posted 23 Jan 2003 in Volume 6 Issue 5
On the web: A sense of place
Building an intranet for an organisation that, until 1998, consisted of 98 separate charities was always going to be a tall order. Colette Coyne describes how the British Red Cross overcame the hurdles it faced to implement an intranet that has helped to unify the organisation.
Bringing the British Red Cross into the 21st century by building an intranet for its employees was never going to be easy. The organisation only became a single charity in 1998. Until then, it had been 98 separate charities that had shared the same name, but which were managed independently. So there were bound to be difficulties with regard to change, new technologies and challenging the way people worked.
To make matters worse, an imposing list of problems that the intranet was expected to solve had been drawn up. It included:
- A low level of information exchange;
- Repetition of work;
- A poor knowledge of issues outside of individual departments and branches;
- Non-standardisation of documents;
- Inconsistent messages;
- Staff feeling that they were not part of the organisation.
Could an intranet be built that would improve communication, create a better sense of community among staff, increase efficiencies between departments and ensure consistency of documentation used across the organisation?
As a geographically dispersed organisation, with 2,800 staff members based across more than 80 sites, we required an intranet that would facilitate fast and reliable access to a central archive of live documents and information. Equally important was that it enable staff to collaborate in a more effective way, cutting costs by reducing the amount of time taken to find relevant information. With our aims in place, a project team from the management-information-systems (MIS) and internal-communications departments at the Red Cross was set up. The same individuals run RedRoom today.
You are only as good as your team
In order to find a suitable content-management and publishing system, several possible suppliers were approached with a detailed requirements specification. The Stellent Content Management System was appealing because:
- It offered a straightforward path from development to implementation;
- It offered a simple means of integration with other existing systems (LDAP was used to integrate with Novell Directory);
- It was powerful enough to handle whatever we might want to use it for;
- The training needs of the content administrator would be minimal since they would work mainly in MS Office applications.
The specific modules used in the implementation were Stellent Content Server, Stellent Dynamic Publisher and Stellent PDF Converter.
Since it was also important that the intranet be user friendly and look good, after hearing pitches from several web-design agencies, JKD was selected. JKD stood out from the crowd in three respects: its quality of work with John Lewis and Waitrose; as part of the Incepta Group it had solid financial backing; and, we were convinced that JKD would understand our core business and ways of working quickly. The only drawback was that the company had never worked with the Stellent product. Therefore, this would be a steep learning curve for its team as well as ours.
The partnership was three-way between the British Red Cross, JKD and Stellent. With three parties involved, communication was key and success was dependent on the clear identification of roles and responsibilities from the outset and regular sessions to discuss progress and set subsequent actions.
Understanding the culture: when in Rome
JKD held numerous workshops and meetings with different groups of people to find out all they could about the workings of the Red Cross. Sessions were held across the UK and Northern Ireland at which users were invited to discuss all aspects of IT services. Some common threads from those discussions were identified as risks to the project: lack of training, poor state of hardware and lack of clarity of business requirements. Once identified, the project team was able to deal with them.
Getting buy-in from senior management was also extremely important. The project sponsor was the director of human resources who quickly identified the business benefits and potential cost savings through publishing policies and procedures online. But how could the intranet be made interesting to users?
What was on our Christmas list?
Following considerable research, a list of what staff expected, needed and wanted the intranet to deliver has been compiled. Although it was useful to have clearly defined aims, it did put the team under immense pressure at times.
So far, the most requested product has been delivered – a staff directory – among other things:
- A searchable staff telephone directory enabling users to access current contact and job information for all employees – until recently there was no easily accessible telephone list for all staff;
- Ability to transfer certain business processes online – still a work in progress;
- A homepage news service that is updated daily, ensuring that all users are informed of national and international developments;
- A subscription service allowing users to subscribe to documents and information so that they are automatically informed by e-mail when documents have been changed/updated;
- A classified section that allows staff to advertise goods to sell, goods wanted, social activities, etc (our most popular section);
- A monthly competition to encourage staff involvement;
- A weekly interview to put faces to names.
No-one said it would be easy
Looking back, we set ourselves a huge task by trying to meet the launch date. We had taken a risk in our choice of partners since they had never worked together before, and by asking our design consultants to customise a product that they had never used. Despite the enormous effort and hard work of the whole project team, we did not hit our launch date. To minimise the delay, we committed ourselves to a short testing period, which turned out to be our most crucial mistake. Test users had no problem logging in but when it came to the launch date, most users were unable to. In hindsight, it would have been far better to launch later with a robust, bug-free site.
Soft launch or big bang?
