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Now that’s what I call an intranet conference

Now that’s what I call an intranet conference

Or: A conference for the community, by the community

Intranet Now is a UK community-driven event billed as an ‘un/conference for comms and intranet people’. The morning involved rapid back-to-back talks, some as short as 5 minutes (I’ve never seen an agenda that had timings such as 11:29 to 11:37am!). The unconference afternoon switched to a participant-driven round-table discussion series. It was a stimulating, enthusiastic day proving that intranets are as alive as ever.

Does the digital workplace need intranet managers?

Intranet veteran James Robertson from Step Two opened by talking about the digital workplace. He defined it as a holistic set of tools, platforms and environments for work, delivered in a coherent, usable and productive way. This seems a useful definition to me, though it is aspirational rather than just scoping a domain.

Robertson emphasised that it is the journey in a digital workplace that really matters, comprising three streams:

  • Technology: We need to make the most of the technology we have, as well as thinking about what might be coming next
  • Business: That the solution happens to be an intranet is almost irrelevant, what matters is that it is configured and optimised to solve a specific problem
  • Design: Design is the ‘force multiplier’ of the digital workplace. It is most powerful when the intranet actually delights the user as well as solving the problem.

Telstra, for example, redesigned its HR pages so it was more about task than content, and hides the awful SAP interface. Common questions like how much leave you have left are highlighted in an infographic style. As a consequence, the number of support calls to the HR helpdesk fell by 42 to 65 percent for most queries.

James Robertson and conference participantsWhat should intranet managers be doing? Robertson argued that the intranet manager skillset is critical for the future success of the digital workplace.

  • There’s still a gap in terms of adoption. Intranet folk can fill the massive change management gap that goes with technology changes
  • Intranet managers also understand what makes the business tick, so can bring insights into the practicalities of the organisation
  • Intranet managers can also fit into the design piece as usability and UX experts.



Do we need to say ‘micronised’?

Paul Zimmerman of Invotra gave a rather techno-fetishistic talk about a data-driven future. It covered many trends, but it didn’t always seem grounded in the realities of the workplace. For example, he described a connected enterprise as being like “one giant brain.” He began by observing that collaboration has become ‘micronised’ by technology — tweets, SMS and emojis rather than long-form writing (the audience was divided on the need for this neologism). In this context, intranets can look dated if they don’t keep up to speed. Paul argued that a better connected enterprise is smarter. I’m not so sure, it might just feel overwhelmed. The Intranet of Things will bring intranets and the digital workplace to life. They will use BIMs (Building Information Models) as a way to improve use of facilities. An interesting concept was office data fed into an intranet, giving end users the ability to see if meeting rooms are occupied or not, like a physical equivalent of online presence. Or RFID tags can be used to check fire extinguishers are up to date, rather than relying on handwritten tags.

What would you delete for a donut?

There were too many quick-fire talks to do justice to, but some highlights were:

  • Experience mapping as a low-cost way to explore requirements (Carolyne Mitchell)
  • Dull and dependable content may be the key to adoption by the late majority if you follow Roger’s adoption curve (Kevin Cody)
  • The most important metadata is the date. Consider a ‘delete and donut Friday’! (Kristian Norling)
  • Seibert Media talked about an interesting initiative to compare platforms in Intranet Compass. It’s a substantial undertaking that has only just begun, but even an authoritative list of SharePoint alternatives is a useful start
  • Company re-structuring just before an intranet launch sounds like bad news, but it can be a key tool in helping the business get through it (Susan Quain)
  • Suppressing information can make it worse. Barbra Streisand’s house was photographed as part of a scientific study. She objected. At the time the image had 6


Mepham’s concluding remark about community governance struck me most:

“What makes it especially hard when running a community is that you do want people to go outside the norms of how they’ve done things in the past. Some of them will try and get it wrong, making mistakes that could unnerve management. But equally others will try and discover something new.”



The unconference began by people pitching topics then breaking out into 20-minute discussion circles. It triggered a broad range of topics, from how to do RFPs, to intranet adoption in law firms, global-local balancing acts, and how to move from project mode to ‘business as usual’. Ayesha on stage to pitch a discussion topic. Wedge and Brian in the background

One discussion that drew a large crowd was ‘Is ‘Intranet’ a toxic brand?’. We concluded it sometimes was in the eyes of employees, but that it (or indeed ‘digital workplace’) should be a specialist term rather than something promoted to employees. Some organisations have an intranet brand that might cover a social network too, for example. We would like a new term, but there isn’t really a suitable, generally-recognised alternative, that doesn’t sound like yet more jargon.

An unconference group discussion.‘How to engage millennials in an intranet?’ was also popular. One millennial opened by saying Yammer rather than the intranet appeals because it is quick and more similar to web social media. Visual sharing and a Buzzfeed-style of content goes down well, and a preference for search rather than browsing. However, we also felt that this is generally true of what anyone wants from an intranet, it’s just a matter of degree and an ongoing competition for attention. One of the schedule boards for the unconference.

The wisdom of communities

I prefer fewer, longer talks to really explore ideas. The rapid pace made it hard at times to digest one talk before another was launched, and some speakers clearly felt the need to rush their material. However, many delegates I spoke to liked the short ‘nugget’ format and it lowered the barrier for getting practitioners on stage, which is a good thing. In the end the energy and enthusiasm of the day carried it through.

The organisers Wedge Black and Brian Lamb are to be congratulated for the quality of this event. You would never have known that this was a community-built conference — it was as well executed as most professional conferences, and had better content thanks to a deep knowledge of the subject and extensive personal networks. It’s even more remarkable that they have only ever met four times in person, proof indeed that digital collaboration works.

Photo credits: Antonio Salgado, Capturise via the IntranetNow conference.

This article originally appeared on CMSWire.

Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

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