flippers sticking out of the water as a person dives
PHOTO: Stella Ribeiro

Internal communicators have played a key role in intranets for a long time now, and in many cases they’re expected to be the business owner for the site as a whole. Despite this, many teams are increasingly frustrated with the very limited and technologically primitive tools they’re provided for meeting their core business goal: delivering internal communications.

This frustration is leading a growing number of teams to abandon the intranet as the primary channel for internal communications. Instead, they’re using one of the communications-specific tools now available, or even going back to email.

As someone who's helped lead the intranet space for two decades, I say to internal communications teams: don’t abandon the intranet (yet!). To IT and the wider business, I say: if you don’t take internal communications seriously and help provide modern tools to make it happen, you’re going to see the digital workplace splinter into even more channels.

Growing Frustration With Intranets

While some intranets have come along in leaps and bounds by exploiting the capabilities of new platforms, many are languishing in a state that’s little different than a decade ago. This has negative impacts across every aspect of intranets, but it’s a particular source of frustration for internal communications teams.

Frustrations include:

  • Extremely basic intranet news functionality, lacking features such as streaming video, commenting on news or a news archive.
  • Limited and often ugly presentation of news on the intranet.
  • No way of ensuring that intranet news reaches all staff, including no mobile or BYOD capabilities.
  • Platform licenses only purchased for part of the staff, with many field and frontline staff still unable to even access the intranet.
  • Inability to target news in a refined and fine-grained way, impacting the relevance of news items.
  • No mechanism to meaningfully measure the readership and impact of intranet news.
  • No clear alignment between the intranet and the growing number of collaboration tools, leading to the creation of a plethora of local news areas.

Most of all, many internal communications teams feel frustrated that they don’t have a meaningful seat at the table when planning is being done, even though they’re still expected to be the business owners of the intranet.

As a result of this, some teams have given up waiting and are taking matters into their own hands. Abandoning the idea of the intranet as the primary comms channel, they’re creating their own solutions.

Related Article: Why It's Time to Update Your Legacy SharePoint Intranet

Keeping Frontline Staff in the Loop

The inability to deliver news to frontline and field staff is particularly frustrating for internal comms teams. In some cases, the result is lack of communications with two-thirds of the staff, even though they’re the ones providing the organization's core business.

This is also seen as the least likely problem to be solved in the short term, as it requires fundamentals to be addressed, such as platform licenses for frontline staff and support for BYOD. These issues fall in the domain of IT, and in many cases they’re not on the technology roadmap for the next one to two years.

A growing market of tools designed specifically to enable internal communicators to reach frontline staff has emerged as a result. These include SocialChorus, StaffBase and others.

These tools offer a natively mobile experience for staff, a rich news experience, and two-way communications. They also allow staff to be connected even when they don’t have email accounts or Active Directory entries.

While these are nice tools in their own right, they do lead to a fault line in internal communicators, with desktop-using staff still using the intranet, while mobile staff are provided a completely different experience.  Limited integration between the two platforms leads to further increasing fragmentation.

Related Article: Frontline Workers: The Untapped Knowledge Workers in Your Midst

Communicating Through Social Tools

Collaboration and social tools have long offered a channel for internal communicators — this was one of the primary selling points for products like Yammer. With even richer tools now available, such as Workplace by Facebook and Microsoft Teams, is it time to move internal communications completely into these tools?

These products are inherently more engaging than traditional intranets, and offer an attractive alternative for senior leader engagement. With intranets still limping along, some teams are putting most or all of their efforts into these tools, letting the intranet wither away.

The problem with this approach is internal communicators still need to reach all staff, and uptake of collaboration tools often falls far short of this. Without a clear strategy for driving adoption of collaboration tools, comms teams are left with additional channels, rather than a clear replacement for existing intranet news.

Related Article: Turn Your Enterprise Social Network Into an Innovation Pipeline

Email to the Rescue???

Most organizations share the long-held goal of reducing the volume of internal email, so it may come as a surprise to hear that internal communicators are shifting back to email as the primary communications channel.

Taking an attitude of “if you can’t beat it, join it," internal communications teams are giving up the fight with email, and accepting it’s still the de-facto news channel. This often takes the form of new email newsletters, delivered in rich email messages, or even as PDF attachments.

Delivering a full experience in email is hard, however. Some teams are using email marketing tools such as Mailchimp or Campaign Monitor, so they can gain stats on open and read rates. Internal videos may be hosted on Vimeo or YouTube, and linked to from email messages.

Needless to say, all of this is clunky at best even with workarounds, and the future success of email is still doubtful.

Related Article: Why Email Persists in the Workplace

Delivering Real News

Internal communications teams are right to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure news reaches all staff in a timely, relevant and engaging way. So it's up to IT teams to deliver a strong platform to better meet these needs. This means addressing core platform issues, such as inadequate Active Directory details, end user licenses for all staff, and universal mobile access. It also requires a fully-featured intranet news experience, underpinned by a modern intranet product.

The broader business also needs to acknowledge that internal communications needs adequate resources and support. This means involving internal comms teams in decision-making processes and ensuring their needs are meaningfully addressed.

At the end of the day, the further fragmentation of internal communications benefits no one. Leaders' confidence in every new news channel shrinks, leading them to further spam every channel. Staff are left in the dark, feeling like they’re not up-to-date with what’s happening in the organization, further impacting staff engagement. Internal comms teams are frustrated, with no clear path forward.

So please, internal communications teams, give the intranet another chance. And to the business, take internal comms seriously, and deliver an intranet news experience that positions everyone for success.