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How to build a successful intranet
By William Amurgis
Is your organization’s intranet an unqualified success?
If so, congratulations – you’re likely in the minority. For the rest of us, we may often see glimpses of success, but continue to confront obstacles, or take missteps, or simply lose our way.
I’ve worked on intranets since before the term was even coined (around 1995), and I’ve made plenty of mistakes. However, I’ve also stumbled into a few triumphs, and learned some important lessons along the way.
To me, these are the 10 fundamental activities that lead to a successful intranet:
1. Respect your audience. Your intranet exists to serve all the people of your organization, regardless of rank, function, location, or tenure. Get to know them, and seek to understand how your intranet can help them. Encourage them to contact you directly, and engage in thoughtful conversations with them.
This activity may seem so obvious and elementary, yet you’d be amazed by how many organizations bypass or betray it:
- By glorifying the technology above all else,
- By serving the needs of leaders exclusively,
- By choosing a ponderous, uninspiring design that sucks out all joy,
- By neglecting to keep it up-to-date,
- Or even by treating people with disdain or disgust if they become confused or critical.
Showing respect for your audience – in all that you do – is the single most important quality of a successful intranet. Let that be the guide for all your subsequent decisions, and you’ll remain on the path of righteousness.
2. Align with your organization's values (real or desired). The structure, terminology, and tone of your intranet should be consistent with your organization’s strategy and values. Don’t underestimate the intranet’s ability to reinforce your current culture, or even steer people toward the culture you aspire to have.
You can also leverage these values to defend your decisions. When we implemented interactive environments (such as employee comments) on our intranet several years ago, some leaders expressed apprehension. When I responded by pointing to our stated values around shared commitment, high involvement, and collaboration, they recognized the alignment and their concerns were defused.
3. Have a clear purpose.
If you don’t know the purpose of your intranet, how can you tell if it’s successful?
We’ve developed a four-fold purpose for our intranet, which has endured since its inception more than 10 years ago:
- Enhance employee productivity (help people do their jobs).
- Reinforce corporate messages (to ensure that people are productive on the right things).
- Provide a place for all to meet and share.
- Have a personality (to provide comfort and encourage interaction).
When deciding what to work on, or how to prioritize our work, we consult our four-fold purpose.
4. Place someone in charge.
I’ve managed intranets from within Information Technology and Corporate Communications departments, and I’ve seen others managed out of Marketing, Human Resources, and Knowledge Management. I’ve witnessed debates over who should manage an intranet, and heard some call for an executive-level leader.
My opinion: it doesn’t really matter where your intranet is managed out of – as long as you place someone in charge, with the freedom to lead and a passion for serving all of your people. Obviously, the higher this person sits in the organization, with a commanding view of all that is going on, and the resources to swiftly react, the better – but that’s just a bonus.
By all means, avoid placing a committee in charge. Decisions will require consensus, impeding responsiveness and progress.
5. Forge relationships.
Now that you have someone in charge, make sure this person has the tact and diplomacy to forge relationships across the organization.
Focus on key relationships with the following:
- Information Technology
- Design - Corporate Communications
- Human Resources
- Ethics and Compliance
- Audit Services
- Your chief executive
For example, I’ve forged a relationship with our vice president of ethics and compliance and our H.R. director of diversity, who have willingly accepted the role of deciding if an employee’s behavior on the intranet is inappropriate. Thus, my team can concentrate on encouraging participation, not enforcing it.
6. Assemble a team and assign roles.
It may be practical or expedient for you to hire an agency or license software to build your intranet, but I believe success and satisfaction are more likely to occur if you build it yourself, in-house. (And, from my experience, a home-grown intranet costs dramatically less.)
I prefer to invest in talent. For a successful intranet, you’ll want to assemble a team with the following roles:
- Writing and editing
- Design and photography
- Technology – managing the infrastructure
- Technology – Web development
- Measurement, usability, and community management
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need a team of 5 or more people, or that they all must be dedicated to the intranet – although that would be ideal. Much of our intranet was built by a team of just three people, serving 19,000 employees.
7. Conduct research.
To be successful, your intranet must keep pace with the ever-rising expectations of your audience. These expectations are largely set by personal experiences with consumer technology and public Web sites. Therefore, you must constantly keep abreast of new approaches and techniques, and adopt those that fit your organization.
Another way to conduct research is to visit other organizations to review their intranets. We’ve hosted and visited dozens of organizations over the years, and always learn something new from these exchanges.
8. Design and develop.
At this point, we have purpose, alignment, relationships, a leader, and a team. We know our audience and have conducted research. With such a solid foundation, we’re now ready to build the intranet.
The process begins conceptually, as we establish the site structure and labeling. We pay particular attention to the layout of the home page, which will be the intranet’s most-visited page.
Our designers lead this effort, ensuring that all three aspects of the design are optimized:
- Visual design: the quality and consistency of the intranet’s appearance.
- Interactive design: the clarity of layout, links, and forms to encourage interaction.
- Emotional design: the use of vivid photography to evoke emotional responses.
The design evolves iteratively. We produce multiple designs, show them to members of our audience, ask them how they would conduct key tasks, observe their success (or lack thereof), and then revise accordingly – and repeat. In time, this process reveals a workable design. Then, the designers work closely with the developers to construct and maintain the intranet.
9. Monitor and encourage.
To determine if your intranet is fulfilling its purpose, you’ll want to monitor the behavior of your audience and offer encouragement. To do so:
- Evaluate traffic patterns (page views) to spot trends.
- Analyze common search terms and tune results.
- Read all employee-generated content and participate in online discussions.
- Establish guidelines for proper use and refer to them when necessary.
- Respond swiftly (and politely) to questions and feedback.
I read all employee comments on our intranet – responses to photographs, news stories, problems seeking solutions, executive blogs, and questions from colleagues – totaling hundreds each day. I call them my daily focus group, and can’t imagine what I would do without the insights they provide.
10. Adapt and evolve.
The journey will not always be smooth. You’ll frequently encounter resource constraints, opposition, and setbacks. Be an advocate for the people you serve, pushing boundaries on their behalf, but not at your own peril. Instead, persevere and be patient. You’ll likely outlive or outlast any detractors.
Your organization and audience will continue to evolve, and so must your intranet. Be alert to atmospheric shifts, and be poised to adjust accordingly -- or else risk becoming irrelevant.
Managing an intranet can be a daunting challenge, and success may seem elusive. Follow these 10 fundamental activities, though, and I assure you that your people will appreciate your service to them.
Catch William Amurgis on simply-tv, Wednesday, February 1st at 1pm UK time.
About William Amurgis
William Amurgis is the Director of Internal Communications at American Electric Power (AEP), a large electric utility serving 5.3 million customers in the United States. His group manages the corporate intranet, AEP Now, which was recognized by the Nielsen Norman Group as one of the world's ten best in 2007. He has spoken about intranets across North America and Europe, and will be a keynote presenter at the Intranets2012 conference in Australia in May.
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