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Doing an evaluation of your intranet can be a difficult and seemingly daunting task. Research to be done, discussions to be had, comparisons to be made, reports to be written. The very thought of it can be off-putting. However, using the right lens through which to view the organisational and intranet landscape can deliver powerful insights into where you might focus improvement efforts.
For example, the enduring ‘Five purposes’ framework (detailed in the Putting information to work: The five purposes of modern intranets white paper), allows practitioners to evaluate the broad spectrum of what your intranet can and should be adding in terms of business value. This lens is particularly valuable if the intranet started out with a specific focus such as communications, and you want to take a more holistic view.
Briefly, these five purposes are:
- content: as a repository for static information
- communications: as a channel for delivering news and other topical, often one-way, messages
- collaboration: as a facilitator for document, team, project and related information exchange
- culture: as a facilitator and mirror for organisational culture and engagement
- business activity: as a tool to be leveraged for getting tasks completed
However this framework does not assist you in assessing the preparedness of the organisation to deliver on the five purposes, on a sustainable basis.
Delivering on the five purposes of the intranet does not come about by chance, but requires planning, design and ongoing attention. This paper presents a complementary framework by which you can evaluate the degree to which these five ‘enabling’ pillars are in place to guide, deliver and maintain your intranet.
These are the five enablers presented here:
- Strategy is about having some future state defined, and having a plan to get there.
- Structure is needed to ensure meaningful clustering, naming of information and clear access pathways.
- Design ensures everything is presented well including the appropriate use of visualisation and presentation principles.
- Governance embraces the first three enablers, but also includes ownership and decision making around various facets of the intranet.
- Technology is more than the platform itself, but embraces the constellation of other applications and business system relationships
Without a minimum standard on all five, the intranet is likely to stall and so, unlike the purposes, all of the enablers need to be in place for the intranet to be successful.
The order presented is not ad-hoc. Though all are essential, if starting an intranet from new, or doing a significant rework, it is useful to broadly follow the order presented. For example, unless you have a purpose defined in terms of audiences and needs, it is difficult to determine the structure, and so forth.
While the enablers are interdependent with all being critical to success, some are more important than others. Strategy is probably the single most important factor when trying to build momentum as it sets out the overall purpose of the intranet. It provides direction and is often the reference point to inform decision-making throughout all other facets and stages of intranet development and upkeep.
The intranet strategy needs to include:
- a long-term vision
- nearer term (6-18 month) goals
- a road map on how to achieve this vision
- reference to the other four enablers, and the five key purposes mentioned earlier
- concrete and practical next steps
It should connect to other major organisational strategies including:
- large business and technology projects
- customer/operational initiatives and future directions
- culture and staff engagement initiatives
Being visionary and ambitious is a valuable part of strategy development, but pragmatism is essential when it comes to intranet success. To ensure you are not attempting to build a castle in the sky:
- look back in time and evaluate past attempts at delivering on promises
- use scoping tools (like the 6×2 methodology) to evaluate what you should deliver against value and constraints, and determine what you will deliver over what timeframes
- pace yourself to avoid over-promising to others, or overwhelming yourself because with intranets, slow and steady most often wins the race
Irrespective of what the specific goals are, the strategy needs to be framed around ‘helping operational staff get their work done’, otherwise it will have limited meaning for staff and be less likely to be successful.
All information requires structure for it to be findable. This structure has to be meaningful to the information seeker, it must be meaningful and manageable for the information publisher, it must be robust enough to withstand growth and organisational change, while also being flexible enough to accommodate local variations.
At a day-to-day level, structure is needed to:
- direct larger design decisions around global, local, home page and other significant clusters
- provide meaningful task- and browse-based navigation
- deliver meaningful search results (even Google has structure, albeit invisible to users)
- inform governance practices and form part of the ownership boundaries and security decision making frameworks
How you go about fixing structure will depend on current state – it can vary from a fine tuning, to a comprehensive root-and-branch redesign.
The approach will also depend on organisational factors including:
- size: small single location through to large global entity
- complexity: single product/service/structure to multifaceted/matrixed structures
- sophistication: old-school silos to modern, innovative, collaborative environments
Either way, structural design work needs to:
- be driven by front-line staff needs
- embrace best practice intranet techniques to ensure the right people and decisions are encountered in the right order, so the structure converges on optimal, with minimal risk of interference or derailment later in the process
- balance ‘global’ level operational needs and ‘local’ level ownership
- closely match how the organisation works today, while planning for changes into the foreseeable future
- take a sophisticated approach to content-site management, with an appropriate structure to house information and ongoing governance for sustaining the structure as new sites are added
- consider the impact of migration from other information systems
Design is often thought of in terms of the visual style or brand, and while this narrow definition of design plays a role, it should be appropriately prioritised. Valuable, locatable, but blandly presented information will win over pretty, stylish dross every time. Intranet design is about ensuring that all essential aspects of the intranet are presented in a manner that ensures they can and will be used as intended.
