Value-Driven Intranet Design

Fundamentally, your intranet must be tied to value creation like other business services within your organization.

Within most corporations, taking ownership of an intranet is an unglamorous, exhausting, and thankless job for a new intranet manager. Many corporate intranets lack thoughtful, focused, and disciplined design and are often extremely large and unwieldy. Fixing these intranets can seem an impossible and futile task.

Furthermore, with new terminology proliferating from the armies of IT consultants, software vendors and business professors in the marketplace, it is becoming even harder to define an intranet, determine what it should accomplish, and measure those accomplishments. In the domain of company intranets, terms like empty portals, peer-to-peer sharing, smart enterprises, digital dashboards, social networks, taxonomy design, and knowledge management all come together and compete for attention and dollars. These buzzwords capture the imagination of senior executives who force you to devote dollars to intranet-related initiatives that the organization may not be ready for or that do not benefit the employee community.

Managing these internal and external challenges and developing your intranet into a meaningful, measurable, and relevant business tool can be difficult and draining. But if you reduce your intranet to its essence, use consultants smartly, manage your stakeholders and users effectively, and approach it with the same rigor, discipline, and focus you do with any other business initiative, your task can quickly become much simpler.

Defining the intranet’s value

Fundamentally, your intranet must be tied to value creation like other business services within your organization. If it does not result in value creation for your business, the intranet is a failed service. Establishing value creation can be tricky. Intranet objectives such as increased employee communication, collaboration, and knowledge management are hard to quantify and measure. As a result, some corporations choose to establish tactile goals in the form of metrics such as page views, total hits, and customer satisfaction ratings. This approach is not effective for understanding and measuring the value creation driven through your intranet. Measuring the value is difficult, as the intranet’s greatest benefits to an organization are not in a measurable, packaged, and corporeal form. So how do you determine the value of an intranet?

A recent MIT Sloan Management Review article by C.K. Prahalad and Venkatram Ramaswamy introduces an approach to understanding value creation, which can be applied to understanding an intranet’s value as well. Prahalad and Ramaswamy discuss how value is increasingly being defined through the co-creation of experiences in which the consumer (in this case, the employee) triggers value creation through the combination of a personal event-based need and the actual services being provided. The nature of the individual’s involvement, the personal event that leads to the interaction, and the personal meaning derived from the interaction are what determine the value creation.

This theory applies to the intranet domain where the intranet alone doesn’t create value, but the site’s efficient, able use in the context of specific, individual employee needs does. The use of the intranet in the context of other services provided by the organization also affects the value creation. Unlike a product or service that is sold to a consumer and therefore has an easily recognizable cost and perceived value, the use of an intranet rarely costs an employee anything. As a result, the value is not assessed at the point of purchase but rather at the point of use, and therefore is tied directly to how it is used.

This approach for understanding an intranet’s value can seem to make it still harder to measure the value because the value creation happens at a personal, individualized, non-structured, and non-measurable level. Also, measuring the value of the intranet at the point of use puts the onus on the employee to create value by using the intranet more effectively. With such a definition of value creation for your intranet, can the value be measured at all?

Measuring the intranet’s value

In this context, breaking up your intranet into discrete, tightly defined services is the first step in measuring its value. These discrete services should provide tangible benefits to narrowly defined target audiences. They should be as self-contained as possible and ideally should be designed, positioned, and perceived as co-services in the context of other services provided in the offline space to the target audiences.

Let’s take the case of sales information in a drug company to explore this point. Intranets are commonly used as platforms to distribute market share and sales information to field sales representatives. The effective and efficient dissemination of timely sales information segmented by product and region is, in this example, the means for determining the value creation.

In this case, the business objective is to share the sales information. This objective can be divided into a series of discrete services by information type, namely the broadcasting of general market share information by brand and region; market-specific sales and competitor trends to representatives in a particular region; and finally real time, sales-representative-specific raw sales data that is used to motivate each sales person and communicate progress towards individual monthly targets.

