By Gloria Lombardi

29460074834_32d14e6f2f_kAs part of the launch of Intranet Now 2017, the largest intranet conference in the UK, organisers Wedge Black and Brian Lamb, are seeking sponsors and speakers to feature on stage on 5th October in London. MARGINALIA readers are of course encouraged to learn more about the event, and how being involved could benefit their work and their digital workplace.

“The intranet, right now, can be the root or the seed of the digital workplace. Or the amorphous glue among all the many apps and services that an enterprise requires, depending on the approach of the digital team” says Intranet Now founder, Wedge Black (pictured right).

In this interview, Wedge describes the uniqueness of the Intranet Now conference and what participants can expect from October’s event. His observations go deeper, by sharing valuable lessons learned from previous conferences. He highlights the main industry developments including the evolution of the ‘intranet ecosystem’, the importance of the employee experience, and the link between the intranet and the future of work.

Gloria Lombardi: As a conference, what makes Intranet Now unique?

29793307120_5e85994447_kWedge: Intranet Now is unique because the majority of the presentations are lightning talks. We have many speakers on stage sharing their experiences and expertise. There are only a couple of key notes that are 29 minutes long. Whereas the two-dozen lightning talks are each nine minutes long.

This format is very popular with Intranet Now participants. It keeps the room buzzing, and feels very dynamic. Participants gain insights from every speaker because each of them has to deliver a take away: What is it that the audience can take away and action when they get back to the office?

We do not split the audience. We don’t have different streams – but one big hall, which this year will welcome around 220 participants at the new venue in South Bank, London.

Not only do we have an intense conference with the lighting talks, in the afternoon we turn things around and offer a World Café format where people get to talk to each other, and our speakers. We have different sessions and a great deal of conversation on the tables. People can stand up and walk to other tables, find who they want to connect with, ask the speakers direct questions, and bring their own challenges (problems!) to the table. Last year we served macaroons! This is partly why we refer to the conference ‘audience’ as ‘participants’, because everyone is directly involved in the success of the event. Twitter is quite important too, as is the night before’s get-together, and the after-event party. It’s all very social.

Intranet Now is a tech agnostic conference. Brain and I are consultants when we’re not organising the conference, and we work with lots of intranet platforms. Brian has his day job, and I have mine. We invite sponsors to help us to put on the conference. Because we are agnostic, sponsors can come from anywhere within the field of intranets and internal communications. We treat our sponsors like we treat anyone – whether they are intranet specialists, or internal communications practitioners, or indeed intranet vendors, we treat everyone fairly and reasonably equally. So the conference flows well and there are no sales pitches.

As an aside, Intranet Now was launched in 2014 with just a few tweets. Brian (whom I did not know at the time) said he’d join me in organising the first conference, and sponsors and speakers quickly came on board. It all happened very fast. There was an obvious need for an independent conference. Just now, we’ve replaced the old logo I threw together, and we’ve finally a lovely identity.

GL: What can attendees, sorry, participants expect from Intranet Now 2017?

logo-intranet-web-bigW: Expect a fast pace and dynamic day, which focuses on the value of the intranet and internal channels – it is not all about the intranet homepage! I expect there will be employee apps, employee communications, and even change management. But, underlying all of this is the employee experience. In design, we may call it the UX, the user experience. But we know that within the enterprise it is about productivity and helping employees do their best while feeling good about their work.

Intranet Now 2017 will be very people focused. We will of course talk about the intranet as a piece of technology, but it is all about how work is happening within organisations right now.

GL: What intranet developments have you witnessed since launching Intranet Now in 2014?

W: What has been evidenced at the previous Intranet Now conferences is the care taken to design the employee experience when rolling out new technology. Deploying new technology does not change the business – a company has to have a change management strategy, and a plan to engage employees in new ways of working. That focus often needs to be change led. There might be a Head of Change Communications, or an Internal Communications team, Digital Team, or Collaboration Centre of Excellence taking it upon themselves to help the organisation understand what is happening with their intranet, apps, and internal channels. So, employee engagement is crucial, and it can take months and months – you do not just launch a solution and then let it go.

We have seen the development of easy to use apps and mobile intranets that people want to use because they help them immediately get on with something or achieve something.

When I think about the evolving digital workplace it is mostly focused on the user experience, which often means a fantastic user interface. To be engaged, employees have to have a great experience when they first see the intranet. It is like a good menu at a restaurant – people eat with their eyes before they taste the starter or the main course. So it starts with the menu, then it continues with the waiter serving the plate  – at that point a person could be delighted and ready to positively tackle the meal with gusto, but they could also be put off and already cynical before starting to eat the food. The appetite for what they are about to experience is really important. We have to help the organisation understand the digital experience while considering individuals’ digital literacy and needs.

GL: What are the main characteristics of an effective intranet today?

29460651663_8f82a23e4e_kW: An effective intranet helps workers make meaningful progress in their work. At a tactical level, it is about getting the little things done and off the task list. The ease of use of systems is crucial – employees do not want to be trapped in Outlook 2007 all day, or a PDF that they cannot copy and paste from, or an out-of-date Word document. They want to quickly get what they want done and move on to the more valuable tasks, which hopefully they have been employed to do and that add value to the organisation.

