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How to Make Your Intranet Work for You Instead of Against You

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“Making our intranet really work for us, instead of making tasks more difficult to complete.”
Publications and Internal Communications Director

How about this for an employee engagement idea? Stuff that works.

Like an intranet that lets you complete tasks in fewer steps, not more.

Here, in the tech world, we’re all about adding features. Compete for prizes! Acknowledge your coworkers! Give instant feedback!

However, before you get excited about doing new things, you’d like a little help with what’s already on your list.

And, the truth is, the more you focus on exactly what you need your intranet to do for you, the more helpful it will be.

Let me explain.

But first, let me take you a few years back to how I got into the intranet business.

Axero has been writing intranet software ever since social intranets have become commercially available. In fact, we developed our first system just for ourselves, because nothing of the sort existed on the market. We didn’t know at the time that it would become our company’s product. Nor did we foresee social intranets growing into their own product category. We simply needed one to do our jobs.

When we launched our first system, no one complained that it was hard to learn or use, even though it really was, compared to what we have today. On the contrary, we were thrilled, and our customers were begging us to let them use it too. A very different sentiment than the one we just heard from our Publications and Internal Comms Director.

Unfortunately, the Director is not alone. Many buyers come to us with long faces, drained and defeated by a piece of software. All this at a time when the market is full of options—some of them very good.

I am convinced that every company that has employees can benefit from a modern social intranet. Ironically, knowing this very fact has led some folks astray. The early adapter crowd at the time of our launch were hunting for a solution to their unique business challenges. They jumped at the technology that spoke to their needs and were generally happy with the results.

By contrast, the current crop of customers shop for an intranet because it’s a must have. The difference, of course, is the notion that just by virtue of having a piece of software at your disposal, you’re automatically entitled to its potential benefits. (We know that this is not even true of human help, let alone your humble intranet platform.)

And, speaking of human help, in the next 3 articles, we will talk—again—about what it takes for a new hire to become a fully-contributing member of the team. For the remainder of this post, let’s see what we can do to engage and motivate your intranet.

Like your new hire, your intranet needs a job description. The details will change, as time goes by. But you can always start with your current business needs and problems and choose the software that takes you one step closer to the solution.

So, what can you expect of your intranet these days?

There’s a new bell and whistle on the market almost daily. But, going by the 80-20 principle, I’d say that 80% of all social intranet use comes down to these 4 functions:

1. Internal Communications

Not surprisingly, our Publications and Internal Comms Director and his staff are the prime customers for the new intranet. The social feature allows the company to capture all 3 streams of communication, instead of a single top-down stream. (For more on 3-way communication check out my book, Who the Hell Wants to Work for You?, Chapter 18, Communicate.)

Had the Internal Communications’ needs been on the table from the beginning, the company might have managed the intranet differently and ended up with an enthused communications leader instead of a mildly disgruntled one. As we’ve seen in the previous post, even a simple act of inviting future intranet owners to a discussion can resolve conflicts and radically improve attitudes.

2. File Sharing and Document Management

Storing your files in the cloud allows your employees mobile access to all documents. Version control is automatic. You can always find any previous version of a document—or roll back to one. The social feature allows you to continuously create and share context—comments, notes, instructions—around your work files.

3. Collaborative Space for Groups

In addition to permanent groups, like business units or departments, a social intranet allows you to create and dissolve projects and groups as you need them. Each group has its own cyberspace for content and conversations and can control access to its files.

4. Search

All content on the social intranet is searchable. Our platform searches inside any text document: PowerPoint, Word, PDF… Consequently, employees can search by keywords to find individuals, groups, files, discussions, subject-matter experts, and people who worked on certain projects in the past. All without sheepishly standing in someone’s doorway saying ‘knock-knock.”

All of the above is a typical intranet’s resume. The job description is up to you, the user.

For example, if you are a Publications and Communications Director, and you publish and broadcast a lot, you might have specific requirements around item (1). If you’re HR and you store a lot of confidential data, you might be picky about items (2) and (3). And if you’re hiring more people than you can comfortably babysit, you might pay special attention to item (4).

