In early 1995, a colleague and I built an intranet for our employer, a small management consulting firm. The term "intranet" had not yet been coined, but our goal was to create a Web site accessible only to the company's employees around the world. Teaching ourselves HTML, as well as the eccentricities of pre-Netscape server software, we put the company newsletter online, along with photos and bios of all the principals.
The reaction was underwhelming. Three of our fellow employees visited the intranet primarily to see how their photos looked in digital format. We were disappointed that all the time and energy we'd put into the intranet project had so little impact on the company.
We weren't alone in reaching that intranet impasse, but we hit it sooner than most. In the four years since, I've heard dozens of other intranet developers and corporate communications staffers complain that the resources they've dedicated to setting up and maintaining an intranet haven't attracted the amount of usage-or yielded the business results-that they'd expected.
The remedy for this disappointment has three main elements:
Intranets must be relevant and useful. "Most companies design their intranets around what they want employees to know rather than what employees are interested in," says Kendall Whitehouse, director of advanced technology and the intranet administrator at the Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia.
Intranets must be updated at lightning speed. Employees should get news there first. At Fujitsu Computer Products of America, for example, salespeople know they can find out about competitors' pricing and product news on the intranet before finding it anywhere else.
Company intranets need to be backed by strong internal communication programs. "The development part is easy," says Bob Cohen, chief technology officer at Cap Gemini America in New York City. He has produced videos and brochures promoting the company's Knowledge Galaxy intranet and sent employees to do demos at the company's 30 US locations. "The success of an intranet is about 60 per cent communication, 40 per cent technology."
I spoke with a number of people who either run intranets or offer intranet-related products and services. Here's their advice on making your intranet an indispensable resource.
The mistake my colleague and I made in building our consulting intranet was that we did it in a vacuum; it seemed too difficult to get our coworkers to spend the time thinking about what features would be most valuable. Everyone I interviewed for this column said that was a recipe for disaster. "If the intranet is built by your constituents, and you've given them what they want, you've increased the odds they will embrace it by tenfold," says Doug May, vice president and general manager for Fujitsu's Internet sales and distribution division in San Jose, Calif. "The best thing to do is work backward from your customer."
At Fujitsu, that meant helping the company's field salespeople-who sell storage and imaging products-present customers with up-to-date information. Online selling guides let the reps highlight the differences between a Fujitsu hard drive and a competitor's, for example, complete with detailed specs. "Before," says May, "all the specs were in these big notebooks that would just gather dust on someone's credenza."
Ever since Whitehouse began planning Wharton's student intranet, affectionately known as Spike, he has invited input from the students. "Even now, when we're getting ready to start developing the next iteration, we show them a screen shot of a previous version and let them move stuff around to improve the interface," he says. Students can also suggest new content and features.
Wharton's 5,000 students depend on Spike for the school calendar. In addition, some processes exist only on the Web, like the school's course auction. To get into to a popular, oversubscribed class, students log onto Spike and bid for a spot using a set number of points. The bids are handled through Spike, and students check the site at the beginning of the semester to see if they've gotten into the classes they wanted.
Intranet developers stress that fresh information is vital. At Sterling Commerce, a software company in Columbus, Ohio, Kevin Sibbring says that the intranet "is a more dynamic environment than our external site." Sterling employees can check the site to learn about industry events, recent coverage of Sterling in the media, market analysis of Sterling's stock and even live company updates via streaming video every quarter. "You can see the executives, the PowerPoint slides and do interactive Q&A," says Sibbring, Sterling's director of corporate marketing. "We used to fly all our employees to Columbus for these meetings; now we're saving upward of $100,000 per meeting on travel costs."
At Ketchum public relations in New York City, "We treat our intranet as if it were a journalistic vehicle," says John Kessling, senior vice president and director of knowledge strategies. He's also executive editor of the Ketchum Global Network, with an editor and a managing editor reporting to him. "We change the home page every day."
As a result, says Kessling, it's become a habit for most of Ketchum's 1,300 employees to check the network first thing every morning, "just like they would check the front page of their daily newspaper."
Kessling is also broadening the responsibility for keeping the network up to date. "At first, we had to go out, call the offices, act as reporters," he says. "Now, a lot of offices send us information as a way of advertising their good works."
Others say that keeping a site fresh requires giving groups a way to publish content on their own. "We're moving to decentralized publishing," says Tracy Beverly, the global intranet project director at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "So while only 25 people work full time on the intranet, as many as 500 people contribute to it."
Not surprisingly, intranet developers who have high-level sponsorship report much higher adoption rates. An e-mail or speech by the CEO introducing the site and its features lends tremendous credibility.
Signs and posters can also help introduce employees to a new intranet (or simply new features). Some companies, like networking giant 3Com, send weekly e-mails embedded with links to let readers know about new content areas and new applications. Fujitsu, Cap Gemini and PricewaterhouseCoopers have all conducted roadshows to teach employees how the intranet can make their work lives more efficient. "Each department had a different priority [for what they wanted to learn]," says Heather Corcoran, director of corporate communications at Fujitsu. "So we modified the presentation for each group, and took them to their killer app."
Students at Wharton encounter Spike everywhere they turn. During their week-long orientation, they attend a "Spike Fair," where they see demos, sign up for e-mail accounts and pick up a CD-ROM that contains a customised Web browser. When they install the browser, it creates a Spike icon on the desktop and on the toolbar in Internet Explorer. "They get in the habit of using [Spike] as their launchpad," says Whitehouse. "They connect first, then double click the Spike icon." Even when they're not in front of their own machine, students run into "push" versions of Spike on every computer at Wharton's computer lab and also at kiosks in all the school's major buildings.
Ketchum's Kessling has held contests to get employees to use certain parts of the intranet; earlier this year, if you updated your personal and contact information, you were entered in a raffle. The prize? Gift certificates to Amazon.com, of course. Participate in a quiz on the Sterling Commerce intranet and you can win free movie tickets.
Cohen at Cap Gemini, who produces an unending stream of videos about new uses for the company intranet, says it's important that all the promotion and communication not come from a single source. "The trick is to get other people to promote it," he explains. "When we built an application for human resources, they sent a broadcast e-mail espousing how phenomenal it was. If I had sent a message saying, 'Look at this great thing we did for HR,' no one would have looked at it. Instead, we started getting e-mails from other departments, asking if we'd develop applications for them."
Serious intranet developers tend to create quantitative and qualitative measures for success. Most track the percentage of employees who use the intranet. Sterling Commerce claims that 88 per cent of employees visit at least once daily; Ketchum says more than half of its employees do. 3Com Employee Communications Manager Monica Oestreich suggests another measure: "We track the top 10 content categories by visit. We want to know what's being used, what's not being used. If it's not being used, we expire it and see what else we can do."
Softer measures look at whether the intranet is improving the quality of the workplace-as well as the quality of the work. "If we've got success stories about winning clients and linking global teams, then that's where the real value lies," says Beverly at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "Our goal is to be so integrated into our professionals' lives that people are there every day-it's not just a tool; it's how they live and work."