Making sense of SharePoint with out-of-the-box intranets

It’s reckoned that 70% of intranets run on Microsoft SharePoint. It’s been the lead in the Gartner quadrants for enterprise content management and enterprise social for as long as either has been around. It’s perhaps surprising, then, that only once in my decade-long career as an intranet practitioner have I actually recommended to an organisation that they choose it.

That’s because while it’s packed with features and eternally popular with IT departments, it remains painfully difficult to deliver a simple, usable intranet with it. While it improves with every new edition – and 2016’s offering has made considerable steps forward in usability – the complexity and flexibility of this hydra of a product too often results in intranets that are over-complicated, ugly and hard to use.

The search continues to suck, the branding and customisation options limited, and the analytics it offers lags behind its rivals. Sure, it offers a lot of functionality – but much of it is stuff that few organisations want or need, merely making the intranet harder to use.

More often than not SharePoint intranets are an afterthought tacked on to any Office upgrade or rollout rather than actively chosen as a tool to deliver a best-in-class digital workplace and intranet. Where user research and planning does happen, and real investment is made in design, user experience and content, SharePoint can – and does – deliver truly great intranets.

Nine of the 10 intranets named as the world’s best in this year’s Neilsen Norman intranet design annual were SharePoint-based, as were around half of Intranet Innovation Awards winners. What sets these organisations apart is that they’ve invested planning and resources in really making a success of SharePoint – focusing on user needs, design and usability. But for everyone else this almost never happens.

So what do you do if you don’t have these resources and for whatever reason you’re stuck with SharePoint?

The last five years or so has seen the development of a wide range of products built on SharePoint that claim to quickly transform it into a useful, usable and fully-functioned intranet.

I was delighted to be given the opportunity to look more closely at a number of these products, as one of the team of reviewers for the second edition of SharePoint Intranets-in-a-Box, from Clearbox Consulting.


The report looks at 26 of these products in all. They each had a slightly different focus and approach, but almost all delivered significant improvements in usability compared to a standard implementation. Some so much so that you hardly knew you were using SharePoint at all. Some products built on the SharePoint platform to deliver key transactional functionality for intranets, like HR or IT, while others had a heavier focus on enhancing and streamlining SharePoint for internal communications and engagement.

What they all had in common was the speed and ease of implementation. While the NNg award winners took an average of 1.3 years to deliver their intranets, out-of-the-box solutions can be up and running in days – or even hours. This makes it possible to deliver a decent intranet on top of SharePoint even with a limited budget and few development resources.

The SharePoint Intranets-in-a-Box report is out now. It’s packed full of practical advice and honest reviews (bad as well as good), and gives a useful overview of the available options at-a-glance. Between the team we’ve done over 200 hours of research to help you choose the right product for your requirements and budget.

Confession: I’d probably still recommend organisations starting from scratch consider alternatives. But as a self-confessed SharePoint Skeptic I’m delighted to see vendors come to the rescue for those who are tied into the Microsoft ecosystem, doing the hard work to make SharePoint suck less, so you don’t have to.

If you’ve read this far, reward yourself with 10% off the purchase price using my discount code IIAB2CBOX10.

Other blogs about Sharepoint Intranets-in-a-Box:


What the 2016 Meeker report means for the digital workplace

Each spring analyst Mary Meeker releases one of the most hotly anticipated slide decks of the year (arguably, the only hotly-anticipated slide deck…). Packed with stats on adoption and use of internet technologies, over the past decade it’s become the most comprehensive analysis of the State of the Internet around.

Her 2016 report was released a few days ago (1 June), and I’ve had a chance to pick out some trends which I think may create demands on digital workplace professionals in the coming years.

Arise, the Snapchat generation

In last year’s report Meeker noted Millennials were no longer an opportunity or threat to prepare for, but now the majority in the workplace.

This year she talks for the first time about Generation Z – a group she describes as “tech innate”, using five screens at once. While Gen Z aren’t yet making themselves known in the workplace, they’re only a few short years away from doing so.

Gen Z, Meeker notes, have a notable preference for image-based platforms such as Snapchat over text-based ones. In my last blog post I warned against lazy generational generalisations – and that’s borne out by the report too.  While Snapchat use has ballooned amongst younger people, use of it and similar image-based tools is growing (albeit not as fast) among all age groups.

That’s because images work; they impact us both cognitively and emotionally, which makes them able to tell a story in the blink of an eye. By embracing the power of images and design we can make digital internal communication more effective. But at the same time this creates challenges; image-based communication is difficult (often impossible) to index for search, and problematic for accessibility. Proceed with care.

Messaging is massive

There are now an astounding three billion messages sent daily on Snapchat, Facebook (inc FB Messenger), Instagram and WhatsApp.

