Digital Workplace Leader Karen Downs of H&R Block

Karen Downs has always been fascinated by human behavior and finding solutions to complex problems. She has tackled both of these challenges on a regular basis in the near-two decades she’s spent leading intranet and knowledge management teams in identifying and resolving digital workplace issues.

“I love that when we get it ‘right,’ the day-to-day work lives of 100,000 associates gets better,” Downs said. “There’s less frustration, improved productivity, positive corporate culture, etc. I just get such a kick out of that.”

Downs is currently intranet program manager at tax services provider H&R Block, a position she’s held since September 2015. She has previously worked at both Sprint and at American Century in similar roles. She originally majored in psychology while working in customer service at American Century. “My original plan was to become a counselor — and I am still a counselor at heart,” she said. “I took what I learned about measuring human behavior and applied it to continual improvement as a strategy for leading intranet teams.”

Demonstrate True Business Value

Being able to demonstrate true business value for intranet programs is key to gaining sufficient funding to support an initiative's success — because intranets themselves are not revenue-generating.

“Traditional business case-making alone — even great business cases with a very positive ROI — rarely win a signature on a check,” Downs said. “What does work is carefully listening to the needs of a funded business channel and aligning the needs of the intranet program against the business outcomes they are looking for.”

Downs will be speaking at CMSWire and Digital Workplace Group’s Digital Workplace Experience taking place June 18 to 20 at the Radisson Blu Aqua hotel in Chicago. She will give two presentations at the conference: a workshop titled “Fix Your Content. Really” on June 18 and a session titled “Building a Better Search” on June 19.

We spoke with Downs to get her take on the promise of emerging technologies, the role of metrics in monitoring intranet success and for lessons learned from H&R Block’s DNA intranet.

Establish a Baseline for Comparison Before Doing Anything Else

CMSWire: How have you seen collaboration and communication technologies evolve over the years? What’s the major challenge organizations face today?

Downs: We are at a place now where the technologies to administer various digital workplace strategies are popping up all over the place.

Need a new collaboration tool? A new form building tool? A new social sharing tool? Several varieties are now in-house for “free.” In other words, the vendors tend to just throw the tool in as a value-add when you’re buying, for instance, a new security solution or a new workforce management solution.

The big challenge is staying ahead of these technologies with enough governance so that they don’t hollow out important communication channels, but not so much governance that it becomes expensive to administer or inhibits progress with getting work done.

CMSWire: Which emerging technologies do you think will potentially have the most impact on the digital workplace? What do you see as their likely benefits?

Downs: I think there are three huge opportunities to “connect” a digital workplace:

  • Enterprise search: The ability for a single search engine — with scoping ability turned on — to “see” into multiple content repositories within an organization.
  • Enterprise profile: The ability to pull unique associate profile details from multiple systems into a single user interface that includes the ability for users to edit user-generated content such as an image, skills or brief bio.
  • Enterprise services: The ability for the central intranet to serve up high-frequency content or capabilities without having to launch a separate application to access that content or capability.

CMSWire: How has the H&R Block intranet, DNA, evolved over the years in terms of its functionality and scope? What’s next for DNA’s development?

Downs: DNA is on a long-term incremental improvement plan. Over the past few years, we have put a lot of work into improving content, search, dashboards for various employee reports and establishing a baseline capability for personalization, mobility, social features and analytics.

Over the next two years, we will continue to evaluate user feedback and business needs to help prioritize ongoing improvements in content management, user personalization/customization, improved associate profiles, integrated social features, mobile-specific experiences and a new multi-media library.

But the bigger value comes in as we figure out enterprise search, enterprise profile and enterprise services — that’s where I want to spend a disproportionate amount of my time.

CMSWire: How did you decide on the nine distinct profile views within the single DNA portal? What advice do you have for other organizations in how to define different intranet experiences to meet the needs of different employees?

Downs: So far, decisions about our profiles have been largely driven by our news strategy, i.e., what kinds of messages need to be targeted to what kinds of groups?

But compromises get made when we face the reality of legacy systems or the practicality of developing unique content for multiple groups or supporting more permutations of what might be on each unique user’s screen.

So we make our best bets based on all of the data. Then we monitor feedback and analytics, work closely with technology and support and business teams — and then, adjust as needed.

We get questions every year challenging whether we might need to build another profile, and I don’t know that I have any straightforward advice on how best to manage that. It’s messy.

Decisions about content targeting are super complex. It’s more about art than science — balancing user needs, communicator needs, support team needs and system limitations for what can be done at what cost.

CMSWire: In your opinion, what are the most important metrics for organizations to monitor in regard to intranet success and usage?

Downs: First, establish a baseline before you do anything else. I like to use the Worldwide Intranet Challenge (WIC) because it gives me the opportunity to see not only what our own associates think about the digital workplace, but also how their opinions compare with associates at other companies. This is invaluable for creating the dialogue needed to drive toward consensus and to prioritize limited resources.

Second, I would say to capture search feedback. You need to know two things at the time someone can’t find something: 1) What content they were hoping to find, and 2) What words they typed into the search engine. Once you track those things for a few weeks, you can identify trends that will help you isolate targeted improvement opportunities that will have a measurable positive impact.

Third and most important is having a great web analytics program in place, coupled with a strategy to review the data often.

Beyond that, make sure you follow up with business partners six months to one year after you implemented something on their behalf, for instance, a new form or a new report or a new page. Find out what value that implementation brought to their part of the business, i.e., reduced calls to a technical support team, improved workflow, reduced frustration for frontline associates, etc.

The only way to quantify this kind of stuff is by talking to those business leaders about the impact that you had on their business.

CMSWire: What lessons has H&R Block learned about the importance of intranet measurement and of sharing those findings across the organization?

Downs: I take time out each year to review digital workplace performance with senior executives and to do an annual showcase of capabilities with business owners.

We put a lot of resource into maintaining DNA, so it is important that everyone has visibility into how business benefits have been achieved. We can share future plans and make sure we are aligned with corporate strategy.

Our annual showcase is for all of our internal business partners. This is an opportunity for the technical team to show off their work, and for business owners to see what kinds of things the intranet is doing for similar programs around the company.

CMSWire: Do you have a favorite mantra which you find particularly inspiring? If so, what is it and why does it resonate with you in your day-to-day work?

Downs: Here is a favorite quote from [president of High Point University, businessman and motivational speaker] Dr. Nido Qubein: “Your present circumstances don’t determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start.”

So many times, I’ve talked with digital communications leaders who are feeling down or embarrassed about the state of their corporate intranet. Maybe your company has had a lack of funding, a lack of interest or a lack of attention paid to a non-revenue-generating resource.

But intranet management is really a continual improvement journey. It’s about having the ability to isolate and prioritize specific issues and having the patience to find creative solutions that fit your available resources of time, talent and budget.

Learn more about the Digital Workplace Experience here.