The Spark, or “How to take that half-baked idea and turn it into an intranet strategy”

Sparkler

Picture: Gabriel Pollard CC BY-SA 2.5

When I work with clients on intranet strategy, there is always a reason that I am there and that is the first thing I want to find out. I call this “the Spark”. Something has happened that has started this organisation thinking about the future of their intranet (or their wider world of digital work) and a wise old owl has said, “Hang on! We better get a strategy…”

[And if you are interested in improving your intranet strategy moves we’re running a one day training course in London in June 2016. It’s intensely practical and you’ll come away with a plan.]

The Spark is the most free-flowing and unstructured  phase of strategic definithttp://intranetnow.co.uk/workshops/ion. That also makes it the most dangerous; the time when things can go seriously wrong before you’ve even started. In this post I’m going to explain why you need to take care with the Spark, , how to recognise different types and then (like a corporate martial artist) steer the Spark’s momentum onward into what you really need.

Sparks are ideas of different sorts. Some good, some bad. They have other names: a “Vision”; sometimes they are pretending to be a strategy; sometimes they end up as a ballsed-up project plan Sometimes they are a nagging doubt which builds up into a crescendo and demands attention. Sometimes they are just simply a really good idea. There is nothing wrong with a good idea, but they can go wrong when too much blue-sky solutioneering has been applied before the problem is fully understood.

Negative Sparks are the attempted solutions to unmet hygiene factors. These are when someone has finally noticed that under-investment and under-resourcing has had the obvious real world effect. People are suffering: they can’t find things, they can’t complete tasks, maybe the intranet service itself is going down. Whatever the reason, someone says, “Something must be done.”  This in itself is not a problem, we all agree that something must be done. Intranet practitioners will be there  with the usual array of first aid and post-operative therapy to provide the appropriate rehabilitation. However, negative sparks are a problem if in the next breath they decide what the solution is: “Everything is screwed…. and the solution is SharePoint/ Social/ Cloud/ etc.”

Positive Sparks are attempts to exploit a perceived opportunity for advantage. This comes from a much better place than a negative spark, but can be hazardous in the same way. It might be a great idea to bring something new to your users, it really might! But maybe it won’t and stepping back and having a look at it together with all the other problems might be better. The nasty part of this, is that if you look at the wider strategic diagnosis and go with a more traditional way forward (boring old findability over radical socialisation being a total intranet classic), you might be labelled as conservative and not progressive.

Technology and Risk Sparks are desperately common. The platform has come to its end of life, or might even be dropping out of support, or we’ve now got licenses for this because we got them with something else so we’ve decided we should migrate. Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, and don’t bring a technology driven project to the crazy mixed up world of the intranet. These Sparks certainly need some taming but they can sometimes go a loooong way towards delivery before anyone starts thinking about users, publishers and any implications beyond getting servers humming.

Organisational Sparks: Mergers, acquisitions, rebrands, reorganisations, mass redundancies and zombie apocalypses. Something big is brewing and the intranet will need  to change in response. By a week on Wednesday please. These may well take all of your skills to deliver a tactical solution that throws a bone to the problem, before wrestling with the fundamental changes that have just been wrought to your universe.

Senior sparks you know so well. Someone on high has had an idea. They’ve read something in an in-flight magazine, spoken to someone at a conference or their 15 year old has shown them something on their iPad. These sparks are very often delivered using the project methodology known as JFDI. Good luck!

“That’s just, like, your opinion man”

Being merely apes-in-suits, we modern business people are full to the brim of the cognitive biases our brains evolved with. One is called the Einstellung effect, which to put briefly, we can get stuck with trying to solve a problem is a certain way. When, for instance, you know that the answer is mobile-social-sharepoint-slack-apps-tasks-based-cloud before you know what the question is, you’ll look for evidence that will support the Spark and guess what? You’ll find some! Then you’ll stop looking for evidence to the contrary, and then wonder why users don’t like what you’ve provided.

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Without any rigour to your thinking, your whole plan is no more than your opinion, as the Dude above notes so clearly. This is how some bad intranets are born.

Other intranets simply stagnate, as well meaning but weak and fluffy business cases repeatedly fail to attract backing.

The cold dark vacuum of strategic space

Sparks are only bright when the scene is so dull. When there is an absence of strategic thinking and solid operational delivery it leaves a vacuum that can be filled with half-baked ideas.

It is not your job to deliver the Spark as if it were a strategy:

  • It is you duty to analyse it as if it were any other input. It has started you along your way. It has got people talking and interested. Be cool-headed and skeptical. Thank it kindly for its good service, but drop it if you have to.
  • It is your duty to complete the full cycle of strategy formulation and really understand the problems that you are there to solve.
  • It is your duty to ensure that there is not such a vacuum of strategy in the future, so that Sparks can have such a disproportionate influence over what you do.

Sparks catch

You deal with the Spark by using its energy to do something useful. You use a Spark to create some light: you take that interest, the engagement, the apparent burning platform, the god-damned EXCUSE to speak with people, into a process of creating an intranet strategy. The next phase is to cooly understand what is really going on with stakeholders and users. What does this idea really mean to them? What would the implications really be? Is it as valuable as they think? Where does it lie in priorities compared to some alternatives. We’ve written about the phases of Discovery and Diagnosis before.

Extra credit: How to make Sparks

So, intranet manager, if Sparks are so useful you might want to start some yourself. Some of those Sparks might be down to you. You maybe know that there is the potential for your organisation’s intranet to kick ass instead of sitting on it. Maybe you just want to personally do things better this year. These are your Sparks.

You can call me cynical (and many do) but there are darker, more negative Sparks most of us can confess to: intranet managers wanting to see exciting things on their CV have steered projects in certain exotic directions. Cough cough. Again, insisting on a decent strategy formation cuts through the reality distortion field, which is an important thing for more senior readers to note.

So now you know:

  • What the boss wants isn’t written in stone, but it is great way to start with some energy
  • You have to have a strategy – it isn’t optional, it is down to you
  • Having a strategy protects you from random ideas having too much of an effect
  • Having a strategy protects you from your own flights of fancy

The reason you started might not be what you end up delivering. That is not only allowed, it is much better – you are adding value to the process with research, thought and engaging stakeholders. If you have a decent strategy, everything will be laid out in black and white and  you’ll be able to show your working like in school maths class. Then  you can go back to those Sparky people and explain how those ideas grew and evolved and then started the fire burning.

Chris Tubb, December 2015

Join us for a workshop in June 2016

If you’re considering your intranet strategy and need a little diagnosis, why don’t you join me and Steve Bynghall on our day long intranet strategy workshop in London on June 30th 2016. We ran this in January and got great feedback.

Whatever the stage of your intranet we think you’ll find it useful but especially if you have a tricky Spark to deal with. We’ll help you think through the issues in a structured way and you’ll leave the workshop with a much better idea of the way forward for your intranet.

Steve says

“Chris is right when he says you’ve got to handle those Sparks with care. OK so sometimes being spontaneous is good, but not when it commits you to a massive SharePoint implementation your organisation doesn’t really need. Sparks are exciting or pressurising and usually demand rapid action. But the intranet plays too important a role in organisational life to work out the related strategy down the pub on a napkin during your lunch hour.  You need to rise above your own assumptions and those of your stakeholders. Be objective, go through a discovery phase and really understand what your organisation needs.“

Why diagnosing your problems beats a fancy vision for your intranet strategy

Before you create any plan to take you forward, you need to understand where you are. This is paramount whether you are already a stellar performer, or if you are experiencing total failure. The more that I work in the intranet and digital workplace field, the more I am convinced that it is this phase of analysis that determines success or failure.

In strategy-speak this is known as diagnosis, and in this post I going to try to convince you to spend a lot more time and effort on it at the beginning of your project.

It’s something we’ve covered in the past with our diagnosis cards and we will also be covering in our one day training course in London in January 2016.

The doctor will see you now

First off, let’s understand the term. The diagnosis is the period of research and analysis that defines the problems and attempts to explain the challenge that your intranet project faces. Similar to the idea of a medical diagnosis, not only do we try and describe the current realities (think of them as symptoms – say aaaaah!) but critically it gives us the opportunity to consider the reasons why.

Imagine going to the doctor:

You: “Doctor I have a sore throat.”

[The doctor peers into your open mouth.]

Doctor: “You have a sore throat.”

That is useless – you know you have a sore throat, that it why you are here. For the Doctor to earn their keep,  you need and expect an answer like this:

Doctor: “You have a sore throat because you have a streptococcal infection. You need antibiotics and some time off work. Are you a bit stressed and overworked at the moment?”

The doctor of course has lots of training and tools that allow them as a professional to be able to tell a nasty case of strep from throat cancer. Us intranet professionals have a bunch of ways of collecting data to try and understand the current state and what people think about it. For instance:

  • Stakeholder interviews
  • Focus group and workshop findings
  • User interviews and observation
  • User surveys and free-text feedback
  • Analysis of metrics
  • Benchmarking data

By pooling this rich source of data, themes will emerge:

  • How people feel about what they’ve got
  • The sorts of things they really want
  • Sources of enormous frustration to them
  • Their overall satisfaction all things considered.

This is data you need in your hands before you even think about the direction you need to go in. The trick here is to enter a phase of objective self-criticism by seeing the reality of your intranet and your organisation for what they truly are, and this is where it gets tricky for most.

You are literally your own worst critic

Explaining your bad points to yourself is a hard problem. No one would like to admit that they are not very good at something or was the cause of a problem. Professionally we are all taught to say we are brilliant at everything we do, all the time and unfortunately we all buy our own cover stories. Organisations are no different and tend to fall back on the clichés of management or the comforting illusion of best practice. We all have the irritating ability to protect ourselves from perceived criticism. We love to build a cosy bubble of belief around us. It is your duty to burst it with other people’s views of what you do – both stakeholders and users before you go too far in the wrong direction.

You need to understand what you are a bad at if you are going to create complicated plan to shift from one state to another:

  • Do you have the skills to do this? Do you need outside expertise? Do your big projects keep getting ruined by outside expertise?
  • What do people really want? What would be most valuable to them? Would they prefer efficient basics over the latest shiny doobury-wotsit?
  • How has the organisation changed? Is there a different business strategy? Different sorts of customers? Different sorts of employees? Less money? More mobile? More international?
  • Is there something that repeatedly goes wrong at your organisation? Over optimistic project plans? Incompetence at content management? Bad change management? A stifling management culture with no interest in social media? Is trying to keep anything findable a losing battle?
  • Has the market moved since you last did this? You might have a team to cut code but now should you use an off the shelf product? You might have always had on-premises, is now the time for cloud?

Notice it. State it. Discuss it. Plan to mitigate your weaknesses. This is the source of success.

We all know it is ****ed, why rake over the ashes of failure? Let’s build the FUTURE!

Because unless you have a true view of what you do and how it is received it is going to be a failure again. So much of strategy is not in fact the “what”, but the “how”. You might have the vision to provide the all singing all dancing workplace of the future but, as it pains me to say it, you’ll just be spouting clichés that we have all been chasing for 20 years, elaborated by the marketing departments of vendors. By focusing on the fresh view of your problems and how they are, you will start to generate your own ideas that are truly fit to what you need to do.

There is a paradox here. The more you understand about the nature of the problem the better you can tackle the beast. Using an “external” resource is a good way of breaking through the veil of stuff that you can’t see through (or are too afraid to ask).  This could be a consultant or a peer within your organisation, but probably not a vendor for obvious reasons of bias. However once you’ve got a clear view though you need to be really intimately involved in those next steps because you will have a much deeper view of the organisation that any suit on a day rate.

Diagnosis is not requirements gathering

This is an important point. People will of course tell you what they think the solution is as soon as you ask them anything. That’s what people do, they can’t help blue-sky solutioneering and it is likely that they are trying to be helpful. At this stage just notice the themes of things they want. This isn’t a stage of hardcore requirements gathering. Consider what people say they want at this time as symptoms of the problems they are suffering.

Playing the intranet game

Here’s my intranet strategy philosophy in its shortest form.

Given rules 1 and 2 of the intranet game, how do you play the intranet game and win? Without a critical view of your strengths, weaknesses and the obstacles in your path, you won’t and your fancy vision will remain only that.

Chris Tubb September 2015

Steve says.

“Getting a thorough diagnosis is the basis for a good cure. For intranet teams the act of diagnosis is also about being honest with yourself and having clarity of thought.  And that’s difficult when a) You are knee-deep in operational stuff and have no time for clarity b) When you realise that a new intranet  is not really the solution, and  that devalues what you’ve been building diligently for the past five years. I’m not sure there’s a magic solution but I believe focusing on the real problems and discussing them in the open will be ultimately rewarding for both organisations and intranet teams. That’s the sort of approach which leads to unexpected and interesting avenues.”

Need a diagnosis?

If you’re considering your intranet strategy and need a little diagnosis, why don’t you join me and Steve Bynghall on our day long intranet strategy workshop in London on January 21st 2016.

Whatever the stage of your intranet we think you’ll find it useful.  We’ll help you think through the issues in a structured way and you’ll leave the workshop with a much better idea of the way forward for your intranet. It’s going to be intensely practical.

There are still early bird tickets available until the end of September and if you want to discuss the day further with us you can contact us. We’ll also both be at the Intranet Now conference in October.

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.”

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?]

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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.

Don’t get intranet strategy and tactics confused

Your intranet strategy is a plan of action to ensure that you are prioritising what the business needs of you in the most appropriate way.

A tactic is one way of achieving your strategy.

Try not to get the two confused.

  • Improving search is not a strategy. It is a tactic that supports a strategy of maximising findability so that people can get the information they need.
  • Personalisation and customisation are not strategies. They are tactics that support a strategy of maximising relevance for the user and the publisher.
  • Mobile intranet is not a strategy. It is a tactic that supports a strategy of enterprise mobility to ensure that people can get what they need to get done, irrespective of their location.
  • SharePoint (good God!) is not a strategy. It is a tactic that supports, umm, replacing your end of life content management system perhaps or consolidating numbers and types of platforms. Whatevs. This is the case with any particular product name.
  • Social is not a strategy. It is a tactic that supports a strategy of getting people to collaborate and share in a certain way that will contribute to new ways of working.

Tactics can be used for lots of different strategies. For example you can use the implementation of a social platform to support employee engagement and involvement. Both good uses for a different reason. Tactics may be rather modest such as making sure you take your opposite number in IT or Communications to lunch once a month.

Why is this important? A strategy is based on the beneficial outcome of delivering a business need. If you dress up a tactic in strategic clothing you will be found wanting. A few simple questions by a senior manager and your hopes and dreams and reputation will be skewered. If you are unaware of this little game you might spend the next budget cycle muttering about chronic under-investment in intranets being to blame. No. It was you. You fluffed it. Sorry. And there is enough goodwill and interest in these tools out there to not make it a pure hard-cost problem. Find your allies and work with them.

Lastly there is no shame in not operating strategically. If it just you and a monkey delivering the intranet for 5000 close personal friends, just making it work is enough. Make it work well and you should get a medal. There are things that intranet should just do, and do well. Concentrate on those.  Your strategy is more personal: survival and getting out of such a pickle. I give you a hall pass on being required to speak business jargon unnecessarily.

Chris Tubb March 2014

Steve says:

“Chris is right. Confusing a tactic with a strategy is a dangerous game. First of all you potentially alienate the stakeholders and your users who can’t  quite share your enthusiasm for this initiative. Secondly it encourages narrow thinking.  So a limited mobile intranet is up and running, which is great, but your non-office based staff are shrugging their shoulders as they don’t have the BYOD policy,  the wi-fi needed in the factory facility, and the email accounts needed to truly work in a different way. Thirdly the tactic you are pursuing becomes the focus in itself, which means taking your eye off both the ball and the goal.  Always work with some sort of strategy, and slot your tactics in appropriately.”

Don’t let your project plan and governance, become your intranet strategy and governance (or why Intranet stakeholders are your BFFs)

A quick one, but worth repeating.

Your intranet is a complex array of browser based systems and services. They are tangled together like spaghetti alla crazy glue. Your users don’t really get the idea that one bit is owned by one team, and another bit is owned by a different team; nor should they care.

If it has been a bit of a mess the reason is usually that collectively the idea of the intranet has not been a strong one. One day there is enough embarrassment-in-common amongst the great-and-the-good that something-must-be-done. “We need a project to build a new intranet,” they say. A project manager is found. Requirements are gathered. The PM rounds up a strange breed of people called “Stakeholders”, who presumably know what they want. The project starts to fly and some structure is thrown over the rhubarb-muttering crowd like a hopeful fishing net. That net is called “Project Governance” and it attempts to bring some structure to the panicky madness that is a large scale IT development project.

After a bit of monkeying around with Gantt charts, test scripts and usability testing the intranet is handed over to the people that will put content in it and content is poured into it like beer into a tankard. Champagne corks are popped that everyone has a little party, and the PM rides off into the sunset. His work is done here. The development team go and work on something else.

The governance, of course, falls apart because the project is over. The stakeholders drift away. The intranet degrades, until the next time. Then people like Steve and me shuffle onto the scene. We ask if there is an intranet strategy. Small voice: “Not really. Just ideas you know…” Mumbling. Staring at shoes. Is there a steering group. “Used to have one…” Governance model? “Pfffft…. Wild-west, innit.”