And a significant proportion of messenger-based conversation will be about work. Most DW practitioners will admit that WhatsApp has become the Swiss Army Knife of enterprise collaboration. With employees now carrying more advanced and more usable technology in their pockets than they’re given by corporate IT, they’ve voted with their feet and opted for shadow IT on an unprecedented scale, particularly tools like WhatsApp and Slack.

Too many corporate IT teams have their heads still firmly in the sand on this one. It’s particularly challenging for those in regulated industries to admit their employees are eschewing corporate channels for untrackable personal tools – but it’s now far too widespread to ignore.

Beyond conversation

With Facebook now over a decade old, people have become more sophisticated in their use of social tools, which they now see as delivering far more than simply messaging with friends. The growth of business-focused conversation is driven in particular by Asian IM2.0 apps WeChat, Line and Kakao.

People aren’t content to be passive consumers of information anymore; SnapChat is simply the latest in a long line of tools which enable self-expression and creativity.

Corporate communicators need to consider ways to embed and leverage this innate need to create and converse in their communication processes and tools. Lengthy news stories haven’t cut it for a long time, and they’re unlikely to win in a battle for attention with a sponsored Snapchat filter.

Messaging apps are fast becoming platforms for commerce, and it follows they will soon expect to be able to transact in a similar way using their enterprise tools. Smart companies need to start thinking now how they can use things like Slack integrations to deliver this.

People have become adept at filtering out unnecessary information, demonstrated by the explosion in use of adblockers that Meeker notes. 81% of people will mute video ads – and chances are they’ll do the same with your dull corporate internal comms video too.

But good content still works, if it’s relevant. People have come to expect hyper-targeting, and they expect something of value in exchange for their attention. This requires corporate communicators to have a radical rethink of the way they create and share information – an app or mobile intranet isn’t likely to do the job.

You talkin’ to me?

One of the most talked-about stats in this year’s report was a prediction, from Baidu’s chief scientist Andrew Ng, that 50% of searches would be via voice or image search by 2020

Voice recognition accuracy has come on leaps and bounds, averaging around 90% accuracy – a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by users. Already 65% of American smartphone owners use voice commands.

The growth of voice interfaces has a huge commercial and productivity benefits; the average human speaks at 150 words per minute, but can only type at 40 words a minute. Moreover, freeing people from keyboards makes connectivity vastly more convenient when on the move, and opens up greater possibilities for information to be more targeted and contextual.

If voice interfaces and voice search goes mainstream as predicted, people will quickly expect the same from their enterprise tools and systems. How can your digital workplace adapt to a switch in primary interface from keyboard to microphone?

Have you read this year’s Meeker report? (If you haven’t, here’s the slideshare). What were they most interesting – or controversial – points for you?

The email-free future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.

It’s over five years since Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg predicted email is probably going away, and yet I returned from holiday this week to a bulging inbox. So what went wrong?

Here I explain why email alternatives haven’t yet made the breakthrough – and what needs to happen to really see an end to inefficient email culture.


Underestimated the need for culture change

Cultural barriers in moving from email to enterprise social have been wildly underestimated. Email has had a long (20 year +) period of dominance, and has found its way into a vast range of tasks (many of which it’s inappropriate for, but nonetheless). Old habits die hard, and email is quite some habit – taking up 28% of employee time. Intranet expert Sam Marshall once commented that only two things will survive a nuclear winter – cockroaches, and email.

Email, for all its faults, offers privacy, preservation of silos and hierarchy, and the hoarding of knowledge – all things which fit with traditional ways of managing business. For enterprise social networks to really make a difference they need to form part of a massive change management programme – one that sees the ESN as a small part of a change to make the organisation fit for the future.

If an organisation is serious about embracing openness, meritocracy, flexibility and collaborative working, as a means of making itself more agile and innovative, and engaging its people, then an ESN will enable that. But the organisation needs to lead that change – the tool is merely a means of delivery, and can’t be seen as the culture change itself.

Few organisations have done this successfully yet. Most have barely started. But as hardly a day now passes without another news story about how traditional industries and business models are being disrupted by smaller, newer players – firms who are already embracing those values and working in open, collaborative and innovative ways – big business has to adapt or die. That culture change isn’t a nice to have: it’s existential.

The tools sucked

Back in 2010, the tools to go email-free just weren’t widespread enough; few enterprises had rolled them out, and where they had they were found wanting. Let’s be blunt here: they sucked compared to what was available on the web.

Enterprise social tools lacked powerful enough functionality to make people ditch their long-held habits. They were typically rolled out organically, which meant they relied heavily on enthusiasts and failed to gain critical mass.

All that has changed, though. Social intranet products such as Sharepoint, Jive and IBM Connections have continued to grow and evolve their functionality. At the same time, products like Salesforce, Oracle and SAP have moved on from token inclusion of social functionality to offering fully social systems. And a host of new entrants like Slack have come along to shake the whole enterprise collaboration market up, forcing everyone to raise their game.

