Intranet metrics are the intranet strategy you can count

Recently I’ve spent some time advising companies on intranet and digital workplace strategy.  I find it quite a privilege to be asked to help organisations to find out and write down what they think is important. There isn’t much of a secret to working out an intranet strategy and it can be summed up in the question “What do  you want the intranet to achieve?”. Many organisations know what they want the intranet to be or do, but can find this one a bit more difficult. The answer can be as slim as “help in any way we can” or far more specific than that such as “Act as a cultural focal point subsequent to a merger.”

One of the other areas I’ve focused on on is intranet metrics. I’ve written a couple of DWG Papers on it that have been very well received and I was consulting in this area when I was struck by a realisation: Intranet metrics and intranet strategy are basically the same thing, or more specifically intranet metrics are the parts of your intranet strategy that you can count.

Very often when talking to people about what they want to measure, I find we are basically reverse engineering their intranet strategy. If they haven’t got one we end up writing their intranet strategy. In a nutshell, there are a huge range of things you can measure but only some of them are useful. Our cut-off point of usefulness is whether the measurement is an indication of success. Your measure of success is contributing to a state you want to achieve. So what do you want your intranet to achieve? Ta-raaaaaah! Quod erat demonstrandum, baby.

Intranet platforms provide a huge range of numbers that may or may not be useful. This presents a temptation for the unwary intranet manager blundering through their year hoping that a spike in adoption might help reduce the likelihood of being shouted at. But in reality, without an intranet strategy in place many of these metrics may be meaningless, and a “good” metric is something that is easily measurable and readily available rather than relevant. Very often the truly meaningful metric doesn’t even come from your analytics platform. The total number of internal email attachments sent is a lovely proxy for collaboration platform adoption for example.

What do your metrics mean again (Three is a magic number)?

Every so often I see a question posted on LinkedIn or similar and it is a variation of the following:

  • How many page views should my news story get?
  • How often should people look at the home page?
  • What percentage of people should use an ESN to consider it adopted?

[I’m reminded of the nonsense questions from the beginning of De La Soul’s Three is a Magic Number:

  • How many feathers are on a Perdue chicken?
  • How many fibres are intertwined in a Shredded Wheat biscuit?]

de-la-soul-vinyl-320

These are nonsensical questions and knowing the answer gets you nowhere.

Questions I’d ask that would be richer in strategic goodness include:

  • Who do you want to read this news story and what do you want them to think, do or feel different afterwards?
  • What is bringing people to the home page, how do they interact with it and where do they go next?
  • What groups are using the social network  and what processes or use cases are improving as a result?

So, it’s clear to me: If you are feeling the need to bolster your metrics, you are dipping your toes in strategic waters. Better deal with them together and be done with it. If alternatively you are in the process of forming a strategy, attempt to describe how you would measure it. Two birds, one stone. But don’t expect to get useful numbers without a strategy.

Other people’s strategies (and Unikitty)

There are other sources of strategy though, and each will be a lens to gauge success for other areas of the organisation, or particular projects. Even though you might not be responsible for them, you can also use this to power-up your metrics-fu when stakeholders come demanding numbers:

  • The Internal Communications team should have a communications strategy
  • If you are very lucky there is a content strategy that says what the content on the intranet should achieve
  • Perhaps there is a collaboration or knowledge management strategy
  • If Martin White has been about there might be a search strategy
  • Wouldn’t it be nice if there was strategy for the implementation of a social platform which was more than “acquire a cloud-based platform and they-will-come ”?
  • There should certainly be an IT strategy
  • And if there isn’t a business strategy to align with, polish your CV and contact a friendly recruitment consultant.

numbersunikitty

So when your lovely stakeholders are demanding numbers from you to justify their existence, you can ask to look at their strategy to see what they are trying to achieve. When they can’t tell you what they want to achieve in measurable terms, but want to act like Business-Unikitty (above) you can gently send them away to have a bit of a think.

