Every good conference has its own theme and style. The Intranets 2000 Conference & Expo (http://www.intranets2000.com), held February 28 through March 1 in San Jose, California, had a unique blend of thinkers, leading lights, and the "hip to be square." Right through to the strong closing (w)rap session with a respected panel whose members offered their honest feedback on the event's highlights, this was a conference that shaped its own style and set its own pace.
Meeting of the Minds
Now in its second year, Intranets is produced by Online, Inc. and designed by Howard McQueen and Jean DeMatteo. With its niche in this evolving intranet market, the show has grown significantly. McQueen reported that over 80 exhibitors participated—double the amount of last year. The attendees were largely a mix of those who focus on the intranet technologies (IT people), those who focus on the content (information professionals), and a sprinkling of those who focus on content ownership and organizational issues (marketing, human resources, and communications folks). Several organizations were represented by employees from all of these areas, and some of their titles included manager of e-selling, knowledge engineer, chief enterprise architect, vice president of e-business, intranet content specialist, and yes, "Enterprise Web God." As so often happens in organizations, however, the IT professionals didn't know that the information professionals would attend and vice-versa. This gave rise to some interesting hallway conversations, usually initiated with a "What are you doing here?"
The mix of sponsors and exhibitors sets the tone for the technology-content convergence. Exhibitors ranged from SageMaker, Inc. (http://www.sagemaker.com) to the Dialog Corp. (http://www.dialog.com), and from Plumtree Software (http://www.plumtree.com) to Northern Light Technology (http://www.northernlight.com). There were even vendors for those representing the other organizational intranet players, such as human resources or project managers. QuickTeam by Thoughtstar, Inc. (http://www.quickteam.com), for example, demonstrated its Web-based team site with its threaded discussions, chat, paging, whiteboards, project scheduling, and other team-based tools that are available for the smallest or largest teams.
What was interesting about this meeting of the minds was that everyone seemed to have the same idea; regardless if the vendor's core business was technology or content, they were now all in the business of portals and content management. Reminiscent of the days when every vendor suddenly became an Internet vendor, or, more recently, a knowledge management specialist, these portal and content- management waves were sweeping the exhibit floor. And they're leaving confusion in their wake. As one of the speakers so aptly put it, "Ask 10 people here for a definition of a portal, and you'll hear 10 different definitions." It's a similar situation with content. Many who claim to be in the business of managing your content can really only handle your documents, and even then that may mean documents without graphics. Content, as we know, is very different from documents. What's more, many products that promise to solve the problems posed by myriad internal and external data and content, in a variety of formats, mixed in among legacy systems, cannot handle the actual applications. It's much like having a mover tell you he can move your household contents for you, and then realizing that his definition of contents includes only your furniture, not those boxes of crystal, clothes, and "stuff" you still need to take with you.
Many IT people I talked with sighed "same old, same old," and were disappointed that the vendors had changed the words, but not the solutions. Many information professionals I talked with were digging for more details from the vendors, trying to clarify exactly where various content options fit within the market and within their content-supplier mix.
The content theme was prevalent throughout the program as well. The tracks focusing on content (Information Architecture on Monday, and Content Management on Tuesday and Wednesday) certainly seemed to attract the most attendees—and attention. In fact, since this is where I ensconced myself for 3 days, I would frequently look around to see the room—which had a capacity of 360—only about 80-percent full. Most often I was sitting beside technology specialists, many of whom agreed that there was a lot they hadn't realized about content—about what it is, how it acts, or what people do with it.
User Interface Engineering (UIE; http://www.uie.com) had a high profile within the conference program. Specializing in product and Web site usability and design, its primary focus at the conference was on content. Jared Spool, founder of UIE and also known as a founder of the usability concept, gave Wednesday's keynote address. "The Importance of Being Content" (that's content, not content), was a wonderful blend of humor and bite. Spool acknowledged that 2 years ago the technology circle was pretty much "brain dead" and didn't think content mattered. Systems were based on verbs, and content "played second fiddle to structure." Yet, everyone now realizes that the only thing people look at is content—the content that matters to them, that is. "No one goes to Yahoo! or to your intranet to use it; they go there to get stuff to do work," Spool explained.
UIE's testing involves devices that look directly at the user's eyes to see what pixels on the screen they are looking at. If users don't see content on the screen that they want or can use, they feel the page is blank! Similarly, users will only use tutorials or hints that deal with how to do something in the workplace. Users will rarely, if ever, use the product's help option. Content graphics, Spool said, will become increasingly important because they supply information in a very easy-to-understand context. Organizations should seek out graphic designers who specialize in specific areas, or who know about the organization's particular business.
Two UIE employees, Matthew Klee and Lori Landesman, also gave presentations. Landesman's "On-Site Search Engines" explored how search engines, while viewed as the solution for finding content, often create problems. She referred to findings that showed "tasks where a search engine was used were less likely to succeed." In fact, only 30 percent of tasks with a search engine were successful. What's behind these search engine problems? Causes included multiple search areas and options that confuse users; Boolean searching that is not, and will not be commonly used; and a lack of metatagging. This is no surprise to the content crowd who have long known the law of "garbage in, garbage out."
Lou Rosenfeld, president of Argus Associates (http://www.argus-inc.com), laid the foundation for the architecture and taxonomies track with his well-attended presentation titled "Information Architecture and the Enterprise Intranet." He established, particularly for those new to the content arena, that architecture relies more on methodology than software. While difficult to define, Rosenfeld explained, information architecture is basically the "organization of content and the design of navigation systems to help users find the information they need.... It's the stuff that matches questions with answers."
