Home Archive December 2009 Anatomy of Intranet 3.0
Friday, 11 December 2009 15:18

The days of a stagnant parish notice board are over. Today, at the cutting edge, the corporate intranet is a living entity, alive with two-way dialogue and engaging multimedia content. Neil Gibbons reports:

Some companies refuse to allow employees on social networking site at work. Nissan took another view: it created its own.

Launched two years ago, N-Square is a MySpace-like internal social network, credited with tearing down barriers between different regions, departments and levels. Far from being a worthy, repository of company news, it is a medium via which thousands of employees make connections and productive partnerships.

N-Square intranet

No wonder intranets are proving to be a boon for internal communicators concerned with boosting employee engagement.

It’s not always been this way, says Dan McLoughlin, from the Employee Engagement practice at communications consultancy Fishburn Hedges “Five or six years ago, the corporate intranet’s days looked numbered,” he says, adding that the rapid and sporadic growth of many intranets had left “an online muddle of information” for employees to navigate at their own risk.

IBM intranet

“The mindset back then was that it was better to go back to basics and communicate face to face,” he says. “However, the recent explosion of social media and web 2.0 tools has shaken things up. Communicators are now looking to implement some of the digital tactics that have become so commonplace in the rest of everyday life.”

Now, he says, the intranet has taken a lead from the external digital landscape and is enabling employees to connect and collaborate like never before.

But it’s also the result of a gradual acceptance by the C-suite of what intranets can do, says Paul Miller, CEO and founder of the Intranet Benchmarking Forum, and regarded as the bona fide authority on intranets in the UK. “It seems that intranets – and the related online communities within them – are being viewed by senior management as drivers of efficiency and productivity,” he says, “and as cultural glue during turbulent times.”

That’s not to say that any intranet will do. Others warn that a ropey intranet presence is worse than none at all.

“Like any other communications channels, an intranet needs to be created, managed and nurtured properly,” says Tim Gibbon, director at media communications consultancy Elemental. “Otherwise they can be unruly beasts that actually do the opposite of that they are created for: which is to enhance efficiency and collaboration.”

Rene Hermes, vice president of marketing at software firm CoreMedia agrees: “If you want truly engaged employees then you’re going to have to build and manage an intranet that encourages them to spend more time on it, read more of the content as well as contribute with their own views, comments and other feedback.”

And it’s that facility for user-contribution that some see as central to the renaissance of the intranet as an engagement tool.

“Communicators are no longer just posting an article on the intranet as the afterthought to some corporate announcement,” says McLoughlin. “They’re looking for employees to comment on it, rate it, share it and are very often enhancing it with video content. For internal communicators, this is the holy grail – being able to facilitate real-time dialogue and collaboration between employees and senior leaders.”
What is changing, he says, is that communication is becoming truly two-way and giving a voice to employees, who might not have felt they had one before. “The web 2.0 tools that are being adopted, such as blogs and discussion forums mean that even an employee in the remotest part of a branch network can communicate directly with senior leaders if they want.”

Miller puts Nissan at the vanguard of that democratising movement. He describes the carmaker’s intranet as “a central hub providing employees with access to the information and tools to do their jobs-from workflow and processes to project management and virtual meetings”.

So what kind of content is being use to populate high-quality intranets and ensure that they are ‘sticky’?
“Companies are comfortable now with blogs, video content and discussion forums, but other features such as wikis and RSS feeds aren’t yet fully embraced,” says Fishburn Hedges’ McLoughlin. “However, doing a few things well is important, rather than trying to do everything and ending up doing it all poorly. Don’t say you’re blogging if all you’re doing is publishing a regular feature on the intranet and calling it a blog. Employees value authenticity and won’t be fooled by any half-measures.”

Of course, content needn’t just be created by the comms team. Take Sun Microsystems. Already, employees are able to aggregate external content such as Facebook alongside internal content like corporate news. In fact, user-generated content lies at the heart of its intranet. CEO Jonathan Schwartz is an enthusiastic blogger, but so are 5,000 Sun employees (http://blogs.sun.com).

