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Essential intranets: inspiring sites that deliver business value, my latest book, covers a dizzying array of intranet features and solutions, ranging from simple site enhancements to entire core business solutions. For each approach, examples are shown where it has been successful in practice.
Clearly, however, not all ideas can be implemented within the one organisation, not least because teams don’t have unlimited funding. More importantly, not all solutions are appropriate or practical in any given situation.
The book is therefore not a shopping list for intranet and project teams, but rather a source of inspiration. This still leaves the question for teams: what should we be implementing?
What is needed is a simple framework for making decisions, that balances organisational objectives with staff needs. Equally importantly, the decision-making process must also consider practicality, if solutions are to be delivered sooner rather than later.
There are many approaches for planning, ranging from simple techniques to complex methodologies, including our approach outlined in the earlier article 6×2: a new approach to planning.
This article outlines a broader set of principles that underpin all of the successful planning approaches.
Note: this is a book excerpt from Essential intranets: inspiring sites that deliver business value, which can be obtained from Step Two (store.steptwo.com.au) or from Amazon US or Amazon UK.
Intranet improvements must add value and meet real needs
Avoiding two common traps
Before exploring the planning framework, it’s useful to explore two common traps that teams encounter when planning projects.
The first danger is aiming too high. In this approach to intranets, teams hope to totally transform the site in a single project, or in a series of related projects. The goals are ambitious: nothing short of reimagining how staff work, and how the business delivers its services.
This often involves a generational shift for the intranet (and for the organisation that uses it). For example, the content-heavy, one-way publishing platform is to be replaced with an entirely collaborative and social site. At the same time, major business processes are automated, a mobile site is delivered, and frontline tools are redeveloped.
This is a grand vision, and perhaps conceptually the ‘right’ one for the organisation. But the size of the project, and the effort it entails, is daunting! The project would also require wholesale shifts in organisational culture and working practices.
At the other end of the scale, intranet teams can aim too low. While most existing intranets are useful, they are often not essential for the day-to-day work of staff.
If the primary focus is just on delivering corporate content, including policies and news, then intranets will continue to languish.
Merely tweaking existing sites is therefore not enough. Adding a few minor features, or delivering a mobile version of the unchanged existing site, is unlikely to have a significant impact on the business.
Nor is simply maintaining the site as-is, looking only at content quality and governance.
A simple planning framework
There is a middle ground for intranet planning, that sits between trying to change the whole world, and merely tinkering with the current intranet.
The right features and solutions meet three critical criteria:
- Business priorities. The proposed solutions are aligned with overall business goals and stakeholder priorities. Ideally, they will directly support core business.
- Staff needs. Addresses a current staff need or pain point, ideally focusing on the staff who play a central role in delivering the organisation’s products or services.
- Practicality. Can the idea be implemented, within a reasonable time, using available technology, and spending only the available budget? Will the project actually be approved?
If these seem like a simple set of criteria, they are. The challenge for intranet teams it to apply them robustly, and to use them as the basis for decision-making and ongoing planning.
Fundamentally, your organisation is not the same as others. Your staff have unique needs, and your stakeholders have their own immediate priorities.
There is therefore no one ‘right’ improvement to make to all intranets. Nor is there a set of features that all intranets should or must have.
When reading through a book such as Essential intranets, it’s easy to be come enthusiastic about the benefits that intranets can deliver (they are extensive), but the challenge remains to pick from the myriad of features and approaches.
Intranet teams can use the framework outlined in the coming sections to identify the ideas that will have the biggest bang in your organisation.
Directly address top-level business goals
1. Align with business priorities
One of the starting points for any intranet planning is to understand overall business strategy and to engage with senior leaders and other key stakeholders.
Insights from these activities should build a clear picture of the top-down priorities that exist within the organisation. This allows intranet projects to align with business needs, either from a strategic or tactical perspective.
The most practical way to approach this is often to start with business priorities, and then to seek out potential intranet enhancements and solutions that would meet those needs.
This can be done in multiple ways, including:
- Directly address top-level business goals. At various times, most organisations will very visibly focus on a small number of priorities, such as improving staff engagement or increasing customer satisfaction. This can point to a range of potential intranet projects.
- Identify a key sponsor, and meet their needs. Start by locating a sponsor or key supporter for the intranet, and meet with them to identify ways that the intranet can help to address their considerations.
- Target a key business area. The most important organisational units are those involved in delivering core services or products. Targeting the needs of these groups helps to guarantee that the intranet delivers business value.
- Address broad business objectives. Even when there aren’t clearly documented business goals, there will typically be a general focus that pervades the organisation. For example, this could be ‘do more with less’ mindset that would suggest a number of possible intranet-based activities.
The importance of aligning with business needs will often depend on the scale of the project being planned, and the resources required. For major projects that will transform the intranet, some form of business case is typically required.
While a business case may be built on behind-the-scenes considerations (such as the need to move from a legacy IT platform), it is always much stronger to demonstrate clear business benefits.
Smaller projects that work within existing resources and constraints typically need less justification. In these cases, it may be sufficient to broadly speak to the business needs that will be met.
