There has been a lot of coverage lately on the future prospects of corporate intranets. Some say the intranet is dead, some say the intranet is alive but "limping" into the future. I somehow manage to agree with both.
The intranet as we know it is dead and it is currently limping into a new future where, once we arrive, we will not be able to recognize old-school intranets as intranets anymore. It wouldn't surprise me if the intranet concept undergoes a total rebranding and drops the moniker of "intranet." In predicting this future and how it will become concrete, one must understand many different perspectives.
What's the Vision?
Many times over, I have seen executives at medium and large enterprises articulate their vision using terms like "world-class experience" and qualitatively describing the success metric as designing an experience that is "the first application our employees want to interact with upon arrival at work and the last application they want to close upon leaving." Alternatively, I have seen executives and employees alike asking the question: "Why can't it be as easy as Google?"
Each of these descriptors has associated issues:
World-class implies a quality level that impacts breadth and depth of content and features that roughly correspond to what Forrester describes as the last stage of the intranet maturity model ("information workplace"). The people who articulate this lofty goal don't actually understand what level of commitment, time and investment this destination implies.
The financial appetite necessary for leapfrogging maturity levels and/or maintaining an evolving and robust employee portal is not only misaligned with the pressure placed on IT budgets for licensing, development and operations but it is also significantly misaligned with the sort of investments, staff and time required from an experience design perspective. This second misalignment can be very clearly seen in the current shift in terminology from "user experience" to "customer experience," which leaves employees and partners left as the "rented mules" of audience segments.
I believe that the reason executive's expectations are so misaligned with the required investments is a result of the general disconnectedness of leadership in American culture across many domains.
The key to infusing an intranet experience with sustainable desirability lies in the ability to understand what motivates enterprise employees to "want." Evoking desire from within an intranet can neither be accomplished individually through the inclusion of long lists of features and functions nor through narrow focus upon aesthetic appeal of visual design.
Beyond functionality and content, desirability emerges when an employee believes the intranet makes his or her life better. To achieve this desire-based outcome for the intranet, multi-disciplinary teams must not only ensure it delivers meaningful, relevant content and functionality that is continuously useful, usable and visually pleasing, but also deliver it in a form whose accessibility and mental model corresponds to existing and emerging behaviors.
Make it like Google
Roughly translated, this essentially means "make search work." In this context, "work" applies not only to relevance and precision but also to the less often cited, but just as important, aspects like performance and federated results. This lofty and comparison-oriented vision is directly related to the lack of any notable examples of where enterprises have managed to come even remotely close to matching the power of consumer tools that are looked upon by users and executives alike as free and simple.
What Are the Pivot Points?
In moving from vision to roadmap, project managers, strategists and architects must work together to identify not only the list of constraints that must be navigated around, but also the affordances that can be leveraged and the aspects that must be front and center when the first and lasting impressions are being formed. Many pivot points are specific to the enterprise in question and others are more or less universal.
What's interesting to me about these aspects is how some of them are in periods of accelerating change. The amount of coverage on the impact of a millennial workforce is staggering in scope, but not much has been discussed on how these other factors are undergoing significant change:
I'm already on record for how I believe how flat and shrinking IT budgets paired with increasing demands on quantity, quality and speed are shaping the destiny of software vendors. One can easily extrapolate this dynamic to the intranet, especially when the employee experience pendulum is swinging back towards the "unnecessary luxury" mindset.
While cost is an obvious constraint, what is not so obvious is what comprises cost beyond software, hardware and development. The ongoing cost of experience design along with content curation and governance has moved up so significantly that it is arguably the highest cost set of items associated with a robust intranet presence.
The constant companion to executive disconnectedness is fatigue. The demands placed on leadership are so intense that momentum and alignment have become the most precious commodities inside the large enterprise. Developing a concept, solution and roadmap that understands the path of least resistance within the enterprise is the one that will inevitably get the most traction. The notable exceptions are the organizations run by larger than life leaders/founders, but even these organizations are subject to organizational behavior dynamics that cherish consensus over progress.
