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.

Advertisements

Never get solely fixated on driving intranet or ESN adoption

In Chris’ last post he outlined why it’s important not to confuse strategy with tactics when it comes to intranets. In my view one of the reasons for this is because intranet teams have a habit of focusing too much on the tactics and working energetically and diligently to make them work, without ensuring they are part of a strategy which ensures business value.  Ultimately this leaves teams open to a withering “that’s nice, but so what” from senior management.

One of the reasons for this is the obsession with driving adoption when it comes to intranets and collaboration platforms.  Of course if you build a site or post content, it’s only natural that you want more people to use it or read it. More visits to the homepage, more users registered to the social network, more collaboration sites created, more comments on the news items, more unique visitors. These are often the validation of an intranet team’s efforts and the evidence of success.  They are also some of the easiest things to measure.  I’ve become fixated on driving adoption in my work and I’m sure I will again and again.

I’m not going to pretend that adoption isn’t important, because it is. It may well be the prerequisite for the overall success of your intranet strategy. Perhaps you need some sort of scale to feel an effect an organisational level, for something to be transformative, or to realise some sort of ROI benefit.  But it’s only part of the mix and increasing adoption on your intranet is definitely not a strategy in its own right.  

Focus on value not adoption

Adoption also only has value if what users are adopting has value. It has little value in itself. For example email has spectacular adoption, but now a reduction in that adoption level is regarded as a good thing.

In his recent presentation at Congres Intranet in Utrecht  Lee Bryant is quoted as saying “We don’t need people to adopt the intranet. We need people to do their job.”  This is spot on. If an intranet has less value, perhaps because it is only an internal communications vehicle, then adoption becomes a little bit of a red herring. Yes, there may well be some residual value in many people visiting the homepage and reading the news, but does the impact really justify the efforts?

The lure of the uptick

It’s also really easy to be seduced by the uptick of adoption. There will be a post-launch surge which provides an immediate high for the project team after the energy-zapping pre-launch effort. But we all know things might not pan out so well in the medium to long term.

There can also be a degree of complicity in presenting the stats to stakeholders, showing a nice upward-looking trend which presents success at a glance.  And that’s not to say these adoption trends might be really significant and fantastic, but they might not be.

It’s that tactics-and-strategy-confusion thing again

When adoption becomes your main focus, you’re in danger of judging success on the delivery of the tactics which drive that adoption. Intranet teams do have a lot of tactics at their disposal to drive adoption. I’m thinking better usability, a nicer design, gamification, subtle nudge tactics, advocate networks, publishing communities, notifications, personalisation, customisation, dashboards, metric scores which reflect engagement and adoption, encouraging viral growth, even traditional change management. These can all be excellent and important techniques when done right, which do help drive those numbers up.

But what does a 20% increase in the number of visits to the homepage mean? What does the unexpectedly fast viral growth of a social network mean? What does a 25% rise in the use of Team Sites mean?  Intranet managers and ESN community managers with their eye on the ball need to ensure it means something for their organisation and the people who work there.

Chris says:

“Now. I bloody love metrics. But it isn’t blind love and I can see its flaws. Adoption is a lonely metric unless it is enriched with a bundle of other more meaningful business metrics that should include a measurement of what you were after in the first place. Adoption worship, I think, perhaps comes from a lack of a hard understanding what your benefits were up-front. If you are deploying an ESN to break down barriers between functions go and look for the cross functional diversity of different communities and measure that. If you want to break the cold and steely grip of email, go and look for a drop in the number of email attachments. I understand where people are coming from. When you’ve done a great big intranet project you want it to be loved, but each large project is poker-chips-down, and some of your bets won’t work and you won’t press through into the late majority for many reasons. Go and read Everett M Rogers’ “Diffusion of Innovations” for more on this.”

Learning from luddites: engaging with the intranet sceptics

“I’m no good with technology…”

At some stage every intranet manager has to deal with what we might term as the grumpy luddites. These are the sceptics who see no reason why they or anybody else should need to use the new intranet, social network, collaboration platform, application, whatever because

  • a) they can ask a colleague
  • b) they can pick up a phone
  • c) they can use email
  • d) they can use a spreadsheet
  • e) the old intranet was much better
  • f) I’m too busy
  • g) it’s a waste of money
  • h) why should I? etc. etc.

They tend to be naturally contrarian about technology and change, and are usually quite grumpy about it, or what we might call “comedy grumpy” but with a slight edge. These are the guys who read every cliché coming out of yet another survey about millenials, and then model their image on the exact opposite.

