Learning from luddites: engaging with the intranet sceptics

“I’m no good with technology…”

At some stage every intranet manager has to deal with what we might term as the grumpy luddites. These are the sceptics who see no reason why they or anybody else should need to use the new intranet, social network, collaboration platform, application, whatever because

  • a) they can ask a colleague
  • b) they can pick up a phone
  • c) they can use email
  • d) they can use a spreadsheet
  • e) the old intranet was much better
  • f) I’m too busy
  • g) it’s a waste of money
  • h) why should I? etc. etc.

They tend to be naturally contrarian about technology and change, and are usually quite grumpy about it, or what we might call “comedy grumpy” but with a slight edge. These are the guys who read every cliché coming out of yet another survey about millenials, and then model their image on the exact opposite.

A grumpy luddite, digital dinosaur, techno-laggard, or whatever you choose to call them can be a threat when they are influential, well-respected or in a management position. Most likely they are a barrier to adoption in a team, unit or even division.  They may be a dissenting voice in a presentation who asks ‘how much exactly did the company spend on the intranet launch day promotional cookies when my colleagues are possibly facing redundancy”?

In extreme cases they can help to organise or be a vocal point for other dissenters, particularly if there is a mandatory change to a process involving the new intranet. (“Employee self-service…the outrage!”)  If you’re really unlucky they’re one of the stakeholders.  But perhaps most frequently they are an annoyance – a thorn in your side. You already work your socks off, and they’re being critical of what you slug your guts out to do every day. Grrrr!

Ignore or engage?

OK, at first glance this sounds fairly black and white. Just ignore these people, don’t worry about it, it comes with the territory. There are not enough hours in the day to engage with these people as a priority, and it is simply not worth the drain on time, resources and energy. I’ll go and organise an easy meeting with some early adopters instead!

Personally I think there’s a lot of sense in ignoring the grumpy luddites, particularly if you are in full launch mode, and are chasing some early success stories.  It’s also worth not responding to that critical email if you are in a precarious place time and effort-wise and are dissatisfied with your job. If a setback is going to spark resentment in you, then (as the great Scott Walker once sang) make it easy on yourself. Ignore.

However ignoring is not necessarily the most satisfying or tactical path. You could pass them on to your boss to respond, and in some cases if the intranet-sceptic is at a particular senior level, you may need to do this. But if you instead choose to engage with them, and hear their concerns you may find there are some associated benefits:

  • Everyone will respect you more for it, including the grumpy sceptic and your boss
  • You may have prevented some further dissent
  • You may learn a lot about your user population
  • You may even gain a powerful new advocate or even change agent

The value of engaging

If you have the time there are obvious benefits from engaging with the sceptics. Sometimes these people are simply trying to provoke a reaction. It may be a contrarian streak or something more personal against your department , or against somebody at a high level who has functional responsibility for your area.

If you go and see these people, armed with some good arguments, stories and metrics, and have your most reasonable / unflappable hat on then the outcome is likely to be positive. Even if they are unconvinced you may have achieved an “agree to disagree” uneasy truce, the threat from the dissenting voice will be deflected, at least for now. Perhaps you gave them a concession so they felt like they had scored something, for example that you’ll cancel the promotional launch-day cookies for when Phase 2 goes operational.  You will have earned their respect. Your boss will be pleased, you’ll be pleased.

Learning from the laggards

However the most value will come from listening to their concerns. So far this post has portrayed the sceptics as clearly wrong, but in real life it is hardly ever like that. In fact what happens if they are right? And even if you disagree with their views, do others users feel like they do? If so, then their concerns are legitimate.

A vocal sceptic tends to big-up the type of concerns which linger in the backs of the minds of other users and may already be a significant barrier to adoption. Perhaps you didn’t realise it or it wasn’t reflected in the personas you created for this project. If you spend all your time with early adopters and enthusiasts you’re unlikely to crack the tough nut of widespread adoption.

So a session with a critic might throw up some valuable questions such as:

  • Are we promoting the new intranet in the right way which deals with concerns?
  • Are we using the right vocabulary to avoid misunderstandings?
  • Is more specific training needed?
  • Do we need to do some targeted change management or communication?

It may even throw up some more uncomfortable or searching questions such as:

  • Is it really worth doing this process on the new intranet as the old way was actually better?
  • Have we actually got the design wrong?
  • Do I really understand the users as much as I like to think I do?

The last three points are potentially tricky or uncomfortable because they may point to a more significant issue which is more about the potential conflict between you as the promoter and advocate of all things intranet, and you as the guardian of all things intranet. Are you promoting something which deep down is really not very good? Have you become slightly detached from reality?

If this is the case you may need to undertake a minimum valuable repair strategy which is more honest about the intranet capability, although this may be impossible if you’re promoting something new.

Turning sceptics into advocates

If you are able to turn a sceptic and it proves that much of their concern was based on misunderstanding, then you may have gained a powerful advocate. The experience of ‘conversion’ is a powerful one and sticks in the mind. They may now even be a change agent, an enthusiastic supporter.