The current crop of enterprise social tools now offer substantial and realistic alternatives to email with functionality and usability that are as good as anything offered to consumers.

The challenge, then, is ensuring the organisation has the right tool or set of tools. And that means focusing on user needs…

Lacked understanding of user needs

Too many intranet projects are conceived and designed from the corporate centre, designed without a detailed understanding of how, when and why people work – so that social fits the way people work, rather than expecting people to change the way they work to use social tools.

In this (old) blogpost, Andrew McAfee suggests that the continued use of email when superior alternatives are available is an example of the 9x problem. That is, that people are generally averse to change, so they overvalue what they have by a factor of three, and undervalue alternatives by 3x. So something needs to not just be better than the alternative for people to be convinced to change, but it needs to be 9x better.

The number one driver of adoption is utility. Intranet and digital workplace professionals need first to understand what people do and how they work – and why they use email – then select and configure tools so they provide a compelling alternative – one that users perceive as genuinely useful enough to be worth investing their time in learning.

Poor integration

All too often social intranets are yet another in the plethora of workplace portals, presenting users with a hot mess of interfaces and user experiences. It’s no surprise that people reached for the comfort blanket of Microsoft Outlook.

Email dominates because it’s familiar, and it’s made its way into almost everything we do at work. Email doesn’t force people to think about what tool to use – and nor should your digital workplace. The current generation of enterprise social tools are easy and cheap to integrate with each other, and with other systems. Crack that and present a coherent, integrated digital workplace that doesn’t require users to think, and you reduce the barriers to change.

Too inward looking

Finally, they didn’t extend beyond the firewall, forcing people to go back to email if they want to collaborate with anyone outside of the organisation. In this day and age collaboration can’t just be inward-looking; it will necessarily involve third parties like agencies – and ideally customers too.

With most vendors offering robust cloud-based solutions, there’s no longer a need to limit collaboration to inside the firewall, nor to force people to go back to email to collaborate externally.

The future

These five factors can explain why predictions about the imminent demise of email have failed to come true. While the tools have improved markedly, implementations must focus on user needs so that users feel social tools are substantial and realistic alternatives to email.

As William Gibson commented, the future is here… it’s just not evenly distributed yet. While the tools now exist to deliver on Sheryl Sandberg’s prediction of an email-free future, without significant investment in culture change email will persist.

Photo credit: Daniel Voyager


Intranets need to be a bit more fabulous

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the Beauty Project, a celebration of all things beautiful at London’s Selfridges department store. There I listened to beauty columnist Sali Hughes talk to a panel of women about their experiences of – and different attitudes to – beauty.

While many deride the beauty industry as frivolous and superficial, for others make-up instills chameleon-like superpowers, giving them the confidence to go into any new context knowing they look the part.

As I returned to work the next day, it struck me what a depressingly under-appreciated quality beauty is in online experiences, and particularly in intranets. And how because we don’t apply make-up to our standard intranet faces, they suffer the fate of appearing unglamorous, dowdy and frequently unloved.

For a couple of years now I’ve been collecting intranet screenshots in a Pinterest board – over 230 so far. There are some great examples, but a lot of bad ones too.

It got me thinking: wouldn’t intranets be better if, like this weekend’s Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst, they were just a little bit more fabulous?

Ugly sister

Intranets have historically been the poor cousin of the organisation’s website. They’re utilitarian things. Intranets often began life as a little side project, put together by someone in IT, built using clunky old tools. They served a purpose, but they didn’t do it very elegantly.  That purpose was usually communication, resulting in dense, ugly pages of text.

If you were really lucky, you’d get some icons. But these early intranets were no fun – they were serious stuff, and they had the rugged bad looks to show for it. These early intranets were managed, painfully, using tools like FrontPage and LotusNotes.

Early intranets were no lookers

Creating and managing intranets became easier with the widespread adoption of content management systems. Unfortunately, this often meant Sharepoint. Sharepoint is packed with functionality, but left a lot to be desired when it came to visual design. At the same time, few organisations gave much thought to the need for strong graphic design on an intranet. After all, it’s not like you’ll look anywhere else, is it? (Remember, at this time many organisations still routinely blocked web access for staff).

Over time, intranets got a little better, with text communications giving way to other content. Early attempts were made to try and engage users with more than just text, with the use of banners.

As intranets evolved, they began to provide a route through to key services, like HR, IT or room booking.  Problem was, these services were often designed by HR or IT people who didn’t give a great deal of thought to user experience, still less to visual design.

Text-heavy and dull, but early attempts were made to use imagery

Now intranets aren’t on the web, but they are of the web. And as websites became clearer and more engaging, so too – eventually – did intranets. Slowly.

