Skip to content

My talk in London on why Intranets often suck

On Tuesday 19th July 2016 I attended an industry event in London’s Kensington Roof Gardens to speak on the subject of sucky Intranets and chair a Q&A panel on Cloud Services.

We were blessed with great weather and a great collection of speakers and topics.

I had been invited to speak after one of the event organisers Clearvision staff found one of my articles, aptly named “5 Reasons your Intranet Probably Sucks” on Linkedin.

As well as the speaking gig I was asked if I would chair the Q&A panel on Cloud trends and the latest industry thinking.

The event was well run and I found the other speakers really interesting. I arrived around lunchtime so sadly wasn’t able to see the full event.

I’d like to thank Clearvision for having me and for organising the day.

I have included the full transcript below I prepared on the back of the initial blog.

Also, Clearvision has produced a highlight reel which I make a couple of appearances in.

Full transcript of my talk

“Just to get you warmed up after lunch hands up if your organisation has an intranet…… including Sharepoint? And now hands up if it has collaborative tools?

For many organisations, particularly larger one’s intranets are essential tools to get work gone, access company information and increasingly collaborate.

The problem is for a number of these organisations the intranet can often get neglected in favour of the website. After all, the website tends to be what brings in the profits and keeps the customer happy.

However, intranets that suck can often be just as damaging to an organisation than a sucky website.

I want to help you by sharing the five things I’ve seen that can cause your intranet to suck.

1. It’s built around the organisation, not the user

Why do intranets exist? Is it for the company or for the staff?

What can often happen is the intranet is built around department structures.

That’s a problem.

Recently we were working with the HR department which was split into eight different functions – yes eight, initially I thought there were only four. Also, the names of those functions to anyone other than HR staff were quite meaningless.

The current intranet is organised around this structure, with staff who are looking for content expected to know which function does what to find the answer to their question or who the right person is to speak to.

The problem is, many people don’t know which department does what. It’s usually only the people who work in the department that really knows what they do. In fact, some of these HR teams didn’t fully know what each other did. How on earth can we expect employees outside of those departments to know?

Also, users are task orientated. They don’t sit at their desk bored thinking “I know I’ll have a browse of the intranet to pass the time (they’re more likely to go on Facebook).

A chap I highly recommend finding out more about called Jerry McGovern calls this “Top tasks” and “Tiny Tasks”. Intranets tend to get things the wrong way round by failing to identify the top needs of staff, instead focusing on the smaller things that don’t really matter. That can make the organisation incredibly inefficient. If people can’t find what they want they will just resort to analogue channels.

This happens when you make assumptions and don’t speak to users and observe their behaviour. This is where Agile’s focus on collaboration and working with customers rings true for me here.

The solution is to put the work in up front. Understand what your staff need to achieve and get them to group this information where they would expect to find it. They shouldn’t need to have to think about it.

As part of our project, we have been speaking to departments and users across the organisation to identify these “top tasks”. We estimate we will have put in around 200 hours of face-to-face work by the end.

This is important to ensure your intranet is built around user need and not organisational need. Really effective intranets don’t have department pages at all.

Which leads me nicely onto problem 2 …

2. Vanity publishing

So imagine you are in the office one day and a member of your team tells you that they would like to go on a career break. You think for a minute, that’s probably HR can advise me on that. You firstly try to find the number, but can’t as your intranet sucks. You dig into an old e-mail and manage to find a number to ring.

You dial and a recorded message answers. Hi – welcome to HR. Did you know we have won a number of awards this year for best HR team in the group? Firstly, we won the best team for recruitment – suddenly you start to mash the buttons to try and skip the message – you can’t. That’s basically what is happening with vanity publishing on websites and intranets.

In large organisations that have departments running as silos, you tend to see competitive behaviour as departments tend to be competing over budgets and resources. This can result in vanity publishing with departments trying to promote themselves as being successful. So it’s not surprising to see pages on intranets full of vanity content about how great the department is, instead of putting its efforts into meeting the needs of its customers.

True story:

I once saw a department homepage that featured a picture of the head of the department and a full page bio of that person including their career history, even that they were four times squash champion in the regional league.

I’m not kidding. This was some time ago and I could be embellishing things a bit but I’m sure there was even a picture of the trophy!

Nowadays, collaborative intranets will have a place for some of this kind of stuff, but it’s certainly shouldn’t get in the way of user goals!

This leads nicely onto….

3. Not Writing for the Web

Pages and pages of crap. Digital teams looking for content are often presented with pages and pages of text written by a well-meaning individual who is proud of their life’s work. However, six pages can often be condensed down into a few paragraphs with clear headings, bullet points and no jargon.

We don’t have time to read loads of text, and we don’t even bother. We have become used to being able to find answers to questions in seconds through a Google search, often not even having to visit the website itself.

People expect the same with intranets. It’s back to understanding the user’s goals and presenting solutions within seconds. If they have to work for it, they will go back to inefficient analogue methods.

To tackle this you need good content guidance, training, moderation if required – to cut out the fluff.

Talking of which, here’s the monster….

4. Homepage run by HiPPOs

I have seen some pretty horrific homepages in my time. One of the most frustrating parts of working in this industry is everyone’s a web designer (or thinks they are). Evidence and logic go right out the window. Digital teams do user testing and build interfaces in order to meet the user’s needs. Taking all the points I have previously mentioned above about simplicity, top tasks, writing for the web. They create a perfectly tested home page and then a week or so later the HiPPOs come along and frankly bugger it all up.

HiPPO stands for the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.

Home pages are transition pages to get to where you want to do. The problem is many are treated like old skool marketing billboards shouting to try and get your attention and stop you from what you are trying to do, which is usually get work done.

The conversation usually goes something like this:

“Hey digital team, we need a new button on the home page to promote this service as hardly anyone’s using it”

“Hi, that’s not one of our top goals, if people aren’t using it, maybe it’s of no use to them?”

“Yes but it’s important to get people to use it”

“Putting a button on the home page won’t make people use something they don’t want to”

A few hours pass….

“Right, I’ve told the CEO about this and he’s agreed with me it needs to go on the homepage above everything else”.

“But the evidence……oh I give up”.

The best way I have found to counter this is video. Film employees struggling to find things. I have some footage of a customer saying website banners are so annoying they resize their browser window to hide them”.

Did you know you are more likely to get struck by lightning than click on a banner advert?

5. There is no strategy

Many organisations treat Intranets and Websites as one-off projects, pay a company to deliver it and then it’s left to gather dust. A year or two later, you’re back to square one – oh, we need a new intranet, this one’s rubbish.

A good strategy identifies a challenge and offers a way of approaching it. The same needs to apply to your intranet – what problem are you trying to solve, is it about culture, process improvement? You’ll want to have a short, medium and longer term idea of where you want it to go. Are you going to roll all the features out in one go and hope they stick? Or take a more Agile iterative approach?

For the current organisation, this is the approach we are taking. We’re going to learn, get feedback and adapt as necessary. Whatever your strategy is, the core underlying principle and the key thing I hope you’ll take from today is the importance of putting the user first and in true Agile fashion putting emphasis on collaboration over following a plan.

On the cloud Q&A Panel

Posted in: Digital Workplace and Intranets