By Gloria Lombardi

With the business landscape changing more rapidly than ever before, the intranet must adapt and change to remain a business-critical tool. An organisation’s digital workplace should be ever-evolving; enterprise platforms need to be improved to meet developing needs and support the business strategy. Continual care is needed to ensure systems are aligned with the organisation’s goals. The intranet should meet the varying needs and wants of its users, enabling them to do their daily work without friction.

When developing or redeveloping the intranet, it’s important to consider multiple options, rather than assuming a certain direction or following ‘where the technology leads’. A clear, shared, vision is needed, and stakeholders should to be ready to articulate the benefits they expect, and debate the different ways of achieving success. Of course, before engaging staff and stakeholders, the intranet’s ownership and overall governance needs setting out to avoid a fragmented development approach. 

David Bowman, Product Director at Content and Code – the Office 365 and SharePoint consultancy and creators of the digital workplace solution Fresh Intranet – believes it’s time for a change when it comes to the intranet. Too many employees are frustrated when using the company’s content and collaboration platform. Clunky intranets have no place in a modern organisation; we need to look for more elegant, intelligent systems that are really aligned with how people work.  

MARGINALIA speaks with Bowman to explore his views on what organisations should do to keep their intranet fresh and aligned with people’s requirements. In this interview, he describes the importance of persona-based research, shares advice on overcoming intranet development and adoption challenges, and walks MARGINALIA through some characteristic of the intranet of the future.

Gloria Lombardi: At your recent digital transformation event, run in partnership with Microsoft, you pointed out that it’s time for a change when it comes to the intranet.

David Bowman: One of the common themes that emerges during conversations with clients is that outdated, clunky technology has a terrible impact on employee engagement. It’s frustrating and off-putting to be unable to find the content and colleagues you need. People learn that the intranet can’t be relied upon.

We keep hearing the same repeating themes when speaking with digital teams and intranet users: search is bad; relevant documents can’t be found; people work in silos; security gets in the way.

When we talk to users, they tell us that the content is not relevant to their work, that they have so many intranets that nobody knows where to start, that passwords, security, and silos block them from accessing information, and that version control is out of control.

Naturally, the design is outdated, even ugly, and doesn’t reflect the brand.

There are so many different systems holding or processing different information – work is slowed to a crawl by the administrative burden.

Clunky technology damages the overall employee experience. The organisation may offer great benefits and the leadership team may well show they care about staff, but the organisation and staff are let down by the tech.

It can be really frustrating for all involved when the organisation has great people and great content but the route in, the interface, is awful. When the tech creates a poor user experience, people resort to work-arounds. Inefficiencies multiply and productivity slumps. It’s unpleasant, it’s not what people expect.

Those problems are fairly typical when we think about a classic intranet. So it’s time to rethink the intranet.

GL: What changes are needed?

DB: The intranet needs to serve individuals on a personal level. We must design intranets that ‘target’ the right content to the right people. We must personalise the intranet, making sure communications, news, policies, apps, etcetera, are shown to people when relevant. The intranet should not be one thing to all people – it should be many things to different people. The intranet should know you.

It is about ensuring intranet content is tailored for its audience. Relevant content needs to find them at their point of need. The intranet should know their role, their work, their place in the organisation, and their connections, to provide a truly personalised experience.

GL: What’s stopping organisations deploying such an intranet?

DB: The common challenge we come across is the diverging and unaligned aspirations of stakeholders – IT on one side and the Communications team on the other.

GL: How can this be addressed?

DB: It makes sense to bring the stakeholders together – those who are responsible for the deployment project and those who will be using the intranet. IT and Comms need to be in the same room, to get on the same page. To develop a shared vision, open conversations around expectations, requirements, and constraints are needed.

IT might be worried about ensuring every user has the latest, or same, hardware and software, and use the same systems – whereas the business, and Comms, might want everyone to be able to find business information, regardless of the tech. Quick, easy access is the need, but IT might only be thinking about servers, authentication, and software installations – these items are not wrong, but in isolation don’t fix the employee experience.

So these conversations have to cover a lot of ground, so that all stakeholders can build a shared understanding. It should be easy enough to agree to put the end user first – to focus on employee needs and the user experience. New systems will need new ways of working – there will be changes – and people need support as they adapt to and adopt new systems and processes. These conversations can eventually be formalised by co-creating a clear set of objectives.

