holding head in hand
PHOTO: Alexander Dummer

I saw my first intranets around 1997. They suffered from terrible governance, zero management interest, resulting in an aimlessness and purposelessness. Usability was appalling, tools were like torture instruments. And the content? If content rotted and smelled as it got older, then most intranets back then would have been shut down as a health hazard.

Around 2000, there were signs of positive change, as the IT department handed over responsibility to Communications. Internal Comms can be a bit of a propaganda unit, but at least comms professionals have some semblance of an idea that employees are human. As humans, they should therefore have basic human rights, such as the right to do your job without being tortured by an IT tool, disorientated by insane navigation, or poisoned by crappy content. Most comms people I worked with tried to make the intranet at least bearable.

For many years, Kurt Kragh Sørensen and his company, IntraTeam, have done excellent work in Denmark in encouraging best practice for intranets. I chatted with Kurt recently and he was a bit down. IT was taking back control of the intranet, according to Kurt, and when management thought of the intranet it was as a cost-saving tool, rather than a value-delivering one.

“Ninety percent of intranets fail before three years,” a Simpplr Research study found in 2019. “Intranet Design is almost universally terrible,” Paul Boag wrote in the same year. The Simpplr research found the exact same reasons for failure as I found in 1997: lack of real understanding and engagement from management, resulting in the intranet being an expensive dumping ground for crap tools and crap content.

“The greatest theme this year was the desire to build a platform that included all teams, individuals and tools,” the Nielsen Norman Group’s Intranet Design Annual 2020 states. These are noble and necessary objectives, yet I remember the very same themes and objectives being set back in 2000.

Why so little progress? Why are there signs that intranets are in fact going backwards?

Because of tool fetish. Because of technology fetish. Because management still looks to technology as if it were magic. As if technology didn’t require management.

IT doesn’t self-manage. Tools don’t self-manage. Content doesn’t self-manage. To create an internal self-service environment that actually works, takes a lot of hard, grinding, unsexy work. The type of work it seems modern managers are trying to avoid at all costs.

Like figuring out what data to keep and what to delete. Like ensuring content is written in a simple, clear and actionable manner. Like creating tools that are actually easy to use. Like building and evolving information architectures that are intuitive. Like mentoring and training employees in how to write well, collaborate well, organize their content well, and review and remove old content.

The big AI in the sky won’t do these sorts of jobs for you. At what point will management realize that technology is just a small part of the solution for a great workspace? That the human skills of collaboration and genuine data and content management are far more important for success?