Intranets began to be aligned more closely with an organisation’s brand, using more imagery, bolder fonts, and embracing the use of white space rather than trying to pack every available pixel with more internal communications.

Cinderella moment

But no intranet manager can escape the march of progress. In the first decade of this century, Apple emerged from its doldrums to become one of the dominant forces in technology. And it did this through making products that didn’t just do more, but also looked better than their rivals.

Functional and beautiful became the order of the day. And people loved it. The web stopped being a nerd’s hobby and became a way of life for almost everyone.

In just a few short years, we had a revolution in our hands. Almost all of us now has more powerful technology in our pockets than we do on our desktops. The consumerisation of IT made us all more demanding – we wanted better functionality, faster pages, but we demanded better visual design too. The ugly web just wasn’t good enough anymore.

Intranets have responded to the changing demands of their users with intranets that offer utility as well as communication, in a form that approaches some of the cutting-edge cross-platform design we see on the wider web. This means offering communication and services that don’t just work, but also engage.

Intranets have begun to learn from the best of website design

Embracing the power of imagery

Once freed from the shackles of slow connection speeds, the web has quickly become more visual as brands began to recognise the power of imagery.

We process visuals 60,000 times faster than text, and because of that  images have become the currency of social media. They can instantly inform, intrigue, inspire, delight or capture the imagination of those that engage with them.

That’s because they affect us in two ways: cognitively, they expedite and increase our level of comprehension, recollection and recognition. But they also work emotionally, enhancing or affecting an emotional response.

And they do that in the blink of an eye. Following the lead of websites and social media, more intranets are making the most of visual assets to inform and engage, and tell their brand story.

Reaping the rewards 

And that’s because there are strong business drivers to do so. Organisations have long realised the impact an ugly office has on morale and productivity. Studies have shown that a well designed work environment improves productivity by anything up to 50%, increases job satisfaction by 24%.

Organisations invest time and money in making their offices look good, even if they’re not client-facing, because they know it makes business sense. But as the digital workplace becomes the place where we got to get work done, it follows that the same is true in our online environments too.

If the primary place that you do your work is online, then making that digital workplace one that people want to work in will have huge benefits in productivity and engagement.

As more of us work flexibly supported by a digital workplace, then the intranet becomes the primary way that we experience and understand our employer brand.

By connecting employees with the organisation’s brand and vision using both content and design, good-looking intranets create more engaged employees. Better looking intranets can have a big impact on their business outcomes.

The times, they are a-changin’

It’s encouraging, then to see intranets finally embracing the power of beauty. This year’s My Beautiful Intranet competition, the Digital Workplace Group’s annual intranet beauty parade,  is already seeing a steady stream of entries – and they’re a million miles away from the out-of-the-box ugliness that’s plagued the industry for two long.

Dense blocks of text, tiny images and 1990s styling has been replaced with big, blod and on-brand design on par with some of the best web sites around.

The competition is still open for entries – take a look, vote for your favourites or submit your own. I’m on the judging panel this year, and am looking forward to seeing more.

Is there more to life than being really, ridiculously good looking?

Of course a great intranet can’t just be about form over function. But by combining form and function, pairing great functionality with an interface that functions well and looks good, we create intranets that have a huge impact on engagement and productivity – and are really loved by our users.

The future of business is now

Following on from my talk on mobility and connectedness at Intranatverk last week, I’ve pulled together this quick blog post for Business Reimagined on how technology is changing the way we work, making predictions about new ways of working a reality for more and more people.

The business of reimagining business is nothing new. Popular narrative from the middle of the last century painted the new millennium as an age of domestic automation, jetpacks and interplanetary travel – and all turned out to be some way off the mark.

More prescient, though, was Brave New World author Aldous Huxley, who in 1950 was asked to predict what work would be like in the year 2000. He wrote:“…offices will be relocated in small country communities, where life is cheaper, pleasanter and  more genuinely human than in those breeding-grounds of mass neurosis, the great metropolitan centers of today.”

Granted, he was wrong about quite a few things (not least that  the 20-hour work week would become standard) and in the year 2000 most of us were firmly chained to our desks.  But in the thirteen years since, the digital workplace – the ecosystem of communication tools, social platforms and business systems within the enterprise – has succeeded in making Huxley’s prediction something closer to a reality for a growing number of workers.

The revolution in technology since the turn of the 21st century has been accompanied by a seismic shift in working cultures that has seen the commute and the 9-5 workplace become a thing of the past.

The arrival of the digital workplace has led businesses to completely rethink the way they work. By moving the tools people need to do their jobs online, businesses have made it possible for their employees to work from anywhere – so that work becomes what you do, not where you go.

Already one in ten office workers in Western Europe are mobile, working all or part of the time from home, and this is growing by 6% a year.

