Intranet managers: it’s time to get above ourselves

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.


What I learned at the J. Boye 2016 conference

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.

Allan discussing intranet governance
Part of my presentation at the J Boye 16 conference. Image: Claudia Eichler

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.

Game changers?

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.

Another blog about digital things?

Digital - a love story.
Source: wikimedia commons

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.