In 1996, days before my 23rd birthday, I started working on a project at a telecoms company in Bristol. I was a general dogsbody for a projects team in customer services and some bright spark had decided to replace the flip books that call agents kept all their product information in. It was new, it was cutting edge: it was an intranet.
All these years’ later, the general concept of providing information and applications using a web browser hasn’t changed much. And ever since that project I have identified myself as an “intranet professional,” and in the last nine years or so as an “intranet and digital workplace professional.” It has paid for rent, food, cars, sofas, mortgages, weddings and children. It reliably provides as a career. However, a couple of years ago I was at a Christmas party at a friend’s house when a mutual friend, Rachel, asked a question I always dread: “What do you do for a living?”
Rachel is a masseuse and has never worked in an office. She has never seen an intranet. After 20 minutes of unsuccessfully trying to explain what my job involves, I came away from the conversation as confused as her and doubting I did anything useful at all.
If I were a lawyer, a doctor or a carpenter I wouldn’t need to explain anything. If I were a programmer, a graphic designer or worked in advertising, a little bit of explanation would suffice. But an intranet and digital workplace consultant?
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A Confluence of Practices
Why is it so hard to explain what we do? When does a series of practices become a profession? Intranet and digital workplace has always been at the crossing point of other professions. Currently, the four most important are content and communications; social and collaboration; user experience; and IT. These are well-defined professions. To successfully deliver and maintain intranet or digital workplace projects, bringing a mixture of these skills and practices should mostly do it.
Humans rarely acknowledge when new fields are required, but to successfully deliver intranets or digital workplaces well, you need specialists who can bridge the gaps between these disciplines. So let us imagine some distinct specialist skills lie between these four main groups.
But if certain skills are required, does that make it a profession? Giving people injections doesn’t make someone a doctor: nurses, diabetics and even heroin addicts are adept. Doing a tax return doesn’t make you an accountant. Changing a plug doesn’t make you an electrician. Professionals from the four domains are regularly required to put on a digital workplace hat for a while for the good of the project.
So these domains are defined by the skills that are required, but not exclusively. They are porous.
Related Article: What a Digital Workplace Is and What it Isn't
Mapping the Skills of the Intranet–Digital Workplace Domain
We at Spark Trajectory have mapped out 45 key skills for these five domains as a way of helping define this space and aid conversations between practitioners. We have defined each skill in three degrees of proficiency: apprentice, practitioner and master. With this piece and the follow-up article, we will describe how organizations can use the skills matrix to develop both ideas and people. It is free to use and open source, and if you disagree with our take on things (we are not “masters” in everything, for sure) you can contribute back into the project.
The Spark Trajectory skills matrix covers the five domains already described. We have limited the number of distinct skills to nine per domain. Intranet and digital workplace is at the center, not because we believe we are so pivotal to the universe, but because we are viewing this from our particular perspective. The lines around the intranet and digital workplace domain and the other four domains are dashed representing how porous these divisions are and how frequently these boundaries are crossed. The four other domains remain open at one side indicating these skill sets are by no means complete.
We haven’t included any “everyone” skills. Everyone needs good interpersonal communication and presentation skills. Every line manager needs people management skills. If everyone in any role in any industry would need it, it doesn’t differentiate. We also haven’t included product or organizational-specific knowledge, both of which may be invaluable: Knowing Office 365 and the company you work for inside-out may be highly useful.
For each of the 45 skills we have documented three levels of increasing competency beyond that of a lay-person:
- Apprentice: Limited but increasing capabilities based on learning and on-the-job experience, but guidance and mentoring is required to fulfill potential.
- Practitioner: Good professional capabilities sufficient for many circumstances and roles. Able to guide and mentor apprentices.
- Master: Abilities that are the best in the professional field, gained from significant experience. Able to teach and guide others in their development.
The best way to consider your skill level is by pinpointing which level you’d be “comfortable” in if you were asked to complete a task using the skills. If it would make you anxious, some growth is required. If it would make you bored, you’ve outgrown that level.
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The Red Queen’s Race
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.”
The Queen of Hearts in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
We posit that the skills in each of these domains are always changing and the intranet and digital workplace domain changes pretty much constantly. Our raw materials for work are digital technologies in a state of market competition. Tasks we used to have to accomplish — such as hand-code HTML and FTP files around or design, build and test content management systems from scratch — no longer apply. Products in the market no longer require these skills. They are replaced by other new practices as the technology environment, and people’s expectations dictate.
So, like the Red Queen we must run hard to stay in one place. We are on a treadmill of change and the problem with a treadmill is it really doesn’t care if you want to stop running!
Essential Characteristics of the Intranet–Digital Workplace Profession
So at the moment we sense teams and practitioners need to successfully navigate a variety of skills in the intranet and digital workplace domain. As you can see, it centers on strategy, governance and measurement, as well as specific aspects of management practice that aren’t being picked up holistically elsewhere.
But let’s look beyond this for a moment. As the Red Queen dictates, this is a snapshot in time. If we imagine these skills in the crossroad have always been changing and will change again, what are the essential characteristics of this profession?
- Making sense: We make sense of the complexity in our organizations and look for patterns.
- Making cases: We argue for change that will bring wide-scale benefits, with often soft or complex benefits.
- Taking care: We make sure care is taken over things where colleagues have a tendency to be careless.
- Making things happen: We bring energy to conversations and projects so things are set in motion.
- Bringing people together: We facilitate conversations that might otherwise not happen.
- Bridging the gap: We notice where processes and relationships have holes and we fill them.
- Showing the way: We help to lead our organizations into change and into the future.
These aspects are often hidden. These details are often not considered or thought of in advance. They are the unplanned, unbudgeted problems usually blamed on bad luck, poor communication or people problems. However after two or three projects people realize, by experience, that in the non-linear world of how large organizations behave, these factors must be actively managed.
These skills are glue and filler and duct-tape and putty helping holding the other practices together for long enough to make the actual product, the intranet or digital workplace (or whatever), viable.
However, we must resist being defined by the products we use to achieve a certain objective. We are not SharePoint people, or Workplace by Facebook people or Office 365 people. No more than writers are “Microsoft Word people,” financial analysts are “spreadsheet people,” or sales people are “Salesforce people.”
Related Article: Is Your Intranet Lost in the Fog?
Being Hard to Define Is a Feature, Not a Bug
With a long enough view, the skills will change and we will change with them. The skills matrix has been designed to be porous and malleable. It is intended to be open and evolving.
And what of the few of us who claim to be professionals within that intranet and digital workplace domain? Well it turns out, to my mind at least, that explaining what I do for a living is hard, not because we don’t exist, and not because we don’t do anything useful, but because being hard to define is a feature and not a bug.
If we are constantly open to change in pursuit of our goal, we are forever picking up the new skills we need. The alternative is stasis and ossification and ultimately not being of use to anybody. So let us reject that outdated 20th century view of what a profession should be and instead look to personal reinvention: constantly renewing and refreshing what we do and who we are.