Intranet Now 2017 – Review

“Stands the intranet where it did?”

“Alas, poor site, almost afraid to know itself”

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.

Fewer teeth, less pointing

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
  • Sustainability
  • Our locations/businesses
  • Press and media
  • Careers
  • Contact us

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.



Intranet managers need to lead to transition to digital workplace

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.”

Elizabeth Marsh, ‘Becoming a digital workplace leader: the big shift from intranet management’

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.

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.