All told, it was a 30-month project that began with a request: Improve the intranet. So National Geographic did just that for its employees -- and got some international recognition in the process.

Nielsen Norman Group named the 126-year scientific and educational institution as the creator of one of the world's 10 best intranets in its 14th Annual Intranet Design Contest earlier this month.

This year's winning teams and their intranets are showcased in Nielsen Norman Group’s new 319-page report “Intranet Design Annual 2014: The Year’s 10 Best Intranets” (it costs $248 to download).

This week, CMSWire talked to Keelin Vaccaro, internal communications director at the National Geographic Society. Vaccaro led National Geographic’s complete redesign of its intranet, transforming the site from a static communications vehicle to an interactive, social site.

Active Use

Since the redesign, about 70 percent of the National Geographic staff uses the intranet at least twice a day to catch up on news or use resources such as the company directory. The company has around 1,500 full-time employees, but intranet use can go up to around 2,000 including freelancers and contractors.

social business, How One Organization Became One of the World's Best Intranets

More than two thirds of the employees have updated their directory profiles to add skills, interests and the all-important headshot — a great tool for skill-sharing within the organization and helping employees to connect, Vaccaro told CMSWire.

"When we last surveyed employees, 25 percent also said they were actively using NG Plus, a custom social collaboration tool embedded within the intranet," Vaccaro said. "In terms of adoption, this a good start and an area where we’d like to continue growing employee engagement in 2014."

It was about 18 months from the moment design work started to the go-live date. But the building blocks were set around 12 months earlier, Vaccaro said, when Nat Geo deployed strategic planning and discovery activities.

This followed a major employee engagement survey. One of the things employees asked for? A better intranet.

Nat Geo's senior management signed off on the recommendations from an employee volunteer group, which did some preliminary research into what a world-class intranet would take to design.

"Having this leadership support for the project put us on solid ground right from the start," Vaccaro told CMSWire. 

Agile Project Management

Agile simply refers to a way of approaching project management. It is an iterative process, more aligned to the plan-do-check-act cycle of business process improvement than the traditional waterfall or sequential form of project management. Rather than tackle the whole project at once, agile breaks it up into a series of sprints. It also incorporates brief daily meetings or "scrums" to go over immediate tasks and obstacles.

Vaccaro, Nat Geo's director of internal communications, was the business "product" owner. She worked closely with a "scrum team" — a component of agile project management — from Celerity's web and mobile consultancy on project planning, design and implementation.

The team also included key internal stakeholders representing almost every department at National Geographic, including the internal technology team that had a voice and stake in the planning. When it came to the visual design for the new intranet, National Geographic worked with DC-based design firm Baker & Hill.

Listen Closely

One of the keys for National Geographic in working its way toward an active, engaging intranet was listening to its employees. The survey was a big help.

"Find out what employees want and what will bring the most value to the most people at your organization," Vaccaro said. "Include employees from all areas of the organization in this exercise. Use this data, along with any existing research or analytics on usage, to try and figure out what’s working and what you might need to change or improve to encourage more usage of your intranet."

social business, How One Organization Became One of the World's Best Intranets

Organizational leaders should demonstrate the type of usage they'd like to see from all employees.

"Think about doing dedicated briefings for senior managers on how they can use your intranet and the benefits it can bring to the organization," Vaccaro said.

Ensure you have some "sticky" content that employees want or need to visit the intranet for -- content that never leaves its destination.

Learning Opportunities

"At National Geographic that means the employee directory, news and even the cafeteria menu," Vaccaro added. "When talking to employees about the intranet, really emphasize how it can help them rather than how it will add more tasks to their work day."

Worldly Praise 

The National Geographic intranet team relied on user research throughout the design and development process to ensure that the new site would meet user needs and be easy to use, said Amy Schade, director of the Nielsen Norman Group.

"They focused on details, like streamlining navigation through the use of Mega Menus that exposes the site structure and also highlights key content for users to make it even easier for users to find the information they need," Schade told CMSWire.

Encouraging employees to provide information on intranets can be tricky, Schade added, but the Nat Geo team made participation easy for employees.

"They offer a way for employees to import information from an existing LinkedIn profile to populate their employee profiles on the site," she said. "And the custom-built social tool is integrated into the site, and focused on taking the best elements of social tools available today, to change the way communication happens at the company, allowing employees to connect and collaborate in new and powerful ways." 

The incorporation of photographs from the organization's rich history -- i.e. a picture of the first American summit of Mount Everest -- reflects the organization's roots, Schade said, and helps create an experience that is uniquely appropriate for National Geographic. 

Intranet Benefits

So what's the pitch? Why invest intranet resources today when the pressure's on organizations to get messages out to clients and customers at just the right moment?

"A successful intranet can encourage community building, communication and collaboration across the organization," Vaccaro said. "It can also make the little things that matter that bit easier to do, like finding a colleague's phone number or the cafeteria menu quickly; or if you’re a new employee finding out what you should do on your first week and finding out about the organization's history and heritage, all of which can improve organizational productivity and employee engagement."

Nat Geo recently formed its first women’s network for employees. Within a matter of weeks of its launch, some 200 women from across the organization signed up.

"They use the group to share articles and information and to find out about network events," Vaccaro said.

What's in it for Me?

Since today’s employees receive an enormous amount of information by email, chat and other online collaboration tools, sending more email to convince them to use your intranet more often probably won’t get your message across, Vaccaro told CMSWire.

Instead, you need to up the WIFM factor -- that is, the "What’s in it for me" factor.

"Think of ways you can get your employees' attention and highlight the benefits of the intranet for them," she said. "A demo in the cafeteria or lunchroom, open clinics or, as we did at National Geographic, deliver each employee his own quick-start guide."

To encourage employees to update directory profiles, Nat Geo held a special event where staffers had their headshot taken by a professional photographer for free, with the trade-off being that they’d upload their glam new photo to their profile.

"Guess what?" Vaccaro asked. "It worked pretty well."

Speaking of photos, the title image shows the National Geographic intranet team (front row, left to right): Drew Engelson (Celerity), Megan Seldon (National Geographic), Keelin Vaccaro (National Geographic), Christy Solberg (National Geographic), Susana Esparza (Celerity), and Kenneth Yu (Celerity); (back row, left to right): Elisabeth Beller (Celerity), Russ Little (National Geographic), Beshoy Louka (Celerity), Mark Hill (Baker Hill), John Dymond (Celerity), Dan Baker (National Geographic), and Jason Kolaitis (Celerity).