The next step is to take one of these services—for example, the communication of sales-representative-specific sales data—and ask yourself and the specific target audience questions such as:

  • Is this service being delivered in the offline space?
  • If so, how effectively is it being delivered and is it reaching all of its target audience?
  • Can the service be delivered more effectively and efficiently via the intranet?
  • Will it reach a larger percentage of the target audience?
  • Will the offline service need to continue once the intranet service is launched?
  • How does the target audience benefit from access to the service?
  • Under what circumstances will they use this service?
  • Does it make a meaningful difference to their jobs?
  • Does it enable them to create measurable value for the company?
  • Do they have the right tools, usage patterns, and motivations to use the service?

The questions above are designed to help you truly understand the need for the service, the context in which the service will be used, the tie to the business value through the service, and the personal event triggers that will motivate use of the service. Without looking at each of these elements in the context of each service piece on your intranet, it will be hard to determine value creation and prioritize future enhancements.

As you go through the exercise above of dividing your intranet into discrete services and determining how they create value for the organization, you will quickly uncover certain trends that are commonly seen across large corporate intranets.

These trends include:

  • Value creation is optimized around a small set of high-value core services, which provide dependable value to tightly defined target audiences.
  • These high-value core services are not expensive to deliver and manage. Their success lies in their recognition of basic employee needs and the simplicity with which they respond to those needs.
  • High-value core services share similarities in how they serve their audiences, the personal events that trigger their uses, and the methods of generating value through their use. This is because these services are most in tune with the organizational behavior and culture of the organization and fit neatly into that modus operandi.
  • Services with extremely narrowly defined audiences based in one location are less successful, as offline and unstructured mechanisms for communication, collaboration, knowledge management, and task performance needs take precedence. There’s often a direction correlation between the size of your target audiences, how geographically dispersed they are, and the value of a particular service.
  • Similarly, services that have carelessly defined target audiences fail because the broader and more loosely defined the target audience, the more challenging it is to identify common personal event triggers and design a service to meaningfully respond to those triggers.

When you complete the exercise of identifying the high-value core services—i.e., the services on your intranet that result in the greatest value creation for the organization at the least cost—you will discover how your intranet is currently being perceived and valued. If your intranet is not providing much value, it is a sign either that there’s lots of room for improvement or that other tools and processes within your organization are serving your employee needs effectively enough.

Managing and nurturing talent

Once you have determined where your intranet’s value lies, the next questions are what should it do for your organization, and how do you create optimal environments for value creation. This is where two fundamental business drivers come into play: managing your talent pool and listening very closely to your customers.

Managing and nurturing talent is always challenging, and it becomes even harder when providing a technological service to an internal clientele. How do you identify the right resources to deliver on the promise of your intranet? How do you find them in the first place? Do they reside within your organization or do you have to bring in consultants enmasse to do the job for you? What about knowledge transfer and providing exciting growth opportunities for your team once the core set of intranet services has been built?

The following steps can help you manage your talent pool more effectively.

  1. Identify an intranet solutions strategist.
    The strategist is an individual who intuitively understands the potential of your intranet as well as the limits of what it can cost-effectively accomplish from a business perspective. This person needs to have enough intranet design experience, preferably in other organizations, to be able to quickly grasp the current state of the intranet, identify the key areas to focus on for improvement, and bring in the right skills to execute on the creation of new services and the redesign of existing ones. The intranet solutions strategist needs to have seen it all before, and should ideally also have experience in project execution and the management of interdisciplinary teams. This person can either be an employee or a consultant.
  2. Organize your teams by services delivered rather than skill silos.
    Interdisciplinary teams are recognized as being more cost-effective and more likely to deliver on-time and on-budget services. Each service team should have the use of the intranet solutions strategist’s time for guiding the design and development of their core services. Roles and responsibilities should be determined in a similar fashion to those defined for the cell teams that are common in manufacturing plants. Cell teams closely locate people and equipment required for certain processing families of like products. The cell’s operators are often cross-trained on several tasks, engage in job rotation, and take more ownership and responsibility than in normal manufacturing plants. Similarly, your intranet service teams must share a common value system, work practices and means of communication. A certain degree of creative dissonance should be tolerated but nevertheless controlled.
  3. Establish measurable objectives for these teams.
    These teams should be given core services to develop or redevelop within specified timeframes. They should be financially motivated for timely delivery, cost control, and customer acceptance. The teams should always have visibility into the work that will follow the delivery of their current project. Creating an atmosphere of professional competitiveness between teams can serve as a motivator, especially if the teams have financial incentives.
  4. Leverage teams across all web properties.
    Your intranet teams should not be confined to intranet design but should be given opportunities to take on the design and development of services related to external website and extranet projects. The philosophies that drive strong intranet design whether in the business analysis, user experience, or technology sphere are just as applicable to other web initiatives.
  5. Encourage and reward cross-pollination with other business units.
    If you manage an intranet in a large organization, encourage other departments to borrow your more junior employees for short periods. The experience in the business will be rewarding for the team members, and it will bring fresh insights into intranet usage patterns, strategies, and tactics for new services that benefit the business and exposure to business processes. Likewise, bringing in employees from the business for short periods will give your teams new insights into the business and how to optimize the intranet around use. Unlike an external web solution, you have the benefit of having your customers work for your CEO just as you do. This provides incredible opportunities for understanding and serving them better — short-term cross-pollination is one such opportunity that should not be missed.

