In recent years, corporate intranets and other internal knowledge-sharing systems have moved from “nice to have” to “must have” status in virtually all industries.
In many cases, they have evolved into information-sharing platforms that companies rely on to survive in a knowledge-driven global economy.
Intranets exist in all sizes, shapes, and forms. They range from comprehensive, all-encompassing sites that attempt to collate and store the collective knowledge of global companies to the relatively low-cost, lean intranets built for small professional service firms or individual departments within larger organizations.
While some intranets require large, full-time content and IT support teams, others are just one of many items on a human resources or communications manager’s job description. Some rely on a high level of central control and others are built on a philosophy of decentralization.
The quality that unites intranets is their overall purpose: to drive organizational efficiency and productivity, support the sharing of best practices, lead to more-informed decisions, and in some cases, serve as the primary channel for internal communications.
Management skepticism about intranets and other knowledge-sharing efforts has often been based on their alleged lack of providing a return-on-investment (ROI).
Admittedly, most benefits are intangible and cannot easily be measured using conventional ROI criteria.
However, industry research increasingly demonstrates that intranets have a direct impact on bottom-line results. For example, several Fortune 500 companies report ROIs of up to $20 million.
Research has also demonstrated that intranets have a significant effect on workforce efficiency and productivity, and that there is a significant correlation between intranet satisfaction and job satisfaction.
So far, so good. But despite these optimistic findings, the intranet outlook for many organizations remains grim.
Low usage, aborted intranet projects and complaints of inefficient allocation of resources are widespread.
Too often, knowledge sharing is seen as an unwelcome, separate activity, detached from employees’ “real” work. How can this outlook be improved?
Steps To Success — A Few Guidelines
Let’s start with a truism: An intranet is not a toy. Rather, it is a strategic investment made by an organization to capture and disseminate intellectual capital and, in the process, remain competitive.
Too often, this goal seems to have been forgotten. Elaborate knowledge-sharing platforms that were built and launched proved to have little connection to employees’ real needs and the organization’s business goals.
Experience shows that employees use an intranet primarily because it is of substantial benefit to them and helps them perform their jobs better, not because of its sheer availability or a company-dictated policy.
“Build it and they will come” rarely works. Success depends on an ongoing process that has as much to do with people management as it does with the availability of an appropriate information-technology infrastructure.
Guideline number one: Don’t inflate expectations. The introduction or relaunch of any knowledge-management tool is often perceived as a distraction and, therefore, approached with a high dose of skepticism.
Overpromising and the associated disappointment may reinforce skepticism and result in rejection. Setting realistic goals is a prerequisite for success and a good starting point for measuring progress.
The technology and knowledge-management euphoria of the 1990s produced many costly intranet projects that were abandoned shortly after their launch.
Many examples of failed knowledge-sharing efforts can be attributed to underestimating the need for ongoing content and technical management.
Recent experiences clearly demonstrate that outdated content and technical mishaps are major obstacles to user acceptance.
Misleading information can also have an adverse impact on an organization’s ability to make informed decisions.
Any intranet-planning effort, therefore, must carefully map out long-term resource needs for continued maintenance.
Promise of Technology
Organizational knowledge-sharing initiatives sometimes fail because too much emphasis is placed on what technology can achieve rather than on what users actually need.
A more successful approach is to avoid guiding projects by promises of what technology alone can deliver.
At every stage of the process, decision makers need to consider whether a new technology feature supports overall objectives, or is merely an option that could complicate the tool, distract users or result in serious technical-support issues.
Content and Functionality
Given the diversity of corporate environments and needs, there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for “the right” content and tools.
One general rule, however, does apply: The more directly a knowledge-sharing tool is tied to user needs, the more likely it is to be widely used.
An intranet’s purpose is to enhance existing processes, not to create a separate activity.
Knowledge-sharing initiatives should, therefore, start with a candid assessment of the tools employees may be lacking to improve their job performance, as opposed to preconceived notions of what would be nice to have.
Guiding questions should be: Which information and tools are critical to an organization’s operating performance? What resources will help users perform their jobs more efficiently?
More Is Not Always Better
Users are interested in finding — not searching for — the right information without delay.
A good intranet is therefore built on the premise of avoiding the frustrations of information overload whenever possible through a logical site structure, functional search engine and a content-management approach that values quality over quantity.
More sophisticated sites feature virtual communities and collaborative tools, as well as business and financial tools that integrate the intranet into day-to-day work processes.
