Most intranet platforms are like buying gym equipment. They come with very detailed instructions about how to bolt the parts together. They may even come with some slick videos and diagrams of sample exercises. But what they don’t do is tell you what programme you should follow. If you want to run a marathon, the way you use that equipment would be entirely different to someone that aspires to be an Olympic shot-putter. Similarly, to get the most from an intranet platform, you need to add a programme on top that is specific to your needs.
As Simon Sinek famously put it, we should start with ‘Why’. But in the intranet strategy world, this is harder than it sounds. What often gets most of the attention is the tangible part that we licence, install and click on, but this is the ‘what’. In particular, as the intranet market has moved towards bigger, comprehensive suites (I’m looking at you SharePoint), I’ve noticed a tendency for companies to buy it first, and then hope that the business will discover the ‘Why’ part.
What can happen in these cases is that that the rest of the business feels a technology change is imposed upon them, without any clear rationale. Even worse, they may be given training that shows how to use the various functions, but no guidance on why it solves their problems.
Mapping your intranet strategy
To move a company’s intranet strategy out of this trap, one technique I use is Benefits Mapping (see figure). I’d love to claim I created the idea, but once I’d worked it out I discovered there are several similar approaches, such as BDM. It’s most easily explained by working from left to right:
- The green Feature column describes tangible attributes; things can be installed and clicked on.
- The red Capability column describes how it will be used. This is a crucial pivot-point that is often overlooked. For example, most social community software would allow you to create a for sale and wanted board, an expert forum or a leadership feedback channel using exactly the same features. What matters in not how it works, but how you orient the organisation towards using it.
- Next the Benefits column describes the immediate advantage to be gained from using the feature in this way.
- The Outcome column explains why this benefit is advantageous to the organisation.
- The final ‘Strategic Goals’ column says why the outcome is particularly important. Up to this point, there could well be value in the activity, but the Organisations’ overall strategy should say that it is also a priority for the company to attend to it.
Of course this is a bottom-up description. For real strategic planning you should start with the right-hand side: what the company wants to achieve, and then work you way back to how the intranet platform will support it. In practice I find it best start from both ends and work you way in to the middle: you probably already know the intranet features and the organization goals, what is missing is an explicit linkage between them.
Other things worth noting in this technique are that higher-level goals often need multiple activities to support the outcome, so it is good to show the cross-linking, as we see in the “customer satisfaction” inputs in the example here.
Using the map for your intranet strategy planning
Use it to cut back. For a full intranet, the whole map can be very large. One of the things to look for are features that have no logical connection with the overall strategy. If you find this, consider switching it off, or at least removing it from your communication about what the intranet can do, it’s just adding noise. IT may argue that you should leave it because it is ‘free’, but in reality every feature, every button, is a cognitive load on the employee tasked with figuring out how best to use the intranet.
One caveat to this is that some outcomes may be important for employees but not strategic for the organization, such as better search or just a less frustrating digital workplace user experience. I find it useful to include these in the visualisation because they can be important for driving intranet acceptance.
Use it to explain the need for adoption. The most brittle link in the mapping is the capability step. For an organisation to enjoy the strategic benefits, it is essential that the feature is used in the way it was intended. The map makes it very clear that installing the software is not enough, employees also need to change how they behave, just as buying gym equipment doesn’t in itself get you fit.
Create springboard stories for sponsors. Once you have the map and the opportunity to talk to a potential intranet sponsor, think about which of the outcomes really matter to them most. Focus in on this part to explain to them (from right to left) how the intranet could help them achieve that outcome , provided they give their support to the changes it entails. When consulting I usually tell my clients not to show leaders the whole map, and they often ignore me and tell me that the leaders found the bigger picture very useful.
Do we need intranet strategies anymore?
I was recently asked if people even bothered putting strategies together anymore, as use cases seem more agile, perhaps more realistic in an uncertain world. My feeling is that use-cases describe a row in the map, and even if they evolve bottom-up, it is still valuable to have the overview so that you can make strategic decisions about the purpose of your intranet and the priorities for its evolution.
No matter how agile you are, you still need to answer the ‘why’ for your intranet.