Thursday, August 2, 2012

Do employees really need intranets?




Do employees really need intranets? I really think this is a valid question to ask, and to answer it I will tell you a story about something completely different.

There once was a company that produced wheel chairs. It had designed a line of wheel chairs that were so good that they come to dominate the market for years. Then suddenly, when there seemed to be no company that could make better wheel chairs for a competitive price, out of nowhere came a new company that introduced a product that ended the glory days of the wheel chair company. And guess what? The new product wasn’t even a wheel chair. In fact, the new competitor had created a new category of products that served the needs of physically disabled people better than the traditional wheel chair could.

The wheel chair company suddenly found itself on a slippery slope with dropping revenue and profit, as the market for wheel chairs seemed to implode. Their new product launches didn’t really appeal to their customers, many of whom had now switched from a traditional wheel chair to the new type of product.

In a last desperate attempt to survive as a company, the wheel chair company made an attempt to enter the new product category. It was a brave attempt, but it turned out to be too late and their products didn’t really add any value compared to the other copies that now flooded the market. The company had been really good at designing and producing wheel chairs, but the new product required a completely different skillset, way of thinking and extensive collaboration with other companies.

So, when looking back – where did it all go wrong? Well, at some point the company must have confused the solution – the wheel chair – with the need they were trying to serve with their products. They had failed to understand the real need of physically disabled people. They didn’t really need a wheel chair; what they needed was to move as freely in society as possible, and for them the wheel chair was just a solution to their needs. The new company, originally coming from another industry, understood the real needs of the consumers and came up with a better solution at an affordable price.

This story is of course entirely fictional, but if you started to think about Apple (and perhaps Nokia) when reading this, I’m not surprised. Apple is an example of a company that excels at understanding the real needs of customers and coming up with innovations that help them establish market-leading products. Instead of thinking differently, like Apple, the majority of their competitors simply aim to copy Apple’s success by copying their products, adding features and improving technical specifications. They too, like the wheel chair company, confuse the product with the need.

So, what does this fictional story have to do with intranets? It has everything to do with intranets!

Employees don't need intranets!

The most important question isn’t whether or not employees need intranets, but rather what problem or need an intranet is intended to solve, and for whom? Is it the same as it was in the beginning when the first intranets were introduced, or has it changed? Is the intranet a solution that solves these needs in a good way, or are there perhaps better solutions around?

What organizations need to understand is that an intranet is a solution to one or several business problems or business needs. During the last ten years, the traditional view of what an intranet is became an institution, something that seemed to have the right to exist on its own. On the way, it got disconnected from the business problems it originally was supposed to solve. Or rather, the original business problem or challenge that intranets are used to address has changed. The main business problem that organizations are trying to solve with their intranets is no longer primarily about distributing centrally produced corporate information to employees; they are using their intranets also to support the tasks employees are performing on a daily basis, including highly complex and collaborative tasks which requires a great deal of participation, dialog, immediacy and flexibility.

So, do employees really need intranets? The answer is a distinct “No”. What employees need is solutions that help them to be productive and engaged in their daily work, helping them to achieve their goals and the purpose and objectives they share with everyone else working in the same enterprise.

The good old technology-centric silo-building days are over

We are clearly in a day and age when we cannot simply work in silos; be it organizational teams, processes or business functions. We need to work together, and we need to remove all barriers or unnecessary friction that cripple our ability to work to together. This also means that we need to think outside the box when it comes to our supporting IT systems. We have to recognize that they have all been built to serve specific needs in those silos, and that integration and the possibility to access and sharing of information across systems is often an afterthought and not one of the fundamental design principles. A way to think outside the box is to become people-focused; understanding the people, their tasks and the typical situations they find themselves in - and designing the systems to support those. In that quest we cannot be limited by tradition or clinging on to solutions that used to work; we need to understand the real needs and continuously improve on our ways of working by defining and designing innovative services and solutions.



3 comments:

  1. It may surprise you to know that as an intranet consultant I totally agree with you. We need to know much more about how people use information to accomplish tasks. However the challenges of doing this are considerable. In a recent project for a multinational manufacturing company based in the EU the consulting team carried out a large-scale research project and identified around 100 tasks. Further analysis showed that accomplishing these tasks required the use of more than one application. Moreover because the company had grown by acquisition even in the same country a task might be accomplished using different applications and sometimes in different languages.

    Understanding how information is being created, used, shared and stored requires people to have skills in information management (especially in information life-cycle development) and/or information science. These skills are in very short supply. All too often the design of information systems is the responsibility of business analysts but their work is only part of the story. It is interesting to see that many organisations are now realising that capitalising on 'big data' requires data scientists and not just computing power, and finding people with a data science skills is very difficult indeed, especially in the EU.

    Investing in solutions to manage information on a task-based approach also requires the organisation to have an information management strategy that recognises information as a business asset. I've just finished writing a strategy for the company referred to above which runs to around 30 guidelines on effective information management. The problem is that even if the company adopts and supports these in the future implementing the guidelines across hundreds of teraytes of information that is already being stored and used in business tasks is beyond the resources of the company.

    Martin White
    Intranet Focus Ltd

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  2. Martin, thanks for your comment. I agree with all you are saying.

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  3. Excellent post. Amazing how often these simple lessons are ignored.

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