Expectations run high for the role of intranets in employees daily work routine, but if they aren't meeting these six requirements, they're falling short.
A goal that organizations often define for their intranets is that it should support the employees in their daily work, often with the ambition that it shall be perceived by the employees as their natural digital work environment. The intranet is envisioned as the centerpiece in the digital workplace, the glue that binds the different parts of an enterprise together.
Being a knowledge worker, I myself have quite high expectations on my digital work environment and the tools I need to have to get my work done. If an intranet is to become the centerpiece of my digital workplace, it should -- at the very least -- help me do the following six things really well.
1. Building Workplace Awareness
First of all, the intranet should help me figure out what I should do next; with whom I should interact, when it is my turn to contribute (such as review a document), when someone might need my help, and so forth.
For this to happen, it needs to signal to me what the people I'm working with are doing. Furthermore it needs to give me some cues about who else is doing something related to what I am doing. That way I can come across information and meet people that can help me do my job better.
Some corporate communications people seem to think, and sometimes even truly believe, that what I need the most in my daily work is to read news about the company or my business area. I see no other reason why else they put it as the center of attention on the intranet.
Truth is that it's really not that important to me. Although such information should be available, it should be located in the periphery of my digital workplace and never stand between me and the things I need to do. If it does, I will go somewhere else to get my work done.
2. Finding People and Expertise
In the kind of work I am involved in, it is fundamental for me to easily find and discover people with whom I need to interact. It should be really easy to get a picture of who these people are, what they know, where they are located geographically and in the organization, what they are working on, who they are working with, and how I can interact with them. To choose the proper way of interaction, I need to know if they are available or not, and what way of interaction they prefer.
When I need to access a certain expertise, I must be able to ask for it and give whoever has the expertise a chance to appear on my radar screen. The intranet should enable me to ask for help, as well as receive help, from anyone who is willing and able to help me.
3. Sharing Information
If everybody would put all the money they earn in a safe and keep it there instead of using it to buy goods and services, the economy would soon collapse. The velocity, meaning how fast money is changing hands, is essential for a healthy economy. If we hoard our money, the velocity will obviously be lower.
The same thing applies to information and enterprises. If we don't share the information we have access to with those who need if within our organizations, we will not survive as an organization.
To put it another way: information not shared is useless, and knowledge not shared is knowledge lost. Thus, the intranet should allow us to easily share the information I get access to and provide ways to share the knowledge I possess with my colleagues.
I should be able to share any type of information that I think might be of value to others -- even when I don't know who might need it, when or for what purpose. Giving this power to only a few people is not to the benefit of the enterprise. It should be distributed to everyone who has something to share, which -- without a doubt -- can be anyone.
4. Finding Information
This one is obvious: I need to find the information I need so that I can use it to get my work done. The faster I can find the right information, the faster I can get my work done. Since knowledge work is highly unpredictable and barely repeatable, I rarely know in advance what information I might need. Having access to all information that has been shared, both inside and outside the corporate firewall, is a necessity.
What seems to be less obvious for many organizations is what method I, and most others, prefer to use to find information: search. I can see no other reason why so many intranet search functions stink big time. Sometimes it's because of the search engine itself, sometimes it's because the information is badly labeled and organized, sometimes it's because no-one cares to spend time and effort on maintaining and enhancing the search capability. Usually it's a mix of all these things.
If I would get a really good search function, with auto-suggest and smart ways to filter and navigate through the search result, I couldn't care less about hierarchical navigation systems. Taxonomies, user-generated tags and content metadata should of course be there, but primarily to help me find information when I search for it or to signal to me when there might be something of interest to me.
5. Keeping and Re-finding Information
Whenever I come across some information that might be useful to me, I need to be able to keep it for later. Then I need to find it easily whenever I need it. Frankly, I don't care if it is a document, an image or a web page: I need to be able to keep, organize and re-find it using the same method regardless of type of content. And I need to be able to do it from any device. If Evernote comes across your mind, you are on to something.
Few intranets I have used have offered more than the possibility to create a few shortcuts to pages on the intranet or elsewhere. I know of intranets that don’t even offer that much. If the intranet is to become a natural work environment for me, it needs to be my Evernote.
6. Having Conversations
Conversations are what make collaborative work happen and flow. Back-and-forth exchanges in physical meetings are the most efficient way to reach mutual understanding, and thus the most efficient way to synchronize and coordinate decisions and actions as well as to develop ideas and exchange tacit knowledge. Although nothing beats face-to-face conversations for working together, it is neither practical nor feasible from a cost and environmental perspective in situations when I need to work with people from other locations. Instead, we need to meet and have these conversations online.
The traditional and dominating style of communication on intranets is to broadcast corporate messages to the workforce. The messages communicated are final and don’t invite conversation. For conversations that make work flow, people turn to face-to-face meetings, phone calls and email instead.
An intranet that is supposed to support me in my daily work must be able to host my conversations with my colleagues. Most of my conversations I want to have in the open instead of hiding them in emails, phone calls and meetings, unavailable to those who weren't invited and therefore didn't get the chance to participate.
How About Your Intranet?
If you think of the six capabilities I have described as a checklist and use them to evaluate your own intranet, how would it perform? If it isn't already, could it become your natural digital work environment, supporting your daily work?
If not, it will most likely remain a website you visit every now and then to update yourself about what’s happening on a corporate or departmental level, or when you need to read about the sales process or look-up something in employee handbook. To work, you go somewhere else. For many people, that place is still the email inbox and local document folders, a digital work environment that is designed for personal productivity but not for collaboration. That’s also where the real opportunity for an intranet lies -- supporting enterprise-wide collaboration.
Image courtesy of anfisa focusova (Shutterstock)
Editor's Note: Read Oscar's article that discusses the tools that preceded today's tools From Bulletin Boards to Social Collaboration