Usually the best person to play the intranet solutions strategist role is an external consultant, as you want someone with diverse experience.

Using consultants effectively

As you have probably observed, the team structures recommended above share many similarities to the way consultancies are organized. This is because consultancies are tightly focused on delivery and cost control. So do you need consultants at all, and if so, how do you use them? This is where things can get a little trickier.

Usually the best person to play the intranet solutions strategist role is an external consultant, as you want someone with diverse experience. This consultant would naturally rather lead his or her own teams than have to shepherd internal employees. Often that can be a condition for a consultant accepting such a position. So how do you resolve this dilemma?

The answer is to either combine your teams with the consultant’s team (which the external firm will resist, arguing that there are increased delivery and quality risks involved in mixing teams), or to bring in the consulting firm to deliver certain services while having your internal team develop other services. In the situation presented above, it is much easier to engage with the consulting firm and leverage the intranet solutions strategist across all the teams. The goal should be to engage with the intranet solutions strategist on a near-permanent basis and bring in consulting teams occasionally to augment your internal talent pool.

What if you do not have the right type of talent in-house? The answer is to invest in training and hiring as soon as you can. Using consultants to solve your talent shortages is an expensive solution, and while it will produce the quick short-term results that you may need to deliver, in the long term it will turn out to be much more expensive. The only exception to this rule is if you find that your intranet initiatives are not complex enough or continuous to warrant full time internal teams.

Listening to your customers

The importance of listening to your customers in business can never be underemphasized, and it matters just as much in the intranet domain. Ironically, because your customers are so close to you, you might be in a situation where you believe that you are listening to them when you actually aren’t. Inter-department politics and clashes over annual budgets make it hard to listen to what the business community is saying versus what you’d like them to be saying.

The following steps can help you listen better:

  1. Organize yourself into a result-oriented governance model that includes representation from your business community.
    These representatives should be able to commit at least ten hours each month to prioritize services, support usability testing, and serve as champions for new services rolled out. Do not depend on them for anything else. You might be accused of taking more of their time than you should and, worse still, inviting them to make decisions in areas that they shouldn’t. Making all intranet-related documentation available to them should greatly mitigate the concerns regarding involvement that they may have.
  2. Set up a usability laboratory for monthly testing.
    Usability labs are extremely cheap to set up and manage and they provide immense benefits to your intranet teams. Require monthly usability testing of new or redesigned services; this will put pressure on your intranet teams to deliver something each month, and it will keep your user community involved. Publish the results of these tests for all your intranet teams and the larger business community. Rotate which user representatives get to participate in the usability testing. Invite senior executives and your business representatives to watch the testing so that they understand the challenges of intranet design.
  3. Design and deploy for use.
    Engage with your business community as actively as possible for the design and rollout of a particular service. Make them feel like you are providing them a service and that they are your client. Listen and understand the business needs, and map these processes on paper before designing a digital solution. Promote transparency and engage with them to provide feedback at critical stages. Be careful not to include them to such an extent that your design process evolves into participatory design. The business owners are not your intranet designers; they are your users, and just as car manufacturers regularly bring in customers to view prototypes but refuse to let them participate in the actual design process, so should you limit the participation of your business users.
    This needs to be done tactfully; these representatives need to be your champions, so you don’t want to disenfranchise them. There’s an axiom in the business community that if you want your boss to like your decisions, let him or her make them for you. Don’t fall victim to that axiom.
  4. Always question the value creation.
    Demonstrate to the business community how your intranet is broken into a series of services with core audiences to whom you provide measurable value. Encourage them to think of new services for additional value creation. Keep them updated on releases, delays, and plans for future services. Don’t be afraid to scrap projects midway through if you discover they will not provide sufficient value. While this may hurt you in the short term, as your detractors will consider it a failure, in the long term it will establish greater credibility.