A grumpy luddite, digital dinosaur, techno-laggard, or whatever you choose to call them can be a threat when they are influential, well-respected or in a management position. Most likely they are a barrier to adoption in a team, unit or even division.  They may be a dissenting voice in a presentation who asks ‘how much exactly did the company spend on the intranet launch day promotional cookies when my colleagues are possibly facing redundancy”?

In extreme cases they can help to organise or be a vocal point for other dissenters, particularly if there is a mandatory change to a process involving the new intranet. (“Employee self-service…the outrage!”)  If you’re really unlucky they’re one of the stakeholders.  But perhaps most frequently they are an annoyance – a thorn in your side. You already work your socks off, and they’re being critical of what you slug your guts out to do every day. Grrrr!

Ignore or engage?

OK, at first glance this sounds fairly black and white. Just ignore these people, don’t worry about it, it comes with the territory. There are not enough hours in the day to engage with these people as a priority, and it is simply not worth the drain on time, resources and energy. I’ll go and organise an easy meeting with some early adopters instead!

Personally I think there’s a lot of sense in ignoring the grumpy luddites, particularly if you are in full launch mode, and are chasing some early success stories.  It’s also worth not responding to that critical email if you are in a precarious place time and effort-wise and are dissatisfied with your job. If a setback is going to spark resentment in you, then (as the great Scott Walker once sang) make it easy on yourself. Ignore.

However ignoring is not necessarily the most satisfying or tactical path. You could pass them on to your boss to respond, and in some cases if the intranet-sceptic is at a particular senior level, you may need to do this. But if you instead choose to engage with them, and hear their concerns you may find there are some associated benefits:

  • Everyone will respect you more for it, including the grumpy sceptic and your boss
  • You may have prevented some further dissent
  • You may learn a lot about your user population
  • You may even gain a powerful new advocate or even change agent

The value of engaging

If you have the time there are obvious benefits from engaging with the sceptics. Sometimes these people are simply trying to provoke a reaction. It may be a contrarian streak or something more personal against your department , or against somebody at a high level who has functional responsibility for your area.

If you go and see these people, armed with some good arguments, stories and metrics, and have your most reasonable / unflappable hat on then the outcome is likely to be positive. Even if they are unconvinced you may have achieved an “agree to disagree” uneasy truce, the threat from the dissenting voice will be deflected, at least for now. Perhaps you gave them a concession so they felt like they had scored something, for example that you’ll cancel the promotional launch-day cookies for when Phase 2 goes operational.  You will have earned their respect. Your boss will be pleased, you’ll be pleased.

Learning from the laggards

However the most value will come from listening to their concerns. So far this post has portrayed the sceptics as clearly wrong, but in real life it is hardly ever like that. In fact what happens if they are right? And even if you disagree with their views, do others users feel like they do? If so, then their concerns are legitimate.

A vocal sceptic tends to big-up the type of concerns which linger in the backs of the minds of other users and may already be a significant barrier to adoption. Perhaps you didn’t realise it or it wasn’t reflected in the personas you created for this project. If you spend all your time with early adopters and enthusiasts you’re unlikely to crack the tough nut of widespread adoption.

So a session with a critic might throw up some valuable questions such as:

  • Are we promoting the new intranet in the right way which deals with concerns?
  • Are we using the right vocabulary to avoid misunderstandings?
  • Is more specific training needed?
  • Do we need to do some targeted change management or communication?

It may even throw up some more uncomfortable or searching questions such as:

  • Is it really worth doing this process on the new intranet as the old way was actually better?
  • Have we actually got the design wrong?
  • Do I really understand the users as much as I like to think I do?

The last three points are potentially tricky or uncomfortable because they may point to a more significant issue which is more about the potential conflict between you as the promoter and advocate of all things intranet, and you as the guardian of all things intranet. Are you promoting something which deep down is really not very good? Have you become slightly detached from reality?

If this is the case you may need to undertake a minimum valuable repair strategy which is more honest about the intranet capability, although this may be impossible if you’re promoting something new.

Turning sceptics into advocates

If you are able to turn a sceptic and it proves that much of their concern was based on misunderstanding, then you may have gained a powerful advocate. The experience of ‘conversion’ is a powerful one and sticks in the mind. They may now even be a change agent, an enthusiastic supporter.

