Agile for communications

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?

 Diagram showing the ROSIE model of campaign planning

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).

Proposed model for agile in communications campaigns

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:

As a…

I want…

So that…

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.

Some old thinking about new media

What a difference a week makes. Thursday’s televised debates could be said to put paid to suggestions this is  Britain’s first social media election. A whopping 9.4m Britons watched the debate,  demonstrating old media certainly still has its place in our political landscape.

Pundits took just minutes to announce who they believed to be the winners and losers in the debates, and within half an hour the first polls on audience reactions were out (but as my job is politically restricted, I’m not telling you what I think).

It’s estimated 36,483 people were Twittering about the debate as they watched. Now as I’ve blogged about before, Twitter isn’t always a great indicator of sentiment amongst the wider public.

But unlike the BNP/Question Time TV event I blogged about previously, what was interesting this time was how people on my social networks seemed to view the same events in widely varying ways.

In many ways, this reflects a longstanding debate within communication theory on how people are influenced by the media they consume. 

Discussion ahead of the debates focussed on how the leaders’ performance would influence the electorate; in the days since, commentators and pollsters have concluded the debates will have an unprecedented effect on the outcome of the election.  But this is a rather simplistic way of thinking about media influence, assuming that there’s a direct relationship between cause and effect. 

In the real world, we need to remember that people use the media they consume in different ways. We have different reasons for consuming media, and these fundamentally affect our experience of it.

Denis McQuail is one of many communications theorists to take a closer look at TV consumption. He found that in order to understand how media is recieved, you need also to consider why it is consumed in the first place.

With this is mind, he analysed TV viewers’ responses and motivations for viewing.  The result of his study is called the Uses and Gratifications Approach.

McQuail found there were four broad types of ‘media-person interaction’: surveillance (information-gathering), personal identity (resonates with who you are); personal relationships (swotting up on the big TV event in order to talk about it with others); and diversion (entertainment).

Looking at responses to the debate on the #leadersdebate twitter hashtag, it appears can be categorised in a very similar way. This isn’t a statistically sound study, of course. But communications researchers  – like ethnographers and anthropologists – look for patterns (of behaviour, language, etc) and try to relate these to their social and cultural contexts. Looking at hashtaged tweets there seemed to me to be some clear trends in types of participants, and in how they behaved.

Commentators have focussed particularly on those whose motivation for viewing was what McQuail would categorise as surveillance – ‘undecideds’ who watch in order to inform their own voting choice. A Guardian/ICM poll found one in four of those watching will change their vote as a result of watching.

The flip side of this, of course, is that three-quarters of those who watched didn’t change their mind at all. In my quick n’ dirty, unscientific analysis of the #leadersdebate hashtag , it appears a sizable proportion can be attributed to the personal identity category – that is, people who already have an opinion and watch in order to reinforce that pre-existing view. Many of these already sported a party Twibbon on their icon, indicating a clear, pre-held party allegiance. These tweeters – praising the leader they already liked and criticising those they disliked – came from the Twitterati across the three main parties and were not swayed by the content of the debates.

While this group comprised a small number of tweeters, they account for a disproportionate volume of tweets as they posted frequently during the 90-minute programme.

The third group were interested in personal interaction. Unlike the previous group, they’re not overtly political tweeters, but rather interested in the leadership as they would be another other televisual event, like finding out who killed Archie Mitchell in Eastenders. Their motivation is gaining social capital; they want to know about the debate in order to inform their on and offline interactions with others.

The smallest number of tweets could be summed up as motivated by diversion. This group watched, and tweeted, because… well, it’s something to do. They forgot to turn over after Corrie, or realised they’d already watched that episode of Have I Got Old News For You on G.O.L.D.

So what does this teach us? First, that noomedia isn’t (yet) proving to be the game changer it was talked up to be this election. The 36,483 people twittering about the debate represented just 0.004% of those watching. As I’ve said before, what people on Twitter say does not neccessarily reflect what the nation is thinking. That being the case, I would take Twitter sentiment analysis services with a pinch of salt.

But secondly – and somewhat conversely – while we talk about social media audiences being more actively engaged than those consuming mass media, it seems they don’t behave so differently after all. They have different reasons for consuming, producing and participating, and these reasons affect the outcome of that participation.

