Intranet 2.0: evolving communication and working environments

Intranet, Social Intranet, Digital Workspace. The term Intranet – the exact opposite of Internet and Extranet – was coined in the first half of the 1990s to indicate Web communication environments restricted to the employees of an organization. Over time and with the evolution of the role of Internal Communication in organizational logic, the Intranet has gone from being one of the tools of communication to the convergence and integration platform able to carry out more and more relevant strategic functions.

The essential terms of this evolutionary journey are outlined below:

  • Communication tool: the Intranet is the website for employees, useful for providing the company with a single and fast tool for circulating information, for building identities, and for reinforcing values and perspectives.
  • Self-service applications: in the Intranet, work tools or individual applications linked to business processes appear.
  • Groupware: at the turn of the new millennium project management environments (calendars, project management, forums, etc.) and structured document management repositories made their appearance.
  • Social Intranet: in the last 5 years the introduction of collaboration facilities such as tagging, wikis, blogs and forums has transformed the nature of intranets. The relational component has gradually become more and more strategic, and the logic of social networks (activity streams, microblogging, user profiles, etc.) has moved the focus further towards a greater socialization of contents and processes.
  • Digital Workspace: a further evolutionary step that we are witnessing and that we will continue to witness more and more is the integration of intranets with a company’s external portals, to talk and interact with partners and clients. In fact, digital workplaces are being planned in which private and open environments coexist that, also thanks to social applications, extend the company’s capability of communication and value creation.

Recent trends and components

Digital Workplace Trends 2012 is the annual research on Intranets conducted by Jane McConnell on more than 450 European and North American organizations. As regards the objectives of organizations to be pursued through their own company network the following are singled out:

  • Improvement of communication towards their own employees;
  • Spread and growth of collaborative environments;
  • Activation of customer service tools;
  • Less pursued, on the other hand, are the support in decision making and the management of online processes.

If we look at mobile services in particular, we discover how companies with complex sales networks are investing to improve collaboration among resources in the field and make access to experts easier.

Another phenomenon to underline is the growing tendency to manage digital policies through a single group of specialists (consultants and professionals) and managers who deal with the management and evolution of internal and external environments. The same managerial group (digital board) is responsible for designing intranets but also for designing client and partner portals; the user experience, the technological and web communication competencies tend to merge between internal and external. The communication subjects and objectives change but the interaction dynamics do not; and above all the company users, being in turn consumers and users of other external portals, recognize the same navigation and participation logic within their own intranet.

The expectations of future intranets are another interesting aspect of McConnell’s research:

  • Intranets built more and more around people in all stages of the process: in design (co-designing contents and services that are more appropriate to the specific context), in user experience (introducing the ability to personalise navigation and services), in management (with a distributed governance);
  • Boosted information research services, intelligent content categorisation services, based also on user input;
  • Advanced services for work teams that can more easily carry out activities, have access to experts and be more and more connected (social networking, social tagging, location awareness, etc.);
  • A greater relevance of the user experience in designing navigation.

The reference model

The needs that an intranet must satisfy can be divided into four fundamental areas: Communication, Contents, Collaboration, Activities (figure 2). All operations can be traced back to these areas knowing that we are comparing ourselves with different organizational contexts in which these areas are contemplated and managed in different ways. If we think, for example, of an intranet with ten years of history, we are faced with an environment in which communication and contents are predominant and in which we would be unlikely to see the same care dedicated to the management of business and collaboration activities. Even today we sometimes happen to analyse contexts in which, even when contemplating all four areas, intranets are organised starting from the contents and a company-user information flow. These are not technologically obsolete contexts, but the stratification of contexts over time can generate “information monsters” in which it is tough to find the contents and responses useful for daily work.

If collaboration environments in which users can work and share experiences, knowledge and solutions are added to the “classic” communication and repository functions of contents, the intranet takes on a new role; it becomes to all extents and purposes a business tool. The stronger the link between the digital environment and daily work matters, the more this tool will be seen as useful, and therefore used.

An intranet can have different characteristics and objectives based on the organizational context and the market in which it operates. We can see that intranets are used in various sectors and with a varied number of users to be managed: there are those who focus on contents, those who focus on collaboration, and those who are only responsible for communication, or only for services.

We have noticed three types of intranet (figure 3), which we have classified with a label assigned based on their tendency to be responsible for the fundamental areas in different ways:

  • Corporate Portal: the Intranet is the company’s image and its information reference. There is a strong emphasis on the values of communication (Identity, Values, History, Offer, Organizational Setup) and document repository.
  • Social Enterprise: the Intranet is the place in which business applications integrate with emerging collaborative activities.
  • Self-service: this is where the individual user is the centre of communication and services. We are faced with a service portal that supports and informs employees. 

