Intranets are the corporate equivalent of Beanie Babies. Though they may have been rolled out with great fanfare and even greeted with excitement, many business people now consider them a passing fad not relevant to their jobs and are largely disinterested in using them.
Surveys by Forrester Research reveal that less than half of employees access intranets on a daily basis, and around a third don't use them even once a month. The primary reasons for lack of use were outdated information, poor collaboration features and badly organized data, which made it tough for users to find desired information.
“There is still a bit of a feeling that the intranet is the ugly stepchild to the public-facing website,” said Kara Pernice, managing director of the Nielsen Norman Group, a California-based consulting and research company focused on website usability.
The popularity of intranets may grow, however, as companies incorporate social networking features into intranets to make them more relevant. Some organizations even use social features to make their intranets a hub of collaborative activity, a strategy adopted by the American Hospital Association.
“Social media is helpful to organizations when deployed well on the intranet,” Pernice said. “Employees are often very willing to share and comment on content. It is helpful and promotes community and the sense that employees have a forum in which to be heard.”
Intranets: The Static
For intranets that are not successful, Pernice said poorly chosen or implemented technology can be at fault. There are systems out there, for instance, that promote bad design when used out-of-the box. Similarly, intranets are often set up to enable designers and developers to add features but don’t assist much with the rollout to users.
“One popular system allows developers to simply switch on rating and commenting on all articles on the intranet,” Pernice said. “While a wonderful feature, without the approval and examples from management, plus a strong call to action in the content (at least initially), these social features will not be used. So the feature seems to fail, but really it’s just poor deployment and outreach and sometimes corporate culture.”
Another issue is resource constraints. With the prevailing view that the intranet is far less important than the corporate website, it just doesn’t attract the same level of investment or support. You end up with features such as portals that link to poorly-designed third-party applications, which can waste time and cause frustration for users.
Users also moan about needing to sign in many times, menus that are not consistent and search hassles. A poor search feature can be a real problem, said Pernice, though people usually learn when it’s bad and avoid it.
James Davidson, vice president Digital & Community Strategy at 7Summits, a Milwaukee-based social business consulting company, shared further insights into intranet failure. He drew attention to poor navigation, a lack of integration with business processes, static content and inefficiency that adds up to a poor user experience.
“Intranets are generally modeled after organizational structure/hierarchy (marketing, human resources, IT) or shared network drives, which is not a user friendly way to navigate information,” said Davidson. “They start with lots of content, then add in multiple tools, disparate systems, logins and passwords, poor navigation and outdated platforms. Then you have a hard to use system, and employees will find other ways to get to the content they need.”
Intranets: The Social
Davidson cites IBM, Cisco and CSC as examples of companies that have created vibrant intranets that enjoy broad user adoption. He said they provide better content organization and classification by employees (think Netflix and Pandora ratings/recommendations). Outdated content is filtered out in favor of more relevant content, and a single sign-on is used to improve the user experience.
Social media can play a key role, Davidson added. “Those that are successful with intranets utilize social elements to solve business problems. By tying the intranet investment to the business, it helps employees do their jobs better and easier, aiding in employee adoption as well as measuring success.”
Davidson encourages companies to make use of social media features such as tagging, rating, group document editing, private and public online groups for collaborating, instant messaging, blogging and personalization technology that customizes content streams to the needs of users.
He also mentioned video sharing, polls and enabling user comments on content as good ideas. “Polls are inclusive, fun, and give a pulse on feelings of others you work with,” he said. “Commenting on articles (and rating them) is an easy way to share and learn.”
His views are backed up by a recent study by the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). The IABC found 61 percent of respondents have added social media tools to their corporate intranets, with blogs and discussion boards the most popular social features.
As might be expected, though, not every company gets it right. In fact, the IABC survey discovered that most users found corporate usage of social media clunky at best.
“Adding too many individual team/ project spaces is an issue,” Pernice said. “It seems like a good idea at the time of creation, but content ends up in silos: hard to find, lost, duplicated and outdated.”
Blog stagnation was another cause for concern. The IABC noted that blogs not updated for weeks or months can give a bad impression.
Intranets: The Strategic
To avoid such a fate, Davidson said it’s important to develop an intranet strategy that not only aligns with business goals and processes, but that also emphasizes community creation rather than technology implementation.
“There can be an overemphasis on the technology, where the budget is spent on software and development and not on user experience or activation,” he said. “There can also be lack of activation and ongoing engagement. The ‘build it and they will come’ mentality is just not the case.”
A 14-page Intranet Strategy Plan created by project management community site gantthead.com makes a similar point, encouraging intranet planners to think organizationally, not computationally. The plan notes technologies should be selected based on organizational goals and needs, not popularity with other organizations.
Drew Robb is a freelance writer specializing in technology and engineering. Currently living in California, he is originally from Scotland, where he received a degree in geology and geography from the University of Strathclyde. He is the author of Server Disk Management in a Windows Environment (CRC Press).