10 worst practices you could be doing on your Intranet

It’s good to learn from your mistakes, but it’s much cheaper to learn from someone else’s.

With this in mind, here’s a summary of 10 worst practices that I’ve seen as an intranet consultant and manager over the years. What strikes me is that, even as technology has moved on and trends such as social media and the ‘consumerisation of IT’ have risen, the fundamentals of what goes wrong are pretty persistent.

1. Making your intranet all about HQ. Organisations often want to give all employees the same homepage. This means that content has to be relevant to everyone. Unfortunately what this actually means is that the content is not particularly relevant to anyone unless they’re in the executive team – and they probably knew what was in the announcement weeks ago. As a result, employees soon dismiss the intranet as “nice to know”. Better intranets combine corporate news with more local content, feeds from peer activities and even provide a dashboard on work in progress.

2. Making your intranet unreliable. A surprising number of organisations tolerate systems that are painfully slow (often they work great in the head office but grind to a halt in the local sites). The basic implications for response times have never changed: 0.1 seconds is a responsive system, 1.0 seconds keeps people’s train of thought going, more than 10 seconds and people switch to doing something else. Unreliability can also mean they’re unstable or appear to randomly lose people’s work. Hear that cry of anguish? It’s when somebody spends ages getting their words right, clicks “submit” and gets a “server timed out message”.

3. Making it a really expensive corporate magazine. The Communications department is often seen as the ‘owner’ of an intranet. However, a site that has nothing but news is unlikely to attract much use, and ceases to be viable even as a communications channel. Let’s face it most company news is like the advertising in a magazine: people only see it when they’re on their way to something else. Trying to get people to visit a site that’s mostly about news and static information is therefore like bussing people to the desert to look at your billboard. Even basic tools like a comprehensive people finder can make a difference.

4. Making your intranet all one-way. A desire to control what is said can lead to an intranet that is too locked-down. It becomes seen as a corporate mouthpiece rather than a place where people can share views and feed back to the company. Even today when social media is well understood, I see very few examples of it being truly integrated across organizations. Some intranets have just one blog, belonging to the CEO. Yet he’s the one who needs it least. He already has access to any channel he needs. The big gap is involvement by middle-managers and everyone else who wouldn’t otherwise get heard.

5. Letting the intranet grow organically. Without clear strategy and governance, intranets can become unusable, with confused navigation and duplication of collaboration tools. When doing a strategy review for a client recently, one project manager complained “Occasionally I need to get out an announcement to the company, but I’ve no idea where to start. Do I create a news article? Does it go on all our intranet sites or just one? Am I meant to blog about it or create a wiki article instead?… sometimes it seems simpler just to keep quiet”.

6. Hiding all the good stuff. Sometimes finding essential information in an intranet is so hard you begin to suspect that the owners are deliberately hiding it away, like Gollum jealously guarding his precious from the sneaky little hobbitses. If it’s the expenses claim form you can see why, but for everything else it just makes working life more inefficient. Poor search engines don’t help, but much more can be done around getting the information architecture right and cultivating a mindset in content owners. Don’t ask “Where should I store the information” but “What do I need to do to connect the information with people who need it?”. Paul Clumsee did an excellent summary of a LinkedIn discussion on why users can’t find stuff.

7. Assuming leaders know best. Just about every intranet will have pages that are ‘vanity sites’. You know, the ones that are beautifully designed but never change, and feature a grinning mugshot of some leader with a vacuous “welcome to the page of my department” introduction. To be fair to most intranet managers, they often do try to resist these. A more subtle sin is that leaders are often asked to sign off intranet designs but then insist on changes based on their personal preferences or politics around menu items, despite everything good usability practice or user testing says to the contrary.

8. Excluding half your workforce. Sometimes you’ll hear intranet managers boast that 70% or even 90% of their staff are regular intranet users, but when pressed this turns out to be a percentage of office-based staff. The poor employees in factories, on the road or serving customers don’t get a say. Often the argument is that they wouldn’t want to use the intranet, but there are plenty of success stories such as WalMart, Boots and British Airways that suggest otherwise. They may not have a PC at work, but there’s a good chance they have a smartphone of their own.

9. Gizmo interfaces. Visual design is often seen as an aesthetic choice rather than an element of good usability. Normally intranet designs are tested as if they were web-sites that need to hook people with an initial wow-factor, rather than a daily tool. Similarly, your corporate brand can be reflected on your intranet without it being the foundation for your design. I was once involved in an intranet sub-site for a marketing team whose product brand was primarily black, red and orange. They insisted on a site that looked the same. In protest we produced a page mock-up. It looked terrible, like a moody teenager’s bedroom. We showed it to them expecting enlightenment: “that’s fantastic!” they replied “when can we have it?”

10. Leaving adoption till last. …like I have in this list. Everyone knows adoption matters, and most intranet managers will talk about the impact of culture, the need to answer “what’s in it for me?” and so on. But in practice if you look at how resources are allocated, the technical side tends to get the lion’s share. I suspect this is partly because it is more tangible, so feels easier to plan. I also suspect that people who like intranets are also more tuned in to the latest developments, so see their intranet as ‘dated’ and in need of an upgrade long before users do (quote from a recent employee survey “we don’t want more ‘things’, we want to make more use of what we have”). When planning intranet roadmaps, think not so much about when you will launch a feature, but milestones of when it becomes the “way we do things” in your organisation.

About the Author

Sam Marshall is the director of ClearBox Consulting Ltd (clearboxconsulting.co.uk). Sam has specialised in Intranets and collaboration for over 14 years and works as a consultant focusing on intranet strategy; the growth of the digital workplace and the business side of SharePoint. He can be contacted at sam@clearboxconsulting.co.uk or @sammarshall on twitter.

Sam will be a keynote speaker at Interaction 2012 – the London intranet conference on October 3rd.