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Those managing an intranet will find they are in a unique role in their organisation, as there are few if any others who touch the corners of an organisation the way those on the intranet team do. From the CEO to the staff member at the front line, everyone has a stake in the intranet. While this certainly provides great opportunity and insight into the organisation for the canny intranet manager, it also brings its own unique set of challenges.
On any given day, an intranet manager may spend time wrangling with content authors, working out how best to support the organisation’s latest strategic initiative, communicating the CEO’s latest message, training new content authors and developing new intranet functionality. Just as there are few other roles that cut across the organisation, there are few who will be asked to deal with the same degree of complexity and diversity as an intranet manager. In order to be successful, intranet managers must work across strategy, design, content, change and communications, technology and team.
Teams are often skilled in one or two areas and lack expertise and awareness elsewhere. The Intranet Hive is a new concept that can provide awareness of all the activities that need to maintained. Most of the literature to assist teams with the ongoing running of intranets has focused on the maintenance of the information architecture and the various technical components of the site, such as search. Whilst these are certainly important, there is a great deal more to running a successful intranet; the Intranet Hive recognises this and puts forward a more complete model for intranet management.
The Intranet Hive is a complete model for managing intranets
What is the Intranet Hive?
The Intranet Hive is a model that outlines 36 activities that underpin the ongoing management of an intranet. This article provides an overview of these activities in order to raise the awareness of intranet teams of the many activities that must be undertaken.
The Intranet Hive is being developed into a suite of products that includes heuristics for self-assessment so that teams can identify where they are today, a tool kit for each area so that teams can build their skills and an overall model to identify blind spots.
This is the first article in a two-part series on the Intranet Hive.
Intranets are never finished
An intranet is always a work in progress. Although initial intranet builds follow a reasonably linear path, once implementation has taken place there is no single path forward and the next steps will largely depend on a combination of organisational imperative and the constraints the team is operating under.
The resourcing and expertise levels of the intranet and development teams along with the budget and the readiness of the organisation to embrace the intranet as a business tool will have a large impact on the intranet work undertaken.
Teams transitioning to business as usual from a new intranet release often find that the release has brought its own set of challenges and many teams spend the subsequent 12 months re-establishing lost credibility.
Planning next steps and defining an approach to moving forward is only a very small part of the undertaking. There are many capabilities that the team must develop in order to deliver the plan. With most intranets being operated by small teams, effectiveness must be maximised at each point in the plan.
You ‘don’t know what you don’t know’
The Intranet Hive provides an overview of the various activities that intranet teams must undertake. Intranets are complex and without some guidance even uncovering these activities can in itself prove difficult.
For most intranet managers, taking on the role of intranet management is a deviation from rather than an arrival point on their career pathway. Most intranet managers have found themselves in the role, rather than actively setting out to become intranet managers.
Intranet managers come from diverse backgrounds and are not usually trained in the field. Typically coming from a communications, technical or project management background, most exhibit a a bias or strength based on their experience. Those from technical backgrounds usually feel comfortable addressing the technical needs of the intranet and tend to focus less on content and communications. The converse is often the case with those from a communications background.
Faced with an intranet to manage, most revert to their strength or comfort zone, leading to a very lopsided intranet in one area or another, unable to deliver real value to the organisation. Over time teams recognise the need to change and start to try different strategies to manoeuvre the intranet around and head it in the right direction. Unfortunately these strategies are often deployed in the same key areas based on ‘comfort zone’. This is done, not because of a lack of desire to make the necessary changes for success but rather because teams don’t know what to do, or how to do it.
Intranet managers have a bias or strength based on experience
Putting the Intranet Hive to use
The Intranet Hive informs teams about the six broad areas they must work through (strategy, design, content, change and communications, technology and team) in the ongoing management of the intranet. Within each of these broad categories the Intranet Hive outlines six specific activities, adding up to a total of 36 activities for long-term intranet success.
Clearly, there are too many for any team to focus on with meaningful results in any one year. In order to put the Hive to the best possible use, teams should begin by performing a self-assessment process to ascertain their current levels of capability and organisational impact in any given area. Those areas that are both strategically important and are also being under-delivered deserve the most attention first. This self-assessment and planning process can be an annual, six-monthly or quarterly event undertaken by a single individual or as a team.