The field of communication studies has a rich vein of literature about mass media audience research. Those of us working in the field of digital engagement might learn a thing or two from looking at it again.

Organisational communication 2020

This was the 50th meeting of the London Communicators and Engagement Group, an informal monthly meetup of (mostly internal) communicators. After 50 meetings you’d think organiser Matt O’Neill would be out of topics to cover – but you’d be wrong.

This time, Matt invited David Galipeau (from /United Nations/Academia) to deliver a mini exposition into the future of communications. In a futuristic spirit he delivered his talk – on where he sees communications of the future heading – using a Skype video link from Geneva.

David Galipeau off Red Dwarf

In practice, this gave him the disjoined, disbodied appearance of Holly from Red Dwarf. But it worked surprisingly well – so that’s another nail in the coffin for international business travel, perhaps.

As Matt said in his introduction to the event, communicators are focussing on how we can use social media tools to improve organisational communication now and in the immediate future. But are the implications for the future? ‘Is this just the start of an emerging pattern that will fundamentally change the way organisations talk internally and externally?’ asked Matt.

He’d also suggested we take a look at some of Galipeau’s work ahead of the event. Alas, I was in a rush, and when I took a look at this, I thought ‘arrgh!’ and closed my browser tab.

Galipeau’s talk was almost as difficult to digest. I know he’s an academic, but I suspect I was one of the more geeky communicators in the room, and still quite a lot of what he said went right over my head. I’m not sure whether those who weren’t digital natives really knew what he was talking about for much of the time.

For example, Galipeau talked about the implementation of IPV6. For the lay reader – that’s most of you, I suspect – our IP addresses are currently based on IPV4, but we are fast running out of numbers. IPV6, Adrian Short told me via the Twitter back channel, will give us gives 6.5 x 1023 addresses for every square metre on Earth.

The arrival IPV6 will enable an ‘Internet of Things’ in which everything down to your slippers will have its own IP address. Your TV will speak to your fridge, and your supermarket trolley to your bank.

This, he contended, means the interweb is entering a new and much darker phase, quite different to the hippy free-for-all we’ve come to know. The internet is already slowing down thanks to tens of thousands of DOS attacks taking place daily. This, he said, is an early sign totalitarian nutjobs are engaged in cyber attacks and counter hacks, and the threat of industrial and political espionage is growing.

He gave groups that protested against Scientology as an example of this – yet didn’t really elaborate what was new about this threat other than giving people the ability to self-organise.

What was odd about the talk was that the speaker achieved the rare feat of going right over people’s heads while at the same time getting some real basics completely wrong. For instance, he talked about ‘crowdsourcing’, giving the example of “bringing people together to all dance in the station at the same time”.

This isn’t crowdsourcing, it’s flashmobbing. Crowdsourcing means drawing on the wisdom of the crowd in order to inform your own decision-making. It has a purpose, and increasingly it has real value for individuals and corporations. It can be as simple as putting a shout out on Twitter to gather some lazy reasearch, or as complex as wiki-style policy formation.

Simply framing it in terms of simply bringing people together for no discernable purpose really undermined Galipeau’s credibility, and this was reflected in the Twitter stream.

Galipeau went on to argue strongly what organisations are becoming more centralised, and in particular decision-making is becoming more centralised within organisations. But as he didn’t elaborate on why he believed this to be so, or what evidence pointed in this direction, I wasn’t convinced (particualrly as it doesn’t chime with what so many of us internal communicators are working towards).

I was glad, then, of the surprise appearance of engagement guru John Smythe. His excellent book – CEO: Chief Engagement Officer – focuses on how organisations can deliver increased engagement, and improved productivity, by opening up and moving towards a culture of co-creation.

When Smythe asked the speaker to give examples of research that proved the opposite, Galipeau muttered something about unpublished research commissioned by the US military, which didn’t convince me at all.

I am far more convinced by Smythe’s thesis than Galipeau’s, not least because the latter appears to run contrary to so much of what I see going on in government and business. There are already countless examples of companies successfully democratising decision making both with employees and customers.

Smythe has challenged Galipeau to a debate on this, which he very grudgingly accepted. I really hope this happens.

My objections to Galipeau’s thesis are, I admit, partly emotional. He presented a remarkably gloomy vision of the future, in which the individual is powerless and the corporate centre is an omniscient Orwellian beast.

