posted 18 Dec 2006 in Volume 10 Issue 4
Case study: Norwich Union
Who owns the intranet? Who decides what can – and can’t – be published? Four years ago, insurer Norwich Union started to tackle the issue of intranet governance in its life assurance business. Today, governance is being tackled enterprise-wide.
By Chris Sparrow
I’d like to start this article with an admission. Well, less of an admission and more of a fact: during my current eight-year career with Norwich Union, I have only ever worked with intranets.
What’s so fantastic about that, you might ask? Many people have only worked in new media or on the web since they left college or university. Others have created their own unique sites and found fame and fortune in the process. I, on the other hand, have supported, designed, built and now lead the same intranet.
During those eight years, I have enjoyed many highs and endured many lows. Many projects have been delivered and challenges faced. I have worked in many different teams and had many different roles – but in all of that time, one issue has been dominant.
Who has ownership?
Eight years ago, I was working in the company’s IT department, developing simple tools and content for the intranet. Following a change in priorities in the IT department, I was seconded to the internal-communications team, working with a group of distributed publishers across our business. A couple of years later, I was appointed intranet manager for the life assurance business and, this summer, was given responsibility for the entire UK intranet.
During my time with Norwich Union, I have developed many different areas of the intranet. I have worked with and disagreed with (on occasions) a variety of different departments across the company. These disputes have been around design, technology or editorial strategies – but were very rarely directly about governance.
Yet in truth, most of these conversations were about governance. Indeed, the governance of an intranet is possibly the most discussed – yet very rarely explicitly – facet of intranet management.
Why is this? Maybe it is because it is easier for marketing to take ownership of the design and communications, to write the copy for the homepage, and for IT to own the technology platform. But where does the ownership of the actual governance model sit?
The starting point
I am going to start by returning to 2002, when both Norwich Union and the intranet were very different places.
At the time, the company was in the concluding phase of a massive programme of change following the merger of Norwich Union with rival CGU. Business processes were being re-engineered and internal online content rewritten to reflect the new organisation. The merger meant that the organisation had to grapple with many disparate and unconnected IT systems and networks.
At this time, attempts to support the intranet from the ‘corporate centre’ were largely ineffective. The number of differences in publishing models,
tools, networks, servers and attitudes meant it was a single system in name only. Some good work had been undertaken to develop a single intranet ‘brand’ and visual identity, but these were largely superficial.
The different servers and networks across the company meant employees continued to author and publish content, regardless of any form of central control. Simple processes were being placed online using rudimentary programming techniques and the whole system had a ‘homespun’ feel.
While much of this may sound familiar, the more detailed information requirements of an insurance company added a further layer of complexity.
Increased regulation across the insurance industry, not to mention the detailed requirements of the UK regulator, the Financial Services Authority (FSA), posed a further set of challenges. In intranet terms, this involved ensuring that the business content was correct and that staff used the right material when dealing with customers. Equally important was that the salesforce should have its own accurate – and compliant – training materials available.
On top of all this, one of the major challenges facing the life-assurance business – which is where the governance strategy was initially applied – compared to general insurance, is the length of the term of a policy.
Most insurance policies last for just one year, but a life policy can last ten or twenty years, or even for the duration of someone’s life. This can make the management of content particularly challenging because so much legacy information needs to be retained.
The picture in 2002 was one of an intranet that was very good in parts, but that was not truly adding value. In some cases it was costing us business. The need for formal governance was greater than it had ever been.
Starting the journey
In terms of the options available, the first was that we could not simply throw money at the problem. The life-assurance industry was entering a period of turbulence following the events of 9/11, falling share prices and a loss of confidence in the long-term savings industry.
Our second major issue was the lack of a clear mandate because different parts of the business viewed the intranet as ‘their tool’. While names and labels such as ‘intranet manager’ and ‘intranet team’ had been attached to the part of the business I worked in, these did not carry the necessary weight or authority.
So what did we do to create a governance model? The first thing we did was to ignore the problems we had with governance, lack of budget and the lack of an explicit mandate.
In order for a workable governance structure to be established, we needed to convince senior management that they needed it. We had to show we could add value, improve the intranet for the entire business and do it all without incurring additional costs.
So, we devised a carefully planned programme of activity that attempted to appeal to as wide an audience at senior level as possible.
