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Executive support is crucial to successful development and evolution of an organisation’s intranet. However in many organisations executive support is limited. Many executives do not even use the intranet, but ask others to find information for them.
This article focuses on ways to educate the executive about the intranet, in a planned and focused way. These approaches may include:
- showcasing other intranets
- demonstrating staff feedback
- understanding what executives need
- reviewing existing strategy
- prototyping business solutions
Executive staff are focussed on business goals such as increased customer satisfaction, safety targets or opening into new geographical markets. The intranet has a role to play in enabling staff to achieve these goals. One of the key opportunities for the intranet team is to create an intranet that actively supports the goals of the organisation.
Intranet teams are in a unique position to assist the executive in new and useful ways. The intranet is the one application that goes across the entire organisation and is constantly evolving with the business.
Educating the executive leads to an improved working relationship between the executive and the intranet team. By building trust, credibility and a shared understanding of intranet best practice and staff needs, intranet teams and executive teams can work together to build an intranet that is really useful to the organisation.
Education needs to be structured and effective
Planning an approach
In some organisations the intranet has a sponsor, steering committee and direction, whereas in other organisations executive support can be undefined and unknown.
The first step for any intranet team is to clarify what the executive can do for the intranet, whether it is intangible, such as providing leadership, guidance and high-level support, or tangible, such as access to resources, decisions and funding.
The next step is to assess the current level of support, past involvement in the intranet, and level of knowledge of the intranet, among the executive. This preliminary thinking may mean the team decides to target specific individual(s) or focus on generalised education for the entire executive. Often one or two executives have influence with the others, which can simplify education targeting, as the rest of the executive will follow these members.
Either way, the team must get the attention of the executive before educating them. Attention is best gained by uncovering solid links between business outcomes and the intranet. Later on as relationships are formed more tangible benefits will flow.
Ultimately the education process should not only explain the potential of what can be done but also the expectation that structured design based on staff needs is where success lies. Then teams are less likely to have to deal with intranet redesigns based on executives’ personal preferences.
A large financial institution in Australia has the stated aim to be ‘No 1 for Customer Service’. This has been the driving factor in two recent intranet redesigns, providing much-needed high-level support, as it was obvious where the benefits would be for all staff.
Understanding preferred communication and learning
The most effective way to educate people is to understand their preferred communication methods and learning styles. Be a detective. Talk to others who deal with the targeted executives and gather an understanding of their personal drivers. Do not fall into the easy trap of using your own preferred communication and learning styles to educate.
If the executive is a visual learner, show screenshots and video of the improvements that are intended, and the ways they will streamline service. Tailor the approach to dovetail with what you know about the executive’s interests and preoccupations.
Explain how intranets have benefited other organisations and the effort involved
Showcasing other intranets
Intranets by definition are behind the firewall. If executive staff have been at the organisation for a long time they are unlikely to have seen any other intranets.
Showcasing other intranets can be a very powerful way to demonstrate what is possible. Screenshots generally hold people’s attention and allow for time to discuss business benefits, tell a story about how the organisation achieved this type of intranet and start the thinking process. Find other intranets via peers, case studies, word of mouth or professional groups, and sort out the best aspects, preferably those that address similar business issues or functions.
Remember to manage expectations. Some senior managers will simply say ‘build me one like that’. Be prepared to explain how long the showcased intranet has been in the making and how many people made it happen. An 18-month redesign by five people cannot be compared to the potential work of an intranet team of one. While not promising the earth, always be ready to outline your next step and how it will improve the intranet.
Demonstrating staff feedback
Positive and negative feedback from staff is a very effective way to demonstrate the current state of the intranet. These are some examples of quotes from staff we have interviewed in different organisations:
‘There are lots of sites, I never know where to look for the information I need.’
‘There is so much information a public servant needs to know — it would be great if it could be split into ‘must know for your job’ and ‘nice to know.”
‘It is impossible to find out who does what in different areas.’
‘Special interest groups were really useful.’
‘The new staff directory makes it much easier to find who to talk to.’
‘Search just doesn’t work, I don’t bother looking anymore.’
‘Life wasn’t meant to be easy, but the intranet is certainly much easier to use nowadays.’
A very powerful way to demonstrate staff feedback is by using video of staff testing the intranet. Facial expressions, umms, ‘eureka’ moments and long silences all build a picture of the current state of the intranet.