The Intranet Hive reminds teams of the six broad areas of focus
The six Hive segments
The six Hive segments have been designed to provide a complete overview of the required, ongoing intranet activities. As stated earlier the Hive is not a linear model, and teams should focus on the areas of most need for their given situation.
For a newly released intranet, for example, it is unlikely that the strategy section will be a priority as this should have been completed before the launch of the intranet. More emphasis may be placed on the ongoing change and communications aspects of the Hive. The six broad Hive sections are:
- Strategy – know where you are going
- Design – make it easier for staff
- Content – meet the business need
- Change and communications – inform and support everyone
- Technology – keep it all working
- Team – be effective
The remainder of this article explores the first three sections (strategy, design and content), and the six activities within each of these areas. Part two, looking at change and communications, technology and team, will be released next month.
It is important for intranet teams to think and work in a strategic way, because without this the intranet will be at the mercy of the most insistent individuals and departments whether or not their requirements match those of the organisation itself. These strategic activities provide a level of control to intranet teams and ensure that the intranet is aligned to organisational imperatives.
1.1 Align to corporate strategy
Aligning the intranet and corporate brand strategy is one of the most important things intranet teams can do. When done correctly, a brand strategy will underpin core decision-making in a very tangible way, allowing intranet teams to handle conflict and defuse turf wars on the spot.
A successful brand strategy is practical, useful, real and tangible and aligns the intranet to the organisation. It is not all about logos and colours. Without a brand strategy, decision-making will be arbitrary, often based on the opinions of stakeholders.
A good intranet brand strategy will assist teams with the resolution of disagreements between the team and other areas of the organisation.
As an example, an organisation principle may be ‘integrity’, defined as ‘we do what we say we are going to do, we take the appropriate action, we stand up for what we know is right even when it may be difficult to do so’.
The translation of the organisational principle to the intranet could be:
- The appropriate calls to action are promoted through the intranet
- Information on the intranet is up to date, trusted and relevant
- The intranet is impartial and provides support for decision making
- Staff can look to the intranet for an honest organisational perspective
Strategic activities provide a level of control to intranet teams
1.2 Refine intranet governance
Defining a model for governing the intranet will provide support for the intranet team and assist with the smooth running of the intranet.
The trick to governance is to ensure the selected model appropriately manages organisational risk and aligns with organisational strategy and priorities. Too often intranet governance models are unwieldy, and do not work well with the day-to-day reality of the organisation.
A three-tier escalation structure will work for most organisations, effectively meeting both the overall governance requirements and the daily operating requirements of the organisation. The first escalation point should be within the intranet operational team. The final point of escalation (governance) must be a senior manager, whose authority will not be questioned. The final decision must be final.
The governance model will be used to resolve conflict in a broad range of areas such as placement of content, access to particular pieces of information or functionality, in a timely manner.
Intranet governance is a fancy way of saying, who has the authority for decision-making and what the points of escalation will be when disagreements arise. The intranet manager for example, may be responsible for deciding what goes on the homepage. Homepage disputes may be escalated to the communications manager (the intranet manager reports through here) and the final escalation point is to the director of strategy.
Once a model has been settled upon, run a few real-life (actual or likely) scenarios through it to see if it holds up. In doing so think about the quality of the outcome, the timeliness of decision making and whether the parties questioning the original decision will accept the outcome.
1.3 Manage the intranet budget
Many intranet teams have limited control over their budgets; some operate with no budget at all. Limited budget control results in limited control of the intranet and ultimately a limited intranet.
Each year, budget will be required for incremental development as well as training and upskilling the team and content authors. Intranet teams should be accountable for discretionary spending based on need.
For those that are not accustomed to managing budgets in a corporate environment the adage ‘use it or lose it’ is true. Budgets are seldom rolled over from one year to the next and if you didn’t spend the allocated dollars the year before you are unlikely to be funded to the same level the following year. There is always plenty to do, so make sure you spend the budget and of course that you spend it well.
1.4 Establish an intranet concept
In order for others to climb aboard and get behind a vision for the intranet it must first be clearly articulated. A well thought out intranet concept, captured on one page (not 100 pages!) will provide the basis for many of the challenges that intranet teams face and will assist with:
- internal project planning within the intranet team
- building business cases or budget requests
- communications message to the organisation
- briefing senior management and other senior stakeholders
The intranet concept should clearly state where the intranet is at now and where it is going.
