By Gloria Lombardi

‘Digital transformation’ is now an established phrase, although the definition is debated by some. Organisation leaders are keen to adapt ways of working and adopt modern and emerging technologies to streamline processes, drive efficiency, improve decision making, and expand market reach.

The intranet is very much part of this transformation, but many intranets are not capable of supporting the massive changes required to truly transform the organisation. While large enterprises show how strategy, culture, skillsets, and technology must change to satisfy the market, many organisations have not recognised the pressure to transform. Some leaders look at the costs of change and are unaware of, or unconvinced by, the financial rewards.

But what should companies do, exactly, to evolve, adapt, and develop an intranet that meets the requirements of a 21st century workforce? Sarah Blackburn (pictured right), Client Success Manager at award-winning EasySharePoint, makes some persuasive arguments that are worth your consideration.

In this interview, Blackburn tells MARGINALIA about the importance of cultural fit when implementing the corporate intranet. She offers a reminder of the fundamentals of the digital workplace while still being open to new ideas and developments, and her advice regarding digital learning will be welcomed by any learning and development professionals.

“It’s like choosing clothes. Just because something is beautiful on someone else, doesn’t make it good for you. We have to make sure that what the company needs to do, and how it will be done, involves and engages staff and is a good cultural fit.”

Gloria Lombardi: What makes an intranet successful in the 21st century?

Sarah Blackburn: Intranet success comes from providing a solution to an actual problem. It starts with looking internally at the problems that the organisation is currently having, and the business processes that are in place. Then it’s a problem solving exercise, to work out how the intranet, or a new intranet, could help solve those problems.

Adoption of the ‘obviously useful intranet’ is of course necessary. Generally, people are busy and don’t exactly love change. It’s common wisdom that we have to communicate the benefits and guide people to use new systems, but people can be reluctant to begin with, and many don’t make the time to look at the new system. Changing how you do things when you’re busy doing things can feel like a lot of effort. If people are overloaded, making a big change can be burdensome.

So, as you implement new functionality and changes, ask yourself, ‘did we find a real problem that could be solved? Did we design a solution that could actually help solve the problem?’ And, then, ‘did we drive our people to use it once we built it?’.

You do not want to launch a feature just because you liked how it looked in a demo or at another company. You must not expect people to adopt new ways of working without ongoing support.

GL: How might employees be encouraged to make the best use of the intranet?

SB: The first thing to take into consideration is a cultural fit. The intranet must be in step and in tune with the organisation.

Sometimes, companies want to design a platform similar to someone else’s ‘amazing’ intranet. They haven’t really thought about whether that would fit their own goals. They end up pushing something that is an uncomfortable fit onto employees.

Like your work clothes, the intranet must be suitable for your work. Builders don’t want to wear a business suit on site. They don’t just need a hardhat and steel-capped boots, they want hard-wearing and comfortable trousers, and the right jacket for the weather. They might personally love fancy suits, but that doesn’t mean they need such attire at work. So too, the intranet must suit its purpose, which is people’s work. What looks great and works well for another company may not suit the goals of yours.

But, intranets can be used to help change the culture. For example, a membership body had appointed a new Chief Executive. They were trying to change the culture of the organisation to make it a little bit more dynamic. They used the EasySharePoint intranet as a way of communicating the change. The CEO and communications team wanted to make sure everyone was involved and enable everyone’s voice to be heard. It was thought that employees that had been with the company for a long time knew how to be heard, but there were other sections of the workforce that didn’t feel heard. They designed the intranet to be useful, first and foremost, but also to be visually engaging. Combined with fresh content and social features, they felt confident it would appeal to the unheard majority, new starters, and younger members of staff. By focusing on their demographics, the intranet became a culture change enabler, but only because they had the desire and strategy to change the culture.

GL: How can organisations empower digital learning?

SB: People have to believe in the benefits of developing their digital skills, so we have to communicate the relevancy of new ways of working or accruing new skills. Thinking about the intranet, we have to demonstrate how it helps get things done, how it supports daily tasks, rather than just showcasing the features. We have to demonstrate that it solves real problems, by showing the use cases.

Investing time in training is, of course, useful. But statistics show that classic training is desperately inefficient. To make it work, you need to target it. Depending on the audience, you can train people in how to use the relevant systems through some face-to-face classrooms, which gives people the opportunity to ask questions and really to get immersed in it. But those people can only learn if they have a direct reason for investing that significant amount of their time. So training has to be about work, not intranet features.

Sometimes it’s helpful to have phone calls or Skype sessions; sometimes it’s about sitting with employees for short periods of time to explore and solve problems. Help guides and video guides can also add support; the latter can be an hour long tutorials that the individuals work through step by step, or three minute ‘one thing’ videos.

It’s all about communication. It’s about guiding people on what they can do on the intranet; then letting them experiment, giving them the opportunity to have their questions answered and making them feel supported. It is also about managing expectations.

Ultimately, it is about keeping the human element regardless of the technology. No matter what software you select, a part of your workforce is going to find it uncomfortable. There’s no technology that could solve everybody’s problem. That’s not how humans work. And so that’s where we really need to stay grounded and keep asking: ‘What does the business need to do? And how can we help our people develop and adopt the change?’.

GL: New ways of communicating on the intranet have emerged – the use of chatbots is one example. But, based on your experience with clients, are enterprises embracing the latest developments?

SB: There are many exciting developments in the digital workplace world. If we look at the organisations that are currently winning awards, such as the Nielsen Norman Group Best Intranets, we can find great examples of cutting edge enterprises. There is also lots of information coming from the service providers; Microsoft is certainly promoting and supporting digital ways of working and transformation.

But many organisations are behind. Some companies are solving problems that mature enterprises were solving five or ten years ago: moving away from quite outdated platforms, and the concept that an intranet is solely a suite of web style pages – just information delivering or document storage – rather than a system for interaction and collaboration.

If we look back into the early 90s, shop-front intranets were considered cutting edge – organisations were winning awards for deploying news-focused intranets. Unfortunately, there are companies that haven’t caught up yet.

Despite all the developments in the marketplace, there will always be companies in that ‘laggard’ state, behind everybody else. They’re not ready for cultural and technical change, it’s too much for them right now. Vendors and practitioners must not discount laggard organisations, we have to respect their existing needs, and work to bring them along on the digital journey.

Another example is anywhere access. Intranets have been available at home, on mobile, on any device anywhere, for years, but many organisations are only now adopting flexible or mobile ways of working. Considering field workers and retail staff, organisations are now directly reaching previously unreachable audiences.

GL: What’s your advice to digital workplace pros working within an organisation that has just started its digital transformation journey?

SB: Recognise the new trends and identify the ones that may be truly useful. Avoid getting too caught up in emerging technologies, but feel free to experiment and learn.

Everything needs to be goal focused, and built around people. The intranet as, hopefully, a hub for your digital workplace, needs to be designed to suit the various demographics and divisions but must offer a good user experience.

Besides the emerging tech and new features, the fundamentals have to be in place. The rise of chatbots has been fascinating, and they may well help people with specific tasks and to get details around a specific topic, but fundamentally the content has to be right. Whether you access information by bot, search, navigation, the content has to be up-to-date, accessible, and relevant. These things don’t change.

The digital workplace journey is an evolution; organisations have, of course, to try new technologies and experiment with new ways of working to see if they are right for them. And sometimes, they may fail. It’s about having the willingness to test, and to have a go with new things. The culture must be ready for change.

Sarah Blackburn’s profile picture: courtesy of Intranet Now