Newspapers from Shutterstock
Improving the effectiveness of internal communications is often one of the key goals underpinning corporate intranets. In practice, this is often reflected in ‘latest news’ section on the home page of most intranets. While news on the home page is certainly widespread, the question needs to be asked: how effective is it?
This article explores the role of the intranet as a news channel, revisiting some of the assumptions about how best to deliver online news within an organisation.
News on the home page
News is often the central element of intranet home pages, filling up the central area of the page and providing the most frequently updated content.
This ‘latest news’ section is used to communicate a range of news items, including:
- CEO messages
- major corporate updates
- updated policies
- changes to the intranet itself
Updated regularly, this news section represents the intranet’s role as a news channel, one that reaches staff throughout the organisation.
The fundamental principle is to provide a single location that staff can visit to find out the latest happenings and updates.
Intranet news is also intended to be a ‘pull factor’ that will draw staff to the site every day, as well as giving the intranet ever-changing content that shows that the site is both useful and up-to-date.
Intranet news is often little more than a ‘default’ element
Challenges and opportunities
In practice, however, most intranet news services fail to deliver on these promises and hopes.
There are a number of challenges that confront the implementation of an effective intranet-based news channel.
These issues include:
- Poor design of the news section, which is often cluttered and missing key details.
- Prominence of the news section, which may overwhelm the other vital roles played by the intranet home page.
- Ineffective nature of the intranet as a ‘push’ medium, leading to staff missing (or ignoring) important updates.
- Limited scope of intranet news items, which rarely address operational issues within the organisation.
- Difficulty reaching all staff in the organisation.
- Competing news sections on business unit or regional home pages throughout the organisation.
- Reliance on the underlying usefulness of the intranet itself, to drive traffic to the home page of the site.
Many of these issues arise because the news section is implemented as a ‘default’ element of the intranet home page. Little consideration is given to the design or management of this news channel, beyond implementing a basic set of capabilities.
Intranet news can, and should, be much more than this. Staff have a great need for up-to-date information on organisational changes that impact their daily work, and with careful design and execution, the intranet news channel can meet this need.
Improving the design of news
The ‘default’ design of the news on the intranet home page may be no more than an area for posting ad-hoc news items. Cluttered and poorly laid out, many news sections are difficult for staff to scan and use.
As a starting point, the effectiveness of the news section can be improved by taking a few simple steps:
- Ensuring there is a clean, consistent layout of news item that clearly distinguishes between individual entries.
- Displaying a date for each news item.
- Indicating the type of news items, such as whether they are policy updates, corporate news, social events, etc.
- Clearly marking whether news items relate to the whole organisation, or to specific geographic locations (or business units).
- Providing a full archive of past news items, grouped according to date and category.
While these changes may appear to be very basic (and they are), they can do much to improve the impact and usability of the intranet news section.
Ensure news doesn’t dominate the intranet home page
News in its place
While the intranet news channel can be very effective, the role (and prominence) of the news section on the intranet home page needs to be carefully understood.
As discussed in the earlier article Full site redesign? Start by addressing the home page, there are a number of fundamental purposes for the intranet home page:
- to provide staff with a starting point to access the content they require
- to present a clear and consistent intranet brand that is discrete from, yet in keeping with, the parent brand of the organisation
- to provide staff with a daily snapshot of the most important news and updates
- to provide staff with a quick way of getting to the most visited/useful content
Of these, the first is the most important. If the intranet home page does not give strong and effective navigation tools to help staff to make the right first click, it has failed.
It is therefore useful to revisit the position and prominence of the news section on the home page. In many cases, this gets the bulk of the central real estate on the page, squeezing the navigation and links to the periphery.
Consider giving more equal consideration to the navigation elements of the home page, perhaps even moving news to a sidebar. While news is important, it must not prevent staff finding the information and tools they need on the intranet.
Use email as a ‘push’ mechanism for news
Pushing via email
The intranet is not very effective as a ‘push’ medium, as it relies on staff choosing to visit the site in search of new or updated information.
One approach is to make the intranet the default home page for the web browser installed on all desktop machines. Going beyond this, some organisations also automatically launch the web browser when staff logon in the morning.
Both of these approaches can work, and anecdotally there is good evidence that staff react well to these kinds of changes.
These changes are not, however, enough. Experience has shown that some users quickly learn to ignore the intranet, and either close the browser or click straight through to other destinations.
While ’email overload’ is a problem confronting every organisation, email can play a valuable role in supporting internal communications and enhancing the effectiveness of intranet-based news services.
Instead of waiting for users to choose to visit the intranet, send out a daily or weekly news email to all staff.
This should contain a list of the latest news items, a brief summary for each, and a link back to the intranet. It should also be used to consolidate a number of earlier ‘all staff’ emails that were sent out on an ad-hoc basis.
Sending out this regular news email provides a number of benefits:
- Ensures visibility of news, even if the intranet isn’t being used.
- Reinforces the role of the intranet as a central ‘repository’ for information.
- Allows staff to catch up on missed items when sick or on holidays.
It is not plausible that there are only a few news items each day
Broadening the scope of news
It is hardly plausible that in any medium-to-large organisation there are only a few ‘news items’ each day. For intranet news to be useful, this must be increased by an order of magnitude to ensure that a comprehensive (and useful) range of internal news is released.
In many cases, only a narrow subset of corporate news items, HR updates, technology changes or intranet changes are released. What is often missing are news items that relate directly to the operational aspects of the organisation, such as product releases, front-line policy changes or
In many cases, intranet news relates more to administrative details than to changes that are actually important to the majority of staff. Intranet news often also has a very ‘head office’ feel, downplaying or entirely missing regional news.
