posted 6 Mar 2006 in Volume 9 Issue 6
A cultured approach
By Tom Brannan and Richard Miller
When an intranet or portal is not delivering the expected benefits, there are a number of obvious questions that should be asked: is the intranet properly aligned with the strategic objectives of the organisation, delivering content and services that matter? Does it truly support the users, helping real people to do real jobs? Does it run smoothly and reliably with an interface that helps users, rather then getting in their way?
Even if you can answer positively to all of these questions, you may still have an underperforming system. The tools and content may be ideal for your organisation and the users, the intranet’s structure may be easy to understand and the infrastructure may be humming away in the background delivering content seamlessly to all users. Yet people avoid using it, it is a struggle to keep the content up to date and there is no enthusiasm around the organisation for the intranet. What’s missing?
The answer is often culture. What you deliver is important, but how it connects to people is vital. Your intranet has to fit with people’s expectations, their beliefs and values and the way they do their work. If it feels alien or uncomfortable, it will not be used.
Invisible, insidious, influential
Culture gets forgotten because it is invisible. It is quite simply, ‘the way we do things round here’. But organisational culture is pervasive and strong. It affects everything we do in that environment and creates a set of norms that resist change. The hardest changes to make in any organisation are those that challenge the prevailing culture because throughout the day people are bombarded with information about what is important and what behaviours are valued. If the intranet signals something different, it will be ignored.
Yet some companies try to use their intranet to drive change. They try to use it to bring in a new process for managing procurement or deal with customer queries, and it seems logical to use their ubiquitous and easy to use intranet to drive the change into the organisation.
Unfortunately the intranet is a poor tool for driving such changes – people will think the intranet is ‘wrong’ and treat it with suspicion and hostility. Many previously successful intranets have been damaged or killed off by organisations introducing changes that work against the prevailing organisational culture.
If a major cultural change programme is under way, the intranet can be used to support and reinforce it, but otherwise the intranet must support the existing culture – it cannot drive cultural change on its own.
There are three kinds of culture we need to consider: national/regional1, corporate and functional2.
National and regional cultures are important in multinational companies. The usual stereotypes aside, people from different parts of the world really do approach business relationships differently. Psychologists use a number of concepts such as ‘power-distance’, ‘uncertainty avoidance’ and ‘context’ to map these different cultures1.
Power-distance describes the differences in power between people at different levels. In a high power-distance culture, such as
On the other hand, people working in a low-context culture, such as
Staff in high-context cultures, such as
These general cultural differences – and I should stress that they are broad generalisations – can have a big impact on every aspect of the design and implementation of a global intranet: people from a high uncertainty-avoidance culture will be looking for authority and definitive answers from their company’s intranet; those from a low uncertainty-avoidance culture will be happier with a variety of suggestions that they can think about. People in low-context cultures expect the intranet to be tidy and businesslike; people in high context cultures look for inclusion, participation and socialisation.
I see examples of the way in which these cultural differences can affect intranet usage and collaboration regularly. At one global company recently, for example, relationships plunged to a catastrophic low between groups in two different regions who needed to work closely together.
They were supposed to be collaborating on a procurement project. The problem turned on two different understandings from the two different regional cultures of what e-mail was for. One group regarded an e-mail as an important message that required a response within 24 hours. The other saw it as the electronic equivalent of a letter – if the matter had been important, they would have picked up the phone and discussed it directly. The two groups therefore had to negotiate a way to communicate with each other that was effective, yet respected their different cultures and expectations.
Exactly the same factors can ruin the use of an intranet for corporate communications in a global business. One ‘tone of voice’ will not be effective for all audiences.
Corporate culture is easier to understand. We can all describe organisations as conservative or adventurous, tightly structured or flexible, technically-led or marketing-led. There is a world of difference between, for example, Apple, IBM and Microsoft.
Corporate culture has a big impact on what will work on the intranet. There has been much interest recently in the use of Wikis – websites that can be freely edited by its users – on intranets. They make it easy for a range of people to create and edit content. But while many like the idea, others are aghast at the concept. “Allowing people to change intranet content without a proper authorisation and validation process would get me fired,” the intranet head of a financial services company recently told us.
The final important factor is functional culture. Sales people, accountants and engineers are not the same. They think about problems differently, they have a different view of what is important and they judge success differently. To meet their needs you may have to provide different content, organised and presented in different ways.