Nonetheless, it provided an interesting counterbalance to the the highly positive future envisaged by theorists like Clay Shirky and Charles Leadbeater. Shirky, as I’ve blogged about before, sketches out future in which technology enables public participation on a scale never before seen. He says that ‘for the first time, we have the tools to make group action truly a reality. And they’re going to change our whole world.’

So there’s a concensus that techology will radically change our relationship with organisations and the state. For me, at least, the balance of evidence would suggest Smythe and Shirky’s culture of co-creation is on the rise.

If Galipeau’s talk got you reaching for the anti-depressants, check out Us Now, a film project about the power of mass collaboration, government and the internet. It’s a rather more cheerful view of the digital future.

UKGC10 session four: The future of journalism

Eve Shuttleworth proposed this session in response to a question that arose earlier in the day: Where is journalism heading, and how do press offices need to change in response?

The web professionals session I went to earlier touched on the same issue – how do we develop the skills we need within our web and communications teams to respond to changing media demands?

Journalism has changed enormously over the past decade or so. News organisations large and small have woken up to the web, and are developing a wider range of rich media content. Local papers as well as national ones are using audio, video and interactive graphics to enhance their stories.

This has led to a huge cultural shift in news, with print and web journalists being located together and badged as content producers. The overwhelming feeling in this session was that communicators need to adapt in a similar way.

Press officers can’t focus solely on writing and selling-in written press releases; we need to take a broader approach to content, producing material for the corporate website as well as complete asset packages for the media to use.

Several of the group gave examples of journalists accepting their video content, although there’s a clear divide between the specialist and local press and the big boys on the nationals.

Major national news organisations are reluctant to take video material from the government (and rightly so in my view). But local and regional press are poorly resourced and more inclined to accept PR material.

Someone asked: the budget-slashing job cuts and subsequent culture of ‘churnalism’ that one sees in much of the regional press is beginning to creep into the national press too, in response to the poor advertising market and declining sales. Does that mean even major news organisations will start accepting complete packages from us too?

There was deep unease about this from much of the group; while an under-resourced press makes PRs life easier, it’s not exactly indicative of a free press performing its fourth estate function of holding government to account.

Many of us said we’re troubled by the lack of critical analysis press releases get. All too often, journalists will take a press release, find any contrary opinion, and present this as reasoned analysis. This over-simplification of debate does neither communciator nor journalist credit; it’s rare that there are two sides to every story. Usually there are at least three or four, and sometimes there really is just one.

This isn’t the fault of journalists, but of proprietors who have cut editorial teams, merged titles and slashed budgets so there simply isn’t enough journalistic resources to get out and report the news. One press officer said “make life easier for journalists and they’ll bite your hand off”.

Sarah Lay gave a great example of how they did this during the local elections in Derbyshire. Making a wide range of material available to journalists online meant that they recieved more coverage than they’d normally expect, yet had to take fewer calls from journalists. That’s a win-win for everyone (especially Sarah and her team, who took home a PR Pride award for this).

89% of journalists are using blogs and social media to research their stories, and it follows that the public sector need to engage with these too. Communciations teams need to keep an eye on blogs, Facebook, etc so problems can be identified and dealt with early before they become more reputationally damaging.

Alastair Smith explainined how Newcastle City Council managed a story which sprung up on Facebook. By responding to the group and offering to meet and talk about their concerns, they managed to turn what was a negative story into a positive one that helped the campaign group get what they wanted.

Communications teams just aren’t set up to respond to social media. Reporting lines for press releases usually require signoff from senior staff and politicans, a process which can take days – a timescale incompatable with the demands of social media.

Neil Franklin told us how he used to manage the Twitter feed at Downing Street, arguing that communicators need to be realistic about responding in a timely manner.

I suggested we borrow the concept of ‘presumed competence’ used by the Foreign Office. Back when an ambassador was sent to Ouagadougou and not heard from for months at a time, their masters back home had to assume they were capable of getting on with it. Social media has the same disconnect between local demands and ability to get sign-off from the centre. We may find it easier to respond to social media if we have a set of agreed ‘lines to take’ that we trust our teams to deliver, and refer upwards only by exception.

Whatever you chosen approach, organisations need to develop a policy for dealing with social media comment. Michael Grimes adapted the well-known US army model into this very useful process model for dealing with social media comment.

