Why your intranet doesn’t work…

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…and how everyone in your company can fix it.

Some intranets are like the poor cousins of their corporate website counterparts. The internet sites get all the attention, all the funding, all the marketing push, all the media attention, and all the clicks.

On the other hand, the company’s intranet, its internal web for employees only, gets none of the above. It toils away in the background, supported by a web team that doesn’t really care about it, employees that have forgotten about it, and executives that neglect its needs.

Let’s take a trip back in time. Remember 2002 or earlier, when your company launched its first intranet to great fanfare, and everyone from the CEO to the summer intern were excited about its potential: “We’ll have a site where we can share information instantly across the enterprise without resorting to email because everyone will have the same homepage.” “It’ll be a place where we can exchange documents and archive our project information.” “We’ll be able to collaborate online in virtual meeting rooms!” “Employees will feel like it’s their own virtual workplace community.”

Now it’s 2008, and it seems like your employees have abandoned your intranet site. Either it doesn’t work the way your employees want it to work or it doesn’t work the way management wants it to work or, perhaps, it doesn’t work at all. Yet think of what your company has invested in developing it, maintaining it, and fixing it. Now you have to pay for a redesign, too, just to throw good money after bad? Have you ever wondered why companies spend so much on intranets that staff doesn’t use?

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Major differences between intranets and corporate websites
Part of the problem lies in understanding the differences between your corporate website, the one the world sees on the internet, and your intranet, the one only your employees can access.

While external websites can be developed with a clear corporate objective because they reflect your business and marketing strategies, intranets may have several important internal stakeholders, all of whom are vying to claim the intranet for their own objectives. Human resources wants it to be an HR site, communications wants it to be an internal news channel to help communicate to employees, customer service wants it to be a tool for their CSRs to use, purchasing wants it to be an extranet for business partners as well as employees, and so forth.

But why shouldn’t all your departments, divisions, and teams vie for control of the intranet? It should be able to do all that and more. Unlike internet websites, where the two main target audiences are customers and potential customers, intranets have to serve many different employees in many different roles within many different teams.

However, and this is a big “however,” you do have to decide the most important use for your company’s intranet because this will play a big part in helping you determine the design and scope of it. If the most important thing is to use your intranet for internal communications, for example, then you may want to design it like a newspaper, a magazine, or a favourite online news channel such as CNN.com. That doesn’t mean it can’t also be used by HR, customer service, purchasing, or even your retired employees club.

Intranets that have been around for a while but still only contain linked documents and static pages of information (basically, an HTML page with no database-driven data on it) are not really intranets — they’re online document-management sites. If all you want is document management, look at professional document-management solutions, many of which can integrate with intranets as well, but don’t waste your time trying to pretend it’s an actual website. Too many links to downloadable Office documents and Acrobat files (PDFs) may mean your intranet is going the way of the mullet.

Award-winning intranet trends
Trends in intranets point to an increased use of application-driven tools, knowledge-management systems, workplace-collaboration tools, and distributed authoring — the ability for different people in different areas of the company to all play a role in authoring content directly, with only a central team as gatekeepers of the overall site and its standards. Some of this year’s worldwide award-winning intranets published by StepTwo Designs in Australia (www.steptwo.com.au/papers/kmc_iia2007/index.html) excelled because of the features and benefits:

• A sub-portal for leaders and managers called Leadership University helped them establish leadership and revitalize business practices (Fiat Group Automobiles, Italy);
• Applications that help staff quickly locate contact information, as well as find someone’s physical location in a building (City of Casey, Australia);
• Practice Area Communities (PAC) setup to share staff expertise, exchange both explicit and tacit knowledge, and drive innovation across the organization as a whole (Perkins Eastman, USA);
• Product collaboration online eliminated inefficiency and confusion caused by document versions and duplication by creating a way for employees working in different countries and functions to contribute data, text, feedback, comments, and approvals while working on correct, updated documents (Nycomed, Switzerland/Denmark);
• An “Investigator Wizard” helps insurance claim managers to recognize fraudulent claims and to refer them for investigation (QBE, Australia).

How to fix your intranet – quick and dirty
Who can fix your intranet? Not any one person, but everyone in your company. The intranet is one of those initiatives in your company that has to be blessed by the executive offices and adopted at the street level. While it’s critical to have strong executive sponsorship, not only to secure funding for intranet development, but also to champion it across the company, it’s also necessary to gain the approval, involvement, feedback, commitment, and passion of all employees, both as users of the intranet and as potential publishers and content contributors.

Need a quick fix to start getting staff excited about your intranet’s potential? Try these tips.

1) Get people involved at the grassroots level. Intranets are about community and culture as much as technology and business. Can your president or CEO champion it by sending out a message or survey asking for feedback on how employees would like to be able to use the intranet? Can you invite companies that specialize in intranets to do an education session for managers and executives about what other company intranets are like and what can be achieved with a best-practice intranet? Most importantly, don’t start your intranet project before you consult your staff.

2) Start with the home page. An intranet home page is the gateway to all kinds of information and services found within the site. Even if your site needs to be redesigned, reorganized, or revitalized with some dynamic, interactive applications, you can often improve the usability your site by 25 to 50 per cent by giving employees a gateway page that is well organized, helps them find information quickly, appeals to the eye, and highlights content that may be of interest to them. It can also give you a quick way to link directly to important or popular content that is buried too deeply in the site structure.

3) Hold out for an integrated solution. Sometimes, you may not have the budget for a more comprehensive suite of intranet tools, or it may seem quicker and easier to buy software packages individually. Ultimately, though, intranets are all about systems integration, ease of administration, reliability, and scalability (the ability to grow as needs change). As a short-term measure, you might consider web-delivered services that you
can simply link to from your intranet, as long as you’re not locked into a long-term contract, but make sure your intranet solution addresses all the needs of your organization, not just one.

4) Don’t abandon best practices in usability and information design in the rush to deliver your intranet! Just as you had to consult your employees at the beginning of an intranet project, make sure you go back to them before the end of it to compare their original expectations for the intranet against their satisfaction with the product you are going to deliver. Make sure you allow time and funding for effective information design (also called web editing) and usability testing (quality assurance or user acceptance testing).

5) Get people at every level involved in contributing content. There’s nothing like seeing your own name in print, and similarly, there’s nothing that gets staff feeling ownership of their intranet more than being the ones who contribute content to it. That’s not just the few staff who are charged with publishing official content in each branch — you need a governance plan for that so everyone knows who owns each part of the intranet — but any employees who want to answer a survey, ask a question on a moderated forum, create a collaborative workspace, or submit feedback to you about the site.