The No Intranet Strategy

Intranets aren’t dead, but I fear they might be seen as a toxic brand. I’ve heard some hard feedback about the intranet’s place in the world in recent times, particularly from executives. These senior types fall into roughly two camps.

Firstly, the good news. Group One are senior executives that have “grown-up” with having successful intranets at their beck-and-call. Intranets are normal and expected, but old-school. They broadly see them as a communications mechanism for marshalling the troops:

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Figure 1: The CEO feels the intranet is a way of aligning everyone around the strategy. TO WAR!!!!

Secondly, there is the bad news. Group Two are senior executives that tried intranets and they failed. They are also behind the times in viewing what a modern intranet can do and have an old-school content driven view of what an intranet is. They spent a lot of time and money creating “systems” and putting “content” in them and then no-bugger came and read it. They are still bitter about the experience:

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Figure 2: We built, they didn’t come. We aren’t doing that again, it was rubbish.

As you know the really bad news is each of these groups of senior executives is out-of-date. Firstly, nobody relies on internal communications content alone to bring people to their intranet. Everyone, right up to the Head of IC, knows that the content is the pill, and everything else is the sugar: directory, collaboration, social and the range of applications that an intranet provides structured access to that keeps the place running smoothly. Strangely though, organisations without intranets, or organisations with broken intranets that need to be replaced still tend to start with the home page with a load of communications on it. Because. Um.

It is the done thing as Group One expect it, there is likely to a be large amount of Internal Communications sponsorship involved and the “Intranet Home Page Cargo Cult” bows down to worship the homepage in so doing boiling the entirety of an intranet to a single view at the press of the PRT SCN button. (This is a cult that my esteemed colleague @bynghall is famed throughout five continents for feeding.)

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Figure 3: The source of the intranet home page cargo cult (Steve’s actual key)

Screenshot worship provides an easily perceived purpose of what intranets are for and pervades the industry, People can’t wait more than five minutes into a new intranet project before someone whips up a wireframe of the homepage and skewers the requirements gathering into a real-estate war. If the homepage is 80% about communications, people being simple creatures will be inclined to believe that the intranet is 80% about communications.

So if you are surrounded by either Group One or Group Two executives, or even better caught between rival factions, you need to come up with an answer. Are we going to bother to build a bloody intranet or not?

We need to come back to the meaning of the word “intranet”:

  • The intranet == Content Management System [No dammit!]
  • The intranet == The homepage and the navigation [Getting there]
  • The intranet == the whole schmear internally and externally if you can see it in a browser. [The one we work with]
  • The intranet == the TCP/IP network inside the firewall. [Hell no]

Dispelling people’s beliefs about what an intranet is, or is not, is dispiriting and tiring to the point of wishing to dispense with the word and chase other rainbows, such as digital workplace instead. Don’t get me started, I’ve had interviewees berate me and tell me that for example, the SharePoint collaboration sites were not, as far as they were concerned, part of the intranet no matter what my brief might have said, nor my career’s worth of expertise. Suffice to say if when you say, “intranet” to a senior manager and they equate the value with only communications you are in big trouble.

So if you don’t already have an intranet and your sponsors are somewhere in the region of lukewarm to hostile about the idea are you likely to create one? My supposition is that if you have a broken intranet, or no intranet at all, the option to not create a traditional intranet is both open and valid for several reasons:

  1. The commoditization and cloudification of component services, both in the core intranet and application space – O365, Yammer, Service Now and Success Factors.
  2. Universally available single sign on services such as SAML and out of the box Active Directory integration.
  3. The perceived value of intranet dropping below anything showing any potential ROI.

You can now go and buy a service, pay the money, get everyone signed up and call the job done. So, gather together your core identity management tools, otherwise known as everyone’s usernames and passwords, along with a bunch of external sign on tools and away you go. Procure the best tool for the job and get going. Social platform, Collaboration platform, HR self service, IT ticketing, CRM – you name it, some young bucks in Palo Alto are working on a solution 80 hours a week and they will be keen to take your money.

This process has been happening for the past decade. If you are an intranet manager and you are shocked by what I’ve written here, you are quite possibly suffering from denial big time and you need to snap out of it right now.

