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Increasing the Impact of the Intranet

The Impact of the Intranet

The idea that if you build it they will come might have worked for Kevin Costner in the movie “Field of Dreams,” but it certainly does not hold true for Intranet sites.

If your Intranet has stagnated and is underused, it is time to work out how to attract staff back, even though creating and maintaining an effective Intranet is daunting. You need to identify what you want to achieve with your Intranet. You need to integrate your business goals as well as the needs of each department and its staff. In addition, you need to keep up with the times and with the technology.intranet

Even re-jigging the Intranet seems like a huge task. Where do I start?

As with any project, it is best to start by organizing your team and defining the project. To start off with you need to answer basic questions such as:

  • What is the purpose of the Intranet?
  • Relevant to our internal communications goals, what do we want to achieve?
  • Who will use it and how will they use it?
  • What will it contain?
  • What functionality do we need to achieve this?

Do the big thinking first, and then break up the project into a series of smaller projects. You are likely to get more ‘buy-in’ and gain more credibility if your staff gain a series of benefits, and can see a series of improvements over time.

Have a clear vision and do your planning

Start by clarifying your communications objectives. Your objectives should focus on creating value: selling more, saving costs, developing new products/services, attracting and retaining employees, etc. You may need to carry out some research or conduct focus groups to understand the value that different departments hope to derive from an improved Intranet.

Next, put together your team. Having an effective, company-wide cross-functional team is really important. It is a good idea to get a balance between representatives from IT, Comms and HR.

Consult with your Intranet team and key stakeholders to define why you are establishing or revamping your Intranet. Ensure your objectives and strategies align with the business goals.

Use a template for your planning and write down your plan. This will help you clarify your thoughts. It will also ensure you include all relevant information and it will keep you and your team on track.

Break the project up into smaller ‘mini projects’, then, for each one:

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  • Discuss what needs to be done
  • Identify problems and possible improvements
  • Drum up interest and buy-in across the business.
  • Plan the first steps and decide how you will track and measure progress.

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A desktop staff poll can deliver company-wide surveys to assess what’s working and what’s not with the existing Intranet. It can also gather important information regarding the tools and resources people would like to see included on the revamped Intranet. Desktop polls pop up on employee computer screens so does not add to email overload. Built-in reminders help drive participation which ensures that all views are represented in the research…including the important but often ‘silent majority’ who perhaps do not have extreme views or agendas and are less motivated to participate.

Staff surveys Poll should also be targeted to specific groups of employees, for example, managers and heads of departments. Such individuals can be asked questions such as “what specific business value does / could your department derive from an effective Intranet?”, “How might this be quantified?” For example, a sales manager may say it is the number of accurate proposals that sales people are able to produce. This research will provide an important perspective to help you make the Intranet effective and also help you quantify the value of the revamped Intranet at a later stage.

In addition to quantitative research, an online staff discussion forum is a good way of enabling staff to engage in online discussions. It allows you to tap into the likes and dislikes of staff with regard to the Intranet as well as to capture innovative thinking and possible solutions.

Use a staff discussion forum platform that is easy administered, easy to use and cost effective. An employee discussion forum can provide a way to set up a secure Intranet project team discussion group. This is especially useful if timetabling meetings is problematic because key team members have busy schedules. A staff discussion forum allows stakeholders from other centers to be an active part of your team. Your cross-functional project team can ‘meet’ and discuss the status of certain aspects of the project, and share and capture ideas as they crop up.impact

Use an iterative approach

If your Intranet has started to stagnate, you may be tempted to go for a big fix. It may be better, however, to identify the key areas that need improvement, and plan for small but effective fixes. A series of successful, small wins will be much more effective than waiting for the one big, and sometimes elusive, win.

Don’t let your Intranet grow haphazardly. Try starting with a small project that has a really visible and beneficial result. Make sure it is one you can deliver on. A quick and effective win early on in the project gives you credibility and creates an ‘upward spiral of improvement.’

Measure and report on the progress of each ‘mini project’, tweak your plans if necessary, or even re-evaluate your whole approach if circumstances warrant this.

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Communicating incremental changes can sometimes be even more of a challenge than the actual project because you don’t want to overload users and send out boring updates every time a new feature is added. However, users need to be kept up-to-date, interested and believing in the iterative Intranet improvement process.

