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Shoddy search prevents worker success

Poorly designed intranets are a serious drain to productivity, according to new research. So next time your boss chides you for being slow, blame search.

Ineffectual corporate search tools can be the biggest drag on employee productivity, costing companies as much as $15 million annually, according to new research.

Internal company networks, or intranets, offer employees easy access to material such as company records, corporate policies or other data. Finding documents, however, can be overly challenging if an intranet is poorly designed or search tools aren't efficient, according to a study released Wednesday by the Nielsen Norman Group, a research firm.

"Many companies don't have a coordinated intranet strategy, but rather tons of small fiefdoms with their own search tools and navigation," said Jakob Nielsen, a principal at the Norman Group and an expert on Web site and computer usability. "It completely ruins people's ability to find anything."

As companies look to cut costs amid a prolonged economic downturn, many are turning to technology to automate services previously handled by employees. Automation isn't always the solution, however; the time required to properly understand tools can become a drain on efficiency, too.

"It begs the question: Is technology helping or hindering us in society? Intranets are just one piece," Nielsen said. "We really need computers to adapt to human beings for the good of productivity."

Specifically, companies need to unify divisions on a corporate intranet and provide one search tool for all necessary documents. A search box should be prominently placed on a corporate intranet's home page to help people quickly find information.

Many companies, such as Google and Verity, have introduced systems to help make sense of corporate search environments.

Nielsen also suggested that executives grant more authority to intranet managers to improve corporate systems. Intranet managers typically get mired in squabbles among disparate department managers over system requirements and often fail to build unified networks under one design and one search engine.

According to the study, titled "Designing Usable Intranets," the group estimates that a poorly designed intranet can cost an average company with 10,000 employees $15 million per year in lost productivity.

For the report, Nielsen took a look at 14 company intranets, including those of American Airlines and Cathay Pacific. On an annualized basis, employees completing the same tasks on an poorly formed intranet versus an efficient one could spend either 196 hours or 27 hours, respectively. The hours were calculated per employee with an average annual salary of $40,000, plus overhead costs.