Others said it was difficult and unhelpful to have two different approaches to responding: It’s just media, and media is social. We need to have a vision for content generally, and plan our resources accordingly.

Someone added that we need to think about tone, and “don’t treat citizens as journalists”. While it’s true we speak differently to journalists as customers, the rise of the citizen journalist – and initiatives like Talk About Local – mean the distinction between the two is blurring.

Someone talked about this Clay Shirky article, which argues “we will always need journalism, but we won’t have journalists”. The fourth estate is vital in a democratic system, so if we’re seeing less meaningful analysis of our work by the traditional media, then we should welcome it from non-traditional sources.

Online journalists, of the traditional as well as citizen variety, are becoming as much curators of content as creators, aggregating content from the wider web and bringing it to the attention of their networks. Communications teams should try and emulate this in what they produce, for instance by linking to related articles or useful background information.

Eve Shuttleworth said the Ministry of Justice is starting to monitor blogs and social media to get a feel for what the issues are, but has not yet made the decision to respond. One of the issues they’re grappling with is whether press officers should respond as the organisation, or as themselves.

Identifying individuals could have security implications, especially where issues are controversial.

All of this points to an urgent need to reassess the service we provide. We need to develop a vision for how we provide content, and ensure we can resource this in a way that meets the media’s diverse and changing needs, the needs of the audience and those of the organisation.

Intranets are key to recovery in 2010, say surveys

Each January, Jakob Neilsen’s annual intranet design annual is released. This showcases the top ten intranets of the year, and is a good indicator of trends in intranet design and usability.

This year’s Neilsen report found intranets are becoming a higher priority for organisations, intranet teams are growing in size, and increasing numbers feature mobile accessibility and social networking.

On the face of it, the improved functionality comes as no surprise. Mobile internet and social media has grown exponentially over the past few years. Our experience of using the web creates expectations of the kind of content and functionality we want at work too; as we rely on our iPhones to do everything for us when we’re out and about, we expect to be able to use our intranet on it too.

That intranet budgets and teams have continued to grow despite the long recession reflects a growing realisation that intranets can deliver real return on investment for organisations.

Significant and measurable returns can be made by making information easier to find – quite simply, less time spent searching for things is more time people can spend doing something worthwhile. Functionality like self-service HR can see sizable reductions in administration costs.

Less easy to measure, though, is the value of the intranet in improving engagement. Last year’s MacLeod Review on Employee Engagement (from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills) found that more widespread adoption of employee engagement approaches could impact positively on UK competitiveness and performance, and meet the challenges of increased global competition.

Good intranets not only make life a little easier for colleagues, they improve communication, facilitate collaboration, enable people to connect and have their say, and help workers feel part of their organisation. This, in turn, encourages employees to say, stay, and strive.

Another study out this month, from communication research specialists Melcrum, would suggest organisations have heeded Macleod’s call for greater focus on engagement.

In the survey of 2,212 senior communicators, 40% said the business case for social media within internal communication was clear and that there is visible return on investment, while 53% of those who responded said they were planning to increase investment in their organisation’s intranet in 2010.

The results of this study show that not only are organisations investing in good intranet design, but also in functionality and content. When asked about channels used for internal communication, the intranet ranked as the most effective channel by 73% of senior communicators worldwide, with a clear majority believing webcasts and video would grow in importance in 2010.

Respondents highlighted a wide range of business benefits from investment in internal social media. These included improved levels of employee engagement (21%), better communication with remote workers (16%), knowledge management and collaboration (25%), improving employee feedback (20%) and making business leaders more visible and accessible (14%).

Both the Neilsen and Melcrum studies show intranets are maturing. Increasingly they’re moving away from being a simple repository of information and becoming instead a platform for communication, collaboration and engagement.

Victoria Mellor, CEO of Melcrum said: “There is a fundamental shift happening with how information flows inside an organization. Peer-to-peer online networks are enabling real-time feedback from employees to inform decision-making, not to mention facilitating collaboration between remote workers.”

With budgets tight, the pressure is on for organisations to demonstrate value for money. But with growing evidence of the business benefits of investment in intranets and internal social media, it’s clear they’ll play an even more important role in 2010.

Intranets and urban sprawl: a postcard from down under

This month I’m taking a bit of a break before starting my new job  in the new year. In desperate need of some sunshine, I jetted off to Sydney, Australia.