If your intranet sceptic is a stakeholder then this is what you really have to aim for, and it may take several battles to win the war. Dealing with a grumpy luddite who is also a stakeholder is a tricky one, and if you’re unfortunate to be in that situation and it means everything you do is an effort then you may have to take the battle to a higher level. Ask another stakeholder to intervene on your behalf and hope for the best.

If the luddism is fuelled by office politics or a poor relationship between individuals at a higher level then to be honest there may not be much you can do apart from get on with things and think about your own position.

Walking with dinosaurs

If you have the time try and engage with the luddites and the sceptics. In the long term it will give you a better perspective on users and that means you will do a better job. Acquire a thick skin if you need to and always question whether the sceptics are actually right. This can drive your intranet platform forward, achieve a better design, help you to continuously improve, and then the sceptics might be silenced.

 Steve Bynghall, January 2014

Chris says:

“Laggards are way over there on the other side of the bell curve of adoption. It’s pretty unlikely that you are going to turn them in my opinion, some people just like to whinge. But they also are likely to say the stuff that your early- and late-majority adopters are just going to think. So consider the luddites as amplifiers to a weak signal. Stay connected to reality, your colleagues aren’t robots who are going to adopt something new just because you think it is cool. Detach your hopes and dreams for your intranet from fantasy with proper user and stakeholder research and regular user testing. You may have got it wrong. Be professional and honest enough to admit to yourself.”

Make sure your intranet strategy is still going when everyone else has stopped

Everything is on hold at the moment…

Intranets and the accompany strategy which steers their direction have an uncanny knack of grinding to a halt. Sometimes this is down to their perilous state as a result from under-investment. If this is the case, we recommend special emergency measures be put in place to implement a “Minimum Viable Repair” and get it (and you) moving again.

However, intranet strategy also regularly “stops” in other organisations, including (in our experience) some of the most well-resourced and well-known global companies. Ask what the intranet strategy is and the answer is sometimes “we’re planning to update that” or “it’s on hold at the moment” or there is some sheepish mumbling while the intranet team gaze at their shoes.

Er, where’s the strategy?

In many cases the closest thing to an intranet strategy that exists is a document which was produced during the project for the last iteration or update, and which envisaged a shiny new post-launch world of continuous improvement. If you are really unlucky this is in the form of a slide deck. Sometimes there might be something more “current” which exists a woolly paragraph or passing reference to the intranet in the latest internal comms, IT or digital strategy.

There are several reasons why intranet strategy pauses including a new platform on the horizon or an organisational change, and I’ll be exploring these in more detail below. Despite these often highly plausible reasons for a stop in intranet strategy, intranets don’t stop, and the organisations which they mirror don’t stop either. Your customers and your competitors also won’t be stopping!

Intranets are a 24/7 environment which is critical to the way employees operate. Arguably they contribute to the bottom line and provide competitive advantage. They are a channel to help senior management deliver organisational strategy. So, in our view, intranet strategy and the accompany roadmap are very important, and should not be an area of neglect. Halting them misses a trick, and is the basis for under-delivering to users and stakeholders. It is basically saying it is OK to put your intranet on hold, and that is another way of undervaluing your intranet,

Having an up to date strategy and roadmap:

  • Gives the intranet team direction and a basis to plan and prioritise your activity

  • Means you are more likely to be aligned to organisational strategy and needs

  • Is the basis for continuous improvement, even if the changes are small and incremental

  • Sends out the right messages to stakeholders and users

  • Is really important in engaging site manager / super-user / publishing communities

  • You never know when you’re going to need one at the ready at short-notice

  • Leads to more job satisfaction when you deliver the goods against it

Reasons why intranet strategy pauses

There are several reasons why strategy stops. Usually it’s a combination of one or more of these: Sometimes these are good reasons, sometimes these are excuses for not having a strategy. Ultimately, you decide which.

Busy busy busy

Firstly intranet teams are busy. Very busy. They are swamped by the overwhelming operational inbox that often comes with the territory. Good intentions inevitably get trampled on by workload.

But trust on this one, getting the strategy and roadmap right is worth prioritising especially if there is a link between the direction you need to go in and the reason you are impossibly busy.

The stakeholders are seemingly unengaged

OK, ideally an intranet strategy should be reviewed, critiqued and signed-off by stakeholders who have a whiff of seniority about them, and quite possibly represent IT, Comms and HR. We know in many places that is not going to happen because the stakeholders don’t care, or more likely are too busy to give it proper attention.

