A while ago I asked why companies don’t invest as much in their intranet as they do in their website.
I received loads of feedback, most of which fell into one of two categories.
- Intranets have a captive audience, as employees have to use them. Therefore there is little point in investing time and money into the user experience.
- Intranets are something that you have to have, but just aren’t that useful or used that much.
Although I can understand this point of view, I couldn’t disagree more. However before I explain why, I want to step back and look at the bigger picture.
How businesses make money
Lets take a moment to answer a basic question: how does any business make money? The answer is to sell something for more than the cost of making it.
This involves two factors. The price you can sell it at and the cost to make it.
Price is dictated by demand. To sell at a high price you have to convince people they need what you are selling. This is where your website comes in. Your website exists primarily to win new customers and generate income.
But that is only half the story. You also need to keep costs low, in order to increase profit. In a manufacturing business this is primarily dictated by the cost of raw materials. However, today the majority of western countries are dominated by knowledge workers and so people are the primary cost. If people are more productive, costs go down and profits rise.
This is where your intranet comes in.
The role of your intranet
If the role of your website is to generate more sales, the role of the intranet is to reduce costs by increasing productivity.
In theory an Intranet is ideally suited to this role. By bringing key functions and business critical documentation together in a single location, employees should have the most up-to-date information at their fingertips.
Unfortunately all too often it doesn’t work like that.
Where things go wrong
In my opinion Intranets mainly fail for three reasons:
Let’s look briefly at each in turn.
Fitting people to technology
It always worries me when I hear management say “we have sorted our intranet, we have rolled out Sharepoint Intranet.” Its not that I have anything specifically against Sharepoint (actually that isn’t true, but that is beside the point). It’s the idea that problems can be solved simply by throwing technology at them.
The problem is that organisations and people don’t neatly fit into boxes. You cannot expect to roll out a technology and that to perfectly serve the needs of your organisation or its employees.
Too often the organisation and people are expected to adapt to the technology. A number of times I have heard statements from developers along the lines of “users will have to login again here because the two systems don’t talk to each other” or “the software doesn’t do that out of the box, so we can’t do it that way.”
The result is that Intranets are typically frustrating to use and actually make people’s jobs harder not easier.
But the problem is not just with functionality. It is also with the way intranets are structured.
Intranets need a managed structure
In my experience Intranets rarely reflect the way people actually work. Instead they are normally this huge repository of badly organised information that vaguely follows departmental lines.
It is hard to find anything because navigation is typically overwhelmingly complex and bears no relationship to peoples mental models.
Rarely is there any central editorial control, and so there is no logical structure. The few grains of valuable information are lost in the mountain of out-of-date content that nobody has ever removed.
Worse still is that most organisations never get a designer involved in the creation (let alone maintenance) of the user interface. Instead the user interface is dictated by the defaults of the technology used.
These default templates are typically plagued with a range of design problems including (but not limited to):
- Problems with line length, font choice and line height that make copy hard to read.
- An overwhelming number of navigational options.
- Far too much information being exposed to the user in one view.
- Little visual hierarchy to guide the user as to what is important.
The list could go on.
These problems with the technology and structure contribute to probably the biggest problem with most intranets; organisational culture.
The psychology behind intranet failure
There is this perception within organisations that unlike websites, intranets don’t have to offer a great user experience because users do not have any choice about whether they use it or not. That in someway badly implemented technology and poorly structured content can be excused because there is no alternative.
Setting aside the obvious fact that these shortcomings prevent the intranet fulfilling its primary aim of aiding productivity, I also believe that users do have a choice.
Employees maybe supposed to use the intranet, but in my experience they often don’t. Instead they create their own adhoc but easier to use alternatives. Instead of using the document repository on the intranet, they have a shared drive on the network. Instead of using a shared address book they each keep their own local copy.
Although this may create problems for the organisation, people will still choose to ignore protocol in order to make their own personal work life easier.
This then creates a catch twenty two. People stop using the intranet because it is more of a hinderance than a help. Because nobody is using it, people stop updating it, so it becomes even less useful. Before long it is only used by a few diehards and instead becomes the place information goes to die.
The message here is a simple one; people will choose the path of least resistance. Urban planners see this all the time. They create a path, but if it doesn’t create a straight line between two points people will cut off the corner. The same is true in work. If your systems don’t make life easier, people will find their own way.
So where does this leave us?
I’m not just bashing Sharepoint Intranets
I think there are two lessons to learn here. The first is that there is no point of investing money in intranet technology if you are not going to invest in how it is designed and organised too.
The second is that an intranet will only be adopted if it makes the lives of individual employees easier. The best way to discover how to do that is to spend time looking at how people organise themselves and look for improvements. Look for the paths they create rather than imposing your own pathways upon them.
As I said at the start, I believe that an intranet is as important a tool in building a profitable business as your website. However, without proper investment it will probably do more damage than good.
If you have a failing intranet I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments. You might also want to drop me an email and get some help. Do you think I am right or are their other factors at play? If your intranet has been a business success, we would love to hear how you got there?
Time & Money image from Bigstock