There remains one sticky truth, now that you have dispensed intranets forever with a slip-slop-slap of your hands. As you are muttering good riddance you realise that you have an array of mostly disparate services. How do people find these things? How do they get to them. It’s very well for the cool-kids to go spelunking around this digital landscape picking up the tools that work for them but, as I like to say, how does that help Doris and Arthur in Accounts?

I’ve got a great idea so don’t worry. We’ll ask everyone to go to the dominant system (for example social) and we’ll create some easy to find links. To make it easier we’ll show the most relevant links to different groups. Actually we’ll set that as their new browser homepage and we’ll make sure that they have the apps on their phone. Then we can put some best bets in the search… Hang on a moment!

So even if executives from Group Two might not want a classic intranet if the main purpose of the intranet becomes the tree to provide some structure and coherence around all your stuff, intranets have a stay of execution. I am beginning to see the intranet merely as a tree where you hang your stuff. If it hung on the tree it is part of the intranet, if it isn’t it is just elsewhere in the digital workplace. But wherever some structure appears that is where your intranet is. Now, do you want it to be good or just let it happen?

The no-intranet intranet

What if we were to plan a non-traditional intranet using commodity components? Not just let it happen, but play the strategy for all it is worth. What might we gain? What will be lost?

  1. We could drop the idea of it being communications or content-driven. The core is inherited by some form of social platform and the classic static elements are being adapted (mangled) into its place. News stories are announcements and people can follow or ignore updates. It’s activity stream based. This is happening with a few social implementations where some organisations have basically thrown the CMS away and started again. If we are crap at content management, we should look at doing it a different way.
  2. Users don’t give a fig where their zeroes and ones come from as long as they arrive safely. Internal, hosted or cloud? We’re easy! Everything can be secure enough and a solid commodity service being run for a profit is likely to be more secure than your un-patched, unsupported, unloved, homegrown bag of spanners written in ASP from 2004. Cloud-based solutions are a doddle in the mobile world.
  3. You can concentrate on helping people solve real business problems, getting people to exploit the solutions. When something doesn’t work out, pitch it in the bin and move to something better. Rock and roll.
  4. Management of this space changes towards risk reduction and providing the minimum structure that people need with navigation, search and curation.

In terms of loss, I’ve written in the past about the designed and the non-designed digital workplace. When you are relying on someone else’s vision and using a product you have to adapt your requirements. If Yammer doesn’t do it like you want it, you are stuck with it. When Microsoft changes their view of their product, they aren’t going to ask your permission. Maybe this will be a better world. Maybe your requirements aren’t special little snowflakes? Maybe we are all commodities using the standard toolset – such as the yawning tedium of Outlook and Exchange.

The counterpoint to that is that most of you work for commercial organisations in which the whole point was supposed to be competitive advantage. If you are all using the same tools, there are incentives to do it cheaper or do something staggeringly better so you can run rings around your competition. The poster child of different at the moment is Slack, which is providing this structure and coherence for small companies at the level of an instant messaging client with connectors that reach into dozens of different cloud based services. Whether that sort of tool, while compelling for small teams, would scale to 20,000 or 200,000 employees remains to be seen. If Microsoft responds by adapting Lync (or Skype for Business) that could have some legs. But if strategically you approach these tools with an open mind, and with the ability to open single sign on to them within moments of signing the contract, when the holy grail is launched that makes everything else obsolete you can be ready to pounce and launch it.

Meanwhile intranets are not only not dead, but actually might be impossible to kill. Nice intranet you’ve got there, can I have a screenshot?

Steve says:

“Sidestepping the issue around the semantics of what an intranet is and isn’t, Chris is right in that organisations can quite easily get by without a shiny expensive content-focused and corporate branded intranet.

But I think organisations do need some content management here and there, whether it’s to support self-service, make important announcements or deliver internal comms-lite. The crux here is whether that  needs to be done via a prominent publishing platform with lovely UX or by other means. For example some organisations seem to be doing pretty well using social networks with minimal branding (e.g. Yammer)  to get their messages out.

I guess this will eventually become a red herring. Let’s be honest, the cloud means we’re all going down the intranet/ portal/ digital workplace commodity route. The art of customising SharePoint so it looks half decent and does what your users like will be replaced by the art of working out who to pilot the new features of  Office 365 to.  The emphasis will be on implementation not tinkering, branding and consistency.

I suspect then that the features which seem to provoke the most fretting among intranet folk (content management / internal communications / branding) may also become commoditised too and available in your big ticket channels like Office 365. or your HR portal. The content management features may not be lovely, the UX not perfect and consistent, but it will be perfectly adequate and you know, perhaps that’s OK.”

