It happens – more frequently than it should – that you meet an intranet manager with a somewhat disgruntled look on her face when you start talking about how their intranet is doing. More often than not this is because they are in the middle of a big redesign or a big upgrade to the next version of the intranet platform which ought to be good news. But often it is just one more in a long line of intranet projects which historically have been testing the patience of the intranet team – not to mention the colleagues.
The big problem is that the intranet is too often seen as a project. You may have a nice intranet vision that talks about how your intranet will be the one place above all and must support the business goals and strategies. So, I ask: Since when did it become a business goal to always use the latest version of SharePoint?
Sustained intranet development needed
Some intranet managers argue that you need a more sustainable development model where changes happen incrementally. You need to match what the employees expect from a digital solution that supports their daily work. This is a product of what they need on a daily basis to do their job, but increasingly also what they see and experience on consumer websites. This means that the expectations will grow gradually, which fits nicely with the incremental model. However, from time to time you will see a major shift in the consumer web (eg. Google, Social networking, Mobile) and the user’s expectation shifts with it.
If your development model is based on small, incremental changes it will be hard to catch up with these big changes and you will, over time, see a widening gap between the expectations from the users and the actual offering on your intranet as illustrated in the figure below.
The accelerated development in expectations and the widening gap will result in people moving away from using the intranet or even worse, you will experience mutiny where the users take charge and move elsewhere.
The recurring intranet project
A natural approach to dealing with the shifts will be to rely on the platform vendors to fix this. They have the development capability to make this happen, but the big problem is that all of this development tends to happen retrospectively. The result is that you will have solutions that – at best – gets you up to par. Rarely does it put you ahead of the curve.
Internally in the organization the result is a situation where you do meet the expectations of the employees but you are left with a continuous change management task that you need to attend to while doing the next project. Every major change increases the organizational uncertainty and decreases the trust in your intranet. Combined with the fact that most organizations are not equipped to handle that level of change in an efficient way, you are likely to end up in what can be described as a “perpetual beta situation” where the end users never feel comfortable using the intranet.
The risk of mutiny as described earlier is minimal as the platform meets all requirements for those who would leave, but for the majority of users the level of uncertainty will make them defect i.e. give up on the intranet altogether. Proper change management can prevent this, but in a scenario where change becomes a constant, even your change agents will struggle with keeping up and in the end you will see the perception and satisfaction with your intranet decline.
The balanced intranet development approach
The incremental model comes up short and the project based is too risky – then what?
The key to the answer is to be very aware of the gap between expectations and what you offer. You need to incrementally develop your intranet but do not try to keep up with all the latest trends and infatuations.
Monitor the developments internally and listen to what the users say they need. Two people who think that a social network is a great idea is not enough to warrant as much as one minute spent on clarification but if you see 1000 people using 4 competing solutions then you have discovered a potential need and this is when you need to intervene.
One of my favorite quotes is from American philosopher Henry David Thoreau:
We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success
This describes the above model quite nicely. Any big leap like this will to a certain extent be into the dark and there is an enormous change management task ahead. The good thing, however, is that you will be able to plan ahead and knowing that you will go back to the trusted incremental development, you will have every chance to succeed using frameworks like Kurt Lewin’s model for change management.
The biggest risk in this scenario occurs if you cheap out on the change management part - do this wrong or with too little impact and you will have alienated all users because of the huge change and your intranet is doomed. It’s simply not enough to post a story on the intranet and run 4 webinars for the employees.
Minding the gap - also on your intranet
How to assess the gap between your current intranet and the employee’s expectations is not an exact science and there are many factors playing a role on this. It will be a complex mix of internal factors like company culture and technical proficiency among staff but also factors like company growth strategies (acquisitions require more flexibility than organic growth), management turnover rate (new people bring other expectations), and change frequency in core business processes (little or no change in the processes = few changes in tasks = slow intranet development) contribute to the size and growth of this gap.
In the end it all boils down to finding the right balance. Many of you are probably thinking that this is all about governance so why this talk about development models? I don’t disagree – governance is hugely important here to ensure that you have all the resources you need both people-wise and financially. But even the most well governed intranet may fall into one of these traps.
Incremental, Project based or Sustainable – all three models can work but only as long as you watch out carefully and mind the gap distance between the train and the platform.
Learn more and continue the intranet conversation
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