Well, it’s been a busy month for intranet professionals – especially me!
I began the month with the happy news that my mobile intranet intranet at Parliament won an Intranet Innovation Award – a gold award for frontline delivery. I was presented with a lovely trophy by James Robertson at the most recent Intranetters meet-up.
Later that week I spoke at Interaction, a new conference from the folks over at Interact Intranet, who bought together intranet experts from across the UK, Europe and further afield. It was great to hear from so many industry thought leaders, many of them for the first time (such as Mark Morrell and Janus Boye), as well as meet other intranet specialists and swap war stories over coffee.
In my presentation, I shared my experiences developing a mobile intranet for Parliament – which I’ll blog about at some point soon.
Finally, this month I joined the team of writers at Intranetizen, one of the leading blogs in the industry. In my first post for them, published this week, I look at the latest award winning intranets and argue that their focus on delivering precisely what their users need is what makes the end product so good — and so impossible to scale.
I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts on intranets and more over on Intranetizen as well as here.
In his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan said “we shape our tools. Thereafter, they shape us”.
McLuhan’s focus was language; he argued that language doesn’t describe that which is in the world, but rather, we can only see the world through the medium of language. Language is limiting; our tools don’t let us do whatever we want, but instead limit and often dictate what we do.
His thesis is that while the way we work, think and communicate have led to tools being designed the way they have, once this design is finalised it closes the loop and that tool influences how you think or behave.
To take an offline example, albums are around an hour long simply because this was how much music would fit on a vinyl record. But this persisted long after the physical media was replaced with one where length was no longer so constrained; the shared understanding remains that the art form of the album is “a collection of approximately an hour’s worth of music”. Even after the arrival of the MP3 player, the concept of the ‘album’ remains, with the download market set up so music can be sold in two sizes: single songs, or ‘albums’. An arbitrary decision about vinyl production has shaped the listening habits of four generations.
The same is certainly true online. It’s years’ worth of your reading and searching habits which determine the priority Facebook gives to updates from your friends. But this quickly becomes circular, so that in time you no longer see updates from some friends, and they’re filterered out of your life, while others get more of your attention. In the early days of Facebook, it was us – as consumers – who shared our updates, uploaded our pictures and moaned every time a new feature was rolled out.
But here we are years later, with Facebook serving us up a homogenised diet of updates (in a feed feature no one seems to like), stalking us across the Internet, and auto-tagging us in pictures – and we just suck it up. Because, well, what choice have you got? You’ve got to be on Facebook these days, don’t ya? etc.
As on the Internet, so in the enterprise. In its infancy, it’s the organisation that shapes the intranet, designing it around the needs of internal users. Or at least, that’s the theory. In truth, organisations get the intranet they deserve, with flaws and compromises and sometimes just bad decisions.
But thereafter, it’s the business that has to live with this, and it’s the people within it who have to suffer the consequences. The decisions you make at the design stage will affect the way employees work every single day, for years.
The language used on your intranet – from labelling to tone of voice – both reinforces and shapes company culture. So, too, does visual design, technology and content; all of these things say something about the type of organisation you are. They impact on engagement and retention. Claims to be a hyper-efficient organisation working at the forefront of technological change cut little ice with the workforce when they still need to download a form in Word, print it, sign it and post it to apply for remote access to your network.
Intranet design shapes the way the business works. Done well, social functionality can break down silos, enable people to work more effectively and support flexible working. Done badly, design costs money – in reduced productivity, disengaged staff, abandoned processes and channel shift. A badly designed form might be a necessary compromise right now, but it’s a big bundle of irritation that could be annoying colleagues long after you’ve left.
What do we do about it?
- Don’t make your intranet bad in the first place. This seems obvious, but it happens all too often. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard intranet managers describe the latest feature on their intranet as “well yes, I know it’s a terrible idea, but the CEO’s insisting on it”. Time invested in getting all your senior stakeholders to sign up to the principles of User Centred Design early on will pay dividends later on as it gives you the option to suggest any Bright Ideas are user tested (and changed) before being bolted on to your intranet.