Promote your intranet gently through multiple channels, and monitor readership to make sure you’re hitting the mark.

Use a staff e-mag that is pushed to employees’ computer screens. It can consolidate information into a visual, template format that’s dynamic and engaging to read.

An electronic staff magazine offers a unique way of profiling your project without cluttering up either the Intranet or your readers’ email inboxes. Short ‘news’ articles in the staff e-mag can inform readers of new information and the availability of new tools, as well as allowing readers to click directly through to the specific Intranet pages.

For project ‘wins’ that you want to profile with more impact, try using screensavers. Screensavers as a staff communications tool can raise awareness of key news and updates by turning employee screensavers into dynamic interactive billboards. An image is worth a thousand words. For example, an image of a deck chair on the beach with relevant text and a click through link is a powerful and engaging way to notify staff that leaves forms are now available on the Intranet.

Targeted scrolling news feed that appears on employees’ computer screens, can provide a short headline and the facility for staff to click through to the specific pages of the Intranet. Choose a format that does not require users to ‘opt in’ to specific feeds or for the Intranet itself to be RSS enabled.

Make it effective and drive usage

“Our Intranet is great for me personally. I spend hours online.”

Sounds great? But ask yourself whether spending ‘hours online’ is a good measure of your Intranet’s efficiency? Intranet usage alone is not a measure of success. You need to find some way of ensuring that time spent on the Intranet equates to saving time, money and resources. You’re not just building a resource for the individual user’s benefit – it has to be useful for the organization too.

So how can you make your Intranet effective on a business level and make it great for staff on an individual level?

Start by finding out what would assist staff to work more efficiently, and what would attract them to your Intranet, so that when they visit your Intranet they are spending productive time there.

For example, what about making it easier to do all those regular tasks that staff undertakes which often take up more time than necessary? Think about things like finding contact details, booking meeting rooms, and all the other myriad of tasks that eat up your staff’s time.

Once you have planned and implemented your improvements, use other promotional tools to raise awareness of the new Intranet features, encourage disillusioned users back and to drive the usage and value of the Intranet. You could consider using screensavers, news feeds, alerts, electronic magazines, quizzes and polls as promotional tools with click through links to relevant Intranet pages (as well as other more traditional mediums).

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A desktop staff quiz can offer an interactive quiz format that pops up on the employee’s computer screen. It can be a great way of working out what staff like and dislike, know and don’t know about the Intranet. It is a good way of ensuring staff involvement, as it is persistent and it can be fun.

Business and product focused quizzes can contain links to the Intranet allowing users to research each question before answering. A staff quiz can be a real asset if you are aiming to improve overall knowledge, increase Intranet usage, and help staff finds the content they need on the Intranet.

‘Silent’ staff quizzes and surveys only appear when a link or button is clicked by the user. This allows users to opt in to participate. For example, a button can be included on relevant Intranet pages allowing users to ‘rate this content’ or ‘report out of date content’. When the link or button is clicked, the survey appears to capture user feedback. Ensure results are centralized in the content management system. This allows the Comms team to view reports at regular intervals in order to review Intranet effectiveness and/or send out update reminders to the Intranet content owners via a desktop alert.

An online staff helpdesk allows people who are unable to find the information or answers they need on the Intranet to ask a question in an appropriate online ‘helpdesk’. Moderators can be nominated for each ‘helpdesk’ and receive notifications when new questions are posted. Moderators can answer questions directly or point the person to the correct part of the Intranet where an answer can be found. Each specific question is tagged and searchable, meaning that past questions and answers can be easily located in an evolving repository of knowledge.increasing

Keep it simple and don’t get wowed by technology

Who is in the driving seat? Should your project be driven by what your business needs or by what the technology can do? Internal communications driven project should be about improving employee communications. It is obvious that you will need to work with IT as part of a cross-functional team. They can assist your planning with creative ideas and knowledge about what the technology can do. But don’t get hi-jacked by the IT team’s enthusiasm for the latest hot technology. It is the employee communications team that should drive an internal communications project.

