Is anything rarer than an intranet that employees love? 

While I’m fully versed in the black swan model of how it’s impossible to prove a negative, this might be the exception.

All enterprise intranets and social networks have the same glaring flaw that technology cannot fix: search. Search not only doesn’t work, it can’t work without the active engagement of employees on intranets — which creates a Catch 22. 

Bad search discourages employees from engaging, and lack of employee engagement on an intranet fails to provide the content that search depends on. 

The Only Consistent Thing About Enterprise Search is Disappointment

My claim may not be based on qualitative research, but I’ve spent the majority of the last 20 years creating employee-facing content platforms. 

And without fail, all point to one glaring flaw. In each and every context, whether as a consultant or an employee, all anecdotal stories and formal research projects lead back to “search doesn’t work.”

I’ve spoken a bit about this problem from the knowledge management perspective:

    Ask anyone who has a history managing an intranet why their internal search functionality is not as good as Google and you'll see them wince. The playing field is just not fair (if you doubt me, ask yourself why Google appliances don't dominate the internal search marketplace to the point of monopoly). 
    Google's algorithms depend on contextual assumptions that only apply in the internet — enormous scale, voluntary cross linking and referencing, and an entire industry devoted to indexing, scraping, tagging and SEO. Since none of these are present inside the walled gardens of internal content stores, the best technology for finding relevant content just doesn't apply here (at least not as people envision it).

The downward spiral of expectations and behavior has been the hardest thing to accept with enterprise search. 

Even with auto-tagging solutions applied to content, search engines have been unable to raise relevance within results high enough to meet either employee or executive expectations 

Disappointment becomes disaffection in a heartbeat. Disaffected employees natural response is to stand up their own siloed content stores that meet their specific need, thus splintering the value of the intranet. 

This is where the cycle starts to repeat itself:

cycle of enterprise search disappointment

It Comes Down to Organizational Priorities

While it’s true that nobody sets out to create a horrible intranet experience, it’s equally true that enterprises have intentionally institutionalized metrics that favor short-term dollars over long-term employee productivity. This throws sand in the gears of what it would take to pull an intranet out of the downward spiral of dwindling engagement.

Why does an enterprise prioritization model that indexes on short term gain impact intranet engagement? 

This is where it gets messy. 

Here’s how the conversation goes between an individual contributor who sees no reason to contribute to an intranet and a leader who sees the larger context referred to in the above diagram:

    Individual contributor: Our agile team just solved that major technical problem we uncovered last week. It was a bear, but we got through it.

    Leader: Great! Did you document it, so that people understand the problem and solution next time it happens?

    Individual contributor: Not any more than our communications between teams. What’s the point? Nobody can find anything on the intranet anyway. It’s like dumping knowledge into a black hole. People only use it for links to other employee systems.

    Leader: I understand why it feels like that. Do you get that “non contributing” teams are the actual reason that search doesn’t work on the intranet? It needs lots of content and lots of users for it to do it’s job well.

    Individual contributor: Maybe so, but me contributing this one artifact won’t have any effect on that problem and I’ve got other work to do that aligned with corporate goals and I’m consistently working between 50 and 60 hours a week.

This conversation encapsulates the enterprise engagement problem perfectly. 

While it may be true that enterprises have long-term investments designed to improve productivity and quality at play, it is also true that these efforts are very often treated as noise compared to revenue-generating activities. 

Learning Opportunities

People who attempt to gain support for making better employee tools and experiences face an uphill battle much steeper than those going after near term revenue.

Flip the Search Model on Its Head

Is it possible to turn the whole thing upside down? Can we drive engagement to drive search rather than drive search to drive engagement? 

I haven’t seen or heard anyone trying this, but I’ve talked with a few employee experience professionals and they are all willing to give it a go. How far you take it depends on how you prioritize having a more productive and meaningfully engaged workforce along with the current level of disaffection in your key staff segments. 

Here are a couple of options to get you started, ranging from measured to crazy:

Content to Reward Integration 

More than a few rewards and recognition apps (e.g.,, kudos, etc.) are available where employees can thank each other for jobs well done. I haven’t seen them fully integrated into intranet and ESN content. 

Imagine being able to thank your colleagues with more than a “like” and something more substantive than a game badge. With the right budget strategy and some cool rewards behind it, teams can begin to reward each other not just for solving problems today, but also for helping solve them in sustainable ways by working out loud.

Right-Sized Rewards

How hard would it be to take the intranet gamification metrics and apply formal bonuses to them (in either prize or cash format) outside of the existing compensation system? 

It might seem like bribery at first glance, but so does any other bonus mechanism. Even Dan Pink, author of Drive, would admit that intrinsic motivation without any incentive and reward structure is not likely to change the tide of a disaffected work force.

Pay for Performance

It’s only a matter of time before one of the SaaS intranet/ESN providers offers a “guaranteed engagement pricing model” where their subscription cost is complemented by an “employee engagement factor.” If Jive or Microsoft or Salesforce or Google wanted to, they could find ways to compensate and reward employees for the contributions to the intranet that would complete the search ecosystem.

If the pay for performance model seems completely ridiculous to you, consider if it is any more ridiculous than:

  • companies opening up their data for free as a competitive edge (e.g., open APIs)
  • companies and government institutions putting their most critical applications and data in the hands of third parties (e.g., the cloud)
  • companies paying hackers to break their systems (e.g., white hat hackathons)

The fundamentals of getting the knowledge-driven enterprise to share and collaborate haven’t changed substantially since intranets and content/document management first arrived on the scene. Isn’t it time we tried something just a little bit crazy? 

Title image "Handstand!" (CC BY 2.0) by josephleenovak

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