- Identify your fail points and make the business case for making changes. Got a bit of functionality that everyone hates? Find out why, work out what it’s costing (not necessarily in cash terms – task completion time, or numbers of abandoned transactions are all powerful arguments for change) and sort it out.
- Design for the organisation you want to be, not the one you used to be.
- Focus on making things work the best way they can, not replicating offline formats or existing practices on the intranet. I’m yet to experience a single instance where anyone loves a printed document so much that they’d rather have a PDF than a page properly formatted for web.
- Improve, all the time. All too often, intranets are seen as a project, to be overhauled over the course of a few months then left for another five years until it’s once again woefully out of date. Good intranets continue to innovate, adding on new functionality to support changing needs and deliver organisational goals.
It was McLuhan who coined the phrase the medium is the message. Your intranet is your medium; what message does it convey to your organisation?
For this second Internal Comms Teacamp we settled on the thorny topic of evaluation. With budgets being squeezed, we’re all under increasing pressure to demostrate the value of what we do, so this was a popular subject and we all had plenty to say.
With the summer holidays in full swing this was a smaller group than the first time around, but included a mix of internal communications professionals from the public, private and voluntary sectors keen to share ideas on the challenges we all face in our line of work.
Camilla West from Royal Bank of Scotland kicked things off with a short presentation on the work she’s doing to develop measurable KPIs for internal comms which link to wider business objectives. This turned out to be a common theme in the ensuing discussion; how we move away from simplistic measurement of click-throughs and measuring outputs towards a more meaningful evaluation of the impact comms has on achieving outcomes for the business.
The discussion moved on to KPIs. We all need to report our performance regularly to our management boards, but all too often this focuses on outputs (such as numbers of intranet visits) rather than outcomes (such as numbers staff who signed up to a training course). The difficulty we all seem to have is demonstrating what impact comms had on any single outcome; generally success or otherwise is determined by a number of organisational functions and variables, of which communications is just one.
While staff surveys can be useful in measuring staff engagement and objective satisfaction with communications channels, they’re far from a perfect means of measuring the performance of an organisation’s communications function. The group strongly felt these were often given far more attention than they deserve, so surveys should be followed up with additional research such as focus groups to gain a better understanding of communications effectiveness and identify points of failure.
This led nicely on to a discussion about the extent to which internal comms can be responsible for organisational objectives around staff engagement and morale. Many public sector organisations are noticing a dip in engagement scores at the moment, which is unsurprising given the headcount reductions and budget cuts so many are going through. This means that even where communications is working well, it performs badly in surveys as staff are cheesed off for myriad reasons beyond the control of comms.
Everyone in attendance emphasised the need to evaluate the effectiveness of campaigns and specific communications activities as well as employee satisfaction with communications. This needs to be an honest review of what works and what didn’t work as well, rather than simply trumpeting success stories.
In summary, it’s clear that evaluation is essential, but it’s not easy. Different methods of evaluation will be needed for different activities, and we need to combine this with regular reporting on our own performance to demonstrate the value of internal communications spend – linked to financial performance where possible.
The next Internal Comms Teacamp will be on 21 September from 4pm-6pm. We’ll be discussing Internal Comms and Hard to Reach Audiences, so I’ll be talking about the work I’ve been doing to bring intranet content to smartphones and iPads for Members of Parliament. For more information contact me and I’ll add you to our email list.
Not sure what Internal Comms Teacamp is? Here’s an introductory blogpost.
In my former life as a communicator, we planned communications campaigns using the ROSIE principle:
- Research: Why is this needed, and what do we already know?
- Objective: What (SMART) outcomes are we trying to achieve?
- Strategy: How, broadly, are we going to achieve our objective?
- Implementation: Specifically, what are we going to do and when?
- Evaluation: How will we measure what we’ve done and prove we’re successful?