In one company, getting up-to-date information on products into the hands of sales people was a key goal. To that end, the application developers, who knew everything about the products and how to use them, put a lot of effort into creating hundreds of pages of detailed information to support the salesforce – but they were simply ignored.
We interviewed groups of sales people to find out why and to understand exactly what information they wanted, and how they wanted it presented. The required information was there, but from the perspective of the developers, not the sales people. It did not connect with the way sales people thought about selling, so they ignored it.
All these different cultural factors can affect every part of the design and use of an intranet – the way content is written, the information architecture and navigation, right through to the IT infrastructure. A publishing process that does not fit the culture is just as much a problem as poorly written or badly chosen content.
It’s good to talk…
Cultural fit is critical to delivering a successful intranet, but it is not sufficient. The intranet also has to be aligned with the strategic needs of the business and the day-to-day operational needs of its users, of course. These are the ‘what’ of content and services. Cultural fit is important for ‘how’ they will be delivered. Information about culture needs to be captured at the same time that you are thinking about the strategic and operational needs.
With all these cultural factors swirling together, how can you understand the environment and develop something that will meet everyone's needs? The only practical way is to talk to them. Some people swear by questionnaires and surveys, but it is hard to pick up the nuances of culture in this way. Discussion and observation are best.
Start by identifying the key audiences. We would like to produce an intranet that is equally attractive and useful to every member of the organisation, but if we cannot do that it is essential to support the groups with the greatest impact on the corporate goals. Who are the people critical to delivering the key strategic targets? Identify their needs and make sure the intranet supports them.
Next, understand the main cultural features of the key groups. There are three levels of cultural clue; ‘artefacts’, ‘values’ and ‘assumptions’2.
Artefacts are the visible things you can see around you: the way people dress, the way offices are laid out, how people talk and the forms and tools they use. Values include the things that people publicly say about an organisation: such as vision and values, mission statements, business principles, and all the framed pieces of paper that are hung on a wall. Shared assumptions form the third level. These are all the beliefs in an organisation that never need be spoken, they just are – collective beliefs about what matters, how to satisfy customers, how to innovate, how to succeed and so on.
Artefacts and values are fairly easy to uncover.
Most intranet projects require preliminary group discussions to talk about corporate needs, user needs, governance and so on. These are a good place to gather cultural information as well as requirements. Groups are better than one-to-one discussions because the interplay and discussion between people reveals their cultural assumptions. Listen carefully to the words and concepts people use, the common ground they appeal to, the reasons they give for choices and how they handle new ideas. Even the gaps and silences can tell you a lot about the corporate culture.
You can introduce some specific topics to help test the culture. A couple of tools we find very useful for digging into shared assumptions are ‘personas’ and a method that we call ‘the five magic buttons’.
Personas are widely used in interaction and interface design3 and are a great way to help a group of people to describe their culture and what will work for them. Ask the group to imagine a user for the intranet. Get them to make that user as real as possible. What is their name and job? How long have they been with the company? What is their history? What are their interests? Then, ask them what their goals are. What are they trying to achieve and what are their challenges? Finally, ask them how they will use the intranet.
This should give an excellent insight into group needs, culture and how they will interact with the intranet when it is implemented. It is also fun. One company chose a salesman who was on the road a lot and rarely visited head office as a user persona. As the persona took shape, it was clear that they were lonely and felt like an outsider in the company. This led directly to the development of social content for the intranet specifically targeted at remote and mobile workers to make them feel part of the family.
The second tool is the five magic buttons. Take a flip chart and tell the group it is the intranet home page. Draw five buttons along the bottom and tell them these are magic buttons that can do anything they want. Then ask them what the buttons should do. Whatever answers you get, ask why that needs to be done or why it is a good idea. Gradually, the group will begin to expose their unspoken needs and assumptions.
Mapping the choices
Having evaluated the organisational culture, think about how that influences the way you design and implement the intranet. One way is to map the culture onto the six organising principles shown in Figure 1. These are pairs of opposing descriptors; you can set the slide anywhere between those two extremes. Group discussions will usually reach a quick consensus on where the slide sits. For each aspect of structure, services and content for the intranet, you can use this chart to decide which approach will best suit your organisation.
Some organisations are dominated by functional thinking – staff can talk naturally about what they do in terms of human resources (HR), finance, research and development and manufacturing. Others are process driven and, as a result, staff talk more easily in terms of new product development and the supply chain.
