I often catch the train to work and it’s depressing to see the perennial look of gloom on the commuter faces each morning. Work is this huge chore that must be endured, Mondays are the worst day of the week, the weekend cannot come quickly enough and retirement is the holy grail that we all work towards.

There must be a better way. After all, almost a third of our waking lives is spent working. That's a lot of time being miserable.

And I think that’s where intranets can play a role -- they have an immense and untapped potential to help people obtain a greater sense of meaning & control over their work lives. But before I go on about the benefits of intranets, it’s worth looking at some of the research about what affects our satisfaction with work.

The Sisyphusian Condition

Research about the meaning of labor by best selling author Dan Ariely has shown that when the meaning of a task is reduced, people’s effectiveness and motivation is also significantly reduced.

There is even a name for it -- the Sisyphusian condition (named after Sisyphus, who was a king of Corinth and was punished by the Gods for chronic deceitfulness by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down and to repeat this action forever).

So essentially, the research is saying that when people feel their work is not of value, they lose motivation.

In the workplace, the Sisyphusian condition can take many guises including:

  • The dreaded "silo" condition -- where people in different departments fail to communicate and share information effectively, resulting in inefficiencies and duplication of work effort.
  • The "that’s the way we've always done it" phenomenon -- where pointless tasks are done repeatedly because "that’s the way it’s always been done around here."
  • Great ideas that never get implemented -- related to the TTWWADI phenomenon, someone comes up with a great time saver, a new way to win customers, a new process ... but it fails to gain any traction and never gets implemented across the organization because systems aren't in place to support effective change.
  • The 100 page Word document -- which takes a long time to write, looks impressive but nobody reads, is never updated and is pretty soon out-of-date.
  • Searching for information -- research suggests that knowledge workers can spend up to 25% of their time aimlessly searching around for information (and when they do eventually find it, it’s either out-of-date or wrong).
  • Unclear roles and responsibilities -- closely related to "the silo condition," similar tasks are being done by different people without any apparent awareness that someone else is doing almost the same thing.

An example of the Sisyphusian condition can be found the 1967 classic Paul Newman movie, Cool Hand Luke. In this movie, Luke (Paul Newman) is in prison because of a minor traffic offense. In one of the scenes, the prison captain is trying to break the rebellious Luke's spirit.

He does this by getting him to dig a big hole in the ground. Then he gets him to fill in the hole with the dirt, take the dirt out again and repeat the process ... So despite being busy and working hard, Luke is making no progress.

After many hours, demoralised and exhausted, his spirit is broken and he collapses in the hole and begs God for mercy (see the ditch digging scene).

I think about this scene whenever I feel myself doing pointless tasks -- "digging the ditch" I call it.

What Really Motivates People?

“Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives” says Daniel Pink author of the best-selling book, Drive.

He goes on to say that the three main factors that motivate people, once money is off the table, are a sense of purpose, autonomy and mastery.

A sense of purpose is where people feel that what they are doing is important. As Pink says “The most deeply motivated people -- not to mention those who are most productive and satisfied -- hitch their desires to a cause larger than themselves."

Supporting this idea of purpose as a motivator is Jessica Livingstone. In her book about successful technology startups, Founders at Work she says “Successful startup founders typically get rich from the process, but the ones I interviewed weren’t in it just for the money. They had a lot of pride in craftsmanship. And they wanted to change the world.”

Autonomy is the freedom for people to work how, where and through whatever structures they choose. The traditional aim of management is "compliance" but research has shown that real value comes when employees are "engaged." And engagement comes from giving people greater autonomy over their working lives.

Mastery refers to the intrinsic motivation people have to be good at something. It’s why they spend countless hours learning musical instruments or a new language or practicing sports with little tangible reward. To obtain mastery, people need regular feedback.

See the video "The surprising truth about what motivates us" for more interesting insights from Dan Pink.

The Most Significant Factor in Workplace Engagement

Research has shown that perhaps the single biggest factor that gives people the most benefit at work is the autonomy and flexibility to work from anywhere.

Wayne Clarke, the Managing Partner of Best Companies and an international expert on employee engagement, believes in a strong link between the ability to work flexibly and an engaged employee.

We did some specific work looking at the effect of flexible benefits on employee engagement. We looked at everything from health club memberships to profit-related pay to crèche schemes for kids. The only benefit we found that seemed to affect engagement scores was flexible working …”

More than 100 studies have confirmed the connection between employee engagement and performance, but the Towers Watson 2012 Global Workforce Study -- 32,000 employees across 30 countries -- makes the most powerful, bottom line case yet for the connection between how we feel at work and how we perform.

The research concludes that

organizations must create policies and practices that make it possible for employees to better manage their workload, live more balanced lives and exercise greater autonomy around how, when, and where they get their work done. Policies focused on flexibility and working remotely contribute to a more energized workplace."

So How can Intranets Help?

Looking at this research about what motivates people, some consistent themes appear -- autonomy, meaning, flexibility, connectedness and mastery.

Intranets can significantly contribute towards addressing all of these themes, and in the process, become the business critical workplace that all intranet professionals dream about.

An intranet has the potential to support these goals in many ways including:

  • Providing people with the access to the tools and information they need to do their jobs from anywhere at anytime, including off-site and mobile access.
  • Providing a mechanism that enables the collective skills and talents of the entire organization to be harnessed to identify and quickly implement good ideas and improvements across the organization.
  • Forging stronger relationships between all parts of the organization (and related third parties as well) to enable people to more deeply understand the informational requirements between roles and departments -- ie. the contextual integration of business tasks.
  • Being the "glue" that binds all the different organizational informational elements (eg. discussion forums, news, policies, web pages, procedures, forms, applications, reports, lists, collaboration sites) into a meaningful and accessible context.
  • Communicating a shared sense of purpose and meaning through stories.
  • Making it easier to find the information people need to do their jobs, using task based navigation and contextual integration.
  • Providing online training and feedback about work performance (at the organizational, team and individual levels).


While I still believe intranets haven’t made much progress over the last five to 10 years and still have a long way to go deliver the kind of benefits I’ve listed here, the day will eventually come when intranets will be the business critical workplace.

And I'm not alone in this belief. Two of the world's most respected organizations, Deloitte and the McKinsey Global Institute, have both recently published research reports that talk about the massive productivity gains that can be obtained through enterprise social technologies.

However, for these gains to happen, there needs to be a fundamental and radical shift from the perception of the intranet as an internal communications platform. Instead, it needs to be seen as an enabler of innovation, continuous improvement, task completion, connectedness and employee motivation.

While internal communications can and will play a critical supporting role in each of these areas, it should not be the raison d'être for intranets.

Organizations that can reach this new way of working first will obtain a significant, if not insurmountable, advantage over their less adventurous competitors.

The road scene from Cool Hand Luke

There is another key scene in Cool Hand Luke. The prisoners are putting tar on a road. Luke is again working hard but this time he is making progress. The road is getting built. The other prisoners are motivated by Luke's energy, follow his lead and begin working faster as well. Pretty soon the road is finished, two hours ahead of schedule (see the road scene from Cool Hand Luke).

This is how organizations can be -- facilitating real and meaningful progress through improvements -- both small and large -- everyone working together in the same direction towards a common goal.

Editor's Note: To read more of Andrew's thoughts on the state of the intranets, check out If Your Intranet Offers Good Value, Your Employees Will Use It