As the old adage goes, fail to plan and you plan to fail. But problems arise because projects, be they in communications or software engineering, can fail to deliver results when they focus on the plan and not on the objective.
ROSIE, much like PRINCE2 and other project management methodologies, works on the waterfall principle of sequential design.
Waterfall is the model which is used for the step-by-step production of physical products, in which after-the-fact changes are difficult or impossible. The problem with this approach is that by sticking to the plan you bet large, and if you fail, you fail bad.
So from the late 80s onwards, software engineers slowly came to the realisation that their products are fundamentally different, and so a different approach is needed. The result was Agile software development, a group of software development methodologies based on iterative and incremental development, where requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organising, cross-functional teams.
There are, broadly, three main reasons why agile methodology has taken off in software engineering:
- First, there’s an increased awareness of complexity. There isn’t always one answer, and there’s rarely one means of getting people to where we want them to go. Realities are usually more nuanced. This means focussing on incremental progress toward goals rather than a ‘big bang’ win.
- Secondly, there’s an understanding that work doesn’t exist in isolation, and its success (or otherwise) is often a result of factors outside of our direct control.
- Finally, a realisation that we’re working with systems and people, not tangible things, so we need to stop thinking like engineers.
And here’s where I see many parallels with communications strategy. Campaigns, too, are not tangible objects, so we shouldn’t apply the same project management methods to them as we might for a car or a widget.
In creating and delivering a communications campaign, you’re dealing with people (notoriously fickle as they are), complex organisations and myriad factors beyond your control – whether that’s a cultural trend, a rival campaign or even some freak weather.
All this leads me to think that agile project management could drive success in strategic communications campaigns. By being aware of complexity and externality, communicators can free their resources up to focus on the objective rather than simply the plan.
So what does that really mean in a communications context?
When planning communications strategies, we treat the strategy as unmovable. But really, it’s the objective which should be the constant. Our strategy and our implementation plan should shift in the face of changing context in order to deliver the outcome.
Agile privileges individuals over processes and tools, outputs over documentation, collaboration over documentation, and responding to change over following a plan.
Twelve principles underlie the Agile Manifesto. And while these don’t easily map to communications work, there’s some broad principles here which could bring agility to communications campaigns (this borrows heavily from Catherine Howe’s session on Agile Policymaking at UKGovCamp).
Keep in mind your goal rather than your plan. Catherine notes the old army adage “no plan survives contact with the enemy”; keep the objective in mind but change the plan and circumstances change.
So in practice this could mean that while you have a series of printed communications planned for successive months, an agile approach would mean reviewing honestly after the first one and changing your approach in the face of success or failure. This means senior stakeholders need to sign off on the objective but trust their teams to deliver it as they see fit.
This means having a different attitude to risk. Agile breaks things down into smaller chunks to make it manageable. This means you can fail fast, but fail cheaply.
There are myriad examples of comms campaigns that just haven’t clicked at the off. But there’s often also an unwillingness to admit when things just haven’t worked, leading us to pretend all campaigns are somehow successful (this is especially true for agencies, in my experience). We need to be mature enough to admit failure and change our plans accordingly in order to achieve our objectives. That way we can support innovation and reduce the cost of failure (with campaigns failing early and cheaply rather than late and expensively).
And that means looking at small, incremental changes rather than a ‘big bang’ approach. For communications this makes a lot of sense – our focus is people and we usually want them to change their attitudes or behaviours. That’s a slow process, and rarely should we expect anything other than incremental change.
Expecting a ‘big bang’ change in people’s mindsets or long-held habits is setting ourselves up for failure – real people just don’t work like that. We need to work in manageable stages and learn from success or failure as we go along. This way we can show incremental improvements while reducing communication failure.
And in order to do that, we need to test our work as we go along. Then you can adapt your approach based on evidence of what works or doesn’t.
Granted, there’s a world of difference between testing code and testing communications campaigns, but using things like metrics and pulse surveys we can begin to build a robust evidence base on which to plan our next steps. This, in turn, can reduce risk and reduce costs.
