WordPress as an intranet CMS – the Tech Liminal way

For some years the WordPress platform has been called a ‘lightweight content management system’. It’s functionality goes way beyond that of a standard blogging platform (driven by the large number of plugins and theme extensions), and with a bit of know-how you can mold it to fit your content management needs. That’s just what Anca Mosoiu from Tech Liminal did on a recent assignment to redesign the intranet for a Government organization. She ran through this case study at a recent WordPress Meetup and I caught up with her at her Oakland office and received answers to a number of questions that had been perplexing me since her presentation.

What are the main advantages WordPress offers in terms of improving information architecture?

Anca explains that before using WordPress, the intranet was a laundry list of largely static links. Updates to the homepage were handled by the webmaster. Deeper content was tied up in a wiki – content that had grown organically over time with very little structure and in some instances out of date.

WordPress helped impose an overarching organizational structure, removing much of the extraneous/duplicate content – at least from the homepage. It also allowed for the display of dynamic content by pulling out the latest content for different sections:

Underlying this framework is WordPress MU (multi-user) with a network of sites powering the different sections. MU by itself does not support a hierarchy: this was developed by Anca to permit the hierarchical organization of the sites, which is great for organizing deeper content, such as the different components of the HR department.

WordPress also relies heavily on Categories and Tags (and more recently custom taxonomies) for organizing its content – something Anca utilized to great effect with the display of announcements from across the different sites in the network.

One area that required custom development was the common network navigation (the top menu) shared by all sites in the network. The top menu was built to give people the sense of a site hierarchy. By applying the same theme to all of the sites in the network, visitors get the feeling they are always within the same website.

What are some useful customizations/plugins to consider for a WordPress intranet CMS?

A selection of the plugins Anca recommends:

TinyMCE Advanced
Tables are not easy to achieve in WordPress unless you have a good understanding of HTML. However tables are a common form of content organization in an Intranet, and this plugin does a great job of bridging the gap. In addition to tables, the plugin gives you much more choice over formatting choices.

WordPress MU LDAP plugin
Useful for connecting WordPress up to a database of users (using the popular Microsoft LDAP interface). For instance, it allows company employees to post comments on the site, and update relevant content, using the same password they use for other applications such as email .

WordPress MU Sitewide tags
This plugin, used for some time on the WordPress.com homepage, aggregates tags across all the sites into a common network cloud. As tag clouds are a great way of displaying large bodies of content in a meaningful way, this is a considerable navigational aid.

Customized link widget
Link lists are used in various places on the homepage to display important links. This widget developed by Anca’s team, allows you to set up custom classes for different link lists so you can alter the appearance of each list. It also allows you more control over the ordering of the links in the list.

What role does the intranet manager play?
The role should be more communications-based and less about the technnology. You ideally want someone who can help motivate the workforce into constantly generating relevant content. In addition, they should be able to help coach content providers and help fix minor issues that come up (such as post formatting). The individual should be able to form strong links with employees across the organization to make the intranet a lively, collaborative space.

Do you track how successful the implementation is? Eg. page views, frequency of posting
Tracking and analytics were set up as part of the site architecture from the beginning. The site has been only been up for a little over a month, currently having four users signed up to provide content. At the point of launch, new posts were being made at the rate of about one per day.

What are the key differences between designing an implementation for an Intranet vs. external consumption?
Anca points out that with an Intranet site, there are different priorities and constraints. One thing that can generally be guaranteed is the browser that will be used to view the site – there’s no need to cover every case, since everyone is standardized on Firefox. Contact information, personal names and email addresses can be published on the site without privacy concerns. There are less worries about security, because the site is behind a corporate firewall. This can also be a drawback, in that it provides disincentives to upgrade.

The site itself can be much more specific, since there are a fixed number of actual constituents and stakeholders. However, since there are these specific constituents, a fair amount of effort was expended getting everyone’s buy-in.

How long did it take to setup this implementation for the JGI Intranet?
All in all, the project lasted about 6 months. About 3 of those were focused largely on development, while the rest was focused on gathering support for the new site, inventorying content that would need to be added, and creating a design that would meet the needs of most of the organization.

Anca’s presentation on this project:

Anca Mosoiu is a partner in Tech Liminal, a web design/development agency and all-round tech-house based in central Oakland. They host regular Meetups to support East Bay bloggers (which I can testify has helped me breathe new life into Caged Ether).

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