There are two other points I’d like to make about thinking strategically about intranet metrics, if you are still with me:

Goodhart’s law

The first is encapsulated in what was originally called Goodhart’s Law, but I shall paste three quotes directly from Dave Snowden’s recent blog post including his masterly bleak variation:

  • Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes  (Goodhart)
  • When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure (Strathern)
  • Anything made explicit will sooner or later be gamed for survival purposes and that need will corrupt practice and people (Snowden)

This is the world of perverse incentives: Trolleys in hospitals being reclassified as beds. Soviet steel being shipped thousands of miles for no good reason, and crafting news stories so they get lots of comments and likes. OK the last one is trivial by comparison, but as soon as you focus too much on measuring something, and particularly if you start judging people on it you are playing with fire.

The way I recommend to get out of this horror is to look at bundles of individual but related measures together to get a good picture of reality, and don’t fixate on a target.

Use metrics for good, not for evil

“He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts—for support rather than illumination.” — Andrew Lang (attrib.)

Seriously. You measure things to find out what’s happening, not as a way to say you’re fabulous. Presumably knowing you are fabulous, and maintaining that appearance before and after a measurement, you won’t let mere data get in the way. There is a way of doing this called benefits management and it all about proving that the benefits you promised, say in a business case, have indeed happened. However a lot of intranet metrics work verges on the dishonest and does one of two things:

  • It goes and looks for evidence that supports a choice that has already been made (AKA cherry-picking)
  • It attempts to justify benefit through a vague proxy that then becomes overwhelmingly important: “We are great at communications because this news story was viewed so many times and some people pressed a button labelled ‘like’.” (AKA Reification)

Resist the temptation. Play with a straight bat. Shun the dark-side. Regard the intranet as a natural phenomenon you are trying to guide gently in a good direction. You make a change and observe the result. Think gardening.

In summary

Strategy and Metrics are one. Allow your measurement strategy to emerge logically out of a measurable strategy. Help guide your stakeholders towards this path by measuring the right things.

Steve says

Chris is right in that all too often intranet metrics tend to slant towards arse-covering, convenience or just plain cobblers.  A few years back we could probably just about have got away with it, but these days we all need to be data-driven metrics-heads.  Metrics need to mean something, and rubbish numbers just doesn’t cut it with the suits.

Considering metrics as an integral and inseparable part of strategy is a refreshing way of thinking about what you measure. That not only helps to focus your mind on what is meaningful but it can also work on helping you articulate your intranet strategy too.  When you find something that resonates as a strategic direction and as a  KPI to reflect your progress, it can be a mini-eureka moment.

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Next career steps for the intranet team

One of the perennial issues for intranet managers and teams is where to move their careers. Where should they go and what should they do next? Go and manage another intranet? Take on a wider digital post? Web stuff? Internal comms? Or go and grow carrots somewhere peaceful?

In the absence of a massive win on the lottery, the next step in the careers of the intranet team can be complicated. The principle issue is that there is no such thing as a nice standard and thoroughly linear career path in the intranet world.

This is largely down to the multi-disciplinary nature of the profession. Those who end up managing intranets come from a variety of backgrounds including internal communications, IT / tech, administration, Knowledge Management, involvement in websites, HR and even the core professions of the organisation.  Some of those individuals will have entered the intranet world completely by accident.

Most of the professions where intranet teams first got their training have traditions, structures and roles which provide some sort out of established career path. But there is no clear progression in the intranet world.

Nowhere to go

It is true that there is a growing number of highly professional individuals who have managed intranets and understand the processes and nuances of the channel, and then go on to manage other intranets. But intranet teams in most organisations tend to be small, and inevitably individuals hit a ceiling pretty quickly, finding that there is now nowhere for them to go.

Perhaps the team can expand, or the remit of the intranet can expand, but these tend to be temporary.  Eventually there will be nowhere to go, resulting in some truly excellent intranet managers who have been in one place for a very long time.

Identity crisis

Another complication in intranet career paths is the identity crisis that intranets are going through now. There is a lingering perception that intranets are rather backward and useless, an unnecessary anachronism for awful corporate messaging. But actually most intranets have far more value and go way beyond internal communications.

However if the perception of intranets are bad (and it is among some organisations, and therefore among some employers) then does branding yourself an intranet person potentially limit your options? Are you associated with a channel which is misunderstood and does not reflect the wide skill set needed to run it? Do you need to be a digital workplace professional?