If you are a decent size company, most likely you are all three and more. That’s why I recommend creating a representative user-owner group for making major decisions concerning the intranet. I also recommend that the same people stay involved through all 4 stages of your intranet project: selection, setup, rollout, ongoing use.

The group’s job is to keep a razor-sharp focus on the current needs and problems of the business as a whole. It may only need to convene a few times: to see the demos and to configure the system you have bought. But it will need to be able to reach other employees, accurately report on their needs and constraints, and resolve conflicts. The group must include the manager authorized to spend the money. In the name of simplicity, some companies like to leave it at that. But, it usually takes a few more heads to ensure that the money is well spent.

Selection

As you go shopping for an intranet platform, your main question will likely be: what level of complexity does my company require? Is a simple turn-key product enough? Do I need specific custom features? Or do I need a fully customized one-of-a-kind solution?

You could broadly divide all vendors into 3 product niches:

  1. Turn-key solutions. These platforms offer no customization. Maybe they let you upload your logo. Other than that, what you see is what you get. Facebook’s @work is one.
  2. Middle of the road. There’s a uniform look and feel to the platform, but some customization is available. Axero’s Communifire is in this space, leaning towards the more flexible.
  3. The Works. These systems boast unlimited flexibility and are so complex that they require full-time support. Sharepoint and Jive are two names you may recognize.

This is your first chance to get your group’s input. If you’re looking for a long-term solution, flexibility may be important. You don’t want to outgrow your intranet too fast. If you decide to go for “the works,” make sure that both the administrator and the end user are up for the task. Else, your new system may become a double drain on your pocket and your employee morale. Just ask our Publications and Internal Comms Director.

Setup

Congrats on your new intranet! Now it’s time to move your company’s intellectual belongings into its spacious new quarters. If you did a good job on step one, you should have plenty of options without getting lost. If you’re an Axero customer, this will be your first meeting with Matt.

Matt will ask you about your company structure, culture, needs, and goals. Then he will walk you through the software, gauging what parts you’ve already thought through. He’ll give you best practices for all your remaining options. Right here is your best chance to “make your intranet really work for you.” You will be able to make changes later, but the initial setup is your intranet’s first impression on your workforce. Give it your best shot.

Rollout

Getting employees to change their habits is always the tricky part. The people who have been working to launch the new intranet should be its champions and early adapters. By now you wish you had more of them on the task force.

A social intranet depends on a critical mass of users to live up to its promise. It’s in your best interests to speed up the “social proof” as much as you can. Train the intended owners and heavy users first. These could be Internal Communications, HR, Digital Strategies, IT, top execs, and—ideally—all managers. Require that specific tasks be performed on the intranet, and not the old way—through email, office mail, voice mail, fax, etc.

I recommend companies start with HR, because HR holds tons of policy documents and paperwork. You usually have to call them for it. Have them put in all on the intranet at once. Next, Internal Comms. No email announcements, period. Next IT help desk… Now employees have multiple reasons to learn their way around the intranet.

Our most successful customers use creative strategies when it comes to getting people to commit to the new intranet. (See, for example, the Best Collateral story in my book, Who the Hell Wants to Work for You?, Chapter 6, Network.)

Ongoing use

Take note of complaints, compliments, and brilliant new ways your employees use the system. At Axero, we love all three. We help you make adjustments to your setup, as you find out what works and doesn’t work for your people. Occasionally, we will introduce a new feature to the entire platform, based on your employee feedback. Keep it coming!

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how you make your intranet really work for you. A lot of forethought and a little upfront work sums it up. Unless, of course, we’re talking Sharepoint.

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If you have an intranet, you might like my book, because it helps you use it in a way that makes people want to work for you!

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Tim Eisenhauer
About Tim Eisenhauer
Tim is the author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Break Down the Invisible Barriers to Employee Engagement. He's also a co-founder and president of Axero, a technology company that makes intranet software for businesses. He's spilt insightful ink on the pages of Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur.com, and other top publications.

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