Everything you know about intranets is wrong

Intranets do not have to cost a lot, but nor are they the only channel a company needs.

Your company intranet is not the be-all and end-all of Internal Communications. It’s only one channel, you can’t rely on a single channel to engage with your workforce and colleagues. A single channel can be a single point of failure – consider all the out of date documentation, pro-formas and policies your intranet provides – how awful to present your hard-working busy people with irrelevant documents to deal with.

I’m a big big fan of intranets, I believe they can save a company time and money, and directly help a company be more effective, efficient and profitable – much like good Internal Communications can drive a company’s performance.

But an intranet, even a good intranet, can’t be all things to all people, we mustn’t think ‘oh we’ve got an intranet, that’s our people all sorted’. Consider some of the limitations and false beliefs about intranets.

Intranet fallacies

“We put the announcement on the front-page, so everyone knows about it.”

Wrong; only a percentage of your people use the intranet. I know, shocking isn’t it. Those people working in the field aren’t logging on at hotels and at home as often as you reckon, and when they do get internet access (maybe 3G?) they use it to download their email and replicate their address book / document repository.

Worse, many of your customer service guys are too busy to give a damn what you’re publishing online. Their work-lists and inboxes are over-flowing each morning, and their managers keep changing their processes – caring about the company KPIs* and your latest charity sponsored walk just isn’t crucial to their day.
As an intranet publisher / editor or Internal Communicator, it can be disheartening to think that people ignore what you consider to be a very interesting and vibrant channel, but you need to be fully aware of access issues and technology issues that might keep some of your colleagues offline. Find out the exact size of your workforce, and find out how many actually use the intranet. That’s your audience, now what can you do to increase it?

*Key Performance Indictors

“If we put the forms online, people will serve themselves and we’ll get fewer telephone calls.”

Not entirely wrong, but a misguided, rose-coloured hope. Yes, if forms and self-serve applications are available on your intranet people will look after themselves more and fewer time-consuming emails and calls will bother your HR / Payroll / H&S departments.

But you have to help people find them, and you have to create a culture where people expect the right forms to be online. You cannot just put a story on the intranet’s front-page in April and expect everyone to get excited. You need a multi-channel Comms Plan and you need to remind people time and time again. As I always say, if you want people to know something, tell them five times and use several different channels.
Plus, ensuring the forms and documentation you provide for self-service are up to date is a time consuming and thankless job. You were pleased to get them online weren’t you? You worked with the intranet editor / publisher to get them all beautifully presented in a logical and accessible section, and you managed your time effectively during the month it took to upload 160 documents – but did you schedule the maintenance time into your plan?

Maintaining documentation online is ‘easy’ and yet it takes commitment. If you fail to provide up to date documentation then your people will very quickly learn to distrust your departmental intranet site, and they’ll start emailing and calling you again – or worse, ignoring whatever it is you want them to do. If you can’t be bothered, why should they?

“Intranets create engagement.”

Wrong, they create awareness. Intranets can create a modicum of engagement and ‘buy-in’ but you have to have the sort of technology to give polls and surveys and interactive presentations and multi-media content to your people. Many networks aren’t set up for the bandwidth required to send video to thousands of people on a Monday morning. Many people within Internal Communications departments are not proficient at using such engaging technology.
Good communications, even ‘flat’ non-interactive content, can create engagement when the key messages are repeated in various ways and have decent, ‘call to actions’ with measurement and reporting. Intranets can help with all this, but a single front-page story does not create an engaged workforce.

“We’ll do it ourselves.”

Creating intranet pages, or whole departmental sections, should not be left to the most junior member of a team. Personal Assistants and Secretaries who perform at an incredible level within your ‘Word document’ oriented administration do not have the required skill-set to publish on, or even write for, your intranet.
Get a professional. You may need to upskill your Internal Communications team in ‘how to write for the web’ because things are different, and I will talk about such difference in the future. You may need a ‘techy’ person to build and craft your intranet pages. If you’re very lucky you might find someone who can write / edit articles and publish them, but such a dual role is a challenge, so you’ll have to look far and wide for a person with mastery of the two worlds of Intranet Design and Internal Communications.

Yes, a simple easy-to-use Content Management System might allow a non-techy person to administrate and manage your entire intranet, but I have to ask – do they know anything about Information Architecture, navigation planning, usability, task-oriented design and can they manage the intranet when it expands from 300 easy to find pages to 3000 untidy pages strewn about and abandoned?

“Intranets are expensive.”

Intranets require six things:

  1. A server, where the actual intranet resides (several thousand pounds);
  2. A simple network to connect everyone’s computers to the intranet (if you receive internal email, you already have one);
  3. Server software to ‘serve’ your intranet to browsers (free);
  4. IT support for the server (a few, to several, to tens of thousands of pounds);
  5. Some publishing / content management system software (free to several thousands of pounds);
  6. A proficient publisher within the Internal Communications department (part-time or full-time salary?).

If you are a no-budget start-up or voluntary organisation, all of the above could be done for no cost – just by using the current computers in your home office and the internet access you already have.

My point is, while you of course already have an intranet, is it performing? Is it good enough for the company you’re becoming? If it’s over three years old, you should seriously consider revamping it, revising it, refreshing it or blummin’ well replacing it.

Wanna talk to me about intranets? Ring 07950705258 during UK daylight hours, or leave some thought provoking views in the comments section below and join the conversation.

  1. “We need an intranet.
    – Everyone has one.
    – Let’s throw some money at it.
    – Not as much as we should.
    – Hey, Jack or Jill can take care of it. They’re pretty good online.”
    – So Welcome to Our Intranet everybody…
    – Why isn’t anyone using it?”

    Setting up an intranet (or tweaking one) is something I’ve witnessed clients regularly botch. Just this week I had a conversation with a Communications Officer at an organization with over 3000 employees. They hadn’t even thought about how the tone of the intranet would affect how employees perceive the organization as stuffy and outdated.

    It’s imperative that you assess your needs/requirements before installing or publishing anything. Creating a corporate culture whereby the intranet forms a useful and necessary part of the daily workflow takes time and skill and a generous dose of planning and investment. Even in small offices.

    There is no solution that fits everyone. Just as your businesses is unique, the way you communicate with your people is unique to you.

    Tip: Don’t let one person run the intranet. When they leave/quit/go retrain to work as a dog psychologist you need someone else on the team who understands how to a) write for your people b) run the system.

  2. Great post, lots to think about.
    Intranet is just a small part of how your organisation communicates though.
    We have had an Intranet for 2 or 3 years, it was introduced by a teccie and a manager who thought staff should be communicating with each other more. Wrong on two counts!
    Not surpringly it doesn’t get a lot of traffic and staff still say “we don’t communicate enough”!

    Not all doom and gloom for Intranet-fans. Recently, on the plus side for communication we now have a policy of “get up out of your seat if the person is in the office” and we are looking at the must have documents, team minutes and external links that the Intranet can host.

    Lesson – design the Intranet around what staff want to read and that will make it easier for them to complete their daily routine; it will fail if its pushed to them as a solution from above. Final thought, not a good policy to force staff through the Intranet page (set as home page or logon landing page), web stats will show mere seconds before they jump to Google / BBC etc !

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