#SWCONF 2012, intranet diary debrief

I remember stumbling upon #SWCONF on Twitter last year and getting hooked on the live tweets. This year I attended in person to find out what all the buzz was about.

The Social Workplace Conference, organised by Crexia, took place on 24th May at a beautiful theatre space at the Cavendish Conference Centre in the West End. It was a well-paced day with 9 half hour sets of talks and panel discussions from companies such as LexisNexis, Accenture, Virgin Media and Bupa.

Here’s a brief write-up of what I took away from the day.

Knowledge management

One of the main themes at the conference was the key business need to retain, manage and utilise knowledge within the workforce. High staff turnover, redundancy and retirement are all major factors today; businesses need to capture what is in the heads of their staff and what is being output as emails and documents before information is literally lost.

Social media is the ideal solution to what companies have been trying to do for years. Capture and disseminate information. And it does it so much better than any of the useless, tried and failed KM/IM/IT projects that I’ve witnessed over the years. Done well, a social workplace can capture all the information that is usually hidden in email, which is the main method that we use to communicate and transfer knowledge in organisations. It can capture all the conversations, comments, ideas and events that take place around a topic or project or policy. And it can make all that information available to everyone in the workplace, in any office or work location. With APIs and mashups, we can transform this data into something meaningful and usable, driving business intelligence and ideas for action.


In difficult financial times and being expected to do more with less, companies are turning to crowdsourcing and really listening to their staff. Social platforms flatten the organisational structure, encouraging staff to talk to anyone, throw around ideas, debate and demonstrate, all helping to drive innovation and create ways to save money or do things more efficiently.

Project management

Traditional project management not being the flavour of the month (or should that be decade?) it was interesting to see examples of social solutions being employed in projects. Organisations that are driven by programmes and projects can make savings in travel time and expenses by moving table meetings online. The project plan is stored in a collaborative environment, so everyone is kept informed, minimising mistakes due to communications errors, and managers can see live progress updates.

Strategy and implementation

It’s not about technology. Just installing a new system is not enough. Introducing social media into the workplace needs ongoing support and education.

For promotion, viral doesn’t work on an enterprise level. You need to seek out the communities that already exist in the organisation and cultivate them online to align with business objectives. Most importantly, don’t start a new online community space with no content and no people. And rather than just creating a new space and hoping for people to come, embedding social tools into existing applications is a better way of engaging existing users.

Don’t go for a big bang release of an all-singing all-dancing social intranet. Drip feed social aspects into the mix and let staff get used to them. Recognise that you can’t replace email, but try to take conversations to the social space.

There is generally a requirement for some moderation and shepherding. The biggest problem was spam updates such as “My hair is looking great today” containing no business value.

Feedback from organisations at the conference indicated that it takes at least a year before you can expect to see results. And a very important point that I noted was that typical internal networks are not setup to cope with modern social software, especially where video publishing and consumption is involved. And I just know that will be that case at my workplace being that internet access reduces to a crawl at lunchtimes.

Management support and uptake

There are some blockers to be aware of. In some organisations, sharing knowledge is alien and means reducing personal power. People with salaries based on bonuses feel that they don’t benefit from sharing and live in culture of keeping what they know under wraps.Companies generally got good support from senior management and worker-bee staff but there was still talk of resistance from middle-management looking on staff who use social tools as time-wasters. And advocacy at senior levels is not enough. Senior staff have to be seen leading by example, promoting a culture of permission, using the tools even if they have a PA who does it for them.


There were several examples of companies using drop-in clinics in the workplace for those members of staff who are not acquainted with using social media tools. So while staff who regularly share and engage on Facebook and Twitter will get to grips with social tools in the workplace, we have to remember that not everyone uses these sites. But on the other side of the coin there was a school of thought stating that you can’t teach social; the only way to learn social media is to use it.

It was interesting to see examples of point systems, recognition and gamification at work within companies. Accenture use a scoring system, which sounded like a Klout score measuring employee contributions and activity in social spaces. And while it was acknowledged that most people are lurkers, and lurkers are fine because they still consume company messages, there was a push to encourage staff to contribute, cultivate and interact with content online.