The navigation of the intranet needs to reflect the normal language. A functional organisation, therefore, will expect navigation that reflects its organisational chart; whereas a process-based organisation will expect navigation to follow its key processes. If the organisation has a mixed outlook it may be necessary to provide both kinds of navigation to satisfy a broad range of users. Web technology makes it very easy to have multiple routes to specific information, and yet many intranets are rigidly structured with content only accessible one way. This ignores the strength of hypertext linking – information can appear to be stored in many places if it helps.
In one case, an important presentation by the CEO on plans for the next two years was published on the intranet, but no-one could find it. It was buried four levels down in the HR section of the intranet. Why? Because HR had organised the conference at which the presentation had been given – they therefore ‘owned’ the content. Sometimes a navigational structure that seems obvious is actually a reflection of the way that a small group of people looks at the rest of the organisation.
How do people feel about sharing and security of information? Some cultures are very open and staff assume that all information is available to everyone unless there is a specific reason not to distribute it. Others operate on a ‘need-to-know’ basis where the default is secrecy. An intranet in a closed environment needs different tools to an open one. The search tool should only return results that the user has access to; content publication will involve authorisation procedures; parts of the intranet will be hidden from unauthorised users; and sophisticated user authentication tools are required.
A mismatch between user expectations and implementation can be very damaging. A professional services company had an open, friendly and collaborative culture. However, a great deal of the intranet was only accessible with a password, “To comply with our information security policy”. Every time a user was denied access to some information they thought they had a legitimate interest in it was almost a physical shock. It challenged their deeply held beliefs about the kind of organisation they worked for. When we visited the company large areas of the intranet lay unused. People were so insulted by the security that they would rather go without than ask for permission.
Organisations that tend towards control, centralisation and clarity of process and message will be more comfortable with an intranet managed by a core team dedicated to the task. This will affect governance and the tools used for content creation and management. But a loosely structured, entrepreneurial organisation cannot be constrained by the discipline of centralised intranet management. They will be more comfortable with a distributed system where small teams create and manage sections of the intranet and have the tools and infrastructure to do it.
A technology company had a centralised and highly structured publishing process that did not fit culturally with the highly individualistic and creative research and development staff. They responded by rejecting the official intranet and using their ingenuity to create a ‘bootleg’ intranet that better met their needs.
For some organisations the social side of the intranet is one of the key reasons for its success. The two most popular features of the intranet in the advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty are the archives of their TV and print adverts, naturally enough. But number four in their top ten is spoofs of their ads, five is simple digital games, and six, seven and eight are pictures of karaoke parties, newborn babies and the secretaries’ Christmas party. It is hard to imagine such content on the intranet of a bank or insurance company.
For some organisations, standardised design and layout are essential. Enforcing common language, messages, tone of voice, taxonomy and processes are all key reasons for an intranet. For others it is more useful and interesting to allow the intranet to evolve under the control of the users.
Telecoms giant BT has very loose control of what its intranet looks like or contains. It has adopted a brutal Darwinian environment in which new areas emerge on the intranet with bewildering speed, but unless they offer genuine value to the users they can just as quickly disappear. Their ‘launch and learn’ philosophy is completely different to a company such as Halliburton, which believes that maximum value is generated by carefully selecting and designing the services and content on the intranet.
A key decision for an intranet is, will it be static, or dynamic and interactive? Providing discussion forums, communities, shared workspaces and online collaboration tools all have major implications in terms of the intranet’s IT infrastructure. At first glance, these are desirable; surely interactivity is one of the key benefits of web technology? Possibly, but users may not value interaction. A top-down, highly structured organisational culture has less use for feedback and interaction, while smaller organisations with only one site may prefer to encourage face-to-face collaboration.
One professional services company successfully used a forum for staff to directly question the CEO. Open debate fitted their values and helped to keep the team aligned. A government department tried the same idea and had to close the forum down after less than 24 hours because of the level of personal abuse in the posts.
These organising principles are not value judgements. The intranet of an open, fun, interactive organisation can fail spectacularly, and many hierarchical, tightly managed companies are highly valued both by staff and customers. Whatever the culture, make sure that your intranet fits. Work with the grain of the organisation not against it if you want to have the greatest impact.
Tom Brannan and Richard Miller are the founders of Vigorat, a consultancy specialising in intranet design. They can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. ‘Culture and Organisations – software of the mind’, Geert Hofstede, HarperCollins, 1994
2. ‘The Corporate Culture Survival Guide’, Edgar H Schein, Jossey-Bass, 1999
3. ‘The Inmates are Running the Asylum’, Alan Cooper, Sams, 1999