If your intranet sceptic is a stakeholder then this is what you really have to aim for, and it may take several battles to win the war. Dealing with a grumpy luddite who is also a stakeholder is a tricky one, and if you’re unfortunate to be in that situation and it means everything you do is an effort then you may have to take the battle to a higher level. Ask another stakeholder to intervene on your behalf and hope for the best.

If the luddism is fuelled by office politics or a poor relationship between individuals at a higher level then to be honest there may not be much you can do apart from get on with things and think about your own position.

Walking with dinosaurs

If you have the time try and engage with the luddites and the sceptics. In the long term it will give you a better perspective on users and that means you will do a better job. Acquire a thick skin if you need to and always question whether the sceptics are actually right. This can drive your intranet platform forward, achieve a better design, help you to continuously improve, and then the sceptics might be silenced.

 Steve Bynghall, January 2014

Chris says:

“Laggards are way over there on the other side of the bell curve of adoption. It’s pretty unlikely that you are going to turn them in my opinion, some people just like to whinge. But they also are likely to say the stuff that your early- and late-majority adopters are just going to think. So consider the luddites as amplifiers to a weak signal. Stay connected to reality, your colleagues aren’t robots who are going to adopt something new just because you think it is cool. Detach your hopes and dreams for your intranet from fantasy with proper user and stakeholder research and regular user testing. You may have got it wrong. Be professional and honest enough to admit to yourself.”

Make sure your intranet strategy is still going when everyone else has stopped

Everything is on hold at the moment…

Intranets and the accompany strategy which steers their direction have an uncanny knack of grinding to a halt. Sometimes this is down to their perilous state as a result from under-investment. If this is the case, we recommend special emergency measures be put in place to implement a “Minimum Viable Repair” and get it (and you) moving again.

However, intranet strategy also regularly “stops” in other organisations, including (in our experience) some of the most well-resourced and well-known global companies. Ask what the intranet strategy is and the answer is sometimes “we’re planning to update that” or “it’s on hold at the moment” or there is some sheepish mumbling while the intranet team gaze at their shoes.

Er, where’s the strategy?

In many cases the closest thing to an intranet strategy that exists is a document which was produced during the project for the last iteration or update, and which envisaged a shiny new post-launch world of continuous improvement. If you are really unlucky this is in the form of a slide deck. Sometimes there might be something more “current” which exists a woolly paragraph or passing reference to the intranet in the latest internal comms, IT or digital strategy.

There are several reasons why intranet strategy pauses including a new platform on the horizon or an organisational change, and I’ll be exploring these in more detail below. Despite these often highly plausible reasons for a stop in intranet strategy, intranets don’t stop, and the organisations which they mirror don’t stop either. Your customers and your competitors also won’t be stopping!

Intranets are a 24/7 environment which is critical to the way employees operate. Arguably they contribute to the bottom line and provide competitive advantage. They are a channel to help senior management deliver organisational strategy. So, in our view, intranet strategy and the accompany roadmap are very important, and should not be an area of neglect. Halting them misses a trick, and is the basis for under-delivering to users and stakeholders. It is basically saying it is OK to put your intranet on hold, and that is another way of undervaluing your intranet,

Having an up to date strategy and roadmap:

  • Gives the intranet team direction and a basis to plan and prioritise your activity

  • Means you are more likely to be aligned to organisational strategy and needs

  • Is the basis for continuous improvement, even if the changes are small and incremental

  • Sends out the right messages to stakeholders and users

  • Is really important in engaging site manager / super-user / publishing communities

  • You never know when you’re going to need one at the ready at short-notice

  • Leads to more job satisfaction when you deliver the goods against it

Reasons why intranet strategy pauses

There are several reasons why strategy stops. Usually it’s a combination of one or more of these: Sometimes these are good reasons, sometimes these are excuses for not having a strategy. Ultimately, you decide which.

Busy busy busy

Firstly intranet teams are busy. Very busy. They are swamped by the overwhelming operational inbox that often comes with the territory. Good intentions inevitably get trampled on by workload.

But trust on this one, getting the strategy and roadmap right is worth prioritising especially if there is a link between the direction you need to go in and the reason you are impossibly busy.

The stakeholders are seemingly unengaged

OK, ideally an intranet strategy should be reviewed, critiqued and signed-off by stakeholders who have a whiff of seniority about them, and quite possibly represent IT, Comms and HR. We know in many places that is not going to happen because the stakeholders don’t care, or more likely are too busy to give it proper attention.

If this is the case and there isn’t much you can do about it, assume that the stakeholders trust you. They know the intranet is in good hands. Assume that if the intranet was failing they absolutely would take an interest. If they trust you with the intranet, they also trust you with intranet strategy. It’s up to you to define this. Even if the output gets waved under their nose, and they nod, take that as approval. Seeing something coherent and well-argued, may actually surprise them, and could lead to a budgeting decision. Someone has to do intranet strategy, and it looks like it is you.

There’s a new Director of Comms / IT / KM / HR on the way

So there’s a new owner of the intranet on the way.  The intranet strategy was going to go through its annual review but we might as well wait for the new Director to come in to wait for their input.