The case of building an Intranet

The context. Now let’s look at the process of building or rebuilding an intranet. Following below are the stages, resources and competencies needed to deal with a project in a manner that is complete and shared with users. The case that we are referring to is a project created at an organization of approximately 3,500 users, made up of 25 different company groups. The planning and creating process involved more than 60 users from the different company functions that contributed to creating the company portal. 55 meetings to compile the requirements and co-design the graphic and IT solutions, 6 months from defining the strategy to releasing the platform. The OpenKnowledge model envisages 4 main stages (figure 4) to conduct an intranet building or re-design project. In each of the stages activities and deliverables are created.

Stage 1: Strategy and Analysis
Activities Involvement of managers through interviews and workshops, drafting a summary document for the programming of the intranet and governance guidelines
Deliverables Mission and focus of the intranet, objectives and KPIs, project roles and responsibilities
Necessary competencies Knowledge of macro-processes, vision

 

The first step is defining the company objectives: in our experience they are never the same, as each organization has its own short, medium and long-term needs; the imperative is to look beyond the normal functions of an intranet and expect it to become a tool for the organization’s business and one that can improve the results of work teams.

With management we describe an intranet consistent with the company vision and, at the same time, we define the sets of users for whom we have to plan services, design environments, and provide collaboration tools. This is therefore also the time to define some quantitative and qualitative performance indicators with which to measure the success of our intranet and follow its evolution over time. To broaden the horizon, here are some examples of strategic objectives indicated by various managers in projects we have managed: cultural integration and effectiveness, knowledge management, engagement and atmosphere, efficiency and simplification of processes, reduction of information research times, visibility on projects and activities, integrated management of applications, making the most of professional families and know-how.

Stage 2: Co-Design and Implementation
Activities Mapping of information flows (content inventory) and involvement of users through social network analysis, surveys, workshops for the organization of contents and navigation paths, IT development
Deliverables Governance model (roles and responsibilities), inventory, content trees and categories, page wireframes, development plan for facilities, look&feel, implemented and configured platform
Competencies Knowledge of the organization and of the company culture, web design, software development, web content management 

 

We have collected instructions from management in order to build an intranet with specific objectives and one that satisfies its users. The design of the intranet now requires the following fundamental elements:

  • Inventory of existing components (content inventory) and development of new contents (texts, images, video);
  • Information architecture that is consistent and recognisable by everyone;
  • Environment and content governance that defines the processes of publication and collaboration;
  • A user experience able to facilitate navigation.

Instead of asking ourselves what our users need in theory, it is much simpler and more productive to involve them in the process right from this design stage. This is the practice of co-design: facilitated by fast and collaborative methodologies, it is with the users that we define the contents and priorities, categories and current language within the organization, and the most appropriate tools and facilities for achieving business objectives.

This stage, which can seem complex – as it requires the involvement and commitment of other respondents – is actually fundamental not only for the accuracy with which information is collected by minimizing the risk of building environments that are not recognised (or populated) by users, but above all because an environment co-created with users is a more productive environment.

So who to involve? If the goal is to satisfy groups of users, communities, and company functions, it will be important to choose a representative from each of these together to build a group of champions, a team that reports the needs, contents and points of view of its own group of reference (in some cases these wide-ranging groups of organizations continue to share best practices for improvement and represent true ambassadors when promoting the use of new tools).

In this design stage the tool that could be useful is Organizational Network Analysis, an organizational “photograph” that shows, beyond the manager’s reports, what the real connections between people are and which resources hold positions of reference within the company ecosystem on specific subjects and processes.

The choice of the technological platform goes through an in-depth analysis of the specific requirements defined in this stage; on the list of requirements the software selection process is applied: coverage of the facilities, weight of each facility or area, assessments of the Total Cost of Ownership. Also very relevant in the choice – in addition to the coverage of facilities from both the user and administrator perspective – are the solution’s general characteristics that have an impact on flexibility, on the ability to rebuild the defined governance processes, on the integrability with other environments and tools, on scalability, on multilingual management, etc.

A comparison grid of the technologies under examination is a useful tool for achieving in a reasonable timeframe a choice of platform on which to implement and evolve the intranet. This grid, in addition to reporting the coverage of the facilities, determines a score for the quality of the macro-functions based on certain criteria that are important for the company, which are added to the criteria of economic convenience.

Once the technology has been chosen, we begin the activities of implementation, estimation of the hardware components and the resources necessary for the ad hoc development and the initial configuration.

The specific competencies and the technical documentation regarding the platform chosen become fundamental for a better optimization of the costs during future stages of development. These more technical elements are shared among the persons in charge of development (internal and external) with the aim of immediately building a group of IT people that are competent in the logic but also in the methods of designing and implementing IT. Everything is implemented by managing the navigation mechanisms and the graphic customization, constantly collecting feedback from users starting from the first test stages.