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Making content part of your self service strategy

In these days of social collaboration and apps, sometimes it seems we’ve forgotten that content is very important. Good content is pivotal to the fundamental purpose of intranets, which is to save employees time by helping them to do their jobs more easily.

One of the foundations of intranets is self-service; allowing users to complete tasks and actions themselves.

Self-service is often associated with applications, workflow and ultimately the completion of a transaction. But actually it’s also about content and allowing users to find the information they need so they then don’t have to phone somebody up, send an email or ask a question in a forum.

In most intranets there will be content which enables self-service, particularly around HR processes. There may be FAQs and “how to do” information in different places. Other intranets may have a task-oriented navigation or a focused area on how to carry out processes. I like the example from the UK’s Department of Culture Media and Sport (and since replicated on some other UK government departments) which has a “How To” area as a top level navigation item and details of 350 key processes and tasks.

Making content effective for self-service

To maximise the effectiveness of content to support self-service you need to:

  • Make it readable
  • Make it relevant
  • Make it findable
  • Make it measurable
  • Make it actionable

Make it readable

Clearly writing needs to be clear, focused and formatted in a way that makes it easy for users to scan and understand. The writing may need to suited to users whose first language is not the one the content is written in. It may also need to cross-reference other sources.

Some organisations hire journalists to draft this key content while others follow templates and train content providers to write for the web.

Make it relevant

It is key that the content is relevant to individuals. This can be a challenge when looking at task-oriented content because often processes in larger companies tend to different from location to location or between lines of business.

If your intranet has personalisation and can deliver relevant content to users based on profile data then it is well worth investigating creating self-service content tagged by user profile data. Another related issue is that the same content may need to appeal to a number of different roles, experiences and abilities. Making the same content relevant to everybody can be a challenge and invariably involves compromise.

Make it findable

Self-service content may tend to deal with some major ticket processes or commonly accessed themes such as benefits and pay. You want to ensure users can quickly find these items based on needs.

If findability is not good then preparing the content becomes a pointless exercise. There are plenty of ways to make the content findable, for example:

  • Creating a task oriented navigation either at a global or local (eg HR) level
  • Creating a special section of the intranet relating to how to do things
  • Ensuring prominence in search, for example, using best bets
  • Allowing a restricted search for a particular section of the intranet
  • Cross linking from different sections such as related processes
  • Guiding users towards the content when answering queries rather than giving them the answer

Make it measurable

Self-service usually has an identifiable outcome  and associated KPI. For example this might be driving a number of transactions or freeing up time and resources in comparison to the way things were done previously.

While normal metrics for intranet pages are important and show engagement with the content it is also key to measure the actual self-service element. For example looking at reduced time spent or the number of calls made to the HR centre as a relative KPIs is key.

Make it actionable

I started off this blog by saying don’t forget self-service is all about content as much as it is about completing an online transaction. But of course the two also compliment each other. If your content leads to a system where individuals need to visit, then of course do link to the system. Make your content as actionable as possible.

Overall self-service is critical for intranet success. Content is critical for self-service. Make sure your overall content strategy is aligned to your self-service strategy and vice-versa.

Chris says

Good content. Yes Steve, I’m with you all the way. Yes. But how?

Gerry McGovern famously quips that the perfect intranet is the survivor’s guide to a shitty week. I have started to feel that the root of most intranets’ woes, is basically organisational incompetence with content.

It is provable that the sort of content people want and need and and that helps them in their everyday work, is not what is being provided. Most effort is going towards content that is intended to create and maintain a reality that is being projected by management. That is a perfectly valid use of the intranet (indeed it has been our heartland) and it is perfectly reasonable for senior management to want to use a tool in which they have invested, for that purpose. We need to trust our brothers and sisters over in internal communications that providing that sort of content improves business performance and they in general are moving with the times.

But why can’t we have both the blistering and engaging new stories and brilliant content that tells me how to get a new security pass? Every one of those people out there in corporate-land, when they applied for their fancy jobs probably put “Excellent communicator” and “Superb standard of written communications” on their CV. And yet.

I’m afraid I have little faith that most organisations’ abilities to change this situation. I think many organisations are giving up on content full-stop. But please, oh please, prove me wrong.