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Global Intranets Aren't Just Big Versions of Normal Intranets

November 08, 2021 Digital Workplace
James Robertson
By James Robertson

Global organizations need a great intranet. Whether it’s an arm of the UN or a multinational business, the intranet can stitch together all of the communications and information across disparate locations into a coherent whole.

Having consulted with global organizations for over a decade, I've learned one lesson: global intranets aren't just bigger versions of normal intranets. While all the same fundamentals of UX and content strategy apply, there’s a layer of additional complexity that sits on top that is uniquely related to an organization’s global footprint.

To make sense of it all, global organizations need a clear global vs. local framework that puts shape around what sits where and how all the pieces fit together. Let’s explore what’s involved in shaping this framework.

Challenges and Considerations for Global Intranets

When looking to create or shape a global intranet, teams and projects confront a number of considerations, including:

  • Overwhelming scale. When the global intranet consists of thousands of sites containing millions of pages across dozens of countries, the scale becomes too large to tackle in any one project.
  • Landscape of sites. More than just a single big site, most global firms end up with a landscape of separate intranets, each with their own audience or purpose.
  • Cognitive overload. At the size of most global projects, it becomes impossible for one person to hold a picture of the whole landscape and the whole problem in their head. This makes it impossible to ‘solve’ the situation in a single activity.
  • Organizational complexity. No organization is simple, but at the scale of global firms, there is a remarkable cross-hatching of regions, countries, divisions, market units, brands and products.
  • Global character. There are many ways of going global. Organizational models vary widely, from launching copies of the parent into new countries, growing as a conglomerate or working as a house of brands.
  • Multiplicity of channels. Local staff in one part of the organization will often have their systems and tools, plus local collaboration solutions, all of which compete with the desired vision of a single firm, and a single global intranet.
  • Local variety. In a global firm, there is an enormous difference between headquarters in Paris, a sales office in Australia, and a manufacturing hub in Mexico.

All of these considerations mean there’s no single way of delivering a global intranet, and each approach must reflect the nature and challenges of the organization it serves.

Related Article: The Biggest Problem With Intranet Design

Understanding Global and Local Intranet Needs

In the context of these complex organizations, we can think of two types of information and services:

  • Global (common): Information or tools the whole organization — or the vast majority of employees — needs. 
  • Local (specific): Information or tools needed by a specific group of employees, according to location, business unit or role.

This recognizes that organizations are not homogeneous entities, but are instead made of many component units, each with its own activities and needs.

While the focus of many projects is to deliver a truly global intranet, the reality is there’s very little that’s common across a large and complex organization.

In general, global (common) information consists of:

  • Top-line organizational strategy, including mission and vision.
  • Global news.
  • Global policies and guidelines.
  • Global tools such as an enterprise-wide staff directory.
  • Global corporate services.

In comparison, the vast majority of information and tools are local. HR is a perfect example: while broad guidelines may be global, the specifics of people’s employment, holidays, etc is specific to each company.

Depending on the organization, local (specific) information may consist of:

  • Products and services provided to customers.
  • Local business systems to support customer service.
  • Regulatory and compliance rules.
  • Employment conditions and systems.
  • Other corporate services that are specific to countries.
  • Country or regional strategies and plans.
  • Operational plans and practices.

Both global and local needs must be met. If an intranet only delivers global (corporate) information, it risks becoming irrelevant for the majority of staff. At worst, by forcing staff to start on a global homepage, it makes it harder and slower to find more relevant local content.

Conversely, intranets that address only local needs risk becoming a wild west of hundreds of separate sites with no overall structure or identity. While staff may be able to find their own (local) content, they will struggle to find anything beyond this.

Related Article: Intranets Are Back, But Not How They Used to Be

Defining a Clear Global/Local Framework

What’s needed is an overall framework that defines whether tools, communications and content are treated as global or local. This creates the overall shape for the global intranet, allowing the intranet team to make technology, content and UX decisions based on typical best practice approaches.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to meeting global and local needs, one of the guiding principles is to "go with the grain of the organization." This involves matching the way the organization works, in regards to:

  • Overall organizational structure and operational model.
  • Business strategy and goals.
  • Corporate practices and processes.
  • Products and services delivered.
  • Geographic spread.
  • Technology available.
  • Corporate culture.

The role of the global intranet or digital workplace team must also be factored into this, to determine the scope of what projects you choose to tackle. (The five hats for global teams model that I’ve created provides a powerful way of thinking about this.)

Related Article: Why Did We Stop Trying to Deliver Usable Intranets?

Taking on an Achievable Objective

Every intranet project benefits from having a clear plan of attack. This is doubly the case for global intranet projects. With the overwhelming complexity of global intranets, there’s an ever-present danger of biting off more than can be delivered.

Once a clear global–local framework is in place, teams must then carefully shape a project to match. By definition, this won’t (and can’t ever!) meet the needs of all employees in every corner of the business.

That being said, intranet projects can be pivotal in creating a stronger sense of one organization, meeting shared needs, while empowering local teams to deliver effective solutions for their corners of the business.

Just never forget that global intranets aren’t just bigger versions of normal intranets, and make sure you understand the landscape before diving in!

About the Author

James Robertson is the originator of the global movement towards digital employee experience (DEX). Twenty years in this space, he’s one of the leading thinkers on intranets and digital workplaces. He’s the author of the books “Essential Intranets: Inspiring Sites that Deliver Business Value” and “Designing Intranets: Creating Sites that Work.”

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