If this is the case and there isn’t much you can do about it, assume that the stakeholders trust you. They know the intranet is in good hands. Assume that if the intranet was failing they absolutely would take an interest. If they trust you with the intranet, they also trust you with intranet strategy. It’s up to you to define this. Even if the output gets waved under their nose, and they nod, take that as approval. Seeing something coherent and well-argued, may actually surprise them, and could lead to a budgeting decision. Someone has to do intranet strategy, and it looks like it is you.

There’s a new Director of Comms / IT / KM / HR on the way

So there’s a new owner of the intranet on the way.  The intranet strategy was going to go through its annual review but we might as well wait for the new Director to come in to wait for their input.

Personally I think waiting is a mistake. It can take ages for a new senior stakeholder to get to know the business, and for the intranet to be properly on their radar. Let’s say it could take six months. Given that senior replacement appointments might be known about six months in advance, then it could be up to 12 months before intranet strategy comes up as a topic for discussion.

Having an up to date intranet strategy already in place sends out all the right messages to someone who is probably your new boss. It also ensures continuity and means that you are more likely to have your dabs all over the strategy.

In larger organisations there may be a steering committee which ratifies the strategy and they might want to halt any updates to it based on the new owner, but if you can influence them, carry on as business-as-usual.

There’s a new new intranet platform or SharePoint on the horizon

The biggest mistake intranet teams make is putting everything on hold while IT makes up its mind about a new platform. We may be going to SharePoint? How long before a) IT make up their mind b) The agreements are signed c) The project is implemented d) The legacy systems are phased out. We’re talking potentially years! So until you’ve seen that bit of paper signed, assume it isn’t happening and everything is business-as-usual.

Moreover strategy should be largely agnostic of technology. And although inevitably your direction probably does need to reference an impending decision by IT e.g. perhaps heavy customisation isn’t such a good idea, many of the improvements you influence are around information architecture, findability and content management.

Many improvements you make in these areas are excellent preparation for a platform change. For example having an engaged publisher community who are clued-up and care about what they are doing is not only going to help you every day, but will come into its own when you go for content migration in any project,

We need a new platform, nothing else matters

If the old intranet is creaking and clearly needs replacing, a new iteration might be uppermost in your mind, but perhaps not for anybody else. Banking on a new intranet is definitely putting all your eggs in one basket. There are always things to move forward on your existing platform. A new IA, a new design, a bit of well-positioned workflow…but you may need to veer into Minimum Viable Repair territory here. Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of assuming a new intranet is all-or-nothing, because it may well end up as nothing.

There is a company merger or reorganisation

Inevitably this is going to hijack your intranet strategy and operations so they are going to more short-term, but it can also influence it for the better by assimilating ideas from the new business, or give an opportunity to introduce things you have been thinking for a while.

The point is a merger can force a rethink of strategy but it doesn’t necessarily mean it is completely divorced from existing strategy, and you can’t move forward with a particular direction. You can also learn to plan for future change, particularly if your company tends to acquire other businesses.

Strategy doesn’t stop

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?  Perhaps something else in your organisation halted your intranet strategy?  I think the main issue here is that teams need to prioritise strategy. It is what informs your operations and keeps the intranet relevant. Don’t fall into the trap of having an intranet with no direction, because you’re waiting on something else to happen or a decision to be made. 

Steve Bynghall, January 2014

Chris says:

“A strategy is a plan, people. How can you not have a plan? But, as Steve says, we see it all the time. Intranet teams mumble something about the intranet strategy being developed but they just need something to go their way. You know, I wish more of them would look us in the eye with some steel and just say ‘no’. Grab whoever is interested and document your plan for the next 3 to 18 months with what you know now. Imagine it is code and put some if{} else{} statements in. If we get the go-ahead for SharePoint or the new ESN we’ll do this, otherwise this is the plan and we will concentrate some efforts here – let it emerge. But whatever you do, know what you are doing, write it down and share with everyone who cares. And one last thing: if you don’t have the capability to deliver anything of value strategically, revel in being tactical. That’s your strategy right there, so write it down and take it to your bosses. They’ll blush.”

Intranet Directions elsewhere January 2014

So here are a few other things we’ve been up to on and off the digital slopes:

Chris elsewhere

A new year. Again. The older you get the quicker it rattles past. I’ve got a list for self-improvement that stretches beyond the bounds of the reasonable, particularly learning R and bolstering/remembering my stats chops.