Mobility, supported by a good digital workplace, has a raft of well-documented benefits, including improved productivity and reduced costs, as well as making employees happier and healthier. Businesses are quickly realising that mobility isn’t a nice to have; in a world where competitive advantage is everything, becoming more responsive and productive is essential.

But while technology is a central component of the digital workplace, making a success of it means focussing instead on people – not designing mobile websites, but designing policies, places and online services for people who are mobile.

For example, the digital workplace allows smart companies to change the way their use physical space; instead of banks of desks used from 9-5, they give people well-designed space to think, work alone, or to collaborate. Not simplyless space, but the right space and place for the task at hand – whether that’s at home, on the road, or in the office.

Design matters. If the primary way those who work for you experience the organisation is online, the online experience can’t be a bad one. Successful mobile organisations recognise the importance of brand, design and user experience in the digital workplace.

Enterprise mobility is a decentralising force, but this shift can lead employees to feel disconnected from their colleagues. Successful organisations work to establish community through social intranets so that remote workers can communicate with – and feel connected to – their colleagues, wherever they’re working.

By making it possible to work whenever and wherever we choose, the digital workplace is ending the tyranny of the daily commute. And all while making our businesses more productive, and more profitable.

Today’s technology enables us to do business the way we’ve been reimagining it for decades; enabling people to work more flexibly in ways that benefit employees, and the bottom line.

Developing trust in the digital workplace

Here’s a little something I wrote for CMS Wire, as part of their series on intranets and the digital workplace this month.

In offices the world over, a quiet revolution is underway. The costs of technology have fallen, the quality of social platforms vastly improved, and senior management attitudes have changed; after many years when it was simply an aspiration, or a buzzword, the digital workplace is fast becoming a reality.

Using social and collaborative tools, more and more of us are breaking free of the office and working flexibly for all or part of the time – so that work is an activity, not a place.

While secure, reliable and usable tools are an important element of a successful digital workplace, technology is not itself a panacea; to make it work you need the right policies and processes in place too – and the people involved need to trust one another.

A recent survey by Microsoft found 82% of businesses now support flexible working. But while seven in ten managers say they trust their employees to be productive when working from home, employees are far more cynical about one another: only 52% trust their colleagues to be productive when working away from the office.

This presents a barrier to continued growth in online working; teams cannot deliver unless they trust each other. But to build trust in virtual teams – when often the members have never even met each other – employers need to ensure the right factors are in place to enable it.

So just how can organisations develop employee trust in their digital workplace?

First, realise that trust doesn’t just happen. Too many organisations introduce collaboration technologies, and simply expect silos to disappear, with productive, cross-functional teams emerging in their place. Often, silos exist for reason – because the people in them know each other, and understand their own role. Successful digital workplaces recognise that virtual teams need time, space and tools to develop solid working relationships.

Conversely, virtual teams often have a honeymoon period, a brief time when people are willing to give them a shot. Under pressure to perform, groups quickly develop what’s termed swift trust – a kind of benefit of the doubt. This tends to decay quickly, but it can provide the glue that keeps teams together until more lasting trust has developed.

Developing deeper bonds in the digital workplace requires us to use our tools in less obvious ways. Often digital workplace strategy focuses on facilitating work tasks, but not on how to reproduce the experience of a being a member of a workforce in order to reduce feelings of isolation and increase engagement.

Ambient awareness

Lee Bryant of Dachis Group champions the importance of ambient awareness – the office chatter which gives people a greater understanding of their organisation’s work – as something which “oils the wheels” of digital workforces. While some argue social activity streams are an unwelcome distraction from ‘real work’, in replicating those overheard office conversations they keep people in the loop and can ultimately lead to improved productivity.

Successful digital workplace launches have found tools have had wider adoption – and achieved greater success – when they can be used for social as well as more obviously work-related activity, for instance by including interest-based social communities. Allowing people to talk about both their personal and professional lives builds empathy and interpersonal trust between people who may not have met face-to-face.

Provide tools, not rules

This connective tissue is stronger when it’s able to develop organically, with employers providing the tools but not prescribing precisely how and when they can be used. There are parallels here between physical and online spaces; when a business creates a meeting room, it defines the rules for the room (how you book it, when it’s available), and sets up the space, but never defines precisely how the room must be used. Social spaces are like meeting rooms.

In German there’s even a word for this: Nutzungoffenheit, which – loosely translated – means the potential of technologies only manifests itself when people have made sense of them and incorporated them into their own routines.

This phenomenon means it’s difficult to predict precisely what impact digital workplace tools will have on the workforce until they have been introduced. Corporate culture also impacts heavily on the degree to which collaboration will be embraced.

Lead from the middle

However, in all but the smallest organisations the introduction of enterprise social marks a significant shift from top-down to peer-to-peer communication. While a move away from old ‘command and control’ management contributes to networked productivity, it moves the balance of power away from managers and leaders as gatekeepers of information.

