Who sets the agenda for your intranet? 

This is one of the questions we were interested to find out when my company worked with Warwick Business School last year to look into intranet governance. As you might expect, the majority answer was "Internal Communications" (see the pie chart below). However, this answer masks some of the tensions that exist in a power tussle between departments, particularly with IT.


Who Holds the Purse Strings?

We surveyed 81 companies and interviewed eight in detail. One of the conclusions was that an independent intranet budget can smooth over many power conflicts. One interviewee spelled it out well:

“The person with the budget has the power basically .... If I see that a part of the business is creating something through an agency which is breaking all our guidelines and I tell them they cannot do it, they can claim it’s their money and can use it how they like. If I had the money and they had to come to me and to get approval for their requirements, then I could deal with the agency to deploy something that’s within our rules and guidelines.”

When the budget still sits within a particular department, it can be difficult to take a balanced approach to the needs of the whole organization. Another interview explained:

“The problem with IT having the budget for the intranet is that it shifts the power balance away from the business to the technology people, whose technology strategy and goals the intranet must then adopt.”

Not everyone agreed however, saying that it’s not always realistic to get a dedicated intranet budget, and that the team has to be grounded in a broader department. If the department can facilitate a vision and support from multiple leaders, then a balance can still be struck.

Power Struggle vs. Strategic Partners

The study reinforces a dilemma that many intranet managers experience: that it doesn’t sit comfortably within any single function because a good intranet covers so much of what an organization does (see also: What flavor is your intranet?).

A client once asked me if all internal comms (IC) teams have a difficult relationship with IT. Not all do, but it is surprisingly common. I’ve worked in both functions and can see how there can be innate tensions that coalesce around common ground, such as intranets.

My impression of what Corporate IT functions typically want to do (and I’m stereotyping here) is to:

  • Protect the systems: IT is often in the ‘dissatisfier’ category — nobody notices until things go wrong, and then everyone gives IT a hard time. So making sure email, networks and enterprise platforms don’t fail is a priority. Unfortunately this can lead to resistance to change, as every change carries risk
  • Reduce costs: IT is often seen as overhead, rather than strategic (as Nicholas Carr famously argued in IT Doesn’t Matter). This means companies often try to squeeze tremendous value out of IT departments that also have the threat of further outsourcing hanging over them. Both this point and the previous drive a desire to standardize around a particular vendor stack — such as Microsoft or IBM — in the hope that it simplifies integration
  • Try new stuff: Many people get into tech because they find it intrinsically interesting and they like the way it constantly evolves. So they’re looking for opportunities to try something new. Not everything IC wants will fit that category. I suspect this is why sometimes it feels like IT simultaneously tells IC they have no capacity to take on requests for something new, yet also seem to have the resources to launch things that nobody seems to have ever asked for

There’s probably something of a personality bias in the two functions too. Communicators that come from a PR or journalist background often thrive on a sense of urgency, enjoying deadlines and immediacy in what they do. IT pros are often more analytical, wanting time to explore the detail and put a plan in place.

As an exercise, I sometimes get IC to write down what it is they do that makes IT’s life harder. I get the IT team to answer the opposite about how they make IC’s life harder. Usually there’s a common theme about visibility of planning:

  • IC want technology implemented at what feels like short notice to IT. In the worst cases, when frustrated, they try to bypass standards and get new capabilities from a third party (the flipside of the power conflict I describe above)
  • IT are deeply involved in technology road maps, but sometimes leave the employee communication planning until late in the day because they have less of a sense of what is required to do it properly

This can result in the butting of heads, with IC saying, “We can’t wait six months to put a social network in place, we need it in a month” and IT saying, “You keep going on about social networks, but we never get clear requirements off you.” If left unchecked, this can create resentment between the teams.

In reality, both functions are often striving to be seen more as strategic partners. There’s scope to help each other, with IT providing scalable planning and Comms often being closer to leadership thinking. The best way to build bridges is to have the intranet governance in place that ensures strategic and operational governance teams have cross-functional representation, and meet often enough to give visibility of their plans. It’s a cliché, but many people need to have a say in the intranet agenda.

My thanks to Obianuju Eke, who conducted the research described in this post as part of her MSc at Warwick Business School.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  Me in ME