Staff must be kept informed in a timely way
2. Address staff needs
Intranets are only used if they’re useful for staff, or mandated in use. To ensure that proposed solutions are valuable in meeting day-to-day needs, spend time understanding the business, and identify common staff needs and points of pain.
In practice, there are a number of ways that the intranet can meet staff needs, including:
- Address intranet design issues. For example, improvements to site navigation and search benefits the whole organisation, if done well.
- Address widespread points of pain. These may relate to breakdowns in internal communication, or to a lack of trustworthy content that can be relied upon when needed.
- Resolve common time-wasters. Improvements such as delivering online forms offer simple ways of addressing widespread frustrations.
- Improve access to tools and systems. Intranets can help by simplifying how to access common systems, or by surfacing key data.
- Target the needs of key staff groups. Gain an in-depth understanding of how a key business area works, and target solutions to meet their specific needs.
- Meet frontline and operational needs. Resolve issues for staff who interact with customers or work in the field.
- Deliver better business solutions. Identify specific business processes that are causing pain and frustration for staff, and use the intranet to simplify and streamline them.
Maintaining a user-centred or ‘bottom up’ perspective is about more than just choosing the right features to implement. It’s also critical to ensuring adoption and use, avoiding the all-too-common situation where corporately driven solutions become ‘white elephants’ that are never used.
Note: The companion volume Designing intranets: creating sites that work outlines a step-by-step methodology for delivering intranets that are easy and usable for staff. This can be obtained directly from Step Two (store.steptwo.com.au) or on Amazon US or Amazon UK.
Work within the project constraints
3. Ensure practicality
There is no shortage of constraints and hurdles for teams to overcome when planning and delivering a better intranet. To name just a few:
- limited team size and available time
- small budget
- technology constraints, including limitations of the existing technology platform
- limited availability of IT teams to support the project
- competing projects
- insufficient engagement of business areas and content owners
- internal politics
- poor recognition and support from senior management
- impact of organisational changes, such as mergers or restructures
- lack of clarity around the role of the intranet
These constraints, and a dozen others in addition, have a big impact on what can be done to improve the intranet. In many cases, the constraints drive the selection of activities, more than strategic considerations or staff needs.
The nature of the constraints will depend on the specifics of the organisations, and the circumstances of the team. The historical role of the intranet, and how it is currently viewed by the organisation, will also shape the limitations imposed on the project.
For projects that will be delivering incremental improvements, it’s vital to work within existing constraints. As outcomes must be delivered in the short term, constraints must be treated as iron-clad restrictions. Projects should avoid potential activities that hit current constraints, and instead shift focus to items that are more practical.
For larger and more strategic projects, it may be possible to address some of the constraints as part of the business case. For example, a new technology platform and a reasonable budget may resolve many (if not all) of the current limitations. Care must still be taken not to overreach, by promising to deliver outcomes that are excessively hard to achieve.
Choose between tactical and strategic approaches
Bringing it all together
Teams can use the activities outlined in this chapter as the basis of a practical step-by-step process for choosing what improvements to make to the intranet.
The methodology operates as follows:
- Understand the landscape. The starting point for all teams is to build an appreciation for how the organisation works, key cultural considerations, and the overall strategic focus.
- Align with organisational strategy. Seek out one or two strategic issues to target with the intranet, obtained from overall organisational goals, or the priorities of key stakeholders.
- Understand staff needs. Spend time with staff, and seek out potential activities and improvements that will assist with key business processes and day-to-day work.
- Determine what type of project to pursue. Choose between a tactical and incremental approach or a strategic and top-down project, based on an understanding of the landscape and the nature of potential opportunities.
- Assess constraints. Within the context of the type of project, determine the hurdles and stumbling blocks that will impact what can be delivered.
- Robustly assess potential activities. Look for items which target business priorities and staff needs, while being practical to implement.
- Deliver the project! Incremental projects can be started immediately, and deliver within a matter of months. Larger initiatives will often need a business case to be approved, following by a more substantial implementation project lasting months or a year.
- Repeat. As the project proceeds, continue to build up a better understanding of the landscape, and how it’s changing over time. Use this knowledge to plan and execute the next round of improvements.
Taking a structured approach to intranet planning has many benefits. It helps the team to break out of assumptions of what can (or should) be done, and ensures alignment between business priorities and staff needs.
Note: the approach outlined in this section is a simplified version of the ‘6×2 methodology’ developed by Step Two, which puts even more shape around how to plan intranet activities. See the earlier article, 6×2: a new approach to planning for more.
The opportunity for intranets to deliver value has never been greater. New technology and new ways of thinking have broadened corporate intranets far beyond their original role as storehouses for static content.
Yet the challenge remains to identify which of the myriad options should be pursued. This article has outlined a simple framework that can underpin all planning approaches.
The framework helps teams to seek out improvements that deliver business benefits, meet staff needs, and work within constraints.
While simple, this framework is immensely powerful when applied rigorously, and it helps teams avoid the traps of trying to do too much (or too little).