Over in DWG world I’ve been busy with a spot of interesting benchmarking assignments as well as polishing off a couple of research papers (members only I’m afraid) one on the current state of employee directories, and one on “Measuring Communications”. I’ve also done a load more in a series of digital workplace posts for DWG, which seem to have been very positively received :

Other than that it was Christmas break and spending time with the family as we watched the salty Brighton rain slosh against the windows, and with the South Coast greyer than an actuary’s suit I didn’t get to shoot a frame that didn’t include a hat from a Christmas Cracker.

Steve elsewhere

For the  past six weeks or so I’ve been working on various different projects. I’ve got a lot of work-in-progress.. Little bits here and there.  Intranets. Writing. I’ve even co-presented IBF Live. Oh, and there was all that Christmas and New Year stuff.  I am also fantastically hungry because I am trying to lose weight, as well as doing that seven minute work-out thing every day which featured in the New York Times.

The writing I have done on my personal Two Hives blog  and elsewhere is also a little bit random, but includes a focus on a South Korean steel company who are doing very interesting things with their digital workplace, some fence-sitting intranet predictions for 2014 plus a look at the freelancing crowdsourcing markets, which is basically nothing to do with intranets. Here are the links:

Your employees need your website as much as your intranet

Direction summary

  1. Go and meet up with your colleagues and stakeholders in IT and Marketing to persuade them to try and them to look at internal and external digital channels more holistically.
  2. If this only gets as far as a polite conversation wait for an actual project or small instance which needs that approach to re-open negotiations.
  3. Identify opportunities where you can expose either existing external channels via the intranet or current internal digital channels externally.  Focus on value, cost-savings and process improvement.
  4. Try and do something simple – even if it is just extending internal search to include website content.
  5.  Communicate success stories.
  6. Try and work in this way as many times as possible, so that you can influence future projects or ideally an over-arching digital strategy which more formally encapsulates your thinking

Introduction

“I’m afraid we’re spending next year’s entire digital budget on the website, so there’s nothing for the intranet. I know this is the seventh year in a row this has happened, but…”

 Woah! Stop there a moment! Aren’t internal digital channels as important as external-facing digital channels?  “No of course, not” is the prevailing view in many organisations.

 This lazy thinking has tended to cast the intranet as the bumbling poor cousin that’s perpetually at the back of the ration queue.

It would be simplistic to say that simply budget prioritisation is wrong and if you spent more on the intranet and less on the website everything would be OK. True, that can help, particularly when you are implementing a new platform, but there is a deeper issue at hand.

 The vast pre-eminence of “external” is fuelled by a belief, often perpetuated by intranet teams themselves, that there is a very clear and comfortable distinction between the external facing web environment and the intranet ecosystem. This is underpinned by factors such as channel ownership, technical compatibility, politics and yes, the ring fencing of budgets.  Of course in a time when redundancies are still rife individuals are also highly protective of what they do and the channels they are associated with.

There is an accepted wisdom that internal channels are only for internal staff and for external channels are only for external parties. Instinctively that might sound correct, but while the first half of the statement is largely true, the second half is only partially true.  In fact every external digital channel is also for an internal audience, to varying degrees.  And in many cases there is a surprising level of overlap in the needs of an external and internal audience.

Every external digital channel is also for an internal audience

Here’s a few examples to try and illustrate what I mean by the above statement:

Stakeholders

Different lines of business like to see their presence in the marketplace. Sometimes the content on an external digital channel is there as much to satisfy an internal stakeholder as it is to target a set of clients or consumers.

Key messages to customers

It’s important that employees are aware of the key messages that their organisation puts out externally. Obviously for customer-facing staff this is very important for delivering consistent client service, and good product knowledge also contributes to this. For example I’m reminded of some of the recent examples at Barclays, where the ability to try out customer-facing digital banking apps on the internal mobile intranet allowed branch staff to be comfortable and familiar with these products. It contributed to a significant uptake of mobile apps among products.

It’s also important for the back-room guys. Commercial awareness and having an end-to-end process view helps improve services.

Feedback from customers

Social media is now tracking customer sentiment and experiences, and there is obvious value in employees being aware of what is being said. (Beyond just being able to react to it.)

Resources

Websites and extranets contain important information and knowledge that can support internal employees   Some of this might need to be referred to in interacting with customers, some might be special expert knowledge from one section of an organisation which is not known by another section, and some might be key operational data.