For example, RSS enabling your Intranet is often recommended as a great way to keep staff informed of new Intranet content. However, communications practitioners are finding that RSS is not always the ‘silver bullet’ it is touted to be. One issue that arises is that it requires staff to opt into the feeds they are interested in. The reality, however, is that often staff have limited time and/or interest in specific subjects (despite needing to know about them to be effective in their jobs), and fail to opt into feeds. In addition, as with most automated processes that don’t involve real people, the process can break down, meaning new feeds appear after every simple change to a site (e.g. a simple amendment such as a spelling change). This can cause frustration and information overload, and drive the users, who have taken the time to opt into feeds, to opt out again…fast!

SharePoint is also a useful tool but it requires power users and IT staff to have a considerable amount of expensive training. “Without at least two well-trained people, a systems administrator and a developer/programmer – your odds of finding yourself in chaos are fairly high.”

If SharePoint isn’t for you, most of its functionality can be achieved via simple plug-ins to your existing Intranet at a fraction of the cost and complexity. For example, Google sells a plug-in server that can provide good search functionality.

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Some of the Sharepoint more complex features can be offered by other simple, cost-effective tools For example:

o A push ticker format allows administrators to easily create and send scrolling ‘news headlines’ with click-through capability to members of their teams and/ or a wider employee audience. This keeps staff informed of new information on the Intranet that is relevant to them. In addition, it allows administrators to push out existing RSS feed sources, so if your Intranet is RSS enabled, you can remove the step requiring users to opt in if required.

o Other blog platforms can provide cost effective, user-friendly blogging capability and offer a good way to involve staff. Choose a blog platform that is built specifically for secure employee communications purposes and has only the features that internal communicators need and consider important. If it is easy to use, with comprehensive search features, it provides maximum usage and value for staff.

Find writers in your business who can produce engaging, interesting and relevant content. In addition, if your CEO or other senior managers have the skills, it can be a great way to raise their profile and build engagement across the business.

o An online staff discussion forum is a good way of enabling staff to engage in the online discussion covering pretty much any aspect of the business. Ensure the structure and behavior of staff forum makes it easy for busy readers to scan or search for key information. Reporting tools such as the time spent on-line by individual users can mean that the productivity concerns expressed by managers over such communication mediums can be managed and addressed.

Design for your culture

Does your Intranet brand walk your company’s talk?

Are you, your staff and your organization happy with the way information is presented, and the way your Intranet works? Do the tools and technology suit your organization?

There is nothing like walking the talk to cement your company branding and to get staff on board with it. The look and feel of the Intranet, the way it works, and the content should reflect your company’s values. An inefficient, old-school Intranet with out-of-date content is not a good look for a company that wants fresh ideas and positive attitudes.

However, it is important to recognize your culture. Do you have a young, tech-savvy workforce in an organization with a flat structure, or is the structure hierarchical with predominantly older workers who may feel uncomfortable with new technology? Most likely it is somewhere in between. Adopt technology solutions and practices that will appeal to your employee demographic and fit with your company culture.

Jakob Nielsen, commenting on Intranet design winners, noted that social networking technologies were being used in ‘restrained ways’ to highlight important information.

Even the most low-tech staff can find value in social media technologies given time and appropriate encouragement. For example, many staff may want to be able to tap into social networking tools to do things like organize car pooling or to get other employees involved in a staff sports team. Once they are familiar with these tools, they can and will use them for more business related applications; for example, for individual departments to help the rest of the company understand their role and achievements, or for sales staff to share the substance of customer interactions.

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Your company culture and demographic may mean that tools like blogs and forums are simply not appropriate or acceptable to senior managers. There may be fears around a loss of control or the impact of disengaged staff. Under these circumstances, why not consider a user generated staff e-mag. An electronic magazine of this nature enables you to distribute ‘safe discussion’ directly to the employee’s computer screen. It provides a means to involve and engage staff with greater editorial control.

If your company culture does suit the use of social media tools choose staff blog and forum tools that are fully managed, secure, hosted applications which are quick and cost effective to implement. The level of IT involvement required to set such tools up is minimal. This permits you to quickly and easily try concepts out, test uptake and evolve the use of such tools without the need for ‘big project’ budget or resource.

Make it easy to use

Keep your Intranet simple and as intuitive as possible

A simple Intranet is much easier to manage and much easier to keep current. ‘Must have’ elements include: good employee directories; a single home page; one search engine across the whole site; good navigation; and company news.