Thinking outside the usual corporate report format can help the message reach its audience. Consider presenting the intranet concept in a narrative format, or as a brochure. Whatever the end product, it is likely to require some user research before its creation and again before final distribution.
On completion of the one-page concept, it is important to develop an ‘elevator pitch’. This is a quick spiel that can be delivered, literally in the time it takes to catch an elevator.
For further information on creating an intranet concept use the following link:
Communicate what your vision is and how you will achieve it
1.5 Establish an intranet roadmap
Whilst the intranet concept is likely to satisfy senior managers, many in the organisation will want to know ‘how’ you are going to go about achieving that vision. An intranet roadmap brings the vision for the intranet together with the clear steps to achieving it.
With organisations demanding quick results from intranets, a six-month by six-month approach to planning is recommended. In order to ensure that you can achieve your goals, take into account both your objectives and your current constraints. If something changes, and a constraint is removed, re-cutting the plan is quick and easy. Ensure that you have the first six months planned in detail and sketch out the following six months.
Step by step, the process looks like this:
- List all the possible activities
- List the organisational and intranet team objectives, choose the top six
- List the constraints, choose the top six
- Take each activity, assess it against the objectives and ascertain whether it can be done within the constraints
For a full article see the following:
Where a longer term roadmap of one to five years is required, it is far better to devise a one-page visual aid that can be spoken to, than a 100-page strategy document.
Create an intranet vision and clear steps to achieving this
1.6 Support strategic projects
Intranet teams often spend all their time focusing on day-to-day operational issues at the expense of strategic projects. Rather than waiting for the organisation to come to them, intranet teams should be proactive in looking for ways to support such initiatives. This delivers value to the organisation and intranet teams benefit from the positive PR.
The intranet can provide support in a number of different ways:
- providing organisation-wide communications
- storing and sharing project documents
- for training
- as part of the solution in the project outcome or deliverables
- to support the merger of two companies
Intranets can provide particular support during company mergers and acquisitions
In the design of your intranet both global and local issues must be addressed. The most effective way to design is by placing the user at the centre of the design process.
There are many ways to do this, from conducting interviews and carrying out workplace observations of end-users to following up on feedback generated through the site itself.
Ongoing effort to maintain the integrity of the site will be required across a number of areas including the information architecture, metadata, and search. Good user interface design can be one of the most important steps to having the system used and should not be overlooked.
Short of a ‘big bang’ redesign, or implementation there are many incremental improvements that can be made and teams should not underestimate the impact that these can have across the organisation. Ensure that a little time is set aside each month to fix or improve a few thing. For example, creating links to the most used content from the homepage can be a huge boon both to general staff and to the reputation of the intranet team.
2.1 Collect and act on feedback, usage and search reports
The value of gathering and acting on feedback, usage and search reports is generally understood, though not always acted upon. It is one of the simplest, most direct and cost-effective ways to tap into your community of users. User feedback can be used to expose areas requiring immediate improvement and to inform future initiatives.
In many cases where teams are unable to fix certain issues, user feedback is ignored. In such instances it is even more important to collect and respond to feedback. Demonstrating to the organisation that the intranet team does care about outcomes and is responsive to staff comments and issues will have an enormous impact on the reputation of the team and the level of support from staff.
2.2 Improve global navigation and site structure
Navigation should be based on the goals of the intranet, so shifts in organisational thinking and priorities are likely to impact the site structure in some way. Where these shifts occur, resulting for example in an organisational restructure, intranet teams should be proactive and take a leadership role to position the intranet appropriately. Such changes will affect not only site navigation but also content ownership, necessitating work with current authors and their managers.
Ongoing review is necessary. When making changes use all the tools at your disposal, including user-evaluation, workplace observation or task-based analysis.
For more on making site improvements see the Canon case study:
Navigation should be based on the goals of the intranet
2.3 Support collaboration
It is important that intranets are designed to incorporate collaboration.
Many intranet teams have boxed themselves into a narrow corner, by limiting the intranet to an internal set of web pages that may or may not be published out of a web content management system.