Timelines are fully dependent upon the overall complexity and composition of the solution and range anywhere from 3 to 18 months. I've lived through the 3-month model, and it isn't pretty. I don't believe that expectations are wildly out of alignment here and most intranet work has realistic design and implementation schedules.
As enterprise methodologies embrace agile and iterative techniques, I believe we are ripe to start seeing 3-month evolutionary models become the norm rather than the exception. One pervasive constraint is that enterprises seem to universally believe that they don't have time to perform quality research. From my perspective, this is a direct outcome of the next constraint.
Intranet ownership seems to land in the overlap between HR and IT. This model is near universal in my experience and is the one that is at the cusp of the most radical change of all in this space. This brings us to my prediction.
Intranets Will Be Turned Upside-down
Typical ownership of intranets by HR or Corporate Communications has resulted in an overemphasis on getting corporate messages out. Personalization and customization are typically afterthoughts and social networks are only present on the fringes of the experience. Study after study shows that this does not correspond to the frequency of specific needs of users.
While studies are just showing up questioning the value of infusing social-networking into intranets, I would ask if anyone has really jumped in and upended the mental model to the point where the user's identity and their connections were at the foreground of the intranet experience. Without this leap, I am highly dubious that the value proposition can be measured. Metcalfe's law predicts both the accelerating value with each additional node and also the lack of measurable value with a low number of nodes.
Imagine an intranet that had the superset of features from Google+ and Facebook:
- Urgent corporate messaging that was relevant to an audience segment could very easily be served up on a user's wall and could retreat naturally after it's relevance has waned.
- Static process and policy content could be easily found when needed in the form of sparks, notes or "company pages" within the overall experience.
- Training and learning content could take the form of games.
- Everything would be like-able, shareable and promotable to enable lateral diffusion.
- Integrated IM and circles-based messaging would help to free people from email overload that plagues almost every knowledge worker at every level.
This future makes many people nervous because it is a jarring difference in the relative importance of the individual relative to the employer. Try as we might, millennials refuse to adapt to the mental models of employers. For them it is not a question of "What's in it for you?" or "What's in it for me?" It's a "What's in it for us?" model.
What I find most compelling about this concept is that it applies the highly successful ecosystem model of outward-facing web content to intranets. People with long histories in the CMS space know a big truth: if you have to frequently create new content types within your CMS, there is something wrong. It may be inside your CMS product, its implementation or in how you are thinking about it, but it is wrong and unsustainable.
The Big Lie
What has become apparent to me is this: if you have to rely on a resource-intensive governance model for your intranet, then something is wrong. How have we fooled ourselves into believing that the work-life model of today, where people change jobs so frequently and our jobs and communication channels fragment both our attention and our lives, can support a tractable approach to vigilant governance? When you throw in the cost and time constraints of business, it becomes almost laughable to think that this approach is now considered best practice.
I'm not sure how this "big lie" of vigilant governance got started, but everyone seems to buy into it despite the fact that nobody can reference thriving and fully sustained examples. It reminds me of the early 2000's when people believed that instructional copy could make up for unintelligible designs. It was not until the widespread business, creative, user and technical communities understood that people don't read anything that design disciplines began to get a more prominent seat at the table.
Don't get me wrong, this does not mean that the future intranet has no actual owner. It means that we need to apply a design lens to the both the human nature of communication and collaboration along with the affordances provided by the new mediums of communication technology to remove the need for resource-intensive, vigilant governance. Governance at this point will take the form that it was intended to: steering the platform rather than policing sites, content and taxonomy.
What has to happen to make this vision a reality?
- Product strategists at Facebook, Google, IBM and Microsoft must mature their offerings.
- Leaders within HR, Corp Comm and IT must acknowledge that a delegated ecosystem model where users are curating the content is better and more sustainable
But most of all before intranets can truly become the new killer app for businesses, intranet design visionaries must tear down their existing mental models and start putting the center back into user centered design.