A few real examples of external information which is also referred to internally includes nutritional information about items on a menu, a huge database of product manuals, the order of business of a government chamber, an article summarising the latest legal developments in a particular sector and service updates on a travel situation.

Also the various constituent parts of huge global corporations often act like a bunch of separate organisations. Want to find out about your Chile office or that really obscure subsidiary? Yep, looking at the website is often easiest.

Mobile-optimisation

The website is nice and responsive, but the intranet sure isn’t. What’s the easiest way to find the Southampton Office telephone number on my SmartPhone? Oh yes, the corporate website…

Process status

Systems which give a status view of particular transactions or processes for customers is often as useful internally as it is externally. This occurs in both B2B and B2C organisations.  Sometimes the summary view created for customers is just better designed than the one intended for internal use.

Events

In times of crisis, particularly in large organisations (think BP Oil Spill), external communications can be an important reference point for employees.

External collaboration

In a way this is obvious but external collaboration in the form of online workspaces and Team Sites are generally regarded by employees as a hybrid of an external and internal environment, although there may be a restricted area sorted by permissions for the really internal stuff.

Values, transparency, branding and all that engagement type stuff

Employees aren’t idiots, but they’re often treated like they are.  They’re going to stumble across the corporate website and Twitter account occasionally. If there is an inconsistency between the external messages put out and the reality of working at the company, then this is clearly bad for morale.  On the other hand if there is consistency and transparency and then you might be on to a winner.

Consistency is also important in user experience. Personally there seems nothing better to undermine a new branding initiative by implementing it internally months after it has been implemented externally. Surely it is far more sensible and logical to do it the other way around?

Employee profiles

“Actually you’re better looking at my LinkedIn profile rather than my personal profile in the employee directory. At least that has a non-awful photo.”

So what does this all mean for intranet strategy?

By looking at internal and external channels in a holistic way there are many opportunities to:

  • Add relevant content, features and applications to the intranet resulting in better customer service, knowledge and engagement

  • Get more bang for your buck in digital projects by designing systems which serve both internal and external needs, and focus on end-to-end processes

  • Give legitimacy for “internal” projects by showing they are actually “external”

  • Get consistency and alignment in internal and external communications with all the benefits that flow from this

  • Encourage sharing and cross-fertilisation of digital skills through cross-functional work

This results in the following types of initiatives:

  • Both internal and external collaboration sites integrated into the intranet environment

  • Social media feeds embedded into the homepage

  • Reposting of external news stories on the homepage

  • Extending intranet or internal search to include global website and microsite content

  • Databases and repositories of valuable content on different themes and  which can also be accessed directly by clients and third parties (e.g. brand information, product data, articles etc.)

  • Extending of self-service directly to customers and clients in some fields

  • Key customer data which can be accessed by staff on mobile devices

This direction is worth moving forward with if you really are stuck behind the external folk, or if you’re both struggling for budget . This is about joining forces for the common (and mutual) good.

Well that’s nice, but how do I move this direction forward?

Your ability to move this Direction forward does depend quite a lot on the way digital is budgeted for and which functions control the channels.  Obviously if you’re all one department and you already work closely together it is going to be easier. If you’re split functionally, less so.

I think the best approach is to try and work on discrete projects which encapsulate this way of thinking and then move on from there, so it is either a more common way of working or helps to refine or define an overall digital strategy.

As with most Directions this involves a bit of cross-functional conversation. Go and meet up with your colleagues and stakeholders in IT and Marketing to try and do some persuasion. If your fantastic plans fall on deaf ears then work on something smaller or wait for the opportunity.  It’s also worth keeping  Legal and Risk in the loop if you’re looking at anything to do with transactions and process, or if you’re working on anything which is current internal only but could clearly be external.

Overall you need to be identify opportunities where you can expose either existing external channels via the intranet or current internal digital channels externally. This may be focus on what you already have or what you want to do in the future.

A good idea is to keep it simple and focus on the obvious, because there is bound to be something of value which helps reduce cost-savings and improves processes. Often there is a usually a no-brainer somewhere if you look for it hard enough.

And then the usual stuff applies. Communicate the success stories and make some noise.

Effectively your aim is for you not to have the same ambition-crushing conversation with your budget holder about intranet funding for the eighth-year-in-a-row.

