James Robertson got his start as a "proper geek, writing software" back in the '90s. 

But somewhere along the line he saw how organizations needed "practical and pragmatic advice" on how to navigate the demands of the modern workplace. 

Writing the Book on Intranets

Robertson founded Step Two in 1996 based on this need and morphed the company into a pure consultancy in 2000. Step Two prides itself on its vendor-neutral, independent status, firmly believing there is no "one size fits all" solution for intranets or digital workplaces.

An active speaker, teacher and writer in the field of intranet and digital workplace design, Robertson's publications include "Essential Intranets: Inspiring Sites that Deliver Business Value," "Designing Intranets: Creating Sites that Work," "What Every Intranet Team Should Know" as well as a monthly column on CMSWire.

Robertson will be speaking twice at CMSWire and Digital Workplace Group's Digital Workplace Experience taking place June 19 through 21 at the Radisson Blu Aqua hotel in Chicago. He will lead a workshop June 19 on "How to Plan Your Social Collaboration Project" and a session titled, "Creating a Powerful Enterprise Front Door to the Digital Workplace" the next day. 

We caught up with Robertson to hear a little more about how the field has changed over the years, what challenges still trouble organizations and what lies at the heart of the digital workplace. 

Great Digital Workplace Strategy Starts 'With a Bang'

CMSWire: You’ve been working in the intranet space for over 20 years. In what ways is the landscape different today and in what ways is it the same?

Robertson: Collectively, we've made slow progress on solving some of the basic challenges, such as keeping content up-to-date, finding sufficient intranet resources and demonstrating the strategic value of intranets.

That being said, the big difference over the last two decades are the people. Intranet folk are tremendously more informed and better skilled than they used to be. Your typical intranet team (or person) knows a useful amount about content, user experience, communication and technology.

This means that teams are more ready than ever to deliver great intranet (and digital workplace) solutions for their organizations.

CMSWire: Some argue that intranets have become obsolete in the face of the many collaboration tools now available. You disagree. What purpose do you see intranets serving in the modern digital workplace?

Robertson: Digital workplaces take a holistic view of the entire experience that's delivered to staff. This enables a much more powerful vision and strategy to be determined and executed.

Within the digital workplace, intranets become even more important, not less. They must serve as a strong 'enterprise front door' that provides simplicity to staff, even as the number of tools proliferate.

And while we must do much, much more on collaboration, this doesn't make content and communication obsolete. Instead, all of these aspects must work together as a seamless whole.

CMSWire: What are the elements of a successful intranet strategy?

Robertson: A vision outlines the final destination, and why it's important (the 'what'). A great strategy clearly outlines how we're going to get there, in practical terms (the 'how').

It's then vitally important that every phase or stage delivers strong business benefits, even from the outset. Too many strategies start with 'below the waterline' activities, such as changing the technology platform, or cleaning up content. 

A great strategy starts with a bang. It doesn't have to be a big bang, but it does need to deliver highly visible outcomes that the organization cares about. Senior leaders will only then sign off on phase two and beyond.

Learning Opportunities

CMSWire: Name some common missteps organizations take when trying to launch a digital workplace. What are some best practices?

Robertson: There's a danger that intranet projects are simply being rebranded as digital workplaces, without delivering anything substantively different. This creates a huge missed opportunity.

Great digital workplaces must by driven by the right conversations, with the right people around the table. Comms, IT, HR, facilities and the business all have a stake in the digital workplace.

So while no one project will magically deliver the perfect outcome, the first project must clearly show how the digital workplace can be greater than the sum of its parts. It must generate an 'ah-ha!' moment for staff and stakeholders alike, laying the groundwork for more great stuff to come.

CMSWire: What role do you think employee experience plays in the success or failure of a digital workplace?

Robertson: The digital workplace isn't a 'thing' or a technology. Instead, employee experience is both the face and heart of the digital workplace.

Only by starting 'at the glass' and working back can a great digital workplace be delivered. This allows teams to step up a level from individual tools and systems, and to start designing seamless, productivity experiences for staff.

CMSWire: You are a community leader for the Australian natural beekeeping community. Tell us something about bees that most people wouldn’t know.

Robertson: Beekeeping is endlessly fascinating, because the 'animal' isn't the individual bee, it's the bee hive as a whole (in the same way that our body is made up of individual cells).

This means that hives have clear personalities, with some gentle, others more angry. The hive also reacts in incredibly complex ways to their environment, such as maintaining exactly the same interior temperature, regardless of it being summer or winter.

Like intranets and digital workplaces, there's a lifetime of experience to be gained in how to manage bees!

Editor's note: Learn more about the Digital Workplace Experience here. Early bird pricing is available until May 1. Register today.