A few years ago I managed a custom-built extranet solution for a global professional services firm, which helped coordinate internal global projects across member firms. It supported project management by gathering data and tracking progress on complex global accounts. 

It was moderately successful, but didn’t justify the investment we’d put into building and managing the solution.

This changed when we gave external clients and third parties the ability to view the progress of projects. It was as if we'd accidentally stumbled on an “Ingredient X” which drove internal adoption, stimulated external interest and increased value for both company and client.

Ultimately the tool helped support the development of a global outsourcing service which is still going strong today. With hindsight it's strange that client access had not been on our original product roadmap, although it clearly should have been.

Internal First?

All too often, businesses consider the needs of internal and external audiences separately. These audiences have more in common than many give them credit for. However, some organizations are thinking more holistically, including Cisco, which recently merged its website, extranet and intranet into one platform.

In the case of the extranet solution I managed, granting external client access was a critical step in the maturity of the product. 

However, having a period as an internal-only platform was also critical. The solution wouldn't have been as successful or as sustainable if we’d gone straight to market as a client-oriented product, rather than an internal one. 

By the time we launched to clients, we’d gone through several iterations and design tweaks, roles and processes had evolved and a set of employees emerged who knew the product well. By taking a more phased approach, we were in a better place to involve clients.

While a phased approach where “external-facing” is a distinct phase after “internal-facing” might not be suitable for many channels or systems, it can drive value when applied in the right instance. 

The Benefits of a Phased Approach

A few ways in which going from internal to external can reap benefits:

Ramping up perceptions of value

As we found in the professional services firm, opening up an internal system to an external audience can add a new dynamic. The system is suddenly regarded as more important, which can result in better adoption, traction and engagement from an internal audience.

Product maturity and risk reduction

Allowing a product, platform or app to mature before releasing it externally means reducing the chance of bugs and issues. Having issues restricted to an internal audience is going to be less damaging than one exposed to an external one too.

Process improvement

Improved processes is an obvious benefit. Generally speaking, any system which weans employees and customers away from email interactions, which encourages a self-service approach from customers for updates, or negates the need for having two different systems, will be more efficient and reduce costs.

Improved client service

A direct consequence of improved processes is improved client service. Faster responses, self-service options for clients to track progress in real-time, a common reference point online to resolve issues, providing content clients didn’t previously have — these are just a few of the areas that can benefit.

Driving stewardship and shaping roles

A digital channel or application needs active ownership and stewardship both at the center and throughout the business to work properly and remain sustainable. However, the exact roles needed to drive a system forward are not always clear. 

With collaboration and social tools, and relatively configurable systems, it's rarely set in stone how to best use the tool. Individuals derive their own approaches and settle on processes which make sites easier to manage and in turn, potentially scalable.

As an employee experiments, learns, overcomes challenges and spots opportunities, new activities and associated roles emerge, and an optimum way for employees to interact with the system evolve.

These emergent roles are critical for getting value out of the system, and for it to be sustainable and scalable if it is launched to clients. Having a role which has been developed internally also helps drive a sense of ownership and can result in experts who can give input to design and future development.

Learning Opportunities

Driving advocacy

Linked to ownership and stewardship, is a wider sense of advocacy among employees. An external-facing product can face an uphill battle for adoption if employees don't support it. A common experience I've noticed is client collaboration spaces that aren't actively supported by managers, in part due to a lack of confidence and knowledge about the product.

Alternatively, we see cases like when the Barclays Bank frontline help team issued their excellent MyZone mobile intranet app to retail staff. Among the features was an area where staff could try and experience the bank's digital and mobile apps for customers. Of course, some employees would also likely be customers too. The staff's experience and knowledge of these digital products contributed to a huge increase in customer uptake of digital products. 

Being knowledgeable, confident and having a positive experience of a tool or channel all feed into advocacy. Businesses can partially achieve this by ensuring that in advance of any external launch, internal staff have not only experienced the tool operationally (not just sat through a training session), but that their experiences were both positive and straightforward.

Commercial opportunity

Some systems designed for internal use were never intended for external consumption, but opportunities might emerge to leverage them for commercial advantage. This could be both as a revenue generating opportunity, for example packaging up valuable content used internally as a charged-for service, or alternatively as a brand or client development tool.

Transparency as a brand attribute

Providing transparency offers an interesting opportunity. For example, the Indian government has a remarkable real time dashboard which shows the attendance patterns of nearly 180,000 employees across multiple locations and hundreds of departments. Transparent systems like these can send a strong positive brand message to customers, demonstrating values in action, showing accountability and more.

Enabling digital transformation

A wider benefit of creating digital transformation inside is it sets the groundwork for enabling transformation outside, particularly when deploying the same types of systems. This works not only on a practical level, such as getting comfortable with social tools, but also in getting into the right mindset.

Innovation and experiment labs

For some companies — particularly in the technology sector — there's obvious advantage in having a place to develop, test and assess new applications internally, and then productized as a commercial venture to extend to clients. This drives new customer-facing technologies and a culture of innovation.

The Internal Digital Workplace Incubator

Given the current emphasis on the digital workplace and the strategic asset that positive employee technology experiences provides, now's a good time to consider the relationship between the internal digital workplace and external digital workplace.

Should we be thinking about the external world when structuring the digital workplace? Should we look for more opportunities to take internal-facing systems external? When we plan a customer-facing app should we first test it internally?

This sort of thinking isn't new when applied to innovation, but is underrepresented in the digital workplace space. A holistic approach, which sees a continuum between internal and external channels rather than a firewall, opens up interesting avenues worth exploring. I hope we see more organizations active in this space through 2016.

Editor's Note: Steve Bynghall will be speaking about the potential value that comes from blurring internal and external channels at the IntraTeam conference in Copenhagen, Denmark on March 2.

Title image by Bethany Legg

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