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Your intranet should be a little bit messy

A shop window with hundreds of tin boxes piled up against the glass.

Your intranet should be a little bit messy

Port Sunlight model village

In 1888 Lever Brothers (which went on to become Unilever) built a model village in the north of England for its factory workers. They called it ‘Port Sunlight’ after the soap that had made them rich. A beautiful village intended to give “comfortable homes and healthy recreation”.

Over 130 years on, it remains is a lovely place to visit with all the original layout and architecture still preserved. But it also reflects a corporate view of what people want. There are strict controls for residents, even down to the permitted colours for their front doors. It has no real shops and just one pub. As soon as you cross under the railway bridge to the surrounding area, there is a street full of take-away food outlets, laundromats and repair shops. Basically all the other things people need in their lives, even if they are not so pretty.

Some intranets seem to do the same thing – preserving the purity of the intranet by pushing everything else into another domain. At the moment I’m seeing corporate intranets that work really well when considered in isolation but surrounding them are dozens of disconnected SharePoint communication sites that have been set up ‘beyond the boundary’. This leads to fragmentation of both navigation and search, and employee confusion because they feel like it is not clear what tool to use when.

Curation at the centre

People like Port Sunlight because it is orderly, consistent and well-maintained. People like intranets that are the same when they want to find authoritative information, and trust in its quality.

It is quite right then, to govern the core of the intranet closely, having standards for content and templates for layouts. New additions should be carefully assessed and integrated into a coherent whole. But if we protect this too closely, then we drive out other content that may be valuable. We need to recognise that not everyone is motivated to adhere to these standards or has the skills; and not all content necessarily needs this treatment either.

Freedom on the edges

Much as a village like Port Sunlight appeals to some, it could also be considered a little bit dull: there’s been nothing new for decades. All those architectural standards stifle innovation by residents, and many of the trappings of modern life that were inconceivable in the original plan have evolved outside.

An intranet that enforces standards too strongly also risks being a little bit dull. I wrote recently about how shadow IT can be a great way to test innovations from the consumer world, and in the same way and intranet should embrace innovations that begin on the periphery. All the things that make a modern intranet more engaging – comments, reactions, badges and video uploads started out on less official platforms first.

When it comes to variety in intranet content, there’s a role for more relaxed standards too. If the quality threshold is too high, then people either don’t bother or use a tool that is less regulated – a WhatsApp group or even PDFs shared on a OneDrive if they need to.

Managed break points

Here’s another analogy: some bolts are designed to break, they’re called ‘shear pins’. The idea is that if you have two expensive components that would be damaged if too much force is applied, then it’s best to join them with a cheap shear pin that will break before that damage is done. It’s a way of managing where the break happens.

What’s the equivalent in a digital workplace? I think there needs to be an outlet for tensions that might build up. If you don’t manage where this happens, then it could pop up anywhere – on Glassdoor for example, or an outburst comment on a LinkedIn news story about the CEO.  Having a place for comments or even whole discussions that allow some expression, but follow some basic etiquette, gives you a shear pin for employee feedback.

Even having a defined place for ‘quick and dirty’ publishing is a kind of shear pin, rather than pretending it won’t happen and leaving it to happen ‘anywhere but the intranet’.

Finding a balance

We can envisage intranet content as a pyramid, from a large volume of small team collaboration at the bottom that’s barely governed at all, through to a pure but small set of closely-managed all-company content at the top.

That same model still works whether your intranet is one platform of an aggregation of multiple ones. You can formalise the governance as being four tiers:

  1. Formal, all company content
  2. Large-scale departmental or business unit
  3. Special interest or small departments
  4. Informal and non-work

The lower the tier, the more relaxed the governance can be. At level 4, it is ideally self-governing with virtually no maintenance required.

But how do you stop all that unmanaged content polluting your enterprise search? There’s a couple of possible routes:

  1. Within search, start with a tight search scope and then give the option to expand. “Didn’t find what you needed on the intranet? Search all content instead”.
  2. Some search engines allow you to give extra weight to the more trusted sources (in classic SharePoint search this is called authoritative pages). Us this to this can help rank results appropriately, and best bets to complement it too.

Finally. It’s good to brand the sections as a tacit cue that reflects the quality. Corporate sections of the intranet can be very on-brand; the less official areas can be more informally branded, even down to the social area being called the ‘Coffee room’ or ‘Hangout’. As users land on different intranet section, the formality of the branding gives an indication of how authoritative it is.

It’s nice to be somewhere orderly like Port Sunlight, but there are also times when you need to cross the tracks for more variety. Sometimes imperfect information is better than no information at all.

A version of this article was originally pubished over at 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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