Communications professional,  Digital communication

Designing a great intranet

Here is the problem with intranets. What you think is great and what the person sitting next to you thinks is great is almost always going to be different. The problem across all internal communications channels is that you are trying to reach a diverse group of people that all have different preferences.

An intranet can be a valuable and effective business tool for an organisation. It supports key business processes, operational efficiency as well as greater staff engagement. It’s not a system. It’s a communication, engagement and content tool that will connect your people to the strategy and purpose of your organisation.

Ultimately, an intranet is there to support employees to do their jobs efficiently and to know what is happening within an organisation. It should be built for employees, based on an understanding of their needs and work practices.

It is also the worst nightmare for many communications professionals. To be effective it needs to be maintained, well managed, engaging and useful. It is probably the one channel you will receive more criticism about than any other. Regardless of the publishing governance model (centralised or decentralised) you have in place, the buck stops with comms to make it work.

Intranet rebuild (or new build) projects are hard, even in the best organisation. You are trying to keep BAU going, while managing a project. Often you are working alongside IT professionals that have different priorities or visions for the project. You have executive expectations to manage and staff to engage. This is why it is so important you don’t lose sight of what you are setting out to achieve.

Having been involved in a few intranet projects in my time, here are the lessons I have learnt to building a successful intranet.

How do you create a great intranet…

Don’t try to be all things to all people

Engage with your staff, gather intelligence and ideas. Seek their input and bring them on the journey. But do not forget you cannot meet everyone’s needs. You will need to prioritise based on your time and budget. You should remember as the communications professional on the project you have the knowledge, experience and expertise to identify what will work best for staff.

Everyone has an opinion on an intranet. Staff “know what they like”, stakeholders “know what they want” and every expert has their view on the best way to build it.

James Robertson, Step Two Designs.

It doesn’t have to be flashy and functionality rich

Ultimately you can have the most basic site and as long as the content is good and easy to find you have met 90% of your staff’s requirements. Most staff don’t really want an online marketplace, flashing banners or an RSS newsfeed. They want to get to the information they need to do their jobs quickly and be able to understand it.

Spend more time and money on content development than building fancy features.

Partner with IT providers that can see your vision

Whether you are doing the project in-house, or with an external contractor, you need to make sure you are on the same page as the people building your system. If this is your first intranet project don’t just rely on them, you are the communications professional do your research, understand what you need, understand the terminology, and build a clear vision for what success will look like from a communications perspective. After all, this is a communications tool, not an IT system.

Create a simple but effective design

Good intranet design underpins how successful your site will be. I don’t mean the colours and fonts, I am talking about the site structure (information architecture) and the page layout. These are the basics of your intranet (along with content) and if they aren’t right then it doesn’t matter what platform or functionality you build it won’t be successful. Focus on how your staff use your site, what they need on a page (along with the content), and what the main content groups need to be.

I get asked a lot “what platform should I build my intranet on?” There are literally thousands of different products that you can pick from. Ultimately, I don’t think it really matters (and in government you may not get a choice), it is about creating a simple but effective system that can meet your organisations requirements. Build a site that works, that has great content and makes it easier for your staff to do their jobs – nothing more.

If you are organisation‘s setting out on a new project, good luck! You have a few years of hard work ahead of you. This isn’t a project that can be delivered quickly if you want to deliver it well. You will need to spend time with your staff understanding their needs, spend time building and time communicating. It isn’t easy, but that day you launch will be very satisfying.

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