One unintended consequence is that this – combined with the decreased visibility that comes with flexible working – can further undermine trust in leadership. Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer found trust in CEOs fell by 12% in the last year alone. With teams increasingly working virtually, senior execs need to find new ways to connect with their workforces to gain and maintain trust in their leadership.

Senior leaders need to ‘walk the talk’, using enterprise social tools and blogs just as others might ‘walk the floor’ in a more traditional organisation, while recognising that in a digital workplace a command and control style of leadership is often less effective than modelling desired behaviours.

Jonathan Phillips suggests leaders should be highly visible on the intranet, and not just in news stories and CEO blogs: “They should ask questions, participate in online debate, solicit personal feedback, seek input to key initiatives. They should comment on other employee blogs.”

Leaders must demonstrate that they believe enterprise social is work and not work avoidance; by using social tools themselves, leaders give employees permission to do the same, and in turn let employees know they are trusted to deliver.

Successful organisations will trust their own employees to work effectively without command and control, and provide them with tools and time to establish social bonds with their peers in order to work effectively in virtual teams. Such organisations recognise that trust is a reciprocal relationship between employer and employee, where trust is repaid with greater flexibility, engagement and performance on both sides.

Declining trust defines new role for intranets


The 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer, published last week, finds a deepening sense of distrust in governments, businesses and institutions. The annual global study, which questioned 30,000 people in 25 countries, reveals a dramatic shift in the value people place in information sources – which, in turn, has some interesting implications for communicators and intranet managers.

Across the globe, blame for the financial and political chaos of 2011 landed at the doorstep of government, as trust in that institution fell nine points to 43 per cent. In seventeen of the 25 countries surveyed, government is now trusted by less than half to do what is right. In twelve, it trails business, media and non-governmental organizations as the least trusted institution.

The private sector fared slightly better: trust in business fell from 56 percent to 53 percent, with countries like France and Germany, in the heart of the Eurozone economic crisis, experiencing double-digit decreases.

“Business is now better placed than government to lead the way out of the trust crisis,” said CEO Richard Edelman. “But the balance must change so that business is seen both as a force for good and an engine for profit.”

One of the biggest changes over the past year is the decline in trust in CEOs, which fell by 12 points. Faith in government officials fell like a stone too this year, down 14 points to just 29 per cent. It’s not unreasonable to assume this is reflected inside organisations too, so many will want to look again at CEO blogs as a means of increasing visability and trust in senior leadership. Over on Intranetizen, Jonathan gives some sterling advice on making executive blogs work.

Employee advocacy could be one way out of the mire. The survey found that credibility in average employees rose dramatically this year, so they are now the most trusted resource within an organisation. To capitalise on this, organisations must work harder to ensure their employees are informed and engaged – and then trust them to talk on the company’s behalf. This approach – what Edelman call radical transparancy – empowers employees to drive the conversation amongst their peers.

But to do this, organisations and leaders need to trust their employees first; companies which block access to social networks are preventing their employees from advocating on their behalf, and so missing a huge opportunity to engage with customers.

The barometer found people need to hear the same information about a company three to five times before they will believe it. This emphasises the importance of a proper communciations strategy which mixes on and offline channels to ensure the message gets out there. 

At the same time, trust in social networks as sources of information grew  by 75 per cent over the past year. Smart companies, then, will take advantage of this and embrace the value of conversations (by employees and the public) as a means of establishing identity and trust.

One corollary of this is that the growth in use of social networks, both internally and externally, means news travels fast. Employees can easily find information about their own company online, and all too often will hear (and believe) news from external sources before they do from their own manager.

This has huge implications for company transparency; corporate communciations structures need to keep pace with the changes. A good, social intranet – and improved access to these from a range of devices – gives organisations the means by which they can get their message to staff before they hear it from elsewhere. But this isn’t just a case of building it – leadership buy-in, and changes to the way corporate comms work with social intranets are essential to make it work.

Edelman’s report sets out long- and short-term approaches to rebuilding trust. In the short term, trust in a business is firmly tied to the bottom line. But future trust is more strongly linked to softer, societally-focused factors such as business ethics, placing customers ahead of profits and treating employees well. In the current environment, informed, engaged employees are best placed to communicate that message to the public – and intranets have a vital role to play in building that engagement.

Photo credit: Thorinside on Flickr

The (anti) social intranet at #ukgc12

Social intranet session

While UKGovCamp overwhelmingly focuses on how we use digital to engage with the public and improve public services, I firmly believe that to make that happen we also have to make public authorities themselves work better. So I was keen to have a session on intranets.

Fortunately, so was Stuart Murdoch of Surevine. It turned out to be a popular topic – so much so that we had to get a much bigger room. Stuart’s take on things was rather different from mine; he’s introduced social intranets at many organisations, and is a firm believer in social to make a better digital workplace.