I suggest stakeholders focus on the main workplace components – publishing, collaboration, enterprise social, and communication – to help lay out the ownership and governance. For example, Internal Communications might well own publishing; Business Operations might own collaboration; IT might own the ICT, the email and Skype systems; HR might own the enterprise social, and so on. It’s about clear responsibilities.

Each of these components is likely to have a different level of user adoption. It may be desirable and necessary for 100% of employees to use the intranet regularly, but not everyone will need to contribute to the enterprise social network, or create content. Some changes will take more effort than others – for example, changing people’s ways of working could be a major challenge within the collaboration component. So, the owners will want to think about how to communicate the benefits of, say, Microsoft Teams and Team Sites, and plan how to train people so that file sharing via network drives and email is reduced. It can be a big change, and so needs careful planning.

GL: How can organisations ensure that the platform ultimately delivers what staff need for their work on an ongoing basis?

DW: Persona-based research is key. At Content and Code, our dedicated team of researchers analyse the end user adoption momentum of the new solution – employees’ working patterns, their practices, their daily tasks, the constraints, the pain points, et cetera. We turn all this data into a set of personas and use them in storyboards. We end up with a detailed user journey across the technologies, showing high level activities.

As an example, we recently worked with an advertising agency. One of their primary functions is pitching advertising concepts to potential and current clients, so their teams constantly need to create and share proposals amongst a fairly distributed set of colleagues. Each person might create their proposal in their own way, and share it and ask for feedback using a number of tools.

It was the sort of process that could end up having a PowerPoint file emailed to you called ‘Marys proposal version 10 9th Feb Julian comments’ and then another version of the same file from another colleague two minutes later. Comments and changes could be lost and overwritten, and nobody really had the ‘final final’ or current file.

So we used personas and storyboards to show some key use cases that represented the users in these scenarios.

With the research the visualised results, we’re able to constantly refer to the user needs as we plan and design new solutions. “How might Jeff in Accounts use this particular functionality? How might Lindsey react to seeing content in this way?” We build solutions for real use cases, considering the data as personified in personas.

The storyboard ended up showing how a group of people could work on the exact same document at the same time, stored within the collaboration space of the intranet where colleagues could access it. This directed our work, and made it easy for the advertising agency to understand the changes that were coming.

All this new tech, this rethinking of the intranet, has to take away problems and pain for the end users. And they need to be prepared for the change. Some will see any change as disruptive.

GL: Looking at the latest digital workplace trends, what will the intranet of the future look like?

DB: Bots and artificial intelligence will be central to the intranet of the future and enterprise search. Imagine an employee searching for the location of the London office. Linking search queries to bots could be useful; the search results show the London address and a bot suggests the next steps – maybe “Hey, here’s the travel booking policy” or maybe even “Would you like me to book you a taxi to the station?’. So the intranet becomes more intelligent and aware of your activities and intentions. AI could reduce the friction around finding information and simple admin tasks.

Targeted content delivery will also be critical for the future of the intranet. For the people who work on projects together, collaborating with tools such as Microsoft Teams, – sharing documents, having conversations, logging progress and decisions, and so on – there’s the risk of missing information across the wider intranet. So what vendors like us are starting to do, is to build components and widgets inside Microsoft Teams to pull in relevant content from the intranet. Imagine Simon opens Microsoft Teams first thing in the morning, eschewing the intranet and email. Right there in the app, is a supplemental feed with relevant content from the intranet. The content is relevant as it’s been targeted, as we know Simon’s role, location, and projects.  

The intranet of the future will be more mobile. Many of us already spend more time on our phones than on our laptops. So having a really good, native intranet experience on mobile is more important than ever, particularly for those organisations that have a large percentage of frontline, deskless workers. Retailers are a great example here; the corporate intranet might be great for head office, but it probably doesn’t reach the 10,000 or 30,000 members of staff who are in warehouses, depots, shops, café, or hotels. Such people should be of primary importance to the business, considering they are often customer facing and brand ambassadors.

AI and bots, targeted content delivery, and mobile, are all about reducing the friction for people using powerful systems. Classic intranets were okay when we sat behind desks all day, but that model of work has been changing rapidly. We must take our intranets in to the future, probably in our pockets.