However, even simple Intranets are often not done well and some common problems involve difficulties with navigation and the ability to find information. Also, in many cases, the Intranet is ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for busy staff. Another serious problem is that often out-of-date content is not removed and this may cause staff to lose confidence in the information they locate on the Intranet and stop visiting. Different departments may even resort to sending out the latest information via email for people to store locally. This practice, of course, has serious implications for data storage and management of version control.

However, there are other ways to drive staff to the right information. Pro-active tools are available that promote and signpost new and relevant information available on the Intranet and assist navigation to the correct pages on the site.

RSS enabling the Intranet is one option, however, there are some issues with this if it not implemented correctly.

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Use dynamic messaging formats that can be pushed to targeted employees computer screens. Click through facilities enable them to act as ‘signposts’ to specific pages on the Intranet.

For example:

o Screensavers, news feeds and desktop alerts can promote new resources and information available on the Intranet with click-through links facilitating easy navigation.

o A staff E-Mag can act as a ‘one-stop’ summary of news and updates from around the business. Short article summaries act as ‘teasers’ for further information on the Intranet available via click through links.

o A staff quiz can contain links to the Intranet allowing users to research each question before answering.

o Online helpdesks and interactive Q&A spot allow people who are unable to find the answers they need on the Intranet to ask a question in an appropriate online ‘helpdesk’. ‘Moderators’ who are specific to each helpdesk can receive notifications that new questions have been posted. Moderators can answer questions directly or point the person to the correct part of the Intranet where the answer can be found. Each specific question should be tagged and searchable, meaning that past questions and answers can be easily located.

Give staff what they need

By all means, ask staff and departments what they would like to see on their Intranet. But be warned that many individuals and departments get expensive and persuasive about what information they ‘need’ and what they see as ‘essential’. They may even manage a burst of enthusiasm for the launch but after that, they never find the time to keep their ‘essential’ information updated.

As a result, Intranet usage falls off as out of date content is not removed and new content is not added. The Intranet stagnates.

Research shows that most people do not live on the Intranet. People tend to get in, get what they want and then get out. Of course, if they repeatedly do not find what they want, they stop visiting the Intranet.

So what do staff need from their Intranet? The main reasons to visit an Intranet are to find a specific piece of information as quickly as possible or to complete a task. Finding out what types of information are most commonly required and working out what tasks could be completed online, is one way of making your staff’s lives easier and more productive.

You may have an additional agenda from an internal communications perspective. You may want to improve internal communications, to promote your company brand, or inform staff about the company. You will need to think about how you can maximize your Intranet’s potential for increasing effective employee communications.

Once your project is underway, why not poll employees about their sense of value derived from the improvements to your company Intranet? Questions should be around process improvement, efficiency, productivity, and satisfaction. Any testament supporting these value drivers can only assist you. If client reps report that the use of the Intranet directly helps them close deals, it’s a powerful statement for value and should be captured.

Polling may also identify problem areas. The good news is that you can learn from problems and mistakes. If you can find out about issues quickly you have the opportunity to try new approaches and to make changes fast if required.

Engage users

Many organizations have invested significant capital and resources into their Intranet only to find that their staff does not use parts of (or even all) of it as often as they might hope. There are a number of reasons reported by employees for this.

Staff visits the Intranet to find what they need. But finding the information they require is not always easy. The Intranet may be poorly signposted, hard to navigate and have poor search capability. It can take up too much time and content may not be up-to-date. If this is the case, is it any wonder that staff doesn’t want to visit it a second time?

Features such as employee blogs and staff discussion forums have fantastic potential to engage staff by encouraging conversations, leveraging knowledge and fostering collaboration. It is important, however, to understand your employee demographics and accept that one size does not fit all. What engages one member of staff may leave another cold.

Take a user-centric approach. Perhaps categorize information to reflect the way staff thinks and would use the Intranet, rather than applying functional silos or organizational structures. Implement user-friendlyintranet features such as help desk zones and searchable Q&A spots.

Tools are available to promote your Intranet and engage even the most reluctant users. These tools help raise awareness of new information and resources available to staff and provide click through to the relevant Intranet pages.