Every intranet should be unique to the organization it serves. But some themes recur so frequently that they feel fundamental for an intranet to address.

My company regularly does discovery work for intranet and digital workplace strategy. The team decided to look back across all the data we’d gathered in the last six years to see what patterns emerged. The sample covered nearly 8,000 survey responses and over 300 focus group participants, representing around 400,000 employees in all. Most companies are headquartered in Europe with a proportion of staff in North America and sometimes Asia. These are the things that stood out time and again.

I’m Overloaded With Information

Employees are overwhelmed with communications across multiple channels and often have to filter out what is applicable to them. They want an intranet that feels relevant and helps to prioritize information. The common sentiment can be summed up by this quote: “I should be able to access the most important information for me directly on one page.”

As you might expect, there is frustration with mass emails as a communication channel: “I get a lot of emails telling me how wonderful everything is and I delete them. I haven't got time to read it.”

Although user-driven personalization on intranets has rarely worked well, employees do say they’d like more control, and there are multiple ways to personalize your intranet.

“It's about information being relevant. I don't want to get everything, but I would sign up to information I want,” is how one person put it.

Related Article: Information Overload Comes in 3 Flavors: Here's How to Combat It

I Can’t Find the Information I Need

When employees can’t find things, the initial response is usually to blame the search engine. But dig deeper and you'll find a number of related issues:

  • Poor search.
  • Don't know where to look for information.
  • Not even sure if the information exists.
  • Don't know if information is trustworthy.

I explored many of these in my post on search last year, "Diagnosing Enterprise Search Failures." What’s interesting in many of the comments we get is that filtering is a cause of much of the frustration:

“If you search for documents you'll get everything that's ever been written — finding a recent one is really difficult,” said one person.

“There are too many results. There should be more filter options and more information should be visible on the results,” said another.

It seems like intranet search results need to do more to help people refine queries, because the one or two word search strategies we learn as Google-users is much less successful on a corpus of enterprise data.

It’s tempting to assume some results simply don’t exist, but even when they do they can be elusive: “It's difficult to find the same information twice even though I know it's there!”

Related Article: Intranet Search Is More Than a Technology Problem

I’m More Interested in What’s Happening Locally

Striking a balance in news delivery is hard in any medium-to-large organization. Employees are usually most interested in news that is relevant to the location or department they work in, but organizations often want to promote what's happening at a corporate level, creating a tension.

“If I work in Edinburgh I don't want to see about London — what I find interesting is not that same as people in head office.”

One issue seems to be that control for intranet publishing is still too centralized. As one person put it: “How to get things published? We don’t know!”

Related Article: A Multi-Pronged Approach to Intranet Content Curation

What Am I Supposed to Use When?

People often receive very little training and support for intranet tools, including cultural aspects such as it being 'OK' to contribute to discussion forums, etc. Where there are a range of tools with overlapping functions exist, employees need guidance on what tool is right for the job.

Learning Opportunities

One commenter said, “The failures of the past are not the technology but the change management process of saying what you should be using this tool for in your daily work. It needs to be included from the onboarding process to tell people what the tool should be used for from day one.”

Although freedom of choice sounds like a good thing, this often just adds to the burden. “The organization needs to make a decision on what we are going to use and then get everyone using them and not using 20 different ones,” said one frustrated employee.

Related Article: Don't Know Which Microsoft Tool to Use? You're Not Alone

Who Knows What We Know?

The people finder has been a killer app on intranets for as long as I can remember. But the focus has shifted from finding contact details to finding people when you don’t know a name.

In focus groups, there’s usually a split between the workplace veterans who happily say, “I just pick up the phone and call Shirley” because they can draw on a personal network, and the new hires who are often frustrated. “Trying to find the right person when you need something, you go round the houses,” as one put it.

“There are so many talented people across the organisation and we don't know about it. We waste money on agencies when we might have the skills in house,” said another.

Related Article: Test Your Digital Workplace People Finder Score

It Ain’t Pretty!

People feel more strongly about the aesthetics of an intranet than you might expect. It’s a value that is hard to reflect in a cost-benefit analysis, but the emotive impact is real. A typical comment is “it’s clunky” or “dated.”

More expansively one participant said, “It looks kind of grey and corporate and I don't think it reflects how people who work here think of their workplace. It doesn't feel very vibrant or interesting.” People expect a consumer-grade experience now: “It's not a dynamic layout — it's not set out like a good website would be.”

What Should Intranets Do?

I’m sure many intranet managers contemplating a revamp will recognize all of the above factors. Although I’ve picked out common symptoms, there isn’t necessarily a formulaic solution.

That’s why working with employees on intranet design is so important. Although the symptom of “irrelevant content” may be universal, the solution of what is “relevant content” is very much specific to each person and organization.

Note: Some quotes have been anonymized to remove details that would identify clients.

Acknowledgements: My thanks to my colleague, Andrew Marr, who helped substantially with the initial analysis and first draft.

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