a particularly attractive application. It
is cluttered and generic looking. So what? An application that
thousands of users, each spending thousands of hours in must be
made attractive. Otherwise each user spends 1 or more seconds of their
day thinking "Gosh, this is ugly". One second compounded a million
times adds up to real productivity losses.
If They Made Me CTO...
In my opinion, a more useful intranet would feature content based
primarily around people and projects, as opposed to
teams and hierarchies.
Each employee would have a place on the web, with an obvious URL
like http://our.intranet.com/people/mkeller, and resources for:
- Hosting a blog or a simple homepage.
- File storage for sharing documents of any sort.
- A wiki for personal use.
- A sharable web-based calendar (iCal).
Business are built around people, and people want to know who they are working with. I'm imagining a company where each employee keeps a little home page, containing (at the minimum) contact details, a list of their current projects, and a photo
(we're a social species and really appreciate knowing faces!).
Some users would love a chance to blog, keep work notes in a wiki or publish a
calendar. The IT department benefits by picking standard blogging,
wiki and calendaring packages for everyone to use.
Perhaps I've become infected with David Allen
-like thinking, but I see projects everywhere now. Sometimes a
project is tackled by a single person, most often by a team. And
what's the hardest part of any project? Keeping everybody in sync. I
think everybody agrees that email is no longer getting it
done. Groupware to the rescue? I think the following feature list is
necessary in any online groupware solution:
- A message board with comments.
- A milestone tracking mechanism.
- A project calendar that team members can subscribe to.
- To-do lists that support assignment.
- A wiki for project documents and notes.
- A mechanism to show "recent changes" - RSS works great.
You can cobble together many of the elements above from individual
sources, but the key component, "recent changes", is hard to achieve
without an integrated system. The recent changes page, or RSS feed,
let's everyone know what's been going on in the project: if there are
new conversations on the message board, if wiki pages have been edited,
if milestones have been added or moved. I've had good personal experiences with
the groupware tool from 37Signals called
I dream of URLs like
http://our.intranet.com/project/matts_big_project. I dream of an
intranet where any employee can quickly create a new project site,
give it a name, add some colleagues to the project and be off and
I Love HTML! Down With HTML!
I'm advocating giving much more control of our intranet content
back to the employees. I'm sure there are some readers who might
wonder if we'll just end up with the confused intranet that led to the
adoption of a CMS in the first place. Thankfully, very few end users
have to write HTML directly these days, very few have to design a
site. Instead, we use ready-made tools like wikis and blogs which
allow the user to enter simple text that gets converted to HTML and then
published to nicely designed sites.
In my vision of the intranet, the IT team picks standard webapps
that any employee can use to create content. The obvious applications
are wikis, blogs, online calendars and a groupware package. These tools
run on centrally located and managed servers, a real boon to the IT department.
I think with just those applications, our employees would be much
better served. If the choices of applications are wise, very few users
will feel any need to have their own sites. Finally, the IT department
gets a tremendous savings in maintenance costs when it has only to
support a limited set of webapps as compared to a diverse number of
That's it. I'm out of both criticism and pragmatism. Thanks for
listening. I feel better now.
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