posted 12 Jun 2002 in Volume 5 Issue 9
Breaking the ice
Intranet development in private banking
When MeesPierson created a global intranet, Icebreaker, its main objectives were to improve knowledge sharing, create a central information resource and lower cultural barriers. The application now serves the company’s 12 locations around the world, but Luis Santine does not believe the system has fully achieved all of its goals. Here he discusses the obstacles the company has still to overcome, chief among which are content management and employee engagement.
MeesPierson is the dedicated private banking division of the Fortis Bank organisation. In February 2001, Icebreaker went live as the first global dedicated intranet application for the private banking division. Icebreaker is currently the central platform for all business-line communication. The application is stable and is well known throughout the organisation. We currently have a returning visitor base of approximately 500 users, the majority of whom use the site to carry out investment research.
Initially eight locations were connected (the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain, Switzerland, Guernsey, the Bahamas and Curacao), but now all 12 of the locations we operate in are connected to Icebreaker, albeit through different forms of connection. The application offers access to the same company and industry information to approximately 2,500 users worldwide. This alone is a major accomplishment as it marks the first time we have successfully launched a truly global application that reaches the various locations that previously operated mostly independently.
Our management team, together with the working party communications and IT group, decided Icebreaker would be the central platform for all information relevant to the private banking and trust business line. The application aims to break down the barriers that stand in the way of the effective sharing of knowledge and information. In addition, by representing the entire organisation, Icebreaker can help stimulate the management teams of different locations to reach a consensus in terms of company structure, strategy and investment decision making. Icebreaker thus has the potential to become much more than an ordinary, communications and information distribution-based intranet.
Some of the initial benefits that we hoped to achieve with Icebreaker were:
- Easy access to company information;
- Provision of a quick and effective reference point;
- Promotion and cross-selling opportunities;
- Increasing our knowledge of business and market developments;
- Building consistency into the way we bring the MeesPierson brand to life.
In terms of cost savings, we focused primarily on basic measures, such as the reduction in the use of paper and the increased efficiency of information distribution. Our main concern, however, has been overcoming cultural barriers and providing a platform to share knowledge and information, and to allow effective communication.
A work in progress
Nevertheless, I believe that a great deal of work has still to be done if we are to achieve what we set out to with Icebreaker. The application has insufficient content and the site is still not used widely enough. The intranet has also been developed primarily through grassroots efforts in a few departments, rather than via a production utility on behalf of the entire enterprise. As a result, the application lacks the necessary structure and organisation to reach its goal of becoming a proprietary information system, dedicated to supporting and stimulating communication and information sharing. The lack of content and commitment from the various business-line competences has kept the application from becoming a truly central platform for all information relevant to the private banking and trust business line.
Similarly, although offering the same information to everyone can be a source of strength, it also represents a weakness, in that users are typically not interested in viewing only general information. Our global intranet is not able to offer personalised information to individual users, as it was primarily built to function as a dynamic information database. This is a clear shortcoming of the application, as users would clearly prefer a personalised approach where they can indicate their preferences and be provided with content relevant to their specific field of expertise. E-mail alerts alone simply won’t meet this need.
Over the course of the past year we have faced many challenges that now serve as excellent experience that will shorten the learning curve for future application development. First, due to the lack of a dedicated content management team, the available information has become somewhat chaotic and unstructured, making it extremely difficult for users to conduct quick and accurate searches. Since we lack an adequate classification system or tool to manage our information, searches by users tend to lead to inaccurate results. Furthermore, the bulk of the information tends to originate from the Netherlands, causing users abroad to view the intranet as mostly a Dutch application, exported to the rest of the network. In addition, again due to the lack of a proper classification system, it is not always possible to offer clearly presented English and non-English publications.
While our business is very knowledge intensive, it has also proven extremely difficult to get an accurate representation of all available information on the products and services we offer. Much of this is to do with the transitional phase the company is currently in, as well as the lack of clear structure in terms of content provision. A great deal of information is still viewed as local information and is therefore not available to the rest of the network. Returning visitors to Icebreaker typically use the application to conduct investment research, as investment is our core business and tends to be the most accurate and complete area of the application.
Achieving employee buy-in
Achieving user buy-in has also been a challenge. We made some wrong assumptions by expecting our employees to automatically engage with and use the system. However, users will only adopt an application if they are required to work with it, or if they can expect considerable added value through minimum effort. As users become more demanding, they expect the application to provide them with personalised information. This is especially true on a local level, where users demand access to information relevant to their environment. Therefore, country-specific data or information must be presented on a local site. Failure to do so will discourage users from identifying with an online information environment that does not relate to them.
Last year we held roadshow presentations in our Dutch offices. Through ten one-hour sessions we presented Icebreaker to over 200 Dutch users. The response was overwhelming, and we saw a significant jump in intranet use, resulting in much greater awareness among users. Many departments, teams and project groups have contacted us since, inquiring about ways to use Icebreaker as a platform to communicate their activities or publications to the rest of the organisation.
We want the intranet to become a trusted and reliable information source to ensure transparency within the organisation. To achieve this, we aim to create as much traffic on Icebreaker as possible. On 1 August 2001, we discontinued the distribution of our publications using traditional sources like e-mail and the Lotus Notes bulletin board. Since then, all information has only been accessible via Icebreaker. This is in line with our goal of making Icebreaker the central platform for all communication and information within the business line.
Achieving your objectives with an intranet requires more than just developing the right infrastructure – you also need the right processes to keep the intranet up-to-date with new and relevant content.
We have a sponsor group that supports the intranet and its content. The core concept behind the group is to divorce content generation from the responsibility of running an intranet site by creating an empowered community to create and collect the necessary content. In this way, we are certain that material is being developed at source and that it reflects what is going on in the business.
Companies with poor organisational memories will lose customers and business. Managing information means making it relevant to the decisions that need to be made. The value of information is therefore closely linked with its context. If managed properly, however, a corporate intranet can play a significant role in achieving improved use of information and, as a result, more effective communication and knowledge sharing throughout the organisation.
Luis Santine is global application manager and head of knowledge development at MeesPierson. He can be contacted at: email@example.com