Personally I think waiting is a mistake. It can take ages for a new senior stakeholder to get to know the business, and for the intranet to be properly on their radar. Let’s say it could take six months. Given that senior replacement appointments might be known about six months in advance, then it could be up to 12 months before intranet strategy comes up as a topic for discussion.

Having an up to date intranet strategy already in place sends out all the right messages to someone who is probably your new boss. It also ensures continuity and means that you are more likely to have your dabs all over the strategy.

In larger organisations there may be a steering committee which ratifies the strategy and they might want to halt any updates to it based on the new owner, but if you can influence them, carry on as business-as-usual.

There’s a new new intranet platform or SharePoint on the horizon

The biggest mistake intranet teams make is putting everything on hold while IT makes up its mind about a new platform. We may be going to SharePoint? How long before a) IT make up their mind b) The agreements are signed c) The project is implemented d) The legacy systems are phased out. We’re talking potentially years! So until you’ve seen that bit of paper signed, assume it isn’t happening and everything is business-as-usual.

Moreover strategy should be largely agnostic of technology. And although inevitably your direction probably does need to reference an impending decision by IT e.g. perhaps heavy customisation isn’t such a good idea, many of the improvements you influence are around information architecture, findability and content management.

Many improvements you make in these areas are excellent preparation for a platform change. For example having an engaged publisher community who are clued-up and care about what they are doing is not only going to help you every day, but will come into its own when you go for content migration in any project,

We need a new platform, nothing else matters

If the old intranet is creaking and clearly needs replacing, a new iteration might be uppermost in your mind, but perhaps not for anybody else. Banking on a new intranet is definitely putting all your eggs in one basket. There are always things to move forward on your existing platform. A new IA, a new design, a bit of well-positioned workflow…but you may need to veer into Minimum Viable Repair territory here. Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of assuming a new intranet is all-or-nothing, because it may well end up as nothing.

There is a company merger or reorganisation

Inevitably this is going to hijack your intranet strategy and operations so they are going to more short-term, but it can also influence it for the better by assimilating ideas from the new business, or give an opportunity to introduce things you have been thinking for a while.

The point is a merger can force a rethink of strategy but it doesn’t necessarily mean it is completely divorced from existing strategy, and you can’t move forward with a particular direction. You can also learn to plan for future change, particularly if your company tends to acquire other businesses.

Strategy doesn’t stop

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?  Perhaps something else in your organisation halted your intranet strategy?  I think the main issue here is that teams need to prioritise strategy. It is what informs your operations and keeps the intranet relevant. Don’t fall into the trap of having an intranet with no direction, because you’re waiting on something else to happen or a decision to be made. 

Steve Bynghall, January 2014

Chris says:

“A strategy is a plan, people. How can you not have a plan? But, as Steve says, we see it all the time. Intranet teams mumble something about the intranet strategy being developed but they just need something to go their way. You know, I wish more of them would look us in the eye with some steel and just say ‘no’. Grab whoever is interested and document your plan for the next 3 to 18 months with what you know now. Imagine it is code and put some if{} else{} statements in. If we get the go-ahead for SharePoint or the new ESN we’ll do this, otherwise this is the plan and we will concentrate some efforts here – let it emerge. But whatever you do, know what you are doing, write it down and share with everyone who cares. And one last thing: if you don’t have the capability to deliver anything of value strategically, revel in being tactical. That’s your strategy right there, so write it down and take it to your bosses. They’ll blush.”

Intranet Directions elsewhere January 2014

So here are a few other things we’ve been up to on and off the digital slopes:

Chris elsewhere

A new year. Again. The older you get the quicker it rattles past. I’ve got a list for self-improvement that stretches beyond the bounds of the reasonable, particularly learning R and bolstering/remembering my stats chops.

Over in DWG world I’ve been busy with a spot of interesting benchmarking assignments as well as polishing off a couple of research papers (members only I’m afraid) one on the current state of employee directories, and one on “Measuring Communications”. I’ve also done a load more in a series of digital workplace posts for DWG, which seem to have been very positively received :

Other than that it was Christmas break and spending time with the family as we watched the salty Brighton rain slosh against the windows, and with the South Coast greyer than an actuary’s suit I didn’t get to shoot a frame that didn’t include a hat from a Christmas Cracker.

Steve elsewhere

For the  past six weeks or so I’ve been working on various different projects. I’ve got a lot of work-in-progress.. Little bits here and there.  Intranets. Writing. I’ve even co-presented IBF Live. Oh, and there was all that Christmas and New Year stuff.  I am also fantastically hungry because I am trying to lose weight, as well as doing that seven minute work-out thing every day which featured in the New York Times.

The writing I have done on my personal Two Hives blog  and elsewhere is also a little bit random, but includes a focus on a South Korean steel company who are doing very interesting things with their digital workplace, some fence-sitting intranet predictions for 2014 plus a look at the freelancing crowdsourcing markets, which is basically nothing to do with intranets. Here are the links: