Going external with your intranet expertise to get internal recognition

With the daily parade of tasks to complete on the intranet or ESN it’s sometimes difficult for intranet teams to stand out and get their contribution and professionalism recognised within their company. This is particularly tricky when a platform is at the middle level of maturity and regarded as business as usual.

Unless you are locked into a process with incremental but significant improvements, in business-as-usual mode perhaps there are fewer opportunities to shine. This is especially hard in a backdrop where senior leaders regard what you do as operational.

Going external

One option is to try and draw some attention to the value the intranet team provides by speaking externally about what you have done internally. Of course this can be very rewarding, enjoyable and good for your career but the value of speaking to a group consisting mainly of peers (e.g. other intranet ESN or collaboration folk) is not often recognised by senior management.

Where senior management do see immediate value is where speaking about what you do externally:

  • Enhances the brand and reputation of the firm externally
  • Creates an opportunity to engage with clients and targets
  • Gives senior management a talking point or opportunity to talk with their peers
  • Enhances the personal reputation of leaders
  • Provides a revenue opportunity, for example through consulting

Limited opportunities or more than you think?

Options for talking externally in a way which will impress senior management might appear limited, but the lack of opportunities might just be down to the fact that its something that hasn’t ever been suggested. Clients and contacts, regardless of the sector you’re in, often want to hear a good digital transformation story and if you have something to share, share it.

If there isn’t an opportunity arising, there are options such as entering some awards.  This has certainly got some teams some internal recognition. There are a number of intranet-related awards around now  and as you may know I coordinate the Intranet Innovation Awards for James Robertson and Step Two Designs. Quite often winning companies issue a press release.

Meanwhile some organisations are also happy to talk about their digital journey. PwC are a good example. They have been happy to talk about their successful Jive implementation because it shows a progressive company culture (good for recruitment) and also strong connections across PwC’s global network of firms (important for servicing global clients). Sportswear giants Adidas have also detailed their intranet and learning environment in blogs posts on their corporate website.

Consulting opportunities?

Your internal ESN, intranet or digital workplace experience also has the potential to be part of an external consulting offering.

You probably have a head start if you work in a company which does consulting on a regular basis because they have the experience and framework to make it happen. For example I know one intranet manager who spends about 10 to 15% of their time on paid consulting for their company. Doing some consulting and getting revenues in means that the intranet team can potentially move from being a support function to something which has the ability to be client facing.

OK so some of the ideas above are not necessarily earth-shattering but it can certainly alter perception of your value among senior management. And if someone high up looks at you in a new light, then that can only be a good thing.

Chris says

It’s lonely in there, and everyone thinks that in other companies it is all roses. There are loads of opportunities to get out there are share what you are doing, to be helpful for others, to raise your profile or just for the thrill of presenting. But always remember that you are at risk of becoming someone else’s product in this big weird world. If you are cool with that quid pro quo, that’s fine, but be aware of it and say no if it puts you in a difficult position. And be brave enough to be honest about the reality of your work. I am always struck about the difference between the reality of what I see consulting and benchmarking, where life is hard, and the razzmatazz world of conferences and webcasts where everything is fine, dandy, kicks and giggles. That said, I wish I had done more of it when I was in house, as it would have really helped me when I wasn’t. As for consulting? No. You stay there. ;-) 10-15% on external projects? I don’t know any intranet managers that have 10 to 15 minutes!

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.