Steve Bynghall December 2013

Chris says:

“Yep it’s the fear. Fear that those guys across the hall have all the budget. The fear that they look down on poor Jonny Intranet. The fear of going over there and working on stuff together. The fear of what your bosses will say. But, damn-it-all-to-hell what weird and arbitrary boundaries we like to draw over organisations – they start for the sake of convenience and then they there like a twelve-foot-wall. If we are trying to be more holistic and take a digital workplace view, then clearly the external assets of an organisation are there to help employees achieve their tasks, as much as they are there for the customers.

The business processes will be stitched through both the inside and the outside like a thread through silk and you should know their twists and turns. If you were going to draw the web site on your intranet site map where would the arrows go? Do you even know all the content and functionality that’s on your organisation’s web site? Maybe they’ve got the good stuff. So: lose the fear, get up, walk across the hall and go and buy them coffee.”

Buddy up with HR to increase intranet value and adoption

Most employees use intranets to get things done during their working day.  So when an intranet doesn’t do this well, it can be regarded as being ineffective and of little value, both by users and senior management. And if that is the case, then you’re on the slippery slope.

Users just want to get stuff done

One of the reasons so many intranets get stuck in this rut is because they focus far too much on content and news.  Internal communications and content is important, but there usually ends up being a huge disconnect between the resources and effort spent in preparing content, and the value users actually get out of it at the end of the day.

A current antidote to this is “social”.  It’s great that intranet ecosystems are evolving to become more participatory through commenting, micro-blogging , social networking and the integration of communities and collaboration. But social intranets, although good for locating experts, employee engagement and getting answers to questions, does not always help users get things done.

A different tack is to focus on key processes in the organisation, and then make sure the intranet contributes to improving them. This can happen in several ways, for example:

  • Making it faster to do things, such as turning a paper-based form into an electronic one
  • Making it easier for the user, for example surfacing data from different applications so the user no longer has to go into multiple systems to complete a task
  • Reducing the amount of data that needs to be entered manually, improving accuracy
  • Establishing one common data source or document, reducing the risk of multiple versions
  • Improving a process so it is more likely to be done by users, for example using intranet-based forms and workflow rather than email where items get “lost” in the inbox causing bottlenecks
  • Allowing users to complete a task themselves rather than asking a central function to do it, so that person can concentrate on more value-added work

The advantage of improving processes is that it is usually popular with users (once embedded) and also with senior management, especially if you can measure the improvement and put some value on the change.  

Ultimately improving the usefulness of your intranet should also drive up the readership of content and news by bringing more and more users to your platform.

Why HR is important

It’s likely that your intranet may already improve processes here and there, but if you really want to make a significant impact with your intranet then an Intranet Direction you may want to take is HR Process Improvement.

HR is one of the cornerstones of any intranet. Several HR processes sit very well with intranets, including:

  • The distribution for HR-related policy and information
  • Employee self-service (ESS) and manager self-service (MSS) relating to pay and benefits, performance reviews and booking leave
  • Booking training and e-learning
  • Onboarding new employees
  • Managing internal vacancies

Of the above points, ESS  and MSS are perhaps the most key. This can cover:

  • Updating key HR data such as bank and contact details (so the information goes straight into the HR system)
  • Questions about HR process and policy
  • Recording absence and booking holiday
  • Pay and benefits, for example with the ability to view payslips
  • The appraisal or performance management system, often giving feedback about others
  • Course booking and other e-learning related processes
  • Choices of flexible benefits

And for managers:

  • Approving holiday, leave, travel and a million other tasks
  • Resource planning
  • Performance measurement and monitoring
  • Managing the appraisal or performance management system
  • Managing training (particularly where it is mandatory)
  • Team compliance processes

Some of these processes such as viewing payslips are tasks which virtually everybody carries out, and can really help to drive user adoption of the intranet as a whole.

How accurate is your data?

Having complete and accurate HR data is also another vital ingredient for any successful intranet. You need good HR data to ensure:

  • Effective identity management (e.g. data tapped from your HR system feeding into Active Directory)
  • Personalisation or targeted content works (ensuring location, role-specific and different language content is delivered to the right people)
  • A good employee directory that is accurate and complete (key for establishing trust in the intranet)

Because HR own the system which should provide that data, accuracy is often effectively their responsibility.  A good intranet effectively shines a torch at the information contained within your HR system and when some of it is wrong, or where there are gaps, employees will notice. And they are also guaranteed to let you know about it.

And there’s more…

There are also some more engagement-led processes which can also be carried out within the intranet environment, although often the systems which power these systems are standalone and may not be integrated.

These include employee recognition systems which often involve peers leaving online feedback, either resulting in some kind of reward or acting as a reference point or data input into performance reviews.