Whereas I’m more critical of social for social’s sake, and feel the real value for intranets over the next 3-5 years is in transactional, making the intranet deliver real business value and helping people to do their jobs better. So this made for quite a lively debate, and we all had plenty to say.

Stuart contends that people are the most important part of intranets. I’d agree that the focus is fast moving away from documents and policies; content is no longer king, and the intranet is no longer simply a vast repository of HR documentation. Nor, the group felt, was the primary role of the intranet to push information at people.

A couple of people talked about the value of building a community around information. It’s one thing publishing hundreds of pages of HR policies, but barely anyone will be bothered to look for them. The social intranet could enable people to ask questions, and get answers from internal experts, who can then signpost them to information or resources they need.

One person suggested that “social can help you find the people in your organisation who can help you do your project”.

However, this is based on a simple fallacy; that these people want to be found. In almost all cases, in large organisations people are heavily silo-ed. An individual’s objectives relate entirely to the team or department they work in. Their performance will be measured on this, and in many companies (particularly in financial services) individuals will get financial rewards based on the value they deliver to their own team and projects – not anyone else’s.

If you work in Group Risk and someone rings you up out of the blue, having spotted that you speak Russian in the company expertise finder, you have no particular incentive to drop what you’re doing and help, do you?

Next we moved on to the question of what the intranet is and who it’s for. This isn’t as straightforward as it once was. Local authority intranets, for example, deliver content to council employees. But as departments are being merged into cross-borough shared services, and private firms and voluntary sector firms take on the role of service delivery, the simple question of who is the audience for an intranet isn’t at all clear-cut.

In such a diverse landscape, the one-size-fits-all intranet is no longer sufficient. Dan Harrison suggested we move beyond the idea of the intranet; the internet includes millions of sites, so why should the workplace web have only one? The answer is the heterogenous intranet, comprised of a variety of sites and services that meet the diverse needs of users.

Another participant gave the example of the RAF, which has different levels of intra- and extranet sites with different groups given access to each according to user need, blurring the boundaries between internal and external sites.

On the Twitter backchannel, Alex Manchester suggested the city as a metaphor for the digital workplace, with different suburbs and neighbourhoods that people visit for different reasons. Think of the corporate front page news as Piccadilly Circus, collaboration as Shoreditch, and the HR policy pages as Pinner.

We moved on to the question of how you encourage people to participate in social intranets. Most were, like me, pretty cynical about gamification, asking what value it delivers for either the individual or the organisation.

A few participants noted bottom-up, grassroots solutions often had more traction than corporately imposed ones. One example given was where a Yammer pilot was replaced with a corporate (Sharepoint) tool that quickly fell flat.

But bottom-up solutions often exist for a reason; where people find the tools they’re given at work aren’t up to the job, they’ll find their own – whether that’s using their Gmail due to tiny inbox sizes, or starting a Yammer network to collaborate on a project.

The key difference with grassroots solutions and small-scale pilots is that they are allowed to quietly fail. This process of trial and error enables people to find the right solutions that marry technology to organisational culture – a process that a big Sharepoint project is rarely able to go through.

A big variable here is organisational demographics; different solutions are needed for organisations full of knowledge workers and those with a high proportion of workers out on the coalface. But for both types (and all those in-between), the question of whether social functionality is what people actually want or need should really be asked before top-solutions are imposed.

Social is not an outcome. Making the organisation work better should be the desired outcome (measured in money saved, projects completed more quickly, enquiries dealt with, etc.). Social functionality can be part of the solution, but should fit alongside redesign of processes to make the intranet deliver real business value and efficiency.

Will 2012 be the end of email?

end of email

2012 begins with a slew of predictions that this year will see the back of email. Back in November, multibillionaire foetus Mark Zuckerberg declared “email is dead”.

It must be true, I read it on Twitter. However, Zuckerberg is hardly an impartial observer; he’s got his Facebook Messenger to flog (a system which, ironically, has a user experience akin to using Yahoo webmail in the late 90s).

ATOS boss Thierry Breton is taking the whole business more seriously; he’s making it his personal mission to end the use of internal email by 2014, arguing that 85% of his staff’s time spent on email is unproductive.

Breton noted that his new graduate hires didn’t use email; they’d grown up on social tools such as Facebook. It was only on starting work, he claims, that this cohort were introduced to mail – and found it wanting.

Research by ComScore reckons younger people don’t use email, eschewing it in favour of IM and social networks which provide “instant gratification”. This is precisely the kind of meaningless statistic regularly used to prop up claims that email is on the way out (usually peddled by people with a messaging system of their own to promote). Until I joined the workforce I’d never participated in a meeting, made a round of tea, or heard the word Action used as a verb. Yet all of these things are still going strong in the most digital of workplaces. That people don’t adopt common workplace practices until they join the workforce should hardly come as a surprise.