Collaboration, long awaited by many intranet managers, is now a reality. Unfortunately intranets are not designed for collaboration. They are best for corporate-type information and to link in the various applications that staff use. Intranet managers continue to bind the intranet to the web content management system, stating this territory alone as theirs.
Collaboration happens at the business, or team level and this is where all the work gets done within organisations. While a separate set of collaboration tools and strategy will be required, intranet teams should certainly be a part of, if not the leaders in, collaboration initiatives. The first person that intranet managers should upskill in this area is themselves. Every intranet manager should now be a user of social networking tools and sites, blogs, wikis and RSS feeds.
Those organisations that do not address the need for collaboration will eventually see that their staff have found their own workarounds.
All intranet managers should now be users of social networking tools and sites
2.4 Identify individual business unit needs
Individual business units looking for solutions to their particular issues, will often have specific requirements that, with a minimal amount of abstraction, could be widely leveraged by others.
Without a plan and coordination of such requests by the intranet team, the first business area to request new functionality will bankroll it for everyone else. Furthermore, rework will be required later, to fit the functionality to subsequent business areas and projects. Intranet teams should ensure that a process is in place to ensure that individual solutions are leveraged and that there is a fair way of funding these.
2.5 Refine and review user-centred design
User-centred design techniques place the user at the centre of the overall intranet design. For those working full time within the organisation it can be easy to assume to know the solutions to end users’ problems. It is important to suspend judgment! You don’t know what you don’t know… yet.
The only way to understand the requirements of staff is to get out there amongst them. While this can be undertaken as a distinct exercise it can also be worked into other meetings, informal chats in the kitchen or at a colleague’s desk.
Needs analysis, workplace observation, contextual analysis, task analysis, card sorting, usability laboratories and many more methods and techniques are the ways to go about understanding staff needs.
2.6 Maintain metadata and taxonomy
Metadata is the information about the data, including author and date. The taxonomy is the classification or arrangement of documents.
It is important to maintain just the right amount of metadata. At the very least this should include the author’s name so that you and others in the organisation can contact the author. To this end, other information (metadata) such as the author’s email address is also useful. Wherever possible, automatically capture and populate this information into your content management system for publication to the intranet.
There are many recognised metadata models. Dublin Core is one of these, however most of these models are complex and difficult to learn. Although metadata experts can manage them, most content authors will be unable to.
Maintenance in this area is a thankless task, however it is not to be avoided as a lack of rigour here will be obvious to staff.
Staff dislike out-of-date content and search that doesn’t work to their expectations
The two things that staff dislike the most about intranets are:
- out-of-date, sub-standard content
- search that doesn’t work according to their expectations
Intranet teams who are struggling to deliver new functionality and intranet bug fixes, may find it easier to improve content quality. For this reason, many intranet teams spend 90% of their time on content. Though content is important, so are other components and teams should not forget these.
3.1 Source, create, improve, remove or rewrite information
An editorial approach to content is required and intranet teams have a leadership role to play. Intranet teams have a unique view of the organisation that can be leveraged to bring new content out and communicate salient stories and ways of working to the rest of the organisation.
Intranet teams are the online experts and are best placed to advise on content authoring, and to help authors to help their audience find the information they need.
Assistance with document headings, use of summaries and working with and understanding search are all ways that intranet teams can help authors. Intranets are vast repositories of information and providing ‘information scent’ is one of the most useful things authors can do.
The following link leads to the article ‘Information scent: helping people find the information they want’:
3.2 Nurture author community
Intranets generally depend on a distributed group of authors. The authoring community is a valuable resource that is already ‘hooked into’ the organisation. Authors learn valuable lessons everyday, and it is the role of the intranet team to provide a way for content authors to share information with each other. Content authoring is often a tack-on to an existing role, and authors have little expertise and training in the area. This means it can be isolating, and tough. Setting up an effective community of authors is a good way to overcome this.
Over time the best content authors will mentor others, fostering a true community.
Over time the best content authors will mentor others
3.3 Satisfy audience needs
It can be easy to focus on delivery of functionality or content and lose sight of the various audience groups this is being delivered to. In order to satisfy audience needs, the audience must first be defined
Audiences exist at a macro and a micro level within the organisation. Contrary to popular opinion not all audiences are equal, and for a variety of reasons one audience group may be prioritised over another. For example, head office staff who already have access to the necessary applications, personnel and information may be a less important target audience than front line staff who are disconnected from central systems. It is important to make this prioritisation transparent to the rest of the organisation.
