Friday, June 20, 2008

Government intranets challenges and how to meet them

Intranets can be an important business 'glue' for both private and public organisations.

They enable geographically diverse individuals to share knowledge and productively collaborate, areas within the organisation to disseminate information, help senior leadership reinforce corporate values, strengthen internal communication and help align management and staff with corporate goals.

Not surprisingly many of the challenges faced by government agencies in making their intranets effective and successful reflect the challenges faced in the corporate world.

There's a lot government can learn from business experiences if it chooses.

Jeremiah Owyang has developed a useful list of challenges for intranets which resonate with my own experiences. Followin is a summary of his list from his blog posts about Intranets in brown and some of the strategies I employ to address them.
  1. Leadership not employee focused. Web strategy is often owned by the Marketing department, or a dedicated web team, they have specific business goals to hit, and they are often aimed at marketing or customer focused –not employee focused.

    While my Online Comms Team lives within our Comms department, we very clearly define ourselves as custodians, rather than owners of our agency's intranet.

    When I took over the intranet function the existing team already saw one of their primary goals as to unlock the medium to enable staff. I've supported and reinforced this goal and advocated it to senior management by demonstrating the value the intranet can provide the organisation.

    We constantly test new things to improve the intranet for staff and actively foster innovation amongst our intranet authors, who are closer to the audience of our intranet than my group can be.

  2. Little love from IT: IT often owns the infrastructure, systems, and applications that the Intranet sits on top of, and they often are focused on ERP project and leave the intranet in a ‘maintenance and manage’ mode.

    Fortunately my agency does not suffer from this IT culture to an enormous extent, although in the past I have witnessed varying levels of commitment to the intranet. My biggest challenge in this area is to keep our IT team engaged and focused on the outcomes generated by the intranet, rather than focusing on the technical and bureaucratic processes that enable these outcomes.

    Achieving this is all about mutual communication, understanding and engagement while supporting the expertise of our IT team. It's an area I've not yet perfected (and neither has our IT group), but we've built significant forward momentum.

  3. Value not recognized: The intranet management team (if you have one) is perceived as a corporate cost as it can’t directly generate revenue further perplexing the problem.

    This challenge was one I faced, not regarding the intranet as a profit-generating product, but as an accurate, useful and highly frequented medium the agency could use to achieve it's staff communications and collaboration goals.

    I've invested heavily in appropriate intranet statistical and user satisfaction reporting, ensured that our content is relevant and up to date and worked on our approach to train and support intranet authors. The authors are particularly important as advocates of the intranet within business areas, as champions of the channel who are able to create the value our intranet provides for staff.

    Out of this followed an ongoing communications campaign to management and staff, ensuring that the organisation understood the frequency and purpose of intranet use and the number of vital resources for staff it contained.

    This has reinforced the intranet-aware culture in the agency and builds on the intranet's importance as a communications and engagement tool.

  4. Too many cooks in kitchen: Many constituents from Marketing, HR, IT, and every business unit make decisions at an enterprise level difficult, unwieldy, and often not worth the effort.

    This is still an issue for our agency and I do not expect it to go away. What I am currently building towards with my team is an approach that segments intranet content owners by their need for support and guidance in the effective use and management of the medium. Some owners require only light contact from time to time, others require ongoing support to build their knowledge and skills and thereby their effectiveness.

    Through this process my team works to embed intranet standards and thereby create alignment across different groups. While this doesn't reduce the level of consultation necessary, it does align the decision-makers, ensuring they all have sufficient information and insight to make key decisions.

  5. Decision makers oblivious: Management and decision makers don’t use the intranet, they rely on administrative staff for scheduling, sometimes emails, and any intranet tasks, the pains and opportunities are rarely seen.

    We're able to track intranet usage by individual, which provides a keen insight into which levels of staff most use our intranet. As with most organisations I've worked with, it is the front-line staff and middle management who rely on the intranet for the information to do their jobs. Senior managers have other resources to enable them to do this, and also tend to operate in smaller circles of peers, which reduces their need to rely on our intanet.

    To address this my team spends a geat deal of time ensuring there is awareness of the intranet and the value it delivers to staff. We are fortunate in that a number of key job tools for the majority of our staff are primarily accessed from our intranet, which helps embed its importance for the organisation.

Other challenges my agency faces includes:
  1. Consistency of intranet content, language, tone, depth and clarity. Where consistency is low so is trust in the intranet's accuracy and relevance. There's a great deal of work I still have to do to establish more effective training programs for intranet authors - in particular ensuring that this training is valuable for them in their careers to generate commitment in our staff to build these skills.

  2. Transforming the mindset from comms to collaboration. Our intranet is still very much an outbound communications tool used to spread messages, like ripples, from an inner core to our staff on the outer rim. Due to a number of factors this works well for my agency at the moment, however it does not help engender a full sense of engagement in the organisation for all staff or facilitate horizontal knowledge transfer between people at the same level in different geographic areas.

    To meet this challenge, we are gradually moving towards more of a collaborative model, within the limits of our infrastructure and management's safety zones. The eventual goal is to have our intranet become a living resource where staff can work together, support and mentor each other within a lightly moderated environment. This network-centric model, with some balancing from experts to ensure accuracy, provides more timely and direct collaboration than a more traditional 'command and control' environment.

What additional challenges does your agency's intranet face - and how have you addressed them?

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