Fortunately, we have Intranet Now to help us understand the state of things.
In only its fourth year, this has become a must-attend conference for intranet practitioners, and it is testimony to its organisers, Brian Lamb and Wedge, that it has developed so well, so quickly.
This year’s theme of ‘what works now’ meant that there was little crystal ball-gazing – the emphasis was on current practices and issues, with no need to worry about the next big thing. It was refreshing to be able to sit back and hear about the professional execution of good practice and successful problem solving. There was useful insight to digest, examples to squirrel away for future use, as well as fresh slants on old problems.
One thing I look for at an event like this is validation: am I doing it right? Am I missing something obvious? Many of the talks were reassuring on that front – everyone is dealing with similar issues, wrestling how to balance continual improvement with day-to-day management issues.
Perennial favourites such as search, information architecture and user tasks were all covered, which led to Martin White of Intranet Focus asking the afternoon panel session: why are we still having the same discussions after 20 years of intranet conferences? It’s the nature of the beast, was the verdict – the industry evolves (improves?) but areas of interest, along with chronic issues, remain the same.
Despite the emphasis on here and now there were clear signs of what’s heaving into view. Chris McGrath of Tangowork provided a useful overview of chatbots, while the panel discussion touched on the potential impact of AI. The ever-changing environment of Office 365 is also clearly going to be a rich vein for future conferences.
There was room for a little controversy, provided by Martyn Perks of Unily, who asked: do we still need governance? Immediate and entertaining harrumphing on the conference twitter hashtag ensued, but the central point remains that poorly executed or heavy-handed governance is an inhibitor. Good governance sits in the background and acts as a vital enabler.
Kurt Kragh Sørensen’s ‘state of the nation’ address gave a more macro view of digital workplace trends, based on the results of his digital workplace survey. Again, the increasing move to O365 was noticeable, as was the sense that investment in intranets is increasing.
Part of the charm of this event is its quirks. It would be remiss of me not to mention the fresh prawns provided with morning coffee. Prezi turns out to be more of a liability on a big screen than anticipated. And Wedge almost auctioned off a lost mobile phone to the highest bidder. We wait to see if any of that can be topped in 2018.
Corporate websites are mostly dire. They don’t have to be.
Meet Gavin. He’s 32. He’s just opened an artisan bagel shop in Glasgow’s West End. Gavin is lounging on a big sofa with a steaming mug of air-pressed coffee. He’s looking down at his smartphone and smiling the smile of a man who is trying to make you feel good about a financial services company.
Meet Beverley. Beverley, also 30-something, has been pictured standing unnervingly still as blurry figures dash around her. The style is ‘upmarket business attire with clipboard’. Her smile features a lot of teeth. They are the teeth which will inspire you to trust a major facilities solutions firm.
Meet Gustyglen Windfarm Array. Gustyglen looks splendid backlit by a sinking late-summer sun. The thrusting arms of its 10-turbine installation exhort you to embrace the green credentials of a large confectionery producer.
And finally, meet Richard and Felicity. They are retired (early). Cable-knit sweaters draped casually over their shoulders, they stand on the verandah of a beach-side lodge with their springer spaniel. Windswept, they point out to sea, teeth glinting. You want to find out more about that pharmaceutical firm’s concern for the family.
Sound familiar? I’ve made them up – but chances are you recognise this type of meaningless imagery that festoons corporate sites. It’s repeated over and over, site after site.
So much so, there seems to be a kind of group-think in play. Imagery is the most obvious manifestation of it. But the content is depressingly uniform too.
Here’s your free cut-out-and-keep menu structure for your next corporate site:
Who we are/about us
What we do
Press and media
I’ve just saved you a fortune in agency fees. You’re welcome.
A corporate site is also invariably ‘on brand’. In fact, it’s probably the purest expression of all the component parts of your brand in terms of colour palette, font, tone of voice and so on. But without any defined purpose or goal, it’s an aimless place.
What is the purpose of a corporate website?
Is this apparently uniform approach just the nature of the beast? After all, there’s a legitimate need to talk about your business at a high level, and provide routes into the wider company. Some industries have regulatory requirements to meet, and the corporate site is the obvious place to cater for them. Thus, in asking ‘what is the purpose of a corporate website?’, there’s a readily definable answer regarding content – but is the overall objective clear?