There’s also the whole area of learning, either through the integration of  Learning Management Systems (“Book your course!”) or even “social learning” with communities, blogs and other social tools supplementing more formal-based training.

So overall successfully weaving HR into the fabric of your intranet will leave you in a position of strength to move into various strategic intranet directions, and If HR policies, processes and data have no place in your current or planned intranet implementation then it’s time for a serious rethink.

It’s time for intranet managers and HR to work together

At the moment I’m predicting there are three immediate thoughts among people reading this blog:

  • We already do this stuff
  • There is a key problem: the HR department!
  • There is a key problem: the intranet team!

Well if you do this stuff already and it rocks, good for you, and this post may not be all that helpful, although it may give you some additional ideas.

If it’s the second then you’re likely to be in internal communications or IT department. Many intranet managers report that the HR department takes only an occasional or peripheral interest in the intranet, despite their best efforts.  This Intranet Direction requires close contact with the HR department, so be prepared to make the extra effort.

It it’s the third then you’re likely to be in HR. Many HR departments report that intranet teams only take an occasional interest in them, despite their best efforts. This Intranet Direction requires close contact with the intranet team, so be prepared to make the extra effort.

It’s true that traditionally ownership of intranets tends to fall between Internal Communications and IT and the HR function is a peripheral player with a tendency to do their own thing. But this issue can’t be sidestepped.

A successful intranet means working closely with HR folk. Having them as a full enthusiastic partner with ownership and input means the intranet is more likely to be aligned with HR strategy.  Specifically you should aim for:

  • HR representation within the intranet governance structure, the more senior the better
  • HR owning, designing, managing and updating the HR-related areas of the intranet which need to be prominent in the navigation and evident from the homepage
  • A commitment to ensure HR data is kept up-to-date from the HR-system AND a promise not to set up a sneaky rival HR portal that is completely unintegrated with the intranet

And if you’re in HR you can leverage:

  • The potential possible process improvements provided by the intranet
  • The online skills and experience of the digital or intranet team

OK, that all sounds great but I have absolutely no budget

If you have no budget at all, buddying up with HR is still worth pursuing. Although you may have no budget, you new pals in HR certainly might, particularly if it is going to spent on something that makes their lives easier.

Secondly there are plenty of opportunities to introduce relatively straight-forward measures which can improve HR processes. Focusing on content and navigation can be powerful in its own right or implementing out-of-the-box forms and workflow may be all it takes to really add value.

Thirdly even if you try and implement something light now, the seeds you sow of a new relationship with HR may fully paid dividends when the firm’s future employee self-service solution is fully integrated with the intranet.

Don’t use the “no budget” excuse to do nothing. Remember there are ways to Fix a broken intranet without any money and it requires making a stink.

OK, this is all great advice, but I’ve already done ESS and more…

Great, and good for you, but I bet there’s something more advanced you can do though. How about better personalised HR content relating to country, region and role. Perhaps ensuring the intranet and digital workplace is ready for a new policy on flexible working? Or bringing HR fully up-to-speed or bought in to your social network? Using metrics to make things better, measuring the time for task completion or level of effectiveness?  Or perhaps HR are moving in an unexpected direction you didn’t know about and they haven’t told you yet?

Direction Summary:

  1. Get HR on board on the intranet by giving them a seat in the intranet governance structure, and forging close links on an operational level
  2. Work together to identify key HR processes and how the current intranet supports these, where possible using metrics to demonstrate issues (e.g. time spent on a task)
  3. Work on an intranet strategy which at least aligns with HR strategy and establishes a roadmap to improve the intranet, primarily focusing on employee self-service
  4. As part of the bargain to improve processes, get HR to make a commitment to safeguard and improve the quality of HR data
  5. Implement what you can: if you have no budget, focus on content and navigation; if you have bigger budget focus on the integration of systems.
  6. Measure the improvements and communicate to senior management

What does Chris think?

“Getting Human Resources to be your new bessie pal is a great idea for any intranet manager. Wrestling with a huge amorphous mass of rubbish applications is one hell of a task, particularly when most organisations made paper processes digital and then… left them there for ten years. I think HR is a great place to start thinking about bring these processes together and giving them new structure and renewed focus, but are we…. thinking too small? How about cracking the collective heads of Finance, Facilities and IT and shaking this up entirely. You could take on the entire application estate from the top-down. That gives me an idea for another Direction.”