Deliverable one – ‘intranet nirvana’
For three months we worked to build a view of what ‘intranet nirvana’ might look like. We met with consultants from outside, examined best-practice intranet sites and produced a working proposition that would position the intranet as a leading-edge system.
Basic prototypes were developed, showing all of the capabilities such an intranet would offer. We produced static HTML pages to demonstrate how interactive elements or personalisation might work. We worked with colleagues in marketing to produce a modern design and incorporated as many features as we could.
We then used this prototype to get time with the senior management across the business to show what we could offer. This ‘airtime’ was invaluable as it gave us a chance to demonstrate the value we could add. However, we did not use the time only to demonstrate the potential new technology – we had a better idea.
Deliverable two – resources
The largest single challenge to the central intranet team was the fact that we only had two developers/consultants and a manager. However, across the rest of the business there were another ten people who worked on the intranet full-time and a similar number for whom it was a considerable part of their role.
While the business reasons for these employees to be in their positions made sense, they had no formal link with us. From a governance perspective they were able to do what they wanted and did not need to follow any standard approach to developing and publishing content.
So, we decided to audit who was doing what to the intranet. We contacted as many of the content providers as we could and asked them a few simple questions about what they were doing, what time it took them, what skills they had and what part of the business they reported into. It took a few weeks to build up a complete picture of the total intranet resource across the company, but once we had it the data was invaluable.
Armed with this information and our proposal for intranet nirvana, we confidently spoke to the senior teams and offered some suggestions.
Why was the business producing intranet content in silos? Why were departments paying for resources to produce content when they could have it from a centrally funded team? Naturally, intranet nirvana was some years off, but by releasing full-time staff into a central team, we could begin to move in the right direction more quickly, we argued.
Our first step towards bringing governance to the intranet deliberately ignored the whole question of governance. We worked within the boundaries we were forced to work in and endeavoured to influence the business to change. By not mentioning governance or the question mark over our mandate, we were able to state a more simplistic and less contentious model that saw all of the intranet-related resources across the business moving into a central intranet team.
Our arguments to senior leadership were centred on a vision of what we could offer, which persuaded them to move some of their team members into a larger, central team.
We appealed to them financially and built a case that would see the various directors have teams staffed with people from their own professions – not intranet developers.
Although by the beginning of 2003 there had been little tangible progress around the governance of the intranet, massive strides forward had been made. We now had a vision and also the team that could help deliver this.
How we delivered
We realised from the start that we would need to share the knowledge and ideas that were now in one place. This was a valuable experience and was truly a case of ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ – some of our most ‘out of control’ content providers were those who wanted to build standards the quickest.
The first few months were about defining what governance would look like and how it would add value. However, we were well aware that trying to simply impose a layer of rules and controls would be counter-productive. We needed to ensure that we added value in all that we did.
This led to the focus of the team being split. First, we needed to ensure that we continued to deliver against all of our corporate priorities. Those priorities were inherited by all of the new members when they joined the central team.
What was most obvious – and also the most powerful example of our movement in the right direction – were the conversations around the different methods for producing content. Each team member brought their own preferred ways of completing the same tasks.
However, the conversations around the different content-production methods gradually led to greater efficiency and the development of a core set of standards, tools and techniques.
The major advantage of this, in addition to standardisation, was the fact that development and content-production time dropped dramatically. During the first six months, we were able to remove a lot of needless duplication and concentrate on core processes. This had a positive impact on what we could deliver back to the business and meant we could examine, as a team, new methods and processes.
The second focus was to define what we wanted governance to look like. Although there was less intranet activity in the business (because of the centralisation), we needed to ensure we were clear about the outcomes we wanted. We were aware the intranet nirvana work was a desired end-point, but we would need to focus on a series of smaller changes first.
We looked at all areas of intranet publishing and gradually defined what we felt these should look like. At no point did we try to rapidly change processes or even strongly enforce governance models on the business. Instead, we preferred to work gradually, taking particular areas of the intranet step-by-step and defining new methods of working. This approach was used with the templates we produced, the tools for authoring content and the standards we used to build our applications.
If there was the opportunity to use another initiative or legislative change, we employed that and built it into our governance model. A good example of this was a change to the external brand or a new advertising campaign, where we would use the new imagery or typography to change the design of the intranet. Similarly the focus on the Disabilities Discrimination Act (DDA) of 2004 provided a good opportunity to roll out a consistent set of templates for all content.