Some healthy discussion took place at project team meetings over whether to go for a ‘big-bang’ launch with lots of publicity or whether to let news of the site trickle out to those users in the know.
Having failed with the initial big bang because of the log-in difficulties, once testing was complete, we did a soft launch. We let users find out that the intranet site was available by word of mouth. In this way, we could monitor use and make sure that the technology was working as we wanted it to. Confident that everything was fine, we embarked on our formal launch.
But it’s always alright on the night!
Despite teething problems and a late launch, getting the intranet up and running was a huge achievement for the Red Cross, one that has brought huge benefits to the organisation.
Although not yet quantified, it is anticipated that the intranet has reduced paper and postage costs across the entire organisation. It has also helped us to work more efficiently. Take the old system of sending out memos, for example. Previously, news had to be considered sufficiently important to justify a memo. We can now post everything from news snippets to major news items. They used to be faxed to each of the 65 branches, but a short story is now uploaded to the homepage. A task that once took up to an hour can now be done in minutes.
Centralised documentation has made it easier for staff to carry out their day-to-day work. Policies, procedures and forms are now standardised and can be found in one place – instead of having five different versions of the same expense form, there is only one. The intranet has helped to ensure that staff have access to the correct and most up-to-date documents. In addition, we’ve been able to reduce the need for local storage of central documents and version control is now built-in.
Information is now readily available and in one place for the first time. The internal communications department is able to get information to a large user base very quickly – specifically news items and organisation-wide memos – and ensure that all messages are consistent, with staff feeling better informed about all issues.
RedRoom has introduced a community element that has helped to make staff feel part of one organisation by using small ads, interviews and competitions. Indeed, the name RedRoom was chosen because of its cosy, at-home feeling. It has created a means of sharing information with an immediacy pertinent to a crisis-response organisation. It has also helped departments to become more open with information, giving them the ability to share documents with the rest of the organisation.
Other aspects of the project
The level of analysis and consultation during the planning stage helped to ensure commitment from staff across the society.
Responsibility for checking-in content to the intranet was devolved to individual departments and areas. More than 60 intranet administrators, one in each area and department, were identified to take local ownership of their own sections of the site and given training on the checking-in process. This has helped us to get buy-in from teams across the organisation and has also allowed us to keep the intranet relevant and up to date.
The way the content-management system works is also quite unusual. It uses native documents to provide HTML information in a structured and branded fashion, and all content and information is drawn from standard-office applications and PDF files. This has made the site easier to maintain and manage.
The million-dollar question
Did we succeed in meeting our objectives? I would say yes, although we still have a way to go. We created a central, searchable, document repository, which allowed us to assign an owner to each document and gave us full-version control. We set up an internal news service that is updated several times a day, which provides news hot off the press in true journalistic style. We have embedded a devolved approach to content management across the organisation, with more than 60 trained administrators responsible for checking in content. A Word-based template system means that minimal training in checking-in documents is needed, but there is sufficient variety in look and feel.
The intranet utilises a powerful Verity search engine and version-control system to ensure that users can find the correct document and its latest version easily and quickly. The introduction of the intranet has dramatically reduced the amount of time lost in locating information. It has also provided an invaluable tool for communication, reducing the number of global e-mails sent throughout the organisation by allowing users to access information on a needs-must basis. It has helped to change the culture of the organisation to one where much more information is ‘pulled’ by users than ‘pushed’ to them.
The implementation and customisation of the Stellent Content Management platform has also helped to support the unification of the British Red Cross. As mentioned above, before 1998 the Red Cross was split into 98 separate charities. The intranet is a major project following unification that enables communication across the whole society. It has enabled the British Red Cross to create a centralised document repository for all essential information. The intranet is already starting to replace central shared drives, which are unmanageable and make it difficult for users to locate the correct and most up-to-date information.
Good project-management practice requires the business case to be reviewed before the project is closed. The team has met post launch to review the project and to identify the extent to which the benefits have been realised and to assess what lessons have been learnt that could be applied elsewhere. We learnt:
- Not to set unrealistic timescales;
- Not to cut into testing time in order to meet those timescales;
- To secure management and staff responsibility and buy-in;
- Not to underestimate the difficulties in managing culture change.
We’re not at the end of the road yet. We’ve achieved what we originally set out to do, but we’re only just starting to realise the benefits of RedRoom. The project is part of an overall information strategy, which includes objectives such as enabling communications to staff and volunteers without British Red Cross computers. The initial phase of the project was only rolled out to users on the British Red Cross WAN, but the wider scope of the project is to make it available to all staff and volunteers, increasing the potential user base to 45,000.
Colette Coyne is e-communications manager for the British Red Cross. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org