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Intranets Mirror Their Organizations – The Good and the Bad

July 18, 2022 Digital Workplace
James Robertson
By James Robertson

No two organizations are alike. Each is shaped by its history, structure, size, services, culture and a hundred other factors. At their best, intranets hold up a mirror to the organizations they serve. At their worst, they reflect all the weaknesses and issues that beset their organizations. The challenge is to make the most of the positive opportunities, while mitigating the challenges.

Understanding the Differences

In my 25-year career as a consultant, I’ve observed that even apparently similar organizations have very different makeups on the inside.

The factors driving this include:

  • Size.
  • Geographic spread.
  • Technology.
  • Resources.
  • Culture (staff and organizational).
  • Staff skills and experience.
  • History.
  • Services offered.
  • Strategic direction.

One government agency might look the same as every other one on the surface, but the way it accomplishes work, how it makes decisions, and the tools it has in place will all be very different.

Firms that have merged or grown by acquisition will see these differences magnified, with one part of the business operating quite at odds with other parts. The echoes of these mergers can be felt for years or even decades.

While there are universal best practices that apply to all intranets (and digital workplaces), these solutions must match the environment they operate in. The starting point must therefore be to understand the business context of a firm as deeply as possible. This will often mean conducting in-depth research, such as one-on-one interviews and workplace observation, to go beyond the surface understanding that emerges from more broad-brush research techniques such as surveys and focus groups.

An understanding of the business direction and strategic context of the business, including the priorities of leaders at multiple levels, is also foundational. Only with all this information at hand does it become possible to deliver an intranet that’s the best fit to the organization.

Related Article: Your Intranet Should Be a Little Messy

Great Intranets Hold Up a Mirror

The best intranets make their mark by holding up a mirror to the organizations they serve, reflecting business strengths and celebrating the people who make up their workforces.

This can be done by:

  • Highlighting the successes of the organization, in terms of services provided or products created.
  • Magnifying the strengths of the firm, in terms of business capabilities and staff competencies.
  • Living the values of the firm, reflected in the way the platform operates.
  • Enabling employees to carry out their work in way that strengthens the organization.

In practice, this can take many forms. We’ve seen our clients' intranets celebrate the very real impact their nonprofits are having on the world, which may involve solving world hunger. We’ve also seen engineering firms using their intranets to share knowledge and to use the remarkable skills of their workforce to advance the state of their entire industries.

In some cases, it’s as simple as featuring stories and profiles of staff who are doing great work in their day-to-day jobs.

Related Article: Applying the Why, How and What Model to Your Intranet

An Intranet Can't Fix Organizational Challenges and Issues

If intranets at their best showcase the positive attributes of their organizations, the opposite is also true: they reflect the challenges, issues and weaknesses in firms.

If an organization is heavily siloed, then an intranet can’t make staff work more closely together. If there are still two HR departments after a merger, the intranet can’t paper over these differences to create a single HR section. If senior leaders are reserved in their personalities, then the intranet can’t use internal comms features to build leader engagement.

The key principle for intranet teams is therefore: Don’t try to get ahead of the organization.

If teams take on the task of creating a single intranet for a merger that’s just weeks old, then it becomes the intranet team's problem to negotiate all the inherent complexities and unresolved questions.

For the same reasons, intranets (and digital workplaces) can’t drive organizational change or create new work cultures. They can only go as far and as fast as the organization is ready for — but once the organization is ready, intranets can support the changes as they unfold.

All of this is magnified in large and/or global firms. For a bank with 50,000 staff, each division is as large as a typical company, and each will have its own characteristics. In a similar way, organizational considerations will be very different between Australia, Japan, Germany and Brazil. In these cases, there can’t be ‘one’ intranet, as there’s not one organization in practice. But the intranet can help foster efforts to create a stronger shared culture.

Related Article: Do We Still Need Intranet Teams?

Intranets Can’t Be Transplanted, But You Can Borrow Ideas

Because intranets need to match their organization, it’s meaningless (and generally dangerous) to attempt to ‘transplant’ the design of a successful intranet directly into another organization.

Instead, adapt the lessons learnt from the successful intranet to fit the unique conditions of the organization. Approaches that have been wildly successful in one organization may completely fail in another. Intranet ‘killer apps’ are similarly variable from one organization to another.

That still leaves plenty of room to borrow and adapt ideas from other intranets for your own uses, provided they are a good fit for your organization’s culture and processes.

In this way, organizations can do much to help each other — and to further build the practice of intranets — without having to resort to the concept of the ‘best’ (or even ‘better’) intranet. We can also use this approach to guide which elements to draw on from successful intranet case studies.

Related Article: Top Intranets Tackle Hybrid Workplace Challenges and More News

Learning From the Intranet

A final note: if intranets hold up a mirror to their organizations, they can be used to learn more about the organizations’ culture, including their strengths and weaknesses.

In this way, we can potentially use intranets to identify when an organization is highly siloed, or pinpoint ineffective communications. In this way, ther state of intranets can be used as a barometer for the organization itself.

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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