Best Practice

Who’s driving your intranet as we near the end of 2019?

There was a time when intranet ownership naturally landed with internal communications (IC).

But as the capabilities of intranets have matured, and other digital channels emerged, the current situation is less clear-cut.

Few communicators feel like they can also be responsible for collaboration too, for example, but they may also feel that nobody else is picking it up. This article looks at how organizations are addressing this, and what is the most effective way for communication professionals to position their role?

Intranet ownership

Perhaps ten years ago, most organizations would have seen their intranet as a communication channel. The home page, ‘about us’ and main sub-sections would have been run controlled by IC. Other areas, such as employee guidelines, may have been produced by departments like HR, but with IC oversight. Given this, it seemed clear that IC was also responsible for the intranet’s success.

Since then, most intranets have expanded to include social media, video, forms, collaboration tools, dashboards, and even whole employee services such as room booking. When it gets this big, it clearly isn’t just about communicating anymore.

Surveys of “Who runs your intranet” usually point to a mix of IC and IT out front, with a wider spread of HR, Marketing, Knowledge Management and so on thrown in. See for example “Which departments own the digital workplace?”. When I run workshops on intranets, the conclusion sounds like a setting for a Facebook relationship status: “it’s complicated”.

The scope of modern intranets

I’m regularly contacted by companies that seem to be in a tangle over their intranet. They know it is no longer fit for purpose, but pinning down what the new intranet should be, and getting everyone to agree is like conducting an orchestra of greasy bagpipes.

I try to avoid discussions about “what is an intranet?” There’s no hard definition, and it is rarely constructive. It is more useful to consider a digital workplace as a whole, think about what the organization needs, and then come back to say “what should the role of our intranet be within that?”.

Within a digital workplace, intranets typically cover roles in the green boxes, and interface with the purple ones, but every organisation needs to decide its approach.

Being clear about the purpose of your intranet will, in turn, bring clarity to the question of who should be driving it.

For example, some organizations with Office 365 will see all as SharePoint as being their intranet, and naturally include some document collaboration elements fit within that. Others using a dedicated content-management platform will see the intranet as more purely about published materials. They may use Slack and Dropbox for collaboration, and this technology division actually helps them make a division.

Technology ownership and governance

Splitting digital workplace ownership along technology lines isn’t necessarily a good approach. A common consequence is that governance also gets fragmented. This can lead to employee frustration when they can’t find a policy that should live on the intranet, but may instead be on a document management system of cloud file share. Potentially there may be different versions on all three systems.

Another scenario that will be familiar to many in IC is that collaboration gives a governance loophole. You might veto someone’s request for an intranet section full of “head of department” vanity content, only to find that they go ahead and do it anyhow on a different platform.

It’s best to step back from platform-level governance and instead agree with IT about how approvals get made. Most intranet and collaboration platforms can have a request form, and that can be used to decide if there is instant approval or it should also be run past IC (for example, if a requested collaboration site will be visible to the whole organization). For more see A communicator’s guide to getting along with IT.

Three possible strategies

Given the potential complexity, it is easy for the IC function to get dragged down by an intranet that has issues way beyond IC’s responsibilities. In response, I see three options to get things back on track.

1. Minimalist intranet owner

Cut the intranet back to only play a communications role. This relies on other elements of the digital workplace being able to take over but a small, effective intranet can be much more useful than a large, failing one. Once done, IC can more readily track performance indicators, and be accountable for its success.

Sometimes intranet scopes expand in a bid to make them ‘essential’. But this is misguided. Like a supermarket putting milk at the back of the store, it may be good to get people walking down the aisles but when you also pay for their time you should worry more about making it quick and simple.

What matters is that employees can do their work using the most effective tools across the whole digital workplace. If that means the intranet plays only a small role, then we should be at ease with it.

2. Intranet Facilitator

Where an intranet plays a wider digital workplace role, IC needs to operate on a more federated model.

Some comms professionals I work with feel bad because they inherit a large and neglected intranet. They scoop it up and ask if they can keep it, like a stray puppy. In this situation, it may be better to be more ruthless and ask: “What do I actually need to own?”. Probably it is the branding, home page and news channels, and for coherence, the navigation.

Everything else IC can be the custodians of good practice, but the effort should come from the business unit responsible for the content. The role of IC is to educate, coach and sometimes intervene if standards fall.

3. Intranet Stakeholder

For the most advanced intranets, IC will often own just a small part of the intranet, mostly news and published content. The goal should be to act as a strategic stakeholder alongside other functions. This more strategic positioning can free up IC to discuss the bigger business issues and show leadership, without having to necessarily tackle every problem in the digital workplace space.

One of our clients went through the thinking process above decided to step back from being the intranet owners. The intranet platform, they conclude is a service that IT provides. IC as a significant stakeholder is entitled to help shape that service, but also acknowledge that other stakeholders may have competing needs.

A mature IT department should be used to running services, and also have processes to balance out competing wants from business stakeholders. For example, they may have a digital workplace steering group that meets routinely to evaluate requests and prioritize what improvements are made (a backlog, in agile speak).

What then of collaboration that may fall through the gaps? Well, this too is a service IT provides. But many new collaboration tools require digital literacy and change management to use well. Microsoft Teams is the latest in a long line of new ways of working for example. Here it seems reasonable to say that HR should lead the competency side; the role of IC is to do what they do best: help people understand the message and the change required, but they don’t have to drive it.

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