Options schmoptions

However despite careers not being straightforward there are lots of options for next steps for intranet teams. Here are some of our ideas.

Onwards and upwards

You could carry on being an intranet manager but in a place which is a greater challenge. That is a good step especially if you’ve cut your chops in a smaller organisation, or there are opportunities for internal promotion.  Go for a bigger organisation, a bigger team, a bigger budget, bigger responsibilities, a global intranet or a challenging implementation from scratch. The only way is up.

Gun for hire

One option if you want to stay in the (strange) world intranets is to go into contract work, usually shifting from position to position every six months to a year. There are roles which come up through maternity leave, or on projects and implementations.  This is also a good option if you want to get experience of a new technology, wish to bide your time or always get itchy feet if you stay with any organisation for too long.

Digital channels head

A fairly typical next step for intranet chief is to become digital channels chief. So you may inherit the website and quite possible the collaboration platform. As digital becomes recognised as important at a strategic level, this is potentially a good move to make a contribution to your company.

Digital workplace chief or Chief Digital Officer or something like that

This is really one above a digital channels head, and is really about being given a mandate to drive and implementing digital strategy. There’s been some interesting things written about this, for example by our colleagues over at DWG.

Return to roots

One choice is to regard your intranet role as an amusing diversion and return to what you were doing previously before what you might regard now as a career cul-de-sac. Perhaps you were in a pure marketing role, perhaps KM or HR. Or even a frontline role. Of course options to return to your roots may diminish the longer you’ve spent wrestling with intranets.

Comms commando

Depending on the nature of your role and what you were doing before, rising through the ranks in the internal comms world may be an entirely sensible option. Intranet management gives you a good grounding in all things digital, community management. social and even mobile, and that stuff is the future of internal communications after all. Apparently.

Let’s get techie

Intranet managers, particularly in smaller companies, tend to pick up lots of technical skills on the way. If you love a bit of coding on the side then a more technical direction for your career may be worth considering. IT departments tend to lack people with solid experience on the business implementation and internal customer side so your mix of IT and intranet management could be relatively unique.

Special moves

Perhaps it’s time to specialise? UX, content strategy, metrics and data, search, change management, project management and even community management are now established roles and have value well beyond the intranet. There are even some professional bodies across these roles.

Interesting combo

It is not just combining IT skills and intranet management experience that can open doors. Mixing experiences and specialisms builds a USP which might mould future roles around your background. For example I’ve found my intranet and collaboration platform experience when mixed with my professional writing activity has definitely helped my career.

Moving to the dark side

An option is to join the providers and work for a consultancy, agency or software vendor operating in the intranet space. There are options for consultants, community managers and behind the scenes people. Companies and vendors absolutely value real solid experience, and so do their customers. There are even notable examples of ex-intranet managers going off and creating intranet software and selling it.

Of course we speak from experience as we are now wielders of dark forces ourselves. Our experiences are overwhelmingly positive. Most people in the industry are very nice and openings often emerge out of relationships built working with providers while an intranet manager.

Do something else

Of course you could go and do something else entirely. You could retrain. You could do something which is more values driven. You could even go and launch that business you dreamed about. One thing we can guarantee is the multi-activity and multi-stakeholder nature of being an intranet manager will have held you in good stead somewhere along the line and allow you to draw on that experience whatever you do.

Whatever you choose to do, good luck!  Intranets are an interesting career choice and despite the frustrations which can be involved, these are invariably outweighed by the positives. Tell us where you got started and where you are headed in the comments!

Chris says:

I had promised Steve that I would disagree on principle with this post, because I always seem to agree, yet my vicious red pen remains in my pencil case of doom. I’ve always been a square peg, and if you identify as an intranet person you will too. Always in the middle, not one thing or the other. Interstitial and loving it. There is far too much black and white in modern organisations and intranet people operate in a world of nuance. I started hand-coding HTML in MS DOS Edit principally because I could and it has led me a strange and entirely unanticipated path. I’m rushing headlong towards the unknown and ephemeral world of the digital workplace, where nothing appears to make any sense and no one is in charge. Be a maverick, be ready for anything, move with the opportunities and be prepared to be asked to write your own next job description. Just don’t expect to easily explain yourself at parties when someone asks what you do. I hate that.