Usability, content, search and analytics on the corporate intranet

An intranet is not a project

10 August, 2016 – Luke Oatham

Why is nobody sharing? Not a lot of people blog publicly about their government intranet. And even less are blogging about their day to day experiences.

Of the two or three blog posts that I’ve read in the past year or so, I haven’t gleaned much juice. They’ve been about the project team and their project management methodologies. More specifically, they’ve been about agile project management and design principles.

Recalling 2012, and the first meetings that I attended for a project that we ran using the agile methodology, I note that we spent most of the time talking about agile and how the project was going to be run, and how much more efficient we were going to be than traditionally waterfall projects. The first meeting, the second meeting, on and on, it felt as if it was more important that our clients understand our project management process than us actually doing the work.

Doesn’t look like much has changed. The blog posts I read today are written as if the bloggers have just discovered agile for the first time. I click to read about a new intranet, and I get a sermon on agile process. The formula is simple; introduce yourself as the new agile digital team, tell us that you take a user-centred approach, tell us that you listened to users, tell us that you listened to stakeholders, mention that you did tons of user research during your discovery phase, extract a couple of positive quotations and finally, think of a number and claim that’s how much you plan to save (don’t worry about freedom of information requests, you can reject these on the basis that it would take too long for you to work out how much your project costed and the details of any savings). Never ever admit that your user-centred bubble was burst when a higher-ranking member of staff dictated their personal wishes for the intranet. Don’t mention that you forgot to “listen” to the people who will manage daily publishing on the intranet. Et voila! Intranet delivered. You can move on to your next project.

Publishers and staff are then left to fend for themselves. The piece of software, known as the intranet, that has been “delivered” by the digital team, is just one more entry on a contractor’s CV. The agile project didn’t include any content retention or governance policies, no editorial or intranet management training for publishers, no ongoing support or flexibility to change anything. And so the cycle continues. A year down the line you find yourself redesigning the intranet again.

Realistically, intranets go wrong because they are not managed well. The quality of content degrades because there is no content governance. Staff aren’t trained how to write for an online audience. Best intentions are overruled because a director said so. Internal comms teams treat the intranet as a means to get announcements out. Staff become disengaged because there is no participation or engagement. Human resources policies exist as lengthy PDF documents, written in swathes of passive legalese text, often without a clickable table of contents, and only accessible via thirteen clicks down a left-hand menu.

Engaging an agency or a bunch of contractors to build you a new CMS or search engine won’t solve your content problem. It might get you a more flexible and friendly CMS with blogging, commenting and WYSIWYG editing as standard. But rather than spending three years redesigning your intranet, take three months to rewrite and organise the content, and get a content strategy in place. Your search engine will work better. Staff will find content faster and understand it better. And if your CMS isn’t designed with rigid templates, you’ll be able to move with the times, iterating changes and new features as required.

Saying that you followed a set of agile methodologies and design principles doesn’t give us any insight into your intranet. Telling us that you arrived at your final choice of main navigation labels as a result of intensive cardsorting exercises is more helpful.

So, digital teams, if you’re blogging about your new gov intranet, please tell us about the choices that you made. Tell us about your mistakes. Share your story. Why did you design the homepage that way? How did you decide on your main navigation items? What tactics did you use to convince HR to rewrite their intranet content? How did you approach your information security team? What usability tests did you do? How do you support your frontline staff and field workers? How much content did you start with? How long did it take to rewrite? How much did your three year project cost? Exactly how will you make those savings?

See Intranets are products, not projects


One response to “An intranet is not a project”

  1. […] new intranet project I’m undertaking was taken from Luke Oatham’s Intranet Diary, in a post where he writes about sharing the choices made in creating a new gov intranet. I thought it was a […]

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