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?]
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.