This track also included a detailed look at "Making an ROI (Return On Investment) Case for Intranet Information Architecture Design" by Dale Mead, knowledge architect at Nortel Networks. He reasoned that the request from management for the projected return on investment should be approached as a rationale or argument rather than as a figure. Since the ROI answer can be such a challenge, he provided key questions to ask: "Why are you being asked for ROI?"; "What will count for this audience? A numeric value or an intuitive understanding?"; and "How does funding work? What's the decision process?"
Content was also the subject of vendors' show announcements. Powerize.com (http://www.powerize.com) announced its Enterprise Portal Service and Factiva (http://www.factiva.com) announced its relationship with the United States Postal Service (USPS). Using its intranet toolkit, Factiva is providing news and information to the desktops of approximately 30,000 USPS employees. Factiva also hosted a reception at the conference, showing concept designs for the directions it plans to take to integrate more content sources. (Factiva's intranet toolkit is reviewed in the March/April issue of Intranet Professional; http://www.infotoday.com/IP.)
Two tools described as "learning systems" tools that piqued my interest were LocalBrain from GlobalBrain.net (http://www.globalbrain.net) and KnowAll from Worldfree.net, Inc. (http://www.worldfree.net). KnowAll is a proprietary natural language reasoning technology that parses queries to negotiate sentence structure and ultimately get at the underlying concept of the query. GlobalBrain's technology, currently being used by clients to complement and run on top of Verity, suggests keywords and concepts to the user and then ranks content relevance as the user continues to interact with the system. Both of these are only the tip of the iceberg, as vendors will continue to develop tools that can learn to think like users.
No content management track would be complete without mentioning XML. There were two outstanding presentations on XML: Karl Fast, from Northern Lights Internet Solutions (http://www.lights.com) and a member of the conference steering committee, gave "An Introduction to XML Style Sheets and Transforms," and Russell Bonanno from Interleaf, Inc. (http://www.interleaf.com) spoke on "Business Benefits of XML Content Management." Using a very easy-to-follow explanation, Fast reviewed XML, XSL, XSLT, and XPaths, carefully defining when to use which. Bonanno explained the evolution and differences between XML and HTML, arguing that HTML still has a place and can be enhanced with XML. He also gave the audience members a good checklist for determining XML's effectiveness in their organizations. Some of the questions on the checklist were: Complex documents containing different sections for different audiences? Information with long-term value? Not invested in SGML?
Hip to Be Square
There seemed to be an attempt, by organizers and speakers, to inject humor into the proceedings. The session "Why Good Content Must Suck," by UIE's Klee, was really about the techniques necessary for "sucking" users to your site with good content. A track entitled "Big-Ass Intranets" raised some laughs, but it also raised eyebrows, as well as questions such as, "What does that mean?" It meant intranets like Ford Motor Company's and Bank One's, which serve 150,000 and 70,000 respectively.
The "(W)Rap Session and Panel" on the final afternoon gave the conference well-defined closure. Even the title, with the play on wrap/rap, was in keeping with the character of this conference. Panelists Ken Smiley from Giga Information Group, Elton Billings from Remedy Corp., Tom Nunan from Cathay Pacific Airways, Ltd., and Libby Trudell from Dialog Corp. each gave a 5-minute synopsis of what, for them, were the conference highs and lows.
Starting things off on a positive and pertinent note, Smiley pointed out that although there was great interest in portals, there was still much debate regarding a common definition acceptable to all camps. A strong round of applause confirmed that he was correct in his observation that attendees' numerous "how-to" questions went largely unanswered, and that live working examples were desired, both in the sessions and in the exhibits. He was also right on target in his assertion that it is very early in the portal market, and, with this grand array of players, there will be much activity with general fallout and mergers and acquisitions, particularly between content and tool vendors. He cautioned the audience to choose their partners carefully. Too often when vendors were asked how-to questions, he said, they responded with, "hire us." "Ask vendors if they eat their own dog meat," he advised, meaning, ask vendors if—and how—they use their products, and how implementation went. Although you'll probably be asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement, the best vendors will give you a straight answer. In a market that's sure to experience severe twists, we'll need something straight every now and again.
Billings, who was also on the conference steering committee, said he observed a theme of convergence—technology convergence as well as convergence of ideas and concepts. He also referred to the need to address accessing intranets from walkaround devices. But like many of us there, he liked being with others who appreciated jokes about browsers and links!
Nunan returned to the vendor subject, pointing out that their polished presentations and exhibit booths increase the great difficulty buyers experience in trying to understand if a vendor can truly solve their particular problems or integrate with their current systems. He agreed that many vendors do use their own products, and that the vendors are a critical piece of the intranet puzzle.
Trudell positioned herself as a content and tool provider. Her take on the conference was that the culture issue was very strong, and that those speakers who focused on it made very valid points. David Coleman of Collaborative Strategies (http://www.collaborate.com) advised attendees to weigh politics and culture more heavily than technology, she said. Trudell also mentioned that she heard many questions about dealing with internal and external content, as well as about taxonomies, and that it isn't clear yet how, or which, solutions will work. Amen.
It will be interesting to see what themes will prevail a year from now next April 30 to May 2 at Intranets 2001 in Santa Clara, California. Which vendors will be there? Will Mesa Systems, Wavo, and B-Bop have merged into "Mesa My Wavo and I'll Bop You One?" Will Hummingbird be Hoovered or have lighted on a Plumtree? If we knew those answers we'd be calling our brokers, right? Personally, I'll hold out for more conference tracks on content, culture, and collaboration. Because, no matter what the tool providers develop to help us deploy it, it's still the content that's key. And it's us—the people, the wet ware, the gray matter, the human resources—who create and use the content. Besides, no content, no conference.