A useful challenge would be to ask the top tier of the business what they think the site is for. It should be possible for execs to articulate the purpose of one of their main channels. After all, it’s your dot com, it’s arguably top of your digital pile in terms of status. But it doesn’t sell you anything and it’s largely non-transactional. Does that make it just a coffee table brochure? If so, why is the imagery so irrelevant? If it’s genuinely a gateway to your wider business, why is apparently so little attention given to the impression it creates about your company?
To begin to tackle the problem I’d suggest going back to first principles and revisiting what the site is for. That’s hardly a revolutionary idea. But it’s possible you haven’t asked the sensible questions for a while, and it’s useful to revisit why a corporate site is set up the way it is:
Can you state clearly what the overall purpose of the site is?
Do you have objectives the site should achieve?
How realistic are the success criteria for achieving those? Are there any success criteria?
Think about your audience. Does the site cater for them properly? Is the site really intended for ‘everyone’?
Is the site task-focused; goal-driven? What calls to action do you provide?
More broadly, look at the user experience. Do the images relate to the content or the purpose of the site? Do they help site visitors complete their task? What can a user usefully do on the site? Is it easy for them to do?
And don’t neglect your site governance:
Is a roadmap for site development in place?
Is the site owner involved in site direction?
Do you consider your site analytics with any regularity? Do you take any action off the back of them?
Go back and look afresh at your corporate site. After all, there’s time and money being spent on maintaining it. And, please, let’s have fewer teeth, and less pointing.
As intranet managers, we have never been as well informed. How we should run our sites, how to engage employees, influence senior managers, govern correctly, structure our information – the advice is accessible and plentiful, and the research compelling.
As useful and welcome as this insight is, it can be a bit overwhelming. The temptation is to stop for a while, let the intranet run, changes bed in. But that approach only lasts temporarily. You’ve been to the conference. You read the white paper. Everyone else is miles ahead! And the digital workplace is your next big concern.
Lost in this clamour is any real focus on the intranet manager role itself. I’ve worked on intranets and extranets since 1999, and in that time I’ve seen the intranet change from a stodgy information repository into a tool that’s fundamental to how an organisation communicates and transacts with its employees, and how they work with each other. The manager’s role has adapted accordingly, with practitioners necessarily broadening their skills and knowledge. It’s now a something of a juggling act:
“The intranet manager role boasts a broad skill base and the intranet team an impressive set of competencies including governance, stakeholder management, content, technology, training, user experience (UX) and adoption.”
Any one of those topics could be a specialism in itself, so well done us for getting this far. But the next stage – the emphasis on the wider digital workplace, with the intranet an integral part of it –requires us to step up our game once again.
My sense is that many businesses are focused on ensuring the customer digital experience is up to snuff but are neglecting to bring their internal offering along at the same time.
If you aren’t prepared to put resources into modernising the digital experience for your employees, you’ll never realise the mooted benefits of a better digital offering to customers. You’ll also make it more difficult to attract prospective employees. Even where the component parts are in place internally in terms of technology and policies, if there isn’t a coherent approach to tie it together, progress will only ever be partial.
An opportunity lies for us in exposing this as a risk to the business, and it’s likely there are senior colleagues who will respond to that message. Some of them will also welcome guidance on effective ways to negotiate the changing digital environment. They might be in communications, or HR, or IT, and you might have to seek them out, but if you do, you can lead the discussion, increase your visibility and position yourself as the digital workplace specialist.
I’ve blogged before on the need to position ourselves as experts in the business but now, if we want to influence the shape of the employee digital experience and thereby shape our future roles to our own liking, we need to show some leadership.
As with our sites, if we don’t assess how our roles need to change, there’s a risk of stagnation. It looks like we are the people with whom much of the responsibility for an effective digital workplace could rest. The opportunity is there, if we want to take it. ‘Head of Digital Workplace’ doesn’t sound so bad.
A colleague has the dubious honour of being the risk consultant in our department. He’s responsible for making sure we have controls in place to mitigate the likelihood of risks turning into adverse events. It’s a fairly thankless task, necessarily bureaucratic. At regular intervals he reviews our processes to see if they can be simplified.