  • Death of in-house publications as the news and conversation around it moves online
  • Reduced email, especially all-staff emails, as messages become targeted and part of the online conversation
  • Staff engagement improves as they feel part of the conversation
  • Live feeds are available giving live business intelligence
  • Remote workers feel more connected

What the conference lacked

The subject of information security was only briefly touched on towards the end of the day and I’m not sure why I didn’t hear more about this during the day. Surely private sector companies have the same security concerns as government and public sector organisations? Most of the social platforms talked about were available anywhere via the internet.And, being a details guy, I wanted to hear more about what happens to the social content/comment and its use in developing taxonomies and improving search via social tagging and moderation. There was little talk about content quality, structure or findability.Maybe next year?

My favourite quotes of the day

“A 90 second video is more valuable than a 60 page document” – Laurie Hibbs, LexisNexis

“It’s not about technology” – Angela Ashenden, MWD Advisors

“68% of IT projects fail” – Alan Pelz-Sharpe, ECM & Enterprise Search

“Don’t add unless you subtract” – Leon Benjamin, Virgin

Media“‘Everyone’ is not a group” – Laurie Hibbs, LexisNexis

System status and vanity intranet pages

One of my favourite metrics when measuring improvement on the intranet is the number of calls to the helpdesk. It’s a sure sign of success when you’ve done a few changes to an area of the intranet and the number of helpdesk calls goes down.

Conversely, you know that something is wrong when the number of helpdesk calls goes up.

We were recently approached by our IT department to talk about creating a system status page on the intranet with the goal of reducing calls to the helpdesk due to people being unaware that the problem has already been reported.

When you call our helpdesk, there is often a recorded message before you get through to the lovely list of numbers that you need to press to actually talk to somebody. The recorded message is there to let you know that some problems have already been reported and not to bother reporting them again.

So I was pleased to see this move to help users by moving the recorded announcements to an intranet page. I did my usual research to get a background feel of the situation and it turns out there are about 230 applications that would be included in the mix. I also noted that on an average day there are about 3 to 5 applications down out of the 230.

I have to work with developers within the digital team to create a solution for getting these status updates onto the intranet. So I’m listening to the needs of the IT department who will have to manually publish updates, thinking about the intranet and system users and also thinking how we are going to implement this using our flat publishing intranet CMS.

The IT team had already done some of their own designs as to how they thought this should work on the intranet. The designs looked like a flight control room with a whole page of categorised boxes containing red and green dots and a big banner with our IT helpdesk provider’s logo at the top. No navigation, no intranet template and presumable 230 of the apps somehow appearing all at once on the page.

So I started again and came up with some fleshed out wireframes, fitting into the intranet navigation structure and design style, showing just a list of current problems in the body content section of the template. No red or green dots, just a list of what is down today. Clicking an application would expand to show the detailed problem information.

But this didn’t go down well with IT. They wanted to demonstrate how well they were doing by showing all the green dots too. My mockup showed just 5 systems down. Simple and usable. They wanted to make users go through a list of 230 items to find which systems are up or down.

So I ask myself. Will I really go and check an intranet page before using an application? The list of 230 apps includes email, intranet and all the things I use daily. It also includes some of the bigger systems such as our HR self-service application which fortunately I rarely have to use.

Do I need to know which systems are working? Will I check the system status intranet page before trying to access a system? Before I try to use my email? It’s not like the tube where if I check to see that a line is up and running then I know not to make other plans for travelling. And even when they say that there is a good service on all lines, I don’t believe them or I know that it doesn’t stop something going wrong between now and when I get to the station or halfway through my journey. But at work I’m sat at my desk with a computer. If I want to use an application on my desktop I’ll go ahead and try to use it. I won’t go to a page on the intranet just to check that it is working first. But that’s just me. The IT team came up with a use case that people needed to check system status beforehand because some systems were slow to boot up and login to. Really? Ever thought of making your systems work better? Again and again I see this patch-up mentality where rather than fixing a problem people try to compensate by uploading videos or complex pages of explanations.

IT systems are one of those service functions that people shouldn’t have to jump with joy about when they actually work. People only notice when something goes wrong. Like so much of my usability work, the success is measured by how much people don’t notice the technology or the application and can just complete the task in hand that enables them to get on with their job.

So the latest state of play is that they now want to display just 30 of the top applications using red, amber and green traffic lights. I argue that this just complicates things further because now even if I do bother to go to the page to check if my system is up, what if it’s not one of the top 30 and doesn’t appear on the list. Is my system up or down? I don’t know, so I’m going to call the helpdesk. Aside from the obvious accessibility issues with using traffic light colours to portray meaning, what does amber mean? The application that I want to use only half works?