If the tools that workers are using inside the enterprise take twice as long as the apps used in their personal devices, they are going to be frustrated and disengaged. If the system frustrates a person, it is almost a deal breaker – they always say that a person leaves an employer because of their manager, but in the long-term they may also be saddened by the bureaucracy of the enterprise. Working for a company that is not modern does not make someone rush in on a Monday morning!

So, a digital workplace which is built around employees’ needs is the priority.

GL: Almost every company has an intranet today. And with it, the many challenges it may bring. Based on your experience, what are the main barriers that enterprises are facing with their systems?

W: Too many organisations consider the intranet to be about the deployment project – even if it is led by the Communications team is still very time-bound and resource-bound. But after the launch, it is crucial to create an ongoing campaign for a year or more to explain the benefits of the systems, and the new ways of working – what to stop doing and what to start doing. What we are talking about is the future of work – bringing the future of work to the present.

A company can take advantage of a modern system only if it gets the majority of its people altering their ways of working. Hence, coming out of email, PDFs, and lengthy Word documents, and embracing the digital workplace, dealing with knowledge and information with the right people at the right time. Again, it branches out into employee engagement.

GL: In fact, what’s the link between the intranet ‘now’ and the future of work?

30087869465_49d420c8d2_zW: The link to the future of work is the digital workplace.

A digital workplace is always going to be networked and be about relationships – how people relate to each other and the technology that enables them do their work. Part of that is the intranet. The word ‘intranet’ may feel small when dealing with people, content, information, document management, workflows, and various collaboration tools. When you add to it the mobile apps, and the separate line of business applications that are crucial to get work done, then the term ‘digital workplace’ makes more sense for some people.

The intranet, right now, can be the root or the seed of the digital workplace. Or the amorphous glue among all the many apps and services that an enterprise requires, depending on the approach of the digital team. I’m not sure we need a set definition or concept; it is what it is – and the best intranets either serve a strong specific purpose or are well integrated into the ‘operating system’ of the organisation.

GL: You say that “Our industry is an ecosystem, involving technology, culture, in-house practitioners, and consultants.” How has the intranet ecosystem developed in recent years?

W: Internally, small organisations may still have one or two internal communications professionals, maybe working within the marketing team, and if they are lucky they may have one intranet manager. But large companies have definitely moved on – many have a digital team that cares for and understands collaboration and new ways of digitally working. Those digital teams bring a broad skill set rather than a focused output. So Internal Communication has a very focused output – they care about employee engagement and communications, whereas a Digital Team has wider skills to help other people inside the organisation collaborate and adopt new ways of working.

Externally, new partnerships develop to bring together consultants, vendors, agencies, and experts practitioners. Some of the best work we see at Intranet Now is not done by the intranet team, or internal communication team alone. It brings together the external cloud, IT departments, agencies’ work and independent consultants. So an entire network forms around the delivery and adoption of an intranet over a year or more.

GL: What competencies, skills, or capabilities workers need to develop to stay relevant within the intranet industry, now and even so in the future?

29793301720_8e47490d7f_kW: The default mindset must be a collaborative, online, digital way of working. If a worker relies on emails to get all the information they require then something is wrong. When an organisation gathers information from five departments, there should be a way of doing it that is self-service, open, and pulls all the data together. It cannot be about sending ‘round a spreadsheet template and then waiting for email responses with attachments.

Workers need to be interested and curious about the capability of software and the services that are used inside the organisation. That includes understanding the sharing permissions too. It sounds technical and boring, but when I see companies accidentally releasing sensitive information on the world wide web, I know that behind that mistake there is someone who did not understand the sharing permissions of the enterprise solution. People’s digital literacy is vital and, outside of IT, I don’t know how recruitment processes assess digital skills.

I do feel a bit awkward saying ‘new ways of working’ so often, because many of us have been using that phrase for decades. But there are new things to learn and old working ways to drop, and different organisations are at different stages in the digital journey. I’m not even keen on the word ‘digital’, as all my work has been ‘online’ since the start of my career, but I understand that it’s about the mindset.

GL: You featured intranet case studies in previous conferences. Can you share with MARGINALIA readers one story that stood out?

W: I have to multitask during the conference, as there’s lots going on, but I remember Ernst Decsey of UNICEF Partners launched an intranet shopping cart, and I thought this was innovative and useful. A person could add pages and documents to their cart, and it would collate everything as they did their research. This is great if you’re working on policy, legislation, or in bids and finance. I made sure to ask him to blog about it.

This is what I meant by a ‘take away’ – an idea that you could implement if your organisation had a similar need. I mean, it’s inspiring, and you could talk to Ernst if you need to know exactly how to achieve such a thing.

GL: How can potential sponsors and speakers get involved with Intranet Now 2017?

30053958376_68c78c5cc1_zW: Brian and I are keen on featuring the right people on stage. That means sponsors that have great case studies to share or new capabilities rolling out across their platform. We are also looking for in-house speakers such as intranet practitioners and internal communications professionals who would be generous enough to share the work that they are doing internally.

Intranet Now is the largest intranet conference in the UK, but it has definitely an international flavour. So we are totally open to inviting people from Europe and maybe America as well, for example.

So please contact me if you are interested – we are on Twitter, @IntranetNow and I am a big tweeter too – I’m @Wedge. But I’m also on email if there are any questions.

Intranet Now – Thursday 5th October

The Hilton Bankside, Great Suffolk Street, London

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