Keep It Simple
There are no solutions that work for everyone; however, there are solutions that work well for the vast majority of users in an organization.
Experience shows that intranet tools implemented to satisfy small groups of users with highly specialized needs often fail.
The added complexity can result in dissatisfaction among the user majority. Systematic simplification and standardization — even “underengineering” — of knowledge-sharing tools can be winning approaches.
According to industry surveys, organizations whose intranets have been strategically redesigned to deliver content in a simplified format have seen increases in usage of almost 100 percent.
Knowledge-sharing initiatives require some level of senior-management support. Existing goodwill from the top has to be nurtured, which can be accomplished by communicating progress and successes.
Continuous management commitment and visible involvement is typically a prerequisite for driving a knowledge culture.
Long-term success also requires middle-management support. Those who are in contact with and supervise employees on a daily basis ultimately have a much larger impact on work habits than the CEO or other senior leaders.
A strong knowledge culture depends on informative communications, site improvements, and meaningful incentives that encourage employee involvement.
A People-Based Infrastructure
A reliable content-management system requires a people-based infrastructure with clearly assigned responsibilities. The exact design should be tailored to an organization’s structure, resources, and needs.
Many global companies have achieved excellent results with dedicated knowledge networks that serve as the foundation for their knowledge-management strategy.
Participants can be selected from different levels and departments and across markets and regions.
Although they typically do not have to provide full-time support, their role should be clearly defined within their overall job description.
They further the development and sharing of knowledge and its application to client services and company initiatives. Their responsibilities include:
- Providing local information, research and knowledge from around the world.
- Beta testing new tools and features.
- Delivering hands-on assistance and training to employees in local languages.
- Offering feedback on intranet content, other knowledge management initiatives, and cultural differences that enhance the tool’s effectiveness.
Collaboration And Communities
To achieve maximum impact in today’s business environment, intranets need to go beyond being depositories of static information.
They need to enhance teamwork and knowledge sharing by enabling the creation of team suites, location-independent shared spaces, and real-time collaborative tools.
Intranets need to provide dynamic platforms where employees can share thoughts and insights, and collaborate in “communities of practice” — loosely organized groups of professionals within an organization who are dedicated to a specific interest or expertise.
Communities of practice can significantly improve employees’ ability to solve problems quickly, transfer best practices, and discover fast solutions and strategies that lead to business opportunities.
Knowledge management needs to be actively marketed within an organization.
The launch or relaunch of an intranet provides a unique opportunity to effectively position the intranet by clearly articulating its goals, key features, and value.
However, ongoing post-launch communications are at least as important as the communications for the initial rollout.
Regular updates that highlight new content and features are necessary to keep the site top-of mind.
Systematically prompting employee feedback — through surveys and built-in response mechanisms — assists in refining the site and gauging employee support.
One strategy to position an intranet at the heart of the organization is to use it as the platform of choice for internal communications on topics such as business development, key messages from senior management, and updates on company initiatives.
In many organizations, targeting communications about new knowledge-management solutions to specific internal audiences has been an effective strategy.
Every organization has informal knowledge brokers, thought leaders and teams that are highly motivated to test and champion new approaches.
These groups have to be convinced of the offering’s importance and value in order to become internal marketers.
Considering the growing evidence for unsuccessful organizational knowledge-management efforts, it is important to emphasize once again that knowledge-management communications must be realistic and candid.
Overstated claims create a disconnect between wishful thinking and organizational realities, and can result in a lack of trust and usage erosion.
Coping With Change
Knowledge-management tools are evolving resources that easily adapt to an organization’s changing business environment.
For example, an intranet can be an especially invaluable asset during a crisis situation by providing employees with up-to-the minute information and leadership messages.
It is during these times that the site’s most dynamic capabilities can be exhibited. When a large U.S. company filed for bankruptcy protection, Burson-Marsteller developed an employee Web site that enabled the company to quickly and effectively convey key messages and increase its dialogue with internal audiences.
The company emerged from the crisis stronger than ever, with employees demonstrating new levels of confidence and trust. Sales in some divisions increased an unprecedented 181 percent over projected goals.
An effective knowledge-sharing system improves productivity, supports a culture of teamwork, facilitates learning through the sharing of best practices and provides easy access to information.
This may be straightforward in theory, but making it work is the challenge. Perhaps surprisingly, the main stumbling blocks on the road to success are often not technology-related, but can be found in the areas of communications and change management.
We hope that this point of view provides insights and strategies that can make your intranet successful.