Staff feedback can clearly show the executive the impact the intranet can have on the day-to-day running of the organisation. An effective intranet can empower staff whereas an ineffective intranet can frustrate and alienate staff.
Negative or positive, staff feedback is very powerful
When demonstrating feedback, always emphasise the strategy to take things forward, even if the next step is to conduct some structured needs analysis.
Understanding what executives need
When there is little existing relationship with an executive, it can be hard to arrange a one-to-one discussion. To start the ball rolling a simple technique such as an interview can give insights into their world and preferred styles.
Interview an executive as you would any staff member to understand their information needs. Cover the basics:
- What are the main activities that make up your job?
- What information do you rely on during a normal working day?
- Who do you communicate most frequently with on work matters?
- If you have a question, where do you go to find an answer?
Be prepared to let the conversation wander, but keep the interview short. Also be prepared to answer questions yourself, as executives worth their salt will be keen to do a little investigation of their own. Prepare a few examples of the use of the intranet to share if warranted.
The point of the exercise is to build up an understanding of the executive’s information patterns and preferences.
It is important to be able to explain the business value
Reviewing existing strategy
Using the executive as a sounding board to review the existing intranet strategy can provide an insight into business objectives and broader issues that the team may not have been aware of. Position the discussion as an exploration of the strategy, to avoid your current plans being hijacked based on opinion instead of staff needs.
This is also an excellent test of the business benefits of your strategy. If all of your energy is on backroom tasks that are not tangible and visible, such as replacing the content management system will generate little influence and credibility. However to deliver the benefits of a good content management system, consider doing this in parallel with other more tangible projects.
For example at a large government agency, over an 18-month period the bulk of time was spent working with IT to migrate content and deliver a new CMS. At the same time two small but crucial projects delivered what people were always asking for, a content area with all the standard organisation PowerPoint templates and an acronym finder. This provided a balance between out-of-site and visible deliverables.
If you do not have an existing strategy a useful method is to ask the executive what their three top priorities are for the year and explore opportunities for the intranet to assist.
Prototyping business solutions
Aligning the intranet to business solutions is the most effective way to progress the intranet. Uncovering problems within the business and developing innovative solutions can be one of the most satisfying parts of an intranet team role. While discovery is one aspect, remember that delivery in large organisations can be restricted by availability of resources or software.
Low fidelity prototyping can be an excellent way to demonstrate worthwhile business solutions. For example a simple rate calculator on the intranet may save mistakes and time in the call centre. This can be easily demonstrated with a low fidelity prototype, using paper mock-ups or software such as PowerPoint.
Maureen Kelly has an excellent article on using PowerPoint for prototypes on the Boxes and Arrows website (www.boxesandarrows.com/view/interactive).
Communication and access
When talking with executive staff, be careful about using intranet terminology that they may not be familiar with, such as CMS, publishing, authors, page load times and information scent. Use general language and focus on the current and future business capabilities of the intranet.
Access to executives is possible, try all avenues
Sometimes getting direct access to executives can be difficult. Remember there is no harm in asking for executive staff’s time, and you may gain access more easily than you think. Alternatively, it’s possible to move up towards executive access through more accessible managers. Do not underestimate executive assistants — they often understand a lot more about the intranet and the organisation and can be powerful allies.
The big issue for some teams is their direct manager. Some teams are lucky to have excellent managers, with direct links to the top, who support their cause. Others may need to start with educating their direct manager to enable access to the right people. The ideas in this article can be used at many levels in the organisation.
Too much executive support
Unfortunately there is such a thing as too much support. This is often coupled with too much direction. For example making the intranet in the executive’s favourite colour, purple or designing the information architecture around the organisation’s operating principals.
The education process should strike a balance between energising the executive about the intranet whilst still ensuring tried and tested structure design techniques are used to achieve outcomes that support business goals and staff.
Give it time
Educating the executive about the intranet takes time and the team needs to be there for the long haul. One team we work with has progressively demonstrated future potential for their intranet. All up it has taken three years to reach the approval stage to proceed with their plans.
Such a crucial process needs careful planning and implementation. As the team’s relationships with the executive develop, the intranet will go from strength to strength. Executives who are aware of the business value of their intranet will become champions, advocates and supporters, and that can only be good for the intranet and the team.