For intranet teams there are two types of audience: those who provide content (authors) and those who consume content (end-users) and each must be segmented and understood.
In order for intranets to move beyond useable to useful they must support the business.
Try the following steps to assess, and where necessary redress, the way the intranet supports the most important business processes:
- List the five most important business processes for your organisation
- List the five most important business processes that take place on or utilise the intranet
- Is there alignment? Where are the gaps?
- Write an action plan and make it happen
3.4 Improve individual sections
There are many sections within an intranet. Although these don’t often have a formal definition, they are likely to be chunked by content, content owner or audience type. Individual sections might range from the homepage, to recruitment, HR policies or help desk FAQs.
Without a management plan for the intranet and the individual sections within it, quality control will rest with individual content owners. Caught between management instruction and online best practice, content owners often require support from intranet teams to make the right call.
In most organisations there are too many intranet sections and too many content authors for the intranet team to manage all equally on an annual basis.
As with audience groups some prioritisation is required. The exact method will vary for every organisation, however a model that is based on content volume and the relative importance of the content to the organisation is likely to succeed.
Reviews of individual sections are best conducted through a partnership between the intranet team and content owners.
Reviews of individual sections are best done in partnership with content owners
3.5 Formalise intranet authoring
In the majority of organisations content authoring is not formalised. Writing content authoring into job descriptions raises the importance of the task and highlights that it is an activity that is integral to the role, rather something extra and outside of it. Where appropriate key performance indicators should also be put in place.
Writing authoring into job descriptions will also help with continuity planning, as it will ensure that this activity is visible to new people coming into an existing role. It also serves as a reminder to managers that their staff carry out content authoring as part of their usual business activities.
Intranet teams are often reluctant to approach HR departments to request the inclusion of content authoring in the job descriptions of current authors. The best way to make managers and HR take content authoring seriously is to have it written into job descriptions. All the intranet teams that have requested this formalisation of content authoring have secured it.
Approach HR departments to have content authoring included in job descriptions
3.6 Rewrite intranet guidelines and policies
Rewriting intranet guidelines and policies is easy and this is often where teams spend a great deal of their time. Although intranet teams often feel that the creation of these standards will provide the required mandate so that they can move forward, this is seldom if ever the case. The creation or improvement of guidelines and policies will not fix an ailing intranet or give the team the political clout to do so.
Certainly an appropriate set of intranet guidelines and policies will assist content authors and provide some guidance to the organisation. As time goes by these will require tweaking as the organisation, the intranet and those that contribute to it evolve. Wherever possible these should be aligned to the appropriate organisational policies such as IT access and security policies.
The next Hive segments
The remaining three Hive sections are:
- Change and communications: inform and support everyone
- Technology: keep it all working
- Team: be effective
These three sections will be covered in The Intranet Hive part 2, next month.
Being an intranet manager is a difficult task that requires a broad range of skills. As a discipline the role of intranet manager is now recognised and embedded into many organisations yet there is very little if any formal training available in the field.
The Intranet Hive provides a framework by which intranet teams can manage their intranets. By starting with a self assessment, the areas that are the weakest are exposed. The next step is to ascertain which of these must be addressed first.
Looking at which ones match the organisation’s strategy and/ or the intranet goals is a good place to start.
The Hive promotes a model whereby the strengths of the intranet team are acknowledged and the team is supported with supplementary areas of focus across the following domains:
- Strategy – know where you are going
- Design – make it easier for staff
- Content – meet the business need
- Change and communications – inform and support everyone
- Technology – keep it all working
- Team – be effective
The Hive is a reminder to intranet managers and teams of the complexity they manage every day, as well as a support to ensure that activities are understood and undertaken in a way that fits the organisation and the evolution of the intranet at any given time. The Intranet Hive is also an important model for communicating the often misunderstood role of the intranet manager to senior managers and HR practitioners.
Next month: part two of The Intranet Hive looks at the areas of change and communications, technology and team. A full graphic outlining the 36 activities will be included.
Contact the author to participate in trailing the Intranet Hive heuristics for self-assessment.