The design relies heavily on the underlying structure being fit for purpose, and, assuming the underlying structural factors mentioned earlier have been addressed, good design factors suggest that you:
- avoid the temptation to only restyle as part of a rebrand or relaunch exercise since this will simply set unrealistic expectations of more fundamental improvements, frustrate staff further, and make uptake of later improvements more difficult
- adopt a best practice approach to housing and displaying content repositories using rich navigation landing pages to expose multiple levels of structure simultaneously
- avoid the temptation to use new design elements like mega-menus and fat-footers as a means to ‘fix’ structural problems
- be prepared to move away from out-of-the-box designs, particularly in areas where engaging staff is important such as:
- home page layout and structure
- news and updates
- forums and conversations
- take ownership of how navigation and orientation cues are displayed to avoid confusion and clutter problems due to badly arranged site collections or poorly placed content
- cluster information, and then provide appropriate visual hierarchy cues to guide readers to information most relevant to them
- promote information relevant to actual work onto the home page – such as team sites and business system access
- if delivering different material to different audiences, ensure site visitors (and publishers) are clear on how tailored material is delivered
- work closely with teams to ensure that site templates are fit for purpose (then support these teams early and often on their adoption journey)
If strategy is the most important aspect of reviving and driving an intranet forward, then governance is often the invisible but essential ingredient that sustains the intranet after the fanfare of launch recedes into the background.
Governance binds all of the purposes and enablers together into a coherent framework of ownership and ongoing decision-making.
What governance looks like will vary considerably across organisations but success will generally involve most or all of the following:
- make governance a central pillar of intranet success from the very beginning and commit to resourcing it into the future
- find the right balance, avoiding an overly tight governance approach where staff are prevented from making changes, which can results in teams creating alternative, often rogue, and potentially divisive solutions
- educate and empower teams so that the best practice principles are adhered to, helping local teams to leverage what is available to them
- carefully consider the layers of governance and boundary points: business owner, steering group/sponsor, day-to-day manager, content ownership and publishing stakeholders
- recognise that structure and content boundary points will often have different handover points (e.g. content owners may not own the structures they publish into)
- recognise that ownership, stakeholder relationships and decision-making are only part of governance. It also embraces purpose, structure/design upkeep, authoring/publishing, security, site management and technology/tool deployment decisions
- make clear the boundaries between what can and should be managed globally, and what should be governed at a local level
Governance is less about being in charge, and more about delivering successful business solutions to multiple stakeholder groups.
Technology is easiest to understand in terms of the platform (hardware and software) and associated tools that allow the intranet to reach staff and function efficiently. However, it would be a mistake to limit technology to this narrow view.
Technology also encompasses all of the relationships – technical, process, and people – between the intranet and the rest of the organisation. Also, how the upkeep and security of the systems are governed (often a technology responsibility) has a massive impact on uptake and utility of the system.
The success or failure of an intranet will greatly depend on how it fits into the constellation of other business systems and how it helps staff navigate to them, and be supported using them when getting their day-to- day work done.
Be aware that:
- the providers of the technology need to be willing and active participants in discussions involving all of the enablers, not only those that relate to providing the platform
- resolving fundamental technology issues such as speed and access (single sign-on/pass-through) needs to be given high priority
- the intranet should be a companion to the other business systems: their single point of access, support and procedures; surfacing and integrating data in a way that is meaningful for staff (e.g. single, comprehensive staff directory)
- whatever technology is chosen to solve a particular issue, it needs to be optimised for the purpose at hand and integrated so as to be given the best chance of success
Other technology implementations will continue to represent significant competition for the intranet, particularly email, shared drives, Lotus Notes databases, and even the telephone, as will existing behaviour patterns. For this reason it is critical to ensure that technology is not the only lever to implementing new ways of getting things done.
Moreover, technology implementations should be a subset of some broader change initiative where they play a complementary role rather than being out front as the ‘big stick’ of change.
Intranet sustainability health-check
So how sustainable is your intranet? Every team and organisation will have their own measures against which to assess this, but a great starting point will be seeing how easily you can answer the following:
- Does your intranet have a well defined direction and purpose?
- Does the underlying structure support staff needs?
- Are pages presenting information in an intuitive and optimal manner?
- Is ownership clearly defined, and all delivery parties well supported?
- Is technology a fully integrated partner?
And the answers themselves will provide you direction around where to target improvement efforts.