Intranets: How can something so important be so bad?

When I mention the word ‘intranet’ in polite company, all-too-often I receive an audible sigh in response. When I worked client-side, I once heard a disgruntled colleague despairingly comment: “Intranets are built by IT people in offices, for other IT people in offices”. Bad intranets overwhelm their audiences with irrelevant information and frustrate them with multiple time-consuming and difficult-to-use systems. This results in disengaged staff, and comes at a financial cost to business as employees waste time that could be better employed on their day-jobs.

It really needn’t be like this.

A good intranet should be an amazingly powerful asset for any business. It embodies the brand and is the purest expression of the employee value proposition. It’s the digital bricks-and-mortar for any distributed workforce. And it’s the single touch point for your employees for many critical operational functions.

Put simply, the best intranet is one that makes your employees' working life easier. It is a tool that can help you build and share knowledge, a tool that helps your employees complete important tasks, a tool that will ultimately improve corporate culture. A good intranet provides useful content, a great intranet communicates personally, visually and socially. And that requires great, intuitive design and clever personalisation. Employees will only see the news, updates, tasks and conversations that are relevant to them. Which is why they come back.

Despite being separated by a solitary letter, there is a huge difference between what makes a good intranet and a good internet site. Fundamentally it comes down to time. Internet destinations are designed to keep users engaged and browsing for as long as possible; Facebook has built a multi-billion-dollar business through its expertise in keeping eyeballs glued to its applications. In contrast, intranets should be simple and intuitive, allowing users to find the information they’re seeking, or quickly complete relevant tasks: whether that’s an everyday exercise like claiming expenses, or something less commonplace like seeking out the paternal leave policy.

Every company is different. But when it comes to intranets, I’ve found that the same questions and challenges arise across all organisations, regardless of whether they comprise of 200 or 200,000 people. In response, we’ve developed a set of universal principles which help our clients build intranets that deliver real value. In a nutshell, it’s about applying contemporary B2C digital thinking to B2B digital challenges: design around the user; ensure the UI and UX is meticulously consistent; make it useful, usable and task-focused; and measure everything. A company’s employees will always be the ultimate arbiters of success (or failure) for any intranet and so understanding their individual needs is paramount.

Over the next two to three years, intranets are set to become increasingly personal, predictive and portable. This creates huge opportunities for businesses but also presents a set of technical and design challenges. We’re already helping several clients to navigate these issues, and if you need any help in transforming your employees’ reaction to the word ‘intranet’ from a sigh to a smile, then please get in touch.

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