User's Guide

I recall the exact moment that I decided Sandia National Laboratories, a national-security organization with a distinctly military-industrial complexion, might be a warm 'n' fuzzy place to work.

This was in 1995, when I was writing an article (for another publication) about Sandia's burgeoning intranet. As I toured the Albuquerque campus, I heard from dozens of enthusiastic employees who were arranging travel plans, publishing research--even scheduling conference rooms--all from the comfort of their desktops. Then someone mentioned that Sandia had begun posting on its intranet searchable transcripts of interviews with soon-to-be retirees. In those sessions the departing sages would do brain dumps--in front of a video camera--of the expertise they had accumulated during their tenure. In a flash I went from being impressed to being damn impressed.

Clearly, Sandia's memory bank was a dazzling example of knowledge management and intellectual capital and various other Big Important Concepts that make glad the hearts of consultants. But what I loved about the retiree interviews was the implicit message they sent to employees. At a time when too many people leave their jobs because they feel unappreciated, Sandia was telling its staff: "Your knowledge is important to us. Even if you go, we won't forget you. We can't afford to."

For all the claims that intranets transform organizations (where there is secrecy, let me sow openness; where there is hierarchy, flatness), corporate behemoths are unlikely to be wholly transfigured simply because they've swallowed a piece of the Web. Earlier in the game, however, the potential for change is much greater. Now that intranet technology is beginning to penetrate small organizations (see " Inner Beauties"), company founders have a novel opportunity not just to reflect a culture but to create one--and to make that culture a selling point in recruiting and retaining employees.

The mere act of building an intranet is a statement of sorts. By choosing a communications tool that makes child's play of publishing, management lets employees know that it values their participation. Such basic applications as company news reports and regular dispatches from the CEO ensure that people labor in sunlight rather than in darkness. (Anyone out there using an intranet for open-book management? Seems like a natural.) And, of course, on-line work spaces, project updates, and discussion forums go a long way toward fostering teamwork.

But why stop there? Want to simultaneously boost morale and recognize excellence? Create a section on your intranet where staffers can informally praise their colleagues ("Josephine's report on the China market is a thing of beauty. Click here to read it") or even simple acts of civility ("I am eternally grateful to Bruno for taking notes for me in yesterday's meeting"). Want people to know you don't expect them to labor nine hours without a break? Post the menus from local lunch spots.

Cognitive Communications, a strategic-communications firm in New York City, built its intranet in 1994, when it had 6 employees. (It now has 32.) From its inception Cognitive's network included sections like Get a Life, where employees publish testaments to their after-hours selves: a notice about a spouse's recital, for example, or an audio clip from an in-progress musical composition. "The people who work here are rounded individuals: musicians and programmers and strategists all at the same time," says cofounder David Leveen. "We want this to be the kind of place where they can come to work and not feel they have to hide that stuff."

Does your company's technology make a statement about who you are? Let me know.

-- Leigh Buchanan, Editor