For the intranet, it means we have solid governance in place, and a manageable amount of paperwork around that governance. But the refining and trimming of processes isn’t happening across the business – which means that, given the pace with which the digital agenda is shaping requirements, inflexible processes are starting to place a substantial brake on progress.
Brian Solis, in his 2014 foreword to Paul Miller and Elizabeth Marsh’s The Digital Renaissance of Work, highlights that companies can be ‘weighed down’ by the processes that support years-old IT investments. To me, it seems obvious that companies should adapt their processes to ensure they remain fit for purpose as the changes wrought by digital transformation take effect.
Yet Jane McConnell’s most recent update to The Organization in the Digital Age reports that “Process simplification has started in some organizations as they recognize the waste in time and efficiency of overly complicated processes”¹. (My emphasis).
Shouldn’t businesses already be well on the way to adapting their processes to cope with digital change?
Who are the guilty parties when it comes to processes? The culprits vary – a legal department obligation here, an information security impact assessment there, procurement supplier vetting… the list goes on. In truth, there’s probably little digital teams can do to improve these processes other than to highlight where they are problematic and hope someone takes pity.
Where there is more scope for influence, however, and arguably where there should be a sympathetic ear, is with IT processes. Many of my colleagues wouldn’t draw a distinction between ‘IT’ and ‘digital’ – and indeed, a consensus is building that compartmentalising digital is increasingly counterproductive:
Digital no longer a distinct, separate “thing”. Don’t have a digital strategy, make sure digital features in all your strategies pic.twitter.com/ALg3ZAnTHU
– but let’s face it, while the distinction might be lost for many, those in IT and digital can be uncomfortable with each other’s way of working.
What I’d term ‘core’ IT is very process-driven. Broadly, it deals with business applications plus the architecture and networking infrastructure that makes them happen. Processes are an essential part of managing that estate effectively, and some of the processes will have been in place for years, perhaps not significantly changed from when they were established. People are needed to manage the processes, hence sizeable IT department organograms.
Digital, on the other hand, can look organisationally incoherent, not least where businesses have spun up digital teams to meet fast-changing external demands. We see digital services managed from marketing departments, customer-facing functions, communications teams, and HR. These services are focused on end user activity and experiences, rather than the nuts and bolts that make them work, and their management and implementation might be light on process, however, it’s rare that they can happen in full isolation from IT department requirements.
This means that for digital teams who are used to working quickly and adapting what they do to meet emerging demands, being obliged to go through lengthy processes designed for a pre-digital age is an active barrier to work.
We all know that where processes create barriers, the temptation is to go round them. Indeed, if we can, we will, which means that if a process has become something to be circumvented, it is no longer resolving the issue it was first put in place to address.
As part of digital transformation, then, internal process simplification clearly needs to be more of a priority, and quickly, otherwise the demand to deliver effective digital services for customers and employees simply won’t be met.
¹From the executive summary to the 10th edition of The Organization in the Digital Age, by Jane McConnell. www.netjmc.com.
To get above yourself: to start to think that you are more important than you really are.
That’s Macmillan Dictionary’s definition. It strikes me as a particularly British expression, combining just the right amount of disapproval, inverted snobbery and judgement, along with an ingrained sense that everyone should know. their. place.
I’ve been thinking about this phrase recently in the context of the intranet manager’s role. Earlier in 2016 I completed a lengthy intranet project – two and a half years from start to finish – where the majority of barriers to its success were unfortunately self-inflicted by the business.
Some of these barriers were procedural, as labyrinthine project governance structures kicked in. Others came later that were political: the project had quite high visibility around the company, with a senior sponsor, so it shouldn’t have been surprising that some of the interventions had other agendas behind them.
Harder to accept, though, were the challenges that arose towards the end, questioning the project’s methodology and our understanding of what we were delivering. I had spent two years preparing to deliver the site. The methodology was sound. The team’s understanding was comprehensive.
We delivered the site successfully. But these challenges made me wonder about the status – and understanding – of the intranet manager role. In the project aftermath, nursing my indignation, I asked myself whether I would directly question the finance team’s accounting procedures, or provide HR with unsolicited advice on how to implement a performance management system. Yet my – and my team’s – expertise had been questioned in this way.