Stage 3: Soft Launch
Activities Involvement of one or more pilot groups for the creation of Business Case, Community management
Deliverables Calendar of releases and launches of the intranet for the different company groups, Report of pilot group activities, List of improvements to be carried out before the launch stage, Assistance to users
Competencies Knowledge of the IT tool, Software development, Community management

 

Before concentrating on Go-Live – the moment of release and communication to the whole organization of the launch of the new environment – we need to test the environment: the best way to do this is to determine a pilot group that has the double task of verifying and improving the functions, but also of interacting with the contents. In this pilot stage it is fundamental to monitor users’ behaviour in a sufficiently long period to verify how much and how a single group (project team, a company function, a community or another set of users) produces and makes the most of the contents, chooses the navigation paths, and re-designs work processes with the help of collaborative tools. By documenting this first pilot experience, a business case is built that is useful in the stage of promoting and sharing the intranet’s potentials.

The success factor of this preparatory stage is the ability to stimulate users who find themselves in a new virtual environment, guide them and introduce them to new ways of working by involving them personally in improving the intranet. A good community management manual can be of use in this operation of stimulating and engaging the users. Sharing the best practices, difficulties and operational methods of this engagement will be useful for all company groups at the time of the launch and during the first launch period.

Stage 4: Launch and cultivation
Activities Definition of communication messages and contents for promoting the intranet, drafting programme schedule and editorial organization, monitoring the KPIs, collecting feedback, community management
Deliverables Communication plan, promotion contents, news programme schedule and launch contents, collaboration tools and environments for editorial organization, reporting, user assistance
Competencies Web writing, marketing, communication, community management

 

If we have worked by involving the users, the news of the new environment will not come as a surprise; it is important that everyone, starting with the managers, feels the intranet is one of their work tools, and that implies the choice of some key messages to be passed on to the users to introduce them to the new way of acquiring information and working more productively.

In this promotion stage the behaviour and interest towards the contents were monitored: not only did the access to information increase, but the collaboration environments were also more and more requested by the various company functions; this is just the beginning of the journey, but there are returns on operational efficiency as shown by, among the various efficiency phenomena, a reduction revealed in the coordination costs among work teams, along with a considerable decrease in the number of emails for communication and project management.

Furthermore, the personal profile, and the constant updating of information regarding the intranet users, has reduced the time taken to trace the contacts relating to different territories and organizational units.

The greater result, besides the individual indicators, is the high level of involvement of everyone as shown in figure 5: each person has an active role and place in the company’s intranet ecosystem.

Strategic use of “social” components.

In the case that we have mentioned here there are no latest generation technological elements and even the social facilities used within the company have been introduced gradually, always following requests from work teams. The novelty factor was definitely involving the users in the co-creation of the environments and following their priorities and insights to organize and design the navigation environment.

Even without fully exploiting the collaborative potentials of the social IT platforms, this project has been set up with participation methods in the attempt to fully socialize the process of building the digital environment and its contents. 

KPIs of a Social Intranet.

From objectives to results, we aim to make tangible the advantage that these intranet reconfiguration experiences are generating for companies that have been and are ready for this investment. For each of the objectives we can define some indicators and proceed with building a true ROI model for Social Intranets.

Below are 6 indicators for each intranet director.

For company knowledge management it is important to measure:

  1. Time taken for information research.
  2. Quality of information (clarity and level of detail).
  3. Number of accesses and frequency on the contents pages and detailed files.
  4. Number of contributions from users (new contents, comments and revisions).
  5. Level of update of documents.
  6. Wide range of accesses by user groups.

For Community management it is important to measure:

  1. Number of active users (increases/decreases).
  2. Number of contributing users.
  3. Number of contents generated in collaboration.
  4. Number of interactions on community topics (forums, blogs, wikis, etc.).
  5. Quality of contents and solutions emerging from the interaction of members of the community.

For the re-engineering of processes it is important to measure:

  1. Time taken and costs of organizations for meetings and sharing moments.
  2. Time taken to make decisions.
  3. Costs of activating resources involved in the process.
  4. Overall time of activities, with and without collaboration tools.
  5. Quality of decisions, products and services at the end of the process.
  6. Savings/earnings of overall resources at the end of the work process.

For idea generation and management it is important to measure:

  1. Number of active users and contributors to company innovation.
  2. Number of ideas and solutions generated.
  3. Number of interactions compared to the ideas proposed (comments, votes, reports, etc.).
  4. Time taken for the emergence of the best ideas and people capable of generating innovation within the company.
  5. Time taken to create ideas assessed positively by management.
  6. Savings/earnings of resources/time against the implementation of ideas that became projects.

There are two other advantages in addition to these objectives and their precise indicators that it would be worth measuring at the end of a Social Intranet adoption programme:

  1. Company identity generated by a process of participating in building the intranet, the closeness of people with the values and the management that is the creator/promoter of such identity.
  2. The time to market meaning the ability to exchange information more quickly in order to be more and more reactive to requests from one’s own clients.

A further consideration to be made, for those who wish to assess the ROI of a Social Intranet, is the interdependency of the investment in the intranet with the investment in external portals; companies are tending more and more to use not only the same technology, but also the same competencies of development and collaboration.

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