But testing shouldn’t be for testing’s sake; we need to work flexibly and adjust our plans in the face of new evidence. As Catherine Howe comments “Good ideas can be the wrong solution and serendipity can happen”.
In agile projects teams are usually cross-functional and self-organising with a flat management structure. Team members normally take responsibility for tasks that deliver the desired outcome. They decide individually how to meet requirements, increasing accountability.
It’s a team-based approach in everyone’s skills are valued and everyone has a responsibility for making it happen.
Central, too, is the end user or audience. In web development we use User Stories, which take the format of:
Using a similar user-centred approach to communications would help shift the focus from pleasing senior stakeholders to simply achieving the stated objective (for instance, changing the thoughts, feelings or behaviours of the target audience). In agile we constantly refer back to the user stories, placing the user – not the person with the purse strings – at the heart of what we do.
In employee engagement, we talk a lot about co-production as the engagement holy grail. Agile seems to me an important shift in the right direction, with campaigns and messaging driven by user (audience) requirements rather than the whims of stakeholders, and increasing their sense of ownership.
Finally, being agile relies on frequent, open communication, with people being kept in the loop every day. This is helped by working in small teams and open offices, with the aid of a quick, daily meeting called a stand-up. Communication should be open and honest, focussing on what’s going wrong as well as that which is going right.
Like any project management methodology, there are dangers of sticking to it rigidly like some kind of cult. Practitioners can and should borrow those elements which work for them and adapt them to suit the circumstances.
The language of agile – with its scrums, stand-ups, smells, pigs and chickens – can be offputting. But the principles of making work more flexible and responsive to change have potential to drive forward projects in communications and many other fields besides.
In many, probably most, organisations, taking an agile approach to projects and campaigns outside of IT is going to mean a big cultural shift. The waterfall mindset is deeply ingrained in almost every project; changing that mindset so that stakeholders accept plans will constantly change isn’t going to be easy. It requires trust on the part of stakeholders and bean-counters, and getting that is going to require a hard selling job emphasising the rewards that come from reducing large-scale failure, and in some cases a big leap of faith.
Contrary to popular belief, webbies aren’t always glued to their screens and hidden away in dank basements. They love to get out and about and network with their peers.
It all began with UKGovCamp, a one-day event for public sector digital types. These events – now in their third year – have no set agenda; people come with their ideas and problems and pitch sessions to the other attendees. The agenda is cobbled together on the day using post-it notes and flipchart paper. The result is an unconference far more interesting, informative and relevant than any event you’ve ever paid big bucks to attend.
This span off into Teacamp, the monthly informal get-together of Whitehall digital communicators and social media specialists. Each month 20 to 30 Whitehall webbies meet at a cafe in Westminster to share ideas, solve problems, learn something new and drink some tea. Usually someone volunteers to do a ten-minute talk on something cool they’re doing, or to gather feedback on a specific topic or project, and then it opens up to the group to ask questions, say what they think or seek solutions to their own work challenges.
It’s a fantastic model for professional networking and knowledge-sharing. One which it would be a shame to resign to the digital sector alone. If there’s one thing Internal Communicators are good at, it’s nicking good ideas from elsewhere and applying them in our own work contexts.
So with that in mind, myself and two other internal communicators are plotting the very first Internal Comms Teacamp.
We’re inviting internal communications specialists to come along to share ideas, natter about comms, and drink some tea. It’s open to anyone who works in employee communications, not just digital types, from the public and private sectors.
We’re kicking off at Apostrophe in Market Place (near Oxford Circus) from 4-6pm on May 25th. Come along! Or give me a shout via the Contact Me form or on Twitter if you want to know more.
Happy new year, my dear readers.
Ok, so I haven’t had a new post here for a couple of months, but here’s a blogpost I wrote for the Guardian’s new(ish) Local Government Network site on why the cuts mean internal comms is more important than ever.
Have a read, and let me know what you think.