There is a better way, people…

Of course what you really need to do is to sort out the strategy and governance to scope, define and set a roadmap for the future. The projects can then fall within this framework.  So…

1. Get a group of people together who are accountable and engaged about the intranet. They will want to use it to drive business outcomes with things like “efficiency”, “engagement” and “knowledge”.

2. Get them to figure out a vision and a plan for the whole intranet – from tip to tail, from the top of the tallest shiniest news story to the dark and dingy team sites. No site left behind.

3. Get them to assemble a way of everyone working together: a governance model that encompasses anything that people might conceive of as the intranet. Let it scale.

Then start creating projects to deliver a bit of the intranet vision. Any project you create should be part of an overarching plan to deliver your intranet strategy. Your intranet “project”, even if it is huge and transformational should be initiated and accountable to your intranet steering group.

There is a better way: PEOPLE

Your intranet isn’t SharePoint. It is a idea that brings unity and structure to people, places and things. Your vision, strategy and governance aren’t just documents. They are held in place by the people who are involved and invested in it. No people, no belief, no mandate, no strategy.

Il faut cultiver son jardin, dagnammit.

If you are in this horrific groundhog day of big-bang project, followed by cold-tea ambivalent mediocrity and eventual and inevitable failure, you can break the pattern.

Save and close that Word document, get up from your desk and go speak with your stakeholders. Bond with them. Give them a reason to believe in a cheery future and your intranet’s place in it. The belief starts with you, and when someone asks what platform your intranet runs on, point at your intranet steerco and say: “Those guys.”

Steve says:

Far too often intranet  strategy comes grinding to a halt for various reasons and then gets revisited when its big project time. The danger then is intranet governance and project governance overlap and become indistinguishable. Sure there are similarities – some of the same stakeholders  are almost guaranteed — but its what happens when the project is over that worries me. It’s amazing how  everybody abandons ship the day after launch. Chris is right,  Keep them distinct, otherwise you could be heading for trouble.

Intranet tactic cards

A seasonal gift from Intranet Directions.

In the spirit of goodwill to all men and women, and to help bring festive joy for intranet teams all over the world, Intranet Directions are proud to present a free gift to everybody. Introducing our cut-out-and-keep Intranet Tactics Cards.

OK, admittedly these aren’t very festive, but in the spirit of Oblique Strategies (we love Brian Eno), we’ve created some cards which have some headline suggestions which are designed to help intranet teams think about working practices, get unstuck with problems, or visit for a bit of occasional fresh inspiration. The original text on each card is not so important – its more the thoughts they may trigger. So even if you think what is on the card is a load of old rubbish, then you might think of something which isn’t rubbish. A fuller set of instructions are below, although you could probably work it out.

Use them at your desk, in a team meeting, in a workshop or pop them straight into the recycling bin, it’s completely up to you. We’ve got four suits of themes:

  • Getting unstuck – a small suggestion if you’re hitting a brick wall
  • Wildcards – a headline to try and look at a problem in a different way
  • Stakeholders – suggestions for engaging with your stakeholders
  • Tactics – things to do to increase effectiveness and adoption

This is a bit of an experiment. We’d love to hear what you think, how you have (or haven’t used them) or suggestions for any more cards, so please do add your comments below. And of course a very happy Christmas or holiday season from us at Intranet Directions.

Steve Bynghall and Chris Tubb, December 2013

Instructions for use

  1. icon_mis  Feel miserable because you are stuck like only an intranet guy can be.
  2. icon_download Download the Intranet Directions Tactic Cards PDF (250KB, on us, for free, no sign-ups)
  3. icon_print Print it out on real world paper. Screw the polar bears.
  4. icon_papers Take the pieces of paper from the printer, and go find a nice quiet spot.
  5. icon_cutting Get some real world scissors and cut across the dotted lines. Start feeling better.
  6. icons_cards  Organise the cards into their different suits.
  7. icon_cards Think about your intranet problem that has got you all stuck
  8. icon_look  Look at the cards, while thinking about your problem. Skills. Take your time. Let your mind wander.
  9. icon_idea Have a bloody brilliant idea.
  10. icon_happy  Feel Happy. You’ve got a plan. You’re unstuck
  11. icon_drinkPub.

Download

Download the Intranet Directions Tactic Cards PDF (13 pages, 250KB, on us, for free, no sign-ups. We are nice people)

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