Some of this was a defensive reaction to the fact I had worked on the project for so long. Colleagues had legitimately been seeking assurance that we would deliver an effective end product. But there’s another reason we received some of the challenges we did, and it’s something that we need to address if we want the intranet manager role to be influential as the digital workplace emerges.
Are you being served?
The intranet manager role has traditionally been service-oriented. It’s involved publishing web pages, responding to change requests, effective stewardship of structure and content, plus a consultative role when required. We have been a service provider.
That remains a necessary role to fulfill – but it sells our expertise short. Rather than being regarded as experts in our field, we are seen as ‘doers’. That doesn’t bode well if we want to advise the business on its progress towards the digital workplace, nor for our ability to shape our roles so they are fit for the future .
Time to be the expert
Are you ready, then, to describe yourself as the expert?
It’s hard to think of a role better positioned than the intranet manager to help steer the emerging digital workplace and make it the effective employee experience it needs to be. As the idea of the digital workplace gains traction, intranet managers will necessarily have to expand their remit to take in larger parts of the internal digital estate.
But if we want to shape that estate as we see fit, we’re going to have to be more visible within the business, and in particular, in parts of the business that the intranet manager has not typically found themselves before. It’s time to position ourselves as trusted advisers, not just service providers.
How to go about it? Simple stakeholder mapping is a good place to start. Identify people around the business who should be receptive to talking about the future of digital services for employees. Who is in charge of HR systems? Who manages the financial applications? Who agrees the BYOD policy? Who can explain the IT development roadmap? Once you’ve identified them, begin speaking to them.
In addition, seek out ways to talk about the future direction of the intranet, and what a wider digital workplace might look like. Ask to speak at team meetings; use the forums available to you to speak about what you do and what it does for the business. Work with internal communications to identify ways to put your vision of the future of the intranet and digital workplace forward. Identify connections where you can between what you do and what others parts of the business are doing, and make sure it ties in with overall business objectives.
Raise your profile and begin to move away from being seen just as a service provider. Position yourself in the wider business as a subject matter expert on the digital workplace. This won’t happen overnight, but when the time comes for the business to talk seriously about the digital workplace, you’ll be an influential voice.
Intranet managers: it’s time to get above ourselves.
At the start of November 2016 I made my way to Aarhus, Denmark for the 12th J. Boye conference. The event is highly rated, bringing together digital practitioners principally from Scandinavia and Germany, but with attendees from the UK, Canada and USA among others. It was refreshing to have a non-UK perspective on the digital landscape.
This year’s theme was digital leadership, a topic I touched on in my own presentation at the event, discussing the changing role of intranet managers.
What piqued my interest most were the presentations on what’s just around the corner – whether technology, or cultural change. Are we ready for it? Because it’s coming whether we like it or not.
Michael Bednar-Brandt, from Oracle, had the slightly unfortunate keynote slot the morning after the delegate party, and did a sterling job of reviving everyone with a wide-ranging speech highlighting tech that’s either just arrived or will be here soon. Robovan went down well, though there was some scepticism about the practicalities: how does it cope with potholes, for instance? What would stop it being chucked into the River Clyde by miscreant youths?
The ‘smart fridge‘ (which seems to be the only current mainstream Internet of Things device with slick marketing apart from central heating controls) was also covered, and again, the practicalities for me outweigh the usefulness. It’s got a camera so you can see what’s on the shelves – but let’s face it, how often do you clean the inside of your fridge? The beautifully ordered, pristine shelves on show suggest smart fridge owners have exceptionally high hygiene standards, and probably don’t cook very often.
Flippancy aside, highlighting these technologies led on to a discussion of automation, and the use of robots. It’s likely that driverless vehicles will be mainstream in 2-3 years, given the weight of the tech giants behind the technology, and the fact that governments have started to issue licences for their use. (This clip of one of Tesla’s automated car journeys was published on 18 November 2016.)
This will have a huge impact on those employed in logistics. Will drivers find employment elsewhere? Or will they need to change their skills as a result? The relentless push to realise the next technological step has inevitable repercussions, sometimes in unforeseen places. Michael cited the impact that digital cameras had on traditional film manufacturers, and now camera manufacturers themselves are feeling the pinch because of the prevalence of smartphones for taking pictures. Will the fact that your smartphone has a torch sound the death knell for traditional flashlight makers?
