Ten lessons from an intranet content restructure

My team has just implemented a completely new information architecture (IA) for our intranet. It’s taken just under a year from first card sorts to go-live.

I presented on the practicalities of making changes such as these at Intranet Now earlier in 2017. Now that we’ve finally launched the revised site, I’d like to offer some lessons learned from the project.

If you’re embarking on something similar, feel free to get in touch – I’m happy to discuss our experiences.

1. Don’t underestimate the effort involved

Prior to embarking on wholesale changes to the site, we looked at whether we could cherry-pick problem parts of the IA and change them in a light-touch way.  After several weeks assessing possible approaches, we concluded that we’d have to redo our entire architecture.  For context, we had around 1500 content pages, not including news.  It took us 12 months from initial card sort to go live.  Understand that this is not something that lends itself to quick fixes, and be prepared for a long haul.

2. Test and test and test again

We conducted five rounds of user testing before we settled on the new IA, and could easily have carried on for more complicated parts of the structure.  At some point, though, you have to stop and commit, however, only do that once you are confident that you have the insight you need to confirm what your new structure should be.  Try not to cut corners – it will compromise the integrity of the end result.

3. Bring content owners with you

It’s vital that you start speaking to your content owners before you embark on a restructure, and you need to involve them at every step.  Your restructure is likely to see their content sections split up and their favoured labels changed.  While some colleagues will understand the need for this in order to make content truly employee-focused, others will resist hugely.  Be prepared for comments such as “where’s my page?” and “where’s my content?”.  Which brings me to lesson four:

4. Evidence is vital

You need evidence from your testing for two main purposes.  The first (somewhat obviously) is to allow you to make sensible decisions about how you are going to restructure your content.  The second is that you will need to convince the doubters that your approach is correct.  There is nothing more powerful than being able to justify a decision based on employee insight, especially when it has been tested multiple times.  Even so, you’ll meet resistance from some content owners.  Stick to your guns.

5. Trust your methodology but use your judgement.

I like to think this point is complementary, rather than contradictory, to number four.  Some of your testing will throw up curious results, or things that don’t feel ‘quite right’.  This might be down to the test questions being too open to interpretation (see also the point below).  In such cases it’s ok to use your judgement to make decisions.  But you need to make the judgement after testing, not before – again, don’t cut corners, or make assumptions that haven’t been tested.

It’s also important to be able to speak authoritatively about your methodology.  In conjunction with test evidence, it will help you address colleagues’ concerns about how you are sure the changes you’re making are right.

6. Some content is hard to locate

There will be content that you just can’t find a home for, or that is very difficult to label in a user-friendly way.  It’s just the nature of the content on your intranet, so why fight it?  In such cases, try to find the user journey that is the closest fit.  You might need to cross link to the content from other pages if there isn’t one obvious place.

7. Impact on site design

Will your restructure have an impact on your site layout?  Will your megamenus need redeveloped?  If your site is built with responsive design, what impact is there on mobile and tablet views?  Ask these questions early, and factor them in to the overall site changes.  Bear in mind that you will need to user test any functional and design changes too.

8. Impact on links from other applications

There are likely be links into the intranet from other applications, and if you change the structure of the site this will cause those links to break.  Plan early for this impact. Be mindful that some applications have set change cycles, or are difficult to amend quickly, or incur a cost if they need changed.  The difficulty here is synchronising those changes with when you push the new structure live.  In some cases it might not be possible for them to be changed on the same timeframe – in which case, there will be mopping up to do, and you can expect to receive criticism for it.

Employees are also likely to have favourite content and pages bookmarked in their browser.  These will cease to work once you make the change to the new structure.  One potential way to mitigate this is to offer a ‘link amnesty’ and provide individual assistance to help employees replace their links.  But that might not be practical in larger organisations, and managing this impact through prior communications is preferable.

9. Impact on search

If you are changing your structure, there could be an impact on search.  Cached results can be problematic at the point of switching over to the new structure – expect to be met with complaints, or faults logged, about inaccessible content.  In addition, be aware that you might have to change promoted links, or make amendments to configuration relating to keywords/synonyms to reflect the new structure.