Known as Project 90/10, Sun is transferring ownership of the intranet to employees. The aim is that 90% of content will come from staff, with 10% coming from corporate communications.

If it seems the only limit to what populates the intranet is bandwidth and the contributor’s imagination, McLoughlin warns that chucking content indiscriminately at the intranet can be a turn-off. Online video, for example, is being used more productively but can still be counterproductive.

“The quarterly video update with its big production values is being eschewed in favour of more ‘real’ YouTube-style footage,” he says. “Capturing the candid opinions of executives on camcorders after boardroom debate is becoming increasingly common. However, as with most things, there is a limit and while ensuring your CEO injects a little personality into his blog, writing about what he had for breakfast or the last CD he bought is unlikely to do him any favours.”

Miller commends T-Mobile for its use of intranet video. “They have a fantastic video library,” he says. “And it’s complemented by a robust and open discussion forum, the ability to comment on blogs, and the ability to rate articles.”

But it’s the intranets of BT and IBM that are the most frequently lauded.

BT intranet

“Theirs are among the most well regarded and well developed intranets,” says McLoughlin. “They took the ball and ran with it early on, making sure web 2.0 tools were embedded before most people had even sent their first tweet.”

Miller says W3, IBM’s global intranet, has played a key role in helping to build an integrated IBM, and has become an essential part of life for its workforce.

“The starting point for this level of usefulness and penetration is in the mundane tasks that every employee needs to do on the intranet, such as managing expenses and searching for information,” he says. “The difference on W3 is that social and collaborative elements have been built into these tasks: opportunities to learn, connect and read news blend seamlessly into the experience.”

Having said that, the desire to open up will be tempered somewhat, says Miller, by risk management and control. “The trend is to connect, share and liberate content,” he says. “But against that is the need for organisations to know and manage their risk for legal, compliance and financial control reasons.”
And there are others who want to see the brakes put on the bandwagon, unsure that intranet technology is the best form of employee engagement at all.

“Although intranet can be a useful tool for distributing news and facilitating conversations, it can’t beat face-to-face communication,” says Wayne Clarke, managing partner at workplace engagement specialists Best Companies Partnership. “According to our data, strong and visible leaders are key to creating employee engagement. But there has to be quality dialogue with the organisation, to find out what people want to know about and how they want to hear about it.

“An intranet can be a very useful tool for enabling this dialogue and finding out exactly what information staff care about. Intranet sites are a good way to ‘listen’ to your workforce, and understand their concerns. But to really drive up engagement levels, they have to be acted on and addressed by senior leaders.”
However, Miller believes the ability of staff to become involved in a conversation with fellow employees and management will be further improved with the advent of new applications that serve to bypass the IT function.

Asked to single out trends that will define Intranet 3.0, he points to the example of Yammer. “It’s like Twitter inside an organisation, a free service that companies are plugging into the intranet. It’s low cost and very flexible.”

He also predicts that the distinction between intranets and corporate websites will become more porous. “Increasingly people will be managed by identity,” he says. “We’re moving towards a single interface – if the system knows who you are, it can take you into different content. Your identity [the type of work you do, your department or part of the business, the different intranet ‘views’ you need to have] will define your access. If you are a senior manager, your identity will allow you free reign across all online services offered to staff, suppliers, customers and partners.”

Hermes expects to see a move to deliver intranet content on a multi-touchpoint basis, with corporate intranets available on PCs, laptops, mobile phones and other internet-ready devices. “Again, the key here is to make sure that content adapts to individual device parameters and that an individual employee’s intranet history is successfully carried from device to device and from location to location.”

10 best-designed intranets for 2009
IT consultant Jakob Nielsen’s top intranets
•Altran, engineering consultancy
•Advanced Micro Devices, processor developer
•BASF SE, chemical manufacturer
•COWI Group A/S, engineering consulting group
•Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, professional services network
• Environmental Resources Management, environmental consulting
•HSBC Bank Brazi
•Kaupthing Bank, Iceland
•L.L.Bean, outdoor equipment vendor
• McKesson Corporation, pharmaceuticals and healthcare IT provider