Afterwards, speaking with other delegates, there was appreciation of the ways in which digital technology is being used but there was unease, too, about the implications for employment, and the ethical issues bound to arise from using intelligent machines in the future.
We need to talk about data ethics
The evening prior to Michael’s presentation, Pernille Tranberg talked eloquently about the increasing importance of – and need for – data ethics. She highlighted that most of us aren’t in control of our online data, and the way it is being used by companies should certainly give us pause for thought, if not cause for alarm. She highlighted that those who have grown up in the digital age are much more tuned in to how their data are being used, and are far less willing to hand over their details without question.
For a long time, companies could more or less rely on us not reading terms and conditions, and as we blithely ticked the tick boxes we freely gave those businesses carte blanche to reuse and hawk our data as they saw fit. But the generation that is growing up in an online world, and knows the value of personal data, is not so ready to give up its details for free.
In our digital, data driven culture, those companies who are ethical in how they gather and use our data are likely to gain competitive advantage. For instance, those who now practice a ‘zero data’ policy, which means they retain no personal details, can use this as a key selling point to differentiate themselves from competitors.
What about the future workplace?
What are the challenges for the future workplace? Jonathan Phillips, in his presentation Tomorrow’s Workplace, highlighted changes to types of work, the physical workplace, and workers themselves.
Demographic issues in developed nations mean companies will have to cater for potentially wide-ranging needs amongst their employees; as people work longer we will see 50 year age gaps between oldest and youngest employees. What will that mean for health provision for employees? We’ll need accessible workspaces – both physical and digital. What impact does that sort of age gap have on organisational culture?
Cultural challenge is also inherent in ways of working that are now becoming mainstream, such as ‘handovers’ to a different team in another part of the world to maintain a 24/7 service. Similarly, where there are skills shortages, these are likely to be plugged with employees based in different countries. The technology allows us to connect easily – but working across timezones and cultures can be tricky.
And the practicalities of our workspaces themselves are under scrutiny. The loss of productivity in an open plan space, for instance, is considerable, to the extent that workers need to find quiet space, or use headphones, to filter out distractions in order to be fully productive. But this needs balanced with the fact we are social creatures, and often enjoy the interaction with our colleagues. Face to face discussion is still valued and valuable.
How can a business cater successfully for these different challenges? It’s enough to make you feel sympathy for all the CEO’s out there.
Can we keep up?
One of the final sessions of the conference was an ad-libbed debate where the speakers had to come up with a pro-or-con argument based on the question they’d only just been asked. Coming after a fairly intense three days it was a fun way to finish, though one of the questions struck a chord. It asked ‘are you already too late for the next channel?’, i.e. is the rate of change so rapid that it’s impossible to be ahead of the game? The room was split, but there’s no doubt that what seemed futuristic only two or three years ago is either upon us, or shortly round the corner. Watching what happens next won’t be dull.
I’ve worked in digital services since 1999. My first ‘digital’ job was setting up an extranet for the Scottish Tourist Board (as was – now VisitScotland). It was pioneering for its time – there were only two other sites like it in the world. It was my first introduction to the possibilities that the internet had opened up.
There were plenty of challenges. Dial-up connections were unreliable. The intended audience was sceptical. I remember a holiday letting agency pooh-poohing the idea of going online as their brochure was renowned and very popular. 18 months later the catalogue was fully available online.
17 years later, it’s fair to say that the changes since then in how we work, how we use – and have come to rely on – digital tools in our personal lives merit the label ‘revolutionary’.
The rate of progress is at times dizzying. Keeping up is challenging, if not impossible. These changes bring new issues too, sometimes with an ethical angle, such as how we use data, how we use our resources, the creation of a digital divide in society.
While these are areas I’m interested in exploring on this site, my main focus is the digital workplace – the idea that, as knowledge workers, we spend a huge amount of time working in a digital environment, i.e. on a screen. How do we make that environment welcoming and productive in the same way that we do for the physical spaces we work in?
There will also be quite a lot about intranets – managing one is part of the day job.
I hope you enjoy the ideas and thoughts I share on here – please feel free to get in touch.