10. Communications

It remains the case that one of the most important aspects of a change like this is how you communicate it to your users and wider stakeholders.  Aside from the main employee base, there will be content owners, application owners and a variety of senior stakeholders to keep informed and happy.  Regular, early communication with the content owners and senior stakeholders is vital; employee communications can take place closer to the change.  At the point of launch, offering a tour of the new site can be helpful.

The key is to ensure there are no surprises come the changeover – so everyone is aware of what is happening, when, and the nature of the change.










Digital’s vocabulary angst

A recent Twitter exchange between @codorniou and @sharonodea on whether Workplace by Facebook is an Enterprise Social Network sparked some thoughts about the way we describe what we do, and the tools we use.

It’s not a surprise that an employee of Workplace by Facebook has a strong view on how that tool should be described. But does it matter to an employee whether it should be called an ‘Enterprise Social Network’ or not? No.

If ‘Facebook’ is a mainstream concept, which I’d suggest it is, then understanding what ‘Workplace by Facebook’ is shouldn’t be a stretch for an employee. In my experience employees generally refer to an application by the name of the tool, rather than its function. You submit expenses through ‘Concur’, not ‘the expenses management system’. The same is true for localised or bespoke tools. My organisation’s HR system is called ‘My People Online’, not by its vendor name.

The rudimentary social feed provided by out the box Sharepoint 2013 is called the ‘activity feed’ in my office.  Suppose, though, I need to explain the difference between it and Yammer for my colleagues.  “Well, er, one is a microblog, and the other is an Enterprise Social Network”. This might not be the most helpful description.

Which puts us in a bit of a bind: the terms we use as practitioners to make distinctions between technologies may be just jargon to others, yet what vocabulary can we use to position and demystify digital technology? In a context where, for example, I have colleagues still asking if they can ‘get a SharePoint ‘ (i.e. a teamsite), we need a vocabulary that helps us overcome challenges of basic comprehension before we even start thinking about improving digital literacy.

Problems, problems

I asked fellow practitioners to provide some examples of words and terms they find problematic. It’s not exhaustive but it illustrates that we’re using terminology with fluid meanings, or words that have a definition so broad they are starting to lose their value.

Contributions included:

  • Collaboration
  • Digital workplace
  • Channels
  • Transformation
  • Adoption
  • Gamification
  • Disruption
  • Social
  • Platform
  • Integrated

Collaboration is a perfect example of the issue. For me, it has always been a clumsy way of expressing ‘working with others using online tools to exchange knowledge and ideas’. It hasn’t been helped, however, by its liberal use in conjunction with largely unprovable claims about how it will bust us out our silos into a utopian, knowledge-sharing future, where everyone works so out loud there’s a need for an office quiet carriage just to get anything done.

I’m sure we can agree

Conversely, we do seem to have settled on a meaning for some of the words we use. ‘Social’ has become a sort of shorthand for a user-generated interaction with either content or other colleagues.

And interestingly there seems to be agreement that certain terms should be run out of town. ‘Social collaboration’ is probably the best example.  To be fair, it’s a dog’s breakfast of a locution.

And so to ‘Digital’

Which brings us to the term ‘digital’ itself.  Some commentators view it as an unhelpful word, because it compartmentalises digital skills and literacy, and everyone requires those to operate successfully in modern jobs. By badging things with ‘digital’, those who don’t have a digital role don’t need to worry about it, as the ‘digital’ team or person will handle it.

But then how do we neatly encapsulate what we do for colleagues?  Plenty of us have a broad remit that covers managing multiple channels, implementing governance, providing subject matter expertise and more, all in the context of services that are either online, or wholly computer-based. Digital becomes a handy, even necessary catch-all.   The debate continues.

The good news: language evolves

Let’s not beat ourselves up. It’s worth reflecting that digital roles and practices, and many tools and services, have only entered the mainstream in the last decade. The worldwide web has only been a common business tool since the turn of the century. Facebook and Twitter only arrived in the mid-2000s.  We’ve had to create words to describe what these tools do, and words to explain what we do with them, and those words are very young.

Their use will evolve over time. Some words will settle on a meaning, while others will change again. Ultimately it means our communication skills are as important to what we do as our aptitude with technology.

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.