Intranet development traditionally starts by finding out what employees need via focus groups, interviews and/or surveys. It sounds like a logical place to start no? The technique is also used in the implementation of other software tools.

I think there's a better way. The traditional approach has a number of shortcomings and is responsible for the poor state and lack of significant business impact of many intranets. Below is an alternative approach that delivers much better results in only a fraction of the time.

Why Employee Interviews Alone Fall Short

There are several areas where asking employees about their tasks and what they view as important deliver poor results.

1. User Wants vs. User Needs

There is a difference between what people want and what people really need. Being able to identify the needs based on what employees want is not always guaranteed.

Chances of you receiving completely different feedback from two people who perform the same work, potentially in the same office, is very likely. This can be a result of seniority or an individual's ability to handle information.

Also, an employee that recently joined the company will highlight a more comprehensive set of needs in comparison with somebody that has been with the company for a longer period.

2. Activity Duration

Trying to establish activity duration takes a lot of time and resources, both for the project team and the rest of the organization — time, perhaps best used for other tasks.

3. Organization Complexity

The more complex the organization is, the more likely you will need to run more interviews with more people in order to identify their relevant tasks. Organizational complexity also increases the risk that you will miss some important topics.

4. Needs Comprehensiveness and Bias vs. Frequent Tasks

Asking the employees what they need will only highlight what they think is important. Subjectivity and time constraints will limit the percentage of identified topics.

One of the main reasons why employees do not find information on the intranet is that people didn't think that specific topic was important during the intranet design phase. It simply wasn't high enough on their list of priorities.

If you want your mechanical watch to precisely indicate the time, all the components have to be in very good condition. If you forget to maintain one cog, chances are the entire mechanism will lose its precision. It is the same with a company: it all needs to work well, not just parts of it.

5. Project Team Skills

You need experienced staff to manage this process, which involves being able to separate wants from needs when interviewing people. Consolidating all of the outcomes from the many interviews takes skills that are hard to find, and costly.

6. Intranet Development Process

The traditional intranet development process identifies some needs, implements them, goes live, reviews the results and then later repeats the cycle. Typically, most of the needs went unidentified in the analysis phase of the project will have to wait until the next cycle.

This often leads to an intranet implementation that misses a great share of employee needs that didn't make the list.

Related Article: Your Intranet Should Be a Little Messy

A Better Approach to Establishing Intranet Needs

A simple concept outlines what information is needed for an intranet project: Whatever task an employee needs to perform inside the organization, that task is somebody’s internal service.

If you want to request time off, somebody in the HR department is responsible for managing that process. If you want to reimburse the expenses related to a business dinner, somebody in finance handles this exact task.

So instead of asking employees what tasks the intranet should help them with, you could ask who is providing internal services for other employees.

Learning Opportunities

This question can begin with a survey sent to company directors asking for all the services their departments are delivering internally: department, name of the service, owner, audience, business impact.

Let’s see how this approach performs on the six areas highlighted above:

1. User Wants vs. User Needs

Asking about internal services takes the guesswork out of the equation. The process works the same way an X-ray of a human body does: it highlights every single bone in the targeted area.

2. Activity Duration

This approach is definitely quicker than running countless interviews and then analyzing employee responses.

It also scales well, because you can use technology to collect the information from all the directors at the same time.

3. Organization Complexity

All the complexity of the organization (audiences and their needs) doesn't play a role anymore (at least at this phase). Basically, from a list of directors, you receive a list of internally-provided services.

4. Needs Comprehensiveness and Bias vs. Frequent Tasks

It ensures proper collection of all the tasks of the employees. Think of the X-rays again.

5. Project Team Skills

This process is rather simple to manage even if you do not have very skilled or experienced staff onboard.

6. Intranet Development Process

Instead of being a corporate-wide project followed by some smaller scoped projects and big redesigns every few years, we take more of a continuous approach here that aims at improving the delivery of all internal services.

Related Article: 3 Distinct Challenges for Frontline Worker Digital Employee Experience

Combining the Best of Both Approaches

I am not saying you should ignore employee needs and feedback or that you shouldn't spend time compiling such feedback. Employee interviews can highlight deeper problems that go beyond the internal mechanics of the organization, such as distrust with leadership, unclear vision, lack of employee engagement or other pain points. Interviews can also highlight the relative importance of various internal services for difference audiences.

A hybrid approach, blending the two feedback mechanisms, would likely be the best solution. One in which you first identify the internal services provided to the employees and then use employee feedback to prioritize and receive other qualitative information.

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