Let’s get this straight right now: Facebook messenger, Twitter and Yammer aren’t about to see off a communication medium which has been going strong since 1972. Not now, and probably not for a long time.

Claims that one type of new technology will swiftly usurp established practice are nothing new; Plato claimed that the spread of writing would destroy humans’ ability to remember.

The ComScore research found visits to mail sites such as Hotmail, Gmail and Yahoo fell by 6% in the past year. Crucially, however, it doesn’t find that that volume of email received and sent has actually fallen. And as more and more if us are using smartphone and tablet clients to manage our personal emails, it kind of follows that this should impact on the number of visits to webmail sites.

In the workplace, things are different. People are attached to their Outlook. This has long been a source of bafflement to intranet managers and others working in enterprise tech. Outlook, as we all know, is rubbish.

Well, it is; it’s particularly rubbish at the things it wasn’t supposed to be used for, like collaboration and archiving. But this is like moaning that a hammer is crap at cutting a piece of wood in two.

What Outlook is mostly quite good for is emailing. As a program for reading and writing emails, facilitating communication between two or more people, it’s really not bad at all. It integrates with Office. It has folders and a calendar, and if you’re very clever you can add voting buttons, which at least half of the recipients will miss.

And the fact is, people like email. They know what to do with it. They can attach stuff to it. Crucially, at some future date they can retrieve their email from the bowels of their Personal Folders in order to cover their own back. Granted, it does mean that disk space is optimally used, or that versions aren’t ordered, or that they’ll definitely be able to find what they’re looking for, but for most this is a small price to pay.

The times, however, are a-changin’. Attached though users are to Outlook, the fact is that IT teams are not. If 2012 is anything, it looks set to be the year of the cloud. Usability and functionality of cloud-based office apps has now improved to the point where they present a genuine alternative, while at the same time budgets are being squeezed. For many IT departments, switching to cloud based email is fast becoming a no-brainer.

It’s this, together with the increasing use of smartphones as the primary means of reading emails, which may finally break the office’s addiction to Outlook.

And that, my intranet-loving friends, is an opportunity. If people are – for other reasons – going to change their workplace tech habits, then for the first time ever they might be genuinely interested in your collaboration platforms and document management solutions.

If your organisation is aiming to move to cloud-based mail this year, then now is the time to get planning.  While we know the benefits of a social, collaborative intranet, in most organisations they haven’t yet taken off; 72% of employees use internal social functionality less than once a month.

This isn’t because they don’t know how. The same group of users will happily update Facebook daily. No: it’s because they haven’t figured out the point yet, and find your collaboration platform fiddly.

So what can you do about this?

First, make your internal social network better. Find out what people want and need and give it to them. What do they want to communicate about, and with who? What features do they need? File sharing, task management? These are all things people do (badly) in Outlook. For your internal social network to take off, it needs to be genuinely useful and help people to do their jobs better.

User experience is a vital component of this. Facebook has the traction it does because it’s intuitive and easy to use. Internal networks need to watch and learn. People won’t put up with a clunky interface simply because they’re being paid to be there.

Many will claim to have already cracked step 1. Good. Then why aren’t people using it? Perhaps they don’t know it’s there, or don’t understand the benefits of using it.

Employees need to understand how internal social can improve their productivity, or they won’t see the point in using it. Make sure the benefits of using the system are clearly spelled out. As well as marketing the product, you need to cultivate the network.  Like any social network, internal ones need to reach a tipping point – a critical mass of users and a decent range of content – before they really become interesting and useful.

Here, 2012 provides another opportunity; with many being asked to work from home during the Olympics to reduce demand on the transport network, people are actively looking for solutions to support home and flexible working.  These newly homeworking employees could provide a valuable case study, demonstrating how intranet 2.0 can improve communication and collaboration, leading to more innovation, better knowledge-sharing and ultimately increased revenue.

Start talking to these people now and ensure they have the right tools in place by the time the Games come around. If the tools work for them, they’ll have an incentive to keep on using them after the Olympic flame is extinguished.

Email isn’t dying. If anything, it’s suffering from growing pains. But with the changes to workplace technology in the pipeline for 2012, this is the time to develop and promote the alternatives in order to make your organisation work more effectively. Your workforce needs you.

Internal Comms Teacamp returns!

Tomorrow is Internal Comms Teacamp! This time around we’re talking about intranets, social media and the digital side of internal comms – so it’s right up my street.

When: 16 November, 4-6pm

Where: Cafe Zest, House of Fraser, Victoria Street, London SW1E 6QX (it’s on the second floor at House of Fraser)

It’s open to all internal communications practioners, in any sector. No need to book or RSVP – just turn up.

If you can’t make it, follow the action on the #iceteacamp hashtag.