After spending some time lolling about on the beach, throwing shrimps on the barbie and wandering around town wearing a hat with corks on, I decided to head out of the city for the obligatory bush walk.

As I drove out of the city in search of some bush to hike in, I realised that Sydney is huge. It takes literally hours to reach the city limits. My (Australian) host explained that this is a result of Sydney’s short history.


Sydney: this is where it all began

You see, although the area around what’s now Sydney Harbour was home to Aboriginal settlements for many hundreds of years, the modern city is a relatively new one.  The roots of today’s city began with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. This was a ragtag band of soldiers, convicts and a few entrepreneurs looking to make a few quid.

They set up camp in the area that is now central Sydney, naming it New Albion. From these humble beginnings the city has grown. And grown. And grown.

As a city built largely in the age of the car, on land that is seemingly limitless, Sydney has  become characterised by urban sprawl. In fact, it’s now the third-largest urban agglomoration in the world.

It struck me that the story of Sydney is very much like that of your average corporate intranet. Most began life, like New Albion, as a bit of a side project, with no clear aims or objectives.

Sydney's urban sprawl

Sydney's urban sprawl 1917-2031: a bit like your intranet

And just as land and resources seemed limitless to those looking for their quarter-acre plot on which to build a family home in Sydney, so too does seemingly limitless server space encourage intranets to grow exponentially.

An explosion in car ownership enabled Sydney to grow to its present proportions. Similarly, the emergence of piss-easy CMSs meant that anyone can be an intranet’s content author, allowing them to add to the urban sprawl of your corporate intranet.

So, just like Sydney, the history of many intranets means they’ve become bloated and difficult to navigate.

But this is where my metaphor falls down.  Sydney householders would certainly be a bit miffed if you were to knock their homes down or move them to somewhere a bit more sensible. But for intranets, that’s certainly possible.

Here’s are some ways to prevent or fix urban sprawl on your intranet:

  1. Decide what your intranet is for. An obvious point, perhaps, but it’s important to set clear objectives for your intranet.  Think not only about what you want to achieve, but how the intranet will help you get there. Be both specific and realistic.
  2. Get to know your audience. The intranet should reflect the culture of the organisation. Adding discussion groups to your intranet will not make people want to participate if there is no existing culture of participating within the organisation. Find out what users want, but speak also to those who don’t use the intranet much to find out why.
  3. Best before end. Set expiry dates for all content pages, with owners or authors required to review them at set intervals to ensure they’re still accurate and up-to-date.
  4. Is this yours? Pages without owners are the intranet equivalent of those boarded-up houses along the North Circular. If no one cares enough about the content to take responsibility for it, it’s likely few would miss it if you were to delete it.
  5. Remember the law of diminishing returns. Every additional piece of content added to your intranet makes it a little bit harder for the user to find the actual information they need.
  6. Help people find their way around. Investing some time and money in getting your information architecture right will soon pay for itself.  Don’t just rely on the main menus, though: use the left-hand navigation lists and the footer of each page too. Help people get back to the section home,  the home page, and to other related pages. But people have different ways of looking for things, so a good search engine and A-Z are needed too.
  7. Raze your city to the ground. It’s not an option that’s open to city planners, but there are strong arguments for scrapping your intranet and starting again. A clean slate gives you the chance to get your information architecture and governance structures right, before developing your content from scratch so it really meets the needs of your audience. This nuclear option is an expensive one, but one that shouldn’t be dismissed entirely.

Over the coming months I’ll be thinking a lot more about intranets and how we can make them better. What are your tips for keeping your intranet fit for purpose?

The Social Organisation

It was just coincidence that I began reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody on the tube on the way to the recent FutureGov Consultancy/Huddle event on internal collaboration, but a fortunate and relevant coincidence nonetheless. Shirky argues that the web can enable people to self-organise, and in turn will transform our world. The event’s speakers argued that those same ideas of self-organisation and reduced costs can – and should – transform our bureaucracies.

In a small group everyone is able to speak to everyone else to organise their time and resources. Once an organisation gets beyond a certain size, management is needed. But managing resources itself takes resources, and these costs tend to grow faster than organisation size.

This makes organisations quite inefficient. Like all large organisations, councils use quite a lot of resources on managing and communicating internally.

