Saying that intranet value is about how employees feel may seem counterintuitive -- surely it is about sales, profits and customers.

Although intranets that quantifiably support strategic goals are great, in reality most intranets play a low-key but essential day-to-day role in making employees more productive, and it is here that the real value lies. Indeed, things that are core to a business tend to have systems that are more precisely adapted to need (think CRM, SAP and DAM). The role of the intranet is to bind everything else together and fill the gaps.

Happy People Work Harder

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer wrote an article for The New York Times a few years ago called “Do Happier People Work Harder?” The authors had collected 12,000 diary entries from workers at seven different companies and classified events into factors that motivated or demotivated employees. What stood out as being the biggest motivator by far was “making progress in meaningful work” -- not pay, bonuses, status or even recognition, but just being able to get on with a job they wanted to do.

Given the diffuse debate on employee engagement, it strikes me that focusing on this aspect is both practical and worthwhile, and that intranets can play a role.

Making Progress in Meaningful Work

Making progress implies that small barriers have a disproportionate effect on productivity. Being blocked from starting a report because you can’t find the right template isn’t just 10 minutes lost while you search for it, but an irritation that affects subsequent output.

In their book, The Progress Principle, Amabile and Kramer list seven catalysts that facilitate productive work -- and there are several where the intranet can play a role:

  • Supporting autonomy for where and how people work
  • Giving access to information resources
  • Accessing peer support for problem-solving
  • Learning from others through networks and communities
  • Sharing and cultivating ideas

As for meaningful work, where intranets promote a clear line of sight between individual contributions and end effects, this can cultivate a sense of purpose. Professional communicators might see this as “engaging employees around our strategy,” but in practice such engagement is most likely to come through activity stream posts about a customer reaction or news of successes from the team downstream to your own contribution.

Clearly an intranet alone will not bring about these benefits, but any good intranet strategy will begin by asking: “What are we trying to achieve?” and then look at the people and process elements as well as the technological ones.

The Challenge

What makes the above hard to sell is that the benefits, though real, are diffused across everyone’s productivity. It is unlikely that measurable gains could be meaningfully attributed to an intranet alone.

I often speak to intranet managers who have put together a plan for intranet improvements and have asked a sponsor for additional resources only to be challenged with showing what the financial return might be. On the surface it sounds reasonable, and yet in practice it is exceedingly hard to generate numbers that will stand up to scrutiny. Intranets don’t generate income -- they are merely one step in a set of activities that should be seen as a cost of doing business. The same can be said of employee training, email, internal communications and the annual leaders’ get-together.

Managers of successful intranets tell me they have rarely faced the same challenge. Their sponsors intuitively understand that the intranet is important. The “show me the ROI” challenge is acceptable business-speak for “I’m not convinced by what you want to do.” Ask if the same criteria have been applied to other investments, and you’ll probably find that no ROI case was made for the corporate re-brand or the cost of owning and decorating a showcase head office.

This is not to say that there shouldn’t be a business case for your intranet. But instead of getting drawn into the ROI debate, focus on how the intranet can help advance an already accepted goal.

Most organizations’ strategies are combinations of hard goals (grow market share, cut costs) and softer ones (improve employee engagement, integrate company goals). Intranets should definitely support hard goals where they can, but it’s often the soft ones that have more to do with what employees consider meaningful work. The challenge then becomes showing a logical connection between the impact of the intranet on people’s productivity, and those goals. In effect, we’re trying to nudge thinking toward something like a balanced scorecard.

There are excellent examples of intranets performing business-critical tasks in call centers, patient care and distribution. However, in practice, most process-intensive tasks have dedicated systems already -- SAP, PeopleSoft or similar tools that are already credited with having delivered the ROI. In many organizations the remaining work is less structured, and that happens on email, in documents and face to face. It is here where intranets can help.

Show Value, Then Scale

When intranets really do help people’s jobs, they can win powerful advocates. One team at PwC, for example, found that their social collaboration tools halved the time needed to create client proposals. The problem is that you can’t show this value before implementation. The best approach with a reluctant sponsor is to pilot at low cost, collect data on the impact, and then make the case for investment to do it at scale. If you really are making employees more productive, they’ll do the selling for you.

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