Conclusion

Too often, large corporations approach intranet design like any other technological initiative. You have your end users. You have the technology, an interface, and the usual parameters of cost, time, build-versus-buy decision making, resourcing, and interoperability with other technology. But intranet design is not just another technology initiative. Rather, it is a targeted business service to employees within your organization. Greater emphasis should be put on the strategy and the design and less on the technological implementation. An intranet’s value should never be determined by what technology it uses, how quickly it is rolled out, or how many standards it complies with. Keep this in mind as you design your intranet, establish where value creation lies, and engage with your customers.

Also remember that the value of your intranet might be hidden and not immediately apparent. If designed appropriately, your intranet can provide immense value to your employee base. This was seen in a Watson Wyatt HCI study, which revealed that implementing technologies that improve employee service can increase shareholder value by as much as 2.3 percent (Watson Wyatt’s 2001 Human Capital Index® [HCI] study). This means that organizations can generate an additional 2.3 percent increase in shareholder value by using employee relationship solutions to reduce the costs associated with delivering service to employees. This is not a percentage to ignore.

Fixing an intranet can be likened to trying to repair a submarine while at sea. Your customers will continue to have needs for new services and functionality while you try to fix the existing problems. But by identifying where the true value of your intranet lies, managing your talent pool effectively, and engaging with your business community strategically, you will be able to align your customers with your vision of the intranet, meet their most important needs, and fix the right services at the same time.

  • Prahalad C.K, Ramaswamy V., (2003) “The New Frontier of Experience Innovation”

Shiv Singh is an Experience Lead & Information Architect with SBI.Razorfish. Working out of SBI’s London office, he spent most of 2003 leading the user research and experience design team for an enterprise intranet that is being launched in 50 countries over the next two years. Prior to that, he worked on a large multidisciplinary SBI.Razorfish team that developed a decision support intranet for a Fortune 1000 company. He has been conceptualizing, designing, and building websites and intranets since 1995, and likes to work at the intersection of business strategy and information architecture.

Posted in Business Design, Process and Methods, Special topic: Intranets | 6 Comments »

6 Comments

  • Jeff Nichols

    February 14, 2004 at 8:06 am

    Excellent article! I’m happy to see others working through the subtlties of intranet design/evolution. I’m doing this for a large client, and we’re learning some amazing things. I especially like the notion of using a services model to keep the work and governance focused.

  • Maggie Hendrie

    February 23, 2004 at 3:54 pm

    Good to see Prahalad & Ramaswamy’s value model applied to practical Intranet building. Deep in intranet land right now, I’m aware that a lot of recent IA/UE thinking has been in the more glamorous internet, public space; I’m digging back into older application methodologies to design work flow support, collaboration, monitoring, role based personalisation as well as compelling content.Given that these projects typically happen in large companies this has also meant trying to integrate user experience design methodology with RUP and other system based methods.(It can work) Much of the ROI of increased user productivity is unfortunately being discounted. I’m hearing that the extra x hours saved doesn’t necessarily translate to increased revenue for companies, particularly white collar sectors where employee computer use is high. Pity. A good argument though is on reduced time to production for subsequent portal, reusable components and iterative roll outs.
    Thanks for a great article.

  • Mayur Panchal

    August 17, 2007 at 8:14 am

    Brilliant article.
    Would it be possible for us to contact each other through personal email, just to go over some areas?

    Much apreciated.
    Mayur.

  • Higher Ground

    May 14, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    Really good informative article

  • Joseph Tales

    May 29, 2009 at 4:09 am

    I agree very interesting

  • Don Gaconnet

    September 12, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Google article, why not a refresh on the topic?

Sorry, comments are closed.