posted 12 Jun 2002 in Volume 5 Issue 9
Whose intranet is it anyway?
Creating personalised, meaningful and valuable intranet content
Intranets have the ability to bring people together by providing them with a place to share ideas and build a sense of community. Emma Oliver discusses the importance of personalised, meaningful content in this process, and offers her advice on how to create a site that really meets the needs of its users.
I first began exploring this question when I was asked to speak at a conference about gaining employee buy-in and generating successful intranets. This was a great opportunity to look back over what we had done at Sage and why some things had worked – and equally why others had not.
It struck me at the time that all the intranet language seemed to be about performance, efficiency, data productivity and knowledge management, but there wasn’t much about people.
I’m in the internal communications field and I worry about people getting less face-to-face communication and more face-to-screen communication. We need to ensure that people are put back into the equation – intranets have personality and really respond to the needs of the user and the business.
To me, the big deal about intranets is that they bring people together, allowing them to share creative ideas and build teams into powerful communities. I asked one of my directors what he liked about the Sage intranet, known as Insider.
“Well, it’s fun. It has a sense of humour. But it is more than that: it is informative, it’s personal and that is why it is so much better than any other intranet that I’ve experienced. My teams relate to it, they use it and all that helps the business,” said Adrian Grace, managing director, customer division.
So how do you create a site that is personal, meaningful and therefore valued and valuable?
Understanding your audience
First, you must understand your audience. Understanding your audience was drummed into me when I was learning the ropes as a PR executive. We naturally do this in face-to-face communication and tailor our speech and the types of words we use to the audience we are talking too. Anyone who has seen adults engaged in baby talk while leaning over a pram knows this. And yet, remarkably, once we start writing, printing and e-mailing, it is easy to forget about the recipient because we can’t see them, or their reaction.
If you are managing an intranet inside your organisation can you answer these questions?
- What is the average age of your employees and their age ranges?
- What is the minimum level of education they have had?
- What is the gender split?
- Is English their first language?
- What percentage are ethnic minorities?
- How many are computer literate?
- What is the company culture?
- Does the culture differ between locations and buildings?
Before I began to even think about designing and building the intranet I felt I had to understand my audience and its expectations better so I developed a questionnaire and I spent some time with the human resources team to understand the company better.
We wanted to prepare the population for an online experience and pave the way for change so deliberately ran the questionnaire online. We used incentives to get the maximum involvement and nearly two-thirds of the population responded.
I undertook a management survey to find out the needs of managers, what they felt their teams needed and what their expectations were. I conducted this face-to-face, partly because of my own need to network but also because I really wanted to sell this concept to the managers - after all they'd need to be prepared to allow their staff the time to both look at and contribute to the site if it was to be successful.
The survey told us exactly what news and information was the highest priority for staff, we knew we needed:
- A link to connect employees with the directors, as the company was growing so rapidly it was impossible for the directors to be as close to staff as in the past;
- Details on how the company was portrayed in the press;
- Policies and guidelines;
- Central resource of forms and guidelines for download.
These became just a few of our goals. None were a surprise. But what was interesting was that staff told us they found the business structure difficult to understand and wanted the intranet to help them get a clearer picture. So we decided to structure the site like the business to aid learning and the integration of staff.
In fact, Insider is now the primary tool in our company induction programme, very little is now delivered as a presentation. Increasingly new starters find out the answers to a series of questions for themselves, by going on Insider and learning how the site works.
There was another trick up my sleeve to ensure we delivered what employees wanted. Along with my manager, we decided early on to recruit a team of developers from inside the business to work on Insider. These people would understand exactly what the intranet's customers needed rather than an expensive consultancy who would have all the skills but know nothing about our culture or people.
This meant that the team has made some mistakes as they have developed their skills. It has been a very fast learning curve, however their view of user requirements is unique and irreplaceable. It has been a major factor in the success of the site and I'd recommend this approach to anyone developing an intranet for the first time.
Account for different cultures and demands
A site is not just about structure and navigation - at least not to me. I wanted it to have a bit of personality. The site had to reflect and reinforce the positive aspects of the Sage culture.
At Sage we are not keen on processes and procedures, rules and regulations. There aren't too many in our online handbook and this applies to making contributions to Insider too. We ask people to be sensible about their content and we give them a framework of tools to help. We do however control the design and navigation, so people can rely on a consistent approach and can easily find their way around.
I also learnt a valuable lesson about culture the hard way. Sage underwent a period of major expansion through acquisitions as we were building the site and this meant a number of new teams and divisions joined the business. I thought that our site was so great that all we needed to do was provide access to the new employees, but I was wrong. They didn't use it at all, and in fact one of the acquired companies carried on using their own old intranet, even though it was out of date and unreliable.
Why? Well they were a different audience with different needs and different cultures and I didn't take the time to get to know them. Also this was Sage's intranet, the company that had just bought them out. Not much of an attraction from their perspective.
To meet the needs of these new Sage sub-cultures we have set about building what I call mini insiders. Each mini insider is developed by a local member of staff working to our designs and basic structure but with their own entirely local and relevant content. The pages are held on a local server to ensure rapid download locally and this is the Insider they see when they open their web browser.
This has proved to be effective. By visiting one site you can access the others as they are all part of the larger Insider site. We've since found that more people are spending time on the intranets for other locations, to learn about new sides of the business and the people involved. This has proved to be a factor in supporting the acquisition process and helping those organisations feel a part of Sage, gradually taking on the positive elements of the Sage culture, without feeling rail roaded into losing their own identity.
Let people have fun
Sage is a highly creative organisation. The old intranet site was made up of pages created by individual departments in their own style that were linked together by a homepage, that was hard to follow and rarely updated. While this way of managing the intranet had to go, I was worried that we might be seen as taking something away from people.
I wanted to introduce a way for people to experiment with HTML and web building skills without the intranet police phoning up and asking them to remove their rotating flaming banner gif.
So we introduced the Underweb, an area on the site where people could do their own thing but must link it back to the Insider homepage. This area held non-business related content, such as employee charity appeals, social information and invited people to treat the area as their own. One of the most popular areas is the joke of the month. We plan to put more tools and resources on the Underweb to help budding web authors build their own sites.
If an intranet is stuffy and boring it won't attract regular readers. But you need to keep a business focus. How you strike the balance will depend on your company's culture. The Underweb was our answer - although the language on Insider is also friendly, personal and easy to read.
Keep listening to the changing needs of your audience
The key to the success of Insider has been ownership. Insider belongs to the employees, not to the management, we respond to their ideas and requests and constantly work to improve the site. We have recently launched a message board, are working on personalised features, have launched useful applications, such as a personal details database facility, and are currently working on a new content management system that will be launched alongside Insider V2 in the near future.
Insider supports a rapidly growing, constantly evolving business environment and its ability to be reactive to identified needs, and proactive in driving change through understanding and collaboration has been an important factor in Sage's development over the last 15 months. I asked the group managing director, Graham Wylie what he thought of Insider.
“As a result of our expansion Sage has undergone rapid growth. As with any growing company it is difficult to keep everyone informed and maintain our culture. The larger we got the more fragmented our communications became.
“Insider has been the perfect vehicle to solve the problem. It has done a great job helping all staff understand the organisation and keeping them informed about news and events.
“More importantly, it has greatly improved internal communications and helped to draw people together as one Sage community.”
Insider has become a part of the fabric of the organisation. Whose intranet is it anyway? I'm pleased to say it belongs to each and every employee inside our business. Does yours?
Emma Oliver is internal communications manager at Sage (UK). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.