Huddle’s Charlie Blake Thomas told an all-too-familiar story: Someone sends around a Powerpoint Presentation by email to ten people. People make their changes and send it round to the group again. Soon you have eight or nine different versions in circulation. Version control goes out of the window. Inboxes are clogged up with crap.

In the past this was neccessary, but these days there are better ways of collaborating. Huddle is one of them, but other collaborative software is also available.

However, technology is no panacea. Becoming more collaborative requires cultural change. Councils are rigidly heirarchical structures and quite set in their ways. We’re used to working in silos, and many prefer it that way.

But as Bob Dylan so famously sang, the times, they are a changin’. It’s clear the public sector as a whole has a few turbulent years ahead as a result of tight public finances and changing demands.

In addition, local authorities are increasingly delivering services in partnerships, thanks to initiatives like Total Place. All of this means becoming more collaborative is not a choice, it’s a neccessity.

Anne McCrossan argued that old boundaries – between and within organisations – are increasingly irrelevant. The emphasis shifts from org chart structures to informal communication networks and those individuals within organisations who act as gatekeepers, hubs and pulse-takers. Organisations need to take advantage of these tacit information-sharing relationships in order to build effective networks.

Moving away from rigid structure towards a more collaborative way of working brings big benefits for organisations. First, it fulfills those needs that sit at the top of Maslow’s Heirarchy; social participation gives people the power to self-actualise. By sharing information more widely, we present opportunities to learn. A social organisation is, by definition, a learning organisation.

Most importantly, it makes us more efficient. By reducing the costs of communicating and managing, we free up resources for service delivery. Private sector organisations thrive when they bring down management and transaction costs. We need to learn from their best practice in order to make the most of our resources.

McCrossan’s presentation echoed in many ways the work of employee engagement guru John Smythe. Smythe argues for employee engagement programmes aimed at moving employees up the engagement ladder – that is away from old structures of command and control towards a culture of co-creation.

Like Smythe, McCrossan emphasises the role of leadership in bringing about change, with a focus on behaviours and relationships rather than command and control.

Affinity, she contends, is stronger than structure. Organisations work best when they share a common purpose, comunicate that purpose, and bring colleagues along towards the common goal.

This is something local authorities ought to be good at; those of us who work for one know that ultimately our job is to make life better for people in the borough. But all too often we’re guilty of focussing on our own work and not the bigger picture.

Becoming collaborative organisations gives councils an opportunity to redefine their purpose. By focussing on working together with residents and partners towards our common goals, we can become more efficient and effective, as well as becoming better places to work.

Over the coming months and years local government will be asked to redefine its own purpose in order to become leaner and more efficient. That means rediscovering those shared goals and giving people the tools to work more efficiently towards them. Structures are inefficient: harness common purpose, though, and organisations can achieve more efficient delivery.

Leadership: why Greg Dyke is like the Wizard of Oz

In an interview with Management Today this week, former BBC Director-General Greg Dyke said the key to building up a high degree of trust and loyalty among employees is to make sure that they say the right things about you to others:

‘Leadership is about the stories that are told about you – both positive and negative’, he said. ‘You’ll be judged by those stories more than anything you say or write, and people will need to like what they hear about you. The most effective leaders are the ones who are loved by their staff. Always think as a leader: how will this be seen?’

His words echo those of the Wizard of Oz, who said ‘ A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others’.

In all but the smallest companies, it’s not possible for the CEO to develop a personal relationship with all employees, so instead they rely on internal communication (as well the informal networks of office rumours and gossip).

But is it really the job of communicators to present their Chief Exec as a loveable kind of guy? Or does that risk leading us, David Brent-like, to confuse popularity with success?

David Ferrabee cautions against what he calls the ‘Wizard of Oz approach’: ‘If you do put employees in front of the CEO a lot, they might find out he/she is not actually the Great and Powerful Oz, but just a WC Fields lookalike’.

And therein lies the problem. It’s not a leader’s job to be liked; it’s their job to lead. Most CEOs are affable kind of people. Most are good communciators – they need to be so to have reached that position. But it doesn’t follow that they have to be the kind of person colleagues would be happy to go for a beer with.

In the introduction to the recent MacLeod Report on Employee Engagement, Peter Mandelson says ‘organisations that truly engage and inspire their employees produce world class levels of innovation’.