These gradual steps led to the evolution of a governance model that relied on the business trusting the intranet team to deliver. We became a ‘hub’ for all intranet activity and had touch-points in marketing and IT to ensure we worked to a common set of goals.
What we implemented
Our governance model is now based on three key elements: the design of the intranet, the technology that underpins the intranet and, of course, its content.
To remove any doubt from the business, we worked with the marketing and brand-management teams to build a set of corporate guidelines for all intranet content. We followed the lead provided by much of the external brand work and produced a comprehensive document detailing colours, template sizes, typography and imagery.
From a governance perspective, instructing the business to use corporate templates was much easier having already worked with our marketing and brand-management teams – there was little room for people to argue for variance in these web-page designs.
To help control the different styles and designs used across the entire site, we developed a consistent tool to enable publishers to author content. This removed people’s capability to produce bespoke content designs and introduced a level of standardisation to content.
We also ensured that content providers were no longer able to publish their content live. Instead, content was passed to the central team for review to ensure consistency. The idea was to ensure all content conformed to the correct templates, was suitable for publishing and fitted with our established standards.
But we did not introduce a check for the validity of the content. Our governance model had removed all of the ‘web development’ elements of intranet publishing, leaving business units to concentrate on authoring their own relevant content. All content is tagged with an author or shared mailbox, enabling readers to contact the relevant business unit directly with their content queries.
The checks we introduced and the overall governance model also benefited the wider organisation. We are able to manage the site and publish more directly relevant content with fewer resources compared with 2002 – and at a lower cost.
Centralised governance had wider corporate benefits, primarily in two main areas. First, our adoption of corporate templates means that we can guarantee that all new intranet sites are DDA compliant.
The second concerns content and, in particular, the heavily regulated area of our product-literature repository. As a central repository for our sales advisors and sales-support teams, the intranet had always held a large store of PDF files for them to download.
To ensure that we operate within the regulator’s guidelines, these files are audited annually by our compliance department. By taking control of this process and developing a more robust approach to getting content online, we have been able to dramatically improve the quality of the site – and the accuracy of its content.
These are just two examples of the improvements we have made. For me, the underlying theme of our governance model is that now, everyone involved in the publishing of the intranet is aware of their own role. Business units can concentrate on content authoring. They manage and are wholly responsible for the lifecycle of their content. Marketing, brand management and IT all feed into the intranet with ideas and thoughts from their respective parts of the business. Finally, the intranet team works as a hub that manages and oversees the entire site.
By making use of the skills within the team and working with the business to offer a substantially better intranet, we were able to prove our worth. The journey took almost two years from the team coming together to our first complete redesign of the site.
This might be regarded as too slow by some and, looking back, there are certain areas we could have done better. However, by adopting a low profile, we managed to avoid a lot of the politics and issues that come with ‘big bang’ changes and were able to complete our work successfully.
This article has, hopefully, explained the intranet governance journey Norwich Union has taken.
However, the structure of the company is such that all of this hard work was only applied to the Norwich Union Life business. A change of focus during the summer has seen my team assume responsibility for the intranet across the whole of Norwich Union’s business in the UK.
This is a major challenge. On one hand, the hard work conducted in the Norwich Union Life business has resulted in the creation of a well-regarded and efficient site. The intranet serving the general insurance business has taken a very different path and, while continuing to add much to the business, has relatively little central governance in place. This means that my role, and the role of my team going forward, is going to be a very challenging one.
However, the fact that we have been asked to do this is positive. Four years ago we had to fight to prove our worth. Yet the operating model has now been accepted by the business and the challenge is to adapt it and roll it out across the entire organisation.
Chris Sparrow is intranet manager at Norwich Union. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Our governance model
In essence our governance model is based on a central intranet team working with other business units to help create a joined-up intranet strategy. Strategic elements are defined in a consultative manner:
- Technology and applications strategy should be defined by IT, with a central intranet able to influence and shape the strategy. The development of applications should either sit with the intranet team, or be passed back to IT;
- Design and appearance should be owned by a central intranet team, with the appropriate input from marketing and brand management;
- Any form of content strategy should be defined in consultation with the wider network of intranet publishers from across the business.