To resolve this, the intranet or corporate communications team needs to look more widely than just centrally-published news, press releases and CEO updates. This involves:
- Consolidating business unit news into the centralised intranet news service.
- Actively seeking out news that directly relates to operational aspects of the organisation.
- Including news that relates to regional areas or offices.
- Increasing the number of staff who can publish news, specifically focusing on those located in key business units and regional areas.
Expanding news coverage in this way will require improvements to the way that news is managed and published. As the scale of news grows, the simple list of 4-6 items on the home page will no longer suffice.
Reaching all staff
One of the primary reasons for using the intranet as a news channel is that it has an extremely wide audience within the organisation. This is not to say, however, that it reaches all staff.
In many organisations, it is often difficult for front line staff and other operational staff to access the intranet. For example, sales staff on the road and nurses in hospital wards both have little access to desktop computers.
The danger is that the use of the intranet as the primary corporate communications platform may therefore ‘disenfranchise’ a significant number of staff. Without the same level of access to key corporate news, these staff may feel isolated and frustrated.
For this reason, the intranet news channel must always be designed and managed within the framework of a broader communications plan.
This comms plan must provide end-to-end communications methods that will reach all staff, regardless of whether they use a computer. The intranet then plays a significant, but not exclusive role as a news channel.
For example, the intranet may be used to distribute information out to front line managers, who then print the information out on a weekly basis to pin on the notice board in the sales office.
Business unit news can compete with the intranet home page
Competing news sources
In large and decentralised organisations, individual business units often have their own sites or sub-sites. Each of these sites is then designed with a distinct home page, providing a point of access into deeper content.
Beyond the issues inherent with structuring information along organisational lines, these sites may also have news sections on their local home pages.
These local news sections, if created without due consideration, may end up directly competing with the news section on the corporate home page.
This is particularly the case when the sites are setup to serve a geographical region, such as a state or country. In these situations, the news may be designed to cover local activities, and information that is directly relevant to local staff.
The problem is that staff are then given conflicting messages. On the one hand, the central intranet team wants to establish the main home page as the central point of access (and news), while local intranet staff may be promoting the local home page as the natural starting point.
This becomes even more confusing when individual business units (such as HR or IT) have their own news section. In many cases, it is not clear whether the published news items are targeted at internal users within the business unit, or a wider audience.
The key to resolving this is to have an overall design and strategy for communications on the intranet. This then provides clear guidance on the design (and purpose) of news throughout the site.
At the end of the day, however, this profusion of different news locations does reflect a genuine need for broader news coverage (as discussed earlier). A solution must therefore be found to meet this need, without stifling effect communication.
Possible approaches include:
- Consolidating all news into a central area, and providing multiple categories or news channels.
- Allowing the creation of regional news sections, with corporate news ‘syndicated’ into these local areas.
- Explicitly targeting business unit news areas to specific user groups, such as staff within that area.
Meeting the enterprise-wide need for news will never be simple, and the solutions are still being explored and evolved. It is critical, however, that consideration be given to these issues, to prevent the competing nature of multiple news sources impacting on the success of intranet news as a whole.
Consider ‘syndicating’ news to regional intranet sites
Ensuring the intranet is useful
While a number of enhancement have been outlined for online news sections, the usage of intranet news is tightly tied to the usage of the intranet as a whole. If staff are not visiting the intranet, then the publication of news has little value as a communications channel.
Many intranets, however, do not contain sufficiently compelling or useful information for the site to the used daily by staff. Corporate policies and procedures and HR information, while ‘important’, are not needed regularly by staff.
This highlights the broader challenge facing intranet teams: more closely aligning the intranet with the operational aspects of the business, and the daily activities of staff.
Repositioning the intranet as a ‘business tool’ rather than a publishing platform will do much to increase the usage (and value) of the site.
In practice, the communications aspects of the intranet must be managed in a coordinated way with the broader operation of the site. Only then will the organisation be provided with an effective channel for disseminating news.
News is only truly effective if staff use the intranet daily
Into the future
This article has explored only the core issues of ‘basic’ news facilities on the intranet. While these will be sufficient in the short-term, and for smaller organisations, more extensive news facilities will be needed into the future.
This may include creating multiple news channels, with the ability for staff to ‘sign up’ to news that is of interest to them.
News would also benefit from being ‘personalised’ or ‘tailored’ to individual roles and business areas in the organisation. This would do much to increase the direct relevance of news, while reducing the volume received by any one individual.
In the longer term, technologies such as RSS may entirely eliminate the conventional news channel on the intranet. With every staff member having a news aggregator, news can be published (and consumed) much more widely.
In the short term, intranet teams would do well to provide RSS feeds for intranet news, to support early adopters in the organisation and to start to demonstrate the longer-term benefits.
Without a doubt, intranet news is an area that requires much more innovation if it is to meet the expectations and goals set for it. Intranet teams are therefore encouraged to try out different approaches, and to devote greater time to designing and implementing intranet news.
The intranet can provide an important news channel for organisations, but solutions must be carefully designed and managed.
Beyond basic design factors for the home page news area, consideration must be given to the volume and scope of news. Steps must also be taken to ensure that news reaches all staff, regardless of whether they have access to a computer.
At the end of the day, however, the intranet is most effective as a news channel when it is used daily by staff. The focus must therefore be on making the intranet useful first, with the use as a communications channel being and added (and secondary) benefit.