What inspires people is encouraging innovation and ideas in the workplace that are focused on competitive advantage or shared vision. That means engaging with colleagues and managers and bringing them along with you on a journey, communicating honestly and clearly.

Arguably, building a personal mythology for a leader could stifle rather than encourage innovation. After all, how many colleagues would be willing to challenge the Great and Powerful Oz?

Dyke’s job as the leader of a quasi-public sector organisation in the midst of bitter battle with senior government figures meant he slipped easily into the role of staunch defender of his organisation and his staff.

But few other leaders are in such a position. Most answer to shareholders, or in the public sector, elected leaders, so simply presenting yourself as likeable is not a viable leadership communication strategy.

So while Greg Dyke inspired extraordinary loyalty from his staff, his strategy’s not goingto hold water for many others. Other leaders wishing to develop their own organisational profile need to communicate in the way that suits their organisation, their objectives, and their own leadership communication style.

Thoughts on Portsmouth’s Facebook ban

Portsmouth Council announced this week they’ve decided to ban access to Facebook from its computers after it was revealed staff spent an average of 400 hours a month on the site.

Council bans on Facebook are hardly new; many have restrictions on access thanks to the requirements of Government Connect. But this story focussed on “waste”, noting 400 hours a month equates to between five and six minutes per month spent on the site by each of the 4,500 PC-based staff.

Firstly, the statistic isn’t a sound one; Portsmouth Council admit they can’t differentiate between business and personal use, nor between dwelling and active browsing, which means they don’t know how much of that 400 hours is clocked up by windows left open while the user does something else.

Second, the headline doesn’t reflect the real issue behind this story. Organisations have had this debate many times already, over the potential for employees to waste time if given a telephone, email, or access to the internet. In all of these cases, it’s a manager’s job to tackle any perceived timewasting, and so too it should be for Facebook. But instead of looking at the quality of performance management, Portsmouth Council are trying to solve the problem from the centre.

This strikes me as throwing the baby out with the bathwater. People are already talking about us on social networks. We can either choose to ignore those conversations, or we can listen to and learn from them.

As Carl Heggarty notes, would we consider a member of staff visiting a village hall and listening to community issues and communicating with them about councils services a waste of time, or would that be considered community engagement?

Employees listening out for the organisation on social networks gives us an extended network of “eyes and ears” able to highlight problems and bring them to our attention before they spiral out of control and become significant reputational risks.

By banning access, we prevent employees from listening on our behalf, identifying problems so they can be given attention by more conventional means. But heavy-handed bans also prevent employees from speaking for us. Employees can be powerful advocates for what we do, and are likely to speak highly of us in their social networks, both on and offline. By banning access we limit employees ability to advocate for us online.

By limiting the extent to which informed and engaged employees can advocate on its behalf, Portsmouth Council is failing to get the full value from its internal communications.

Finally, centrally-imposed bans on access could also be said to have a negative impact on employee engagement. Hertzberg argues that dissatisfaction with employment is primarily motivated by company policy, supervision, salary, interpersonal relations and working conditions (what he termed ‘Hygiene Factors’). Portsmouth’s policy of blocking social networking sites could be seen to create dissatisfaction among employees, as it could be seen to be heavy-handed centralised supervision, and limits their ability to manage their work-life balance and build working relationships.

The Work Foundation found access to new technology affects how people view their organisational culture: “People who have access to newer technologies are more likely to characterise their organisation as one that is loyal with mutual trust, that is committed to innovation and development or is focussed on achievement and not rule bound”.

The holy grail of employee engagement is discretionary effort. Engage your staff and they repay you by investing more time and effort into their work; fail to engage – or actively disengage – and employees are not motivated to contribute more than the bare minimum.

A more nuanced look at Portsmouth’s Facebook ban might reveal it has a negative impact both on employee engagement and on community engagement, resulting in far more “waste” than the five to six minutes a month currently spent on Facebook.

Old school comms at Google

I’m an internal comms geek. So when I went to Google’s London HQ this week I was really surprised that their internal comms people favour the old school poster-in-toilet approach.

Proof positive that even in the most tech-savvy of environments you still need traditional print and face-to-face internal comms channels.

But in the loo? Is that an appropriate environment to be advertising in? Internal communicators are pretty split on the issue.

More on GoogleLocalGov soon.