I’m really interested to hear how others feel about this. Is there a case for exception-reporting and only showing what doesn’t work. Are there examples of traffic light systems working and do staff really go and check something works before using it or only after trying to use it?

I’m also feeling the self-promotion and vanity publishing issue again on the intranet. As the culture is changing in my workplace and I see more and more staff feeling that they have to justify their existence by claiming credit for every bit of work they can and promoting what they do, we are getting more and more requests for vanity-waffle pages on the intranet, spouting “what we do” verbiage but which contain no task-related or usable content. There is a threat on the intranet with a move from “how can I serve the users” to “how can I protect and promote myself and my department.” And the trouble is that this mindset is coming down from up above for the same reasons.

As with what is happening with central government websites, it’s not important that I know what department to go to in order to complete a task on the intranet. I just want to get the task done. And while I recognise that staff do need to know the greater structure and goals of the organisation, which we do include on the intranet, we don’t need to know the ins and outs of each and every one of the teams and departments which change, rename and transform so often that you couldn’t keep up with them if you tried. And if they had anything important to offer staff it would already be in the guidance section of the intranet.

It will be interesting to follow how this issue pans out. But I guess that the ultimate test is whether those helpdesk calls go down and whether staff give us good feedback.

Social media guidelines and the workplace

GDS and the Home Office released their Social Media Guidelines for Civil Servants on 17th May. With introductions from Francis Maude and Sir Bob Kerslake, I’m hoping that this backing will help to support changes in policy for using social media channels and platforms within the workplace.

The recent guidelines for civil servants have a lot of positive points concerning the workplace such as upgrading to modern browsers and increasing bandwidth and using social media to communicate and listen.

I’m feeling the tipping point at work now. More frequently we are seeing requests to implement social solutions, from the recent request for a director blog and staff commenting platform on the intranet to requests for Huddle workspaces and increased use of crowdsourcing platforms.

Yet still we do not have a central platform inside the firewall for staff to engage with each other. I hope that the new intranet project will tackle this issue. Working in communications, I know how important it is to get messages out to staff and to listen to staff. We’ve relied for years on spot surveys and form-filled opinions but we’ve never had our ear to the ground.

swconf logo

#SWCONF, the Social Workplace Conference is on Thursday 24th. I hope to pick up on what problems social media is solving within the workplace, how other comms departments are using it internally and I’m especially looking for ideas around the staff user profile.

The new intranet will also involve a massive information architecture exercise so I’m keen to find out if and how other organisations encourage their staff to organise their content, socially, via tagging and liking etc. and how this might compare to formally structured content.

Related pages

"One Intranet" project

Fresh on the horizon for me is the “One Intranet” project that will merge intranets from many organisations into one with a vision of saving money and improving efficiency. This is a great opportunity to rethink the intranet within the workplace and to put in place some governance and strategy around content.

I’ve had my head in our public website for a while now and the intranet has been bubbling along in terms of content updates and section changes. But there has been no real development in terms of functionality or design. It’s been over two years since the last big bang release and things have changed in the workplace. Technology has moved on (at least outside the firewall). Culture, mental models and expectations have moved on. And, of course, we are now in a harsh climate where making savings is paramount and cutting back and consolidating resources is the way to go.

And so, after a period away from intranet and this blog being pretty quiet, my attention returns! It has been really interesting lurking on the sidelines for the past year or so, watching things progress on the intranet front, both in my workplace and outside.

swconf logo

To rejuvenate my own interest in intranets and the social workplace, I’m heading off in a few weeks to #SWCONF, the Social Workplace Conference to have a peek at what other companies are doing and to listen to some speakers from companies who are out there doing it. For me it promises to be a packed day with a broad range of topics that not only cover internal communications and social intranets but also look at social engagement outside of the organisation.

I’ve already got questions and ideas around what the new intranet could be like. Indeed I’ve been blogging about it for years. Curiously, Klout reckons that I am influential on the subject of Olympics, due to a blog post that I wrote back in March 2010 but which was actually about my vision for the workplace of August 2012. Don’t think we’ll make it in three months, but it starts here.

Related pages