Networking for #intranet managers

In my latest post over at Intranetizen, I’ve pulled together my recommendations for intranet pros on networking with others in the industry.

Always one to eat my own dogfood, this week we’re holding the fourth Internal Communications Teacamp. The theme this time around is internal comms and employee engagement.

As ever, IC Teacamp is open to all internal communciations practitioners, in any industry or discipline. No need to book or RSVP – just come along to Cafe Zest, on the second floor of House of Fraser in Victoria Street SW1, from 4pm tomorrow (18th January).

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

UKGC10 Session two: Socialising Internal Communications

The second session of the day was the one I was looking forward to the most, having discussed it ahead of the event with Kim Willis and Mark Watson.

Kim took the lead on facilitating, but as it turns out the discussion managed to veer though the full swathe of internal comms issues without the need for much facilitating at all. It seemed like we covered an awful lot in under an hour, and could have talked for at least another hour.

Almost everyone agreed  social media could play a much bigger role in internal communications, but within the public sector at least there hasn’t been widespread adoption yet.

Someone described social networking as “what intranets are supposed to be” – enabling you to connect and collaborate with colleagues, share information and improve communication.

A social intranet enables the recording and sharing of organisational knowledge. But while knowledge management looks at how we manage our intellectual capital, we need also to look at how we record, share and pass on social capital too – that is, sharing that knowledge of people and processes that we all build up over time.

Shane Dillion said we rely too much on traditional, top-down methods of communication that no longer suit the way we work. To become more effective, everything we learn outside the organisation should be bought back in and shared.

By enabling colleagues to connect with one another, and by making working lives a little bit easier, good social intranets have a positive impact on employee engagement too.

Many cited middle management as a barrier to adoption of social media. In some ways this is understandable, as social internal comms reduces the middle managers role as a gatekeeper of information.

Our current organisational structures are built for command and control, not collaboration. So the success of internal social media  depends on moving management towards a culture of co-creation.

The question of culture is a very important one. Technology cannot itself create a collaborative culture; if people aren’t talking to each other already, introducing social tools isn’t going to make them.

Other common barriers include silo culture and concerns around security, particularly in relation to things like Government Connect. Platforms like Yammer are incredibly simple to use, and have some great functionality, but sitting outside the firewall are considered too risky by many.

(As an aside, while I like Yammer, I find its default email setting – which emails for every notification – begins to grate remarkably quickly and is itself a barrier to adoption).

But as I blogged about recently, the business case for internal social media is strong and growing. Carl Haggerty gave an update on the Devon County Council social networking pilot he talked about at LocalGovCamp. They branded this ‘business networking’ to counter accusations of frivolity and timewasting. This succeeded in winning hearts and minds, and in evaluation recently he found it produced considerable (but non-cashable) savings.

So what do we do to hasten the adoption of social media inside the firewall?

  • JFDI. The old adage that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission is true to some extent, but it isn’t that simple when it’s your job on the line. But start with a small, agile pilot that can be scaled up if successful. If it works, the organisation will buy into it. If it doesn’t, you won’t have lost much.
  • If you want to promote new ways of working, switch the old ones off. Carl Haggerty said his team made a commitment to use their Business Networking tool for discussion rather than sending group emails. People like their tried and tested methods, so you need to provide incentives to change.
  • Dave Briggs said change needs to be dramatic to work – new tools have to do the same thing at least nine times better to win people over.
  • Get buy in from leadership, and encourage them to use social media internally to communicate, listen and lead.
  • Don’t focus on the negatives. Yes, some people will misuse social tools, but most will not. Posts have real names on, so are self-policed.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Adapt your code of context to say how it applies in an online context rather than write a new code from scratch – that way you avoid protracted negotiations.
  • Hug your CIO. Work with ICT to reach solutions to problems like security rather than focus on barriers.
  • Demonstrate value. Budgets will be tight for many years to come, so we need to set out the business case for social tools, though improving flexibility, sharing knowledge, and improving productivity.

Internal social media sits at the intersection of culture change, innovation and knowledge management. It has the potential to deliver innovation and collaboration, but to do that we need to adapt to the cultural and technological barriers in our own organisations.

This was a vibrant and varied discussion, and we could all have talked for ages. Phil McAllister suggested an internal comms barcamp, which a few of us have begun to discuss in more detail. Watch this space.

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.

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.

Podcasting for internal communication

Tools like YouTube and AudioBoo mean we can produce and distribute audio and video more easily than ever. Abi Signorelli, Head of Internal Communications at Virgin Media, has been experimenting with AudioBoo for a few months. She’s been using it to record her thoughts, and for impromptu interviews with people she bumps into.

It’s certainly an interesting idea. Using real voices from real employees can really bring messages to life, and arguably help to break down organisational silos.

Video, too, is cheaper and easier to produce than ever. Where I work we’ve been using the cheap and ridiculously simple Flip Video to record and share interviews and footage from events. The proliferation of mobile phone cameras means people no longer expect well-produced, slick corporate video. The homemade quality of videos from Flip or mobile phones lends a shaky, grainy authenticity that viewers are now used to seeing on You Tube.

YouTube is now the second most popular search engine in the world – which just goes to show people are actively looking for multimedia content.

But are people looking for it at work? Recent research at a large telecoms company found less than 4% of employees are interested in watching online video from their employer, while actual hit rates on their corporate videos are even lower. Similarly, Abi’s Audioboo advertures have stimulated some interesting debate, but the recordings themselves attract comparatively tiny internal audiences within Virgin Media.

All of which suggests that hype surrounding pod- and vodcasting is overblown. But in my view that would be too simplistic.

History shows our media consumption habits at home create expectations of the media we consume at work. So as more of us access online video or podcasts regularly, it follows we’ll expect the same media rich content in our employee communications.

Short videos from our recent community festival had surprisingly high numbers of views, and some great feedback from colleagues who said they appreciated seeing some of the events going on across the borough.

But that’s not to say in a few years time we’ll all be scrapping our staff magazines in favour of audiovisual content.

First, audiences have to jump through quite a few hoops to access podcasts. Even simple steps like having to download the file to listen, or even plug in headphones, are reasons not to bother. In organisations like mine – with a high proportion of non-wired audiences – the barriers to access can be huge.

Even for desk-based audiences, video and audio is more difficult to access than traditional print and online communications. A recording, even if really well made, takes considerably longer to consume than the same amount of information in text form. So while they’re cheap to make, they cost more in staff time to consume.

Those who are likely to take the extra steps and extra time to consume video or podcasts are those who are already highly engaged. Those who aren’t will need some strong motivation to actively access information in video and postcasts.

So how do we do that? Simply: make it worthwhile for the end user.

We need to think why would someone take time out of their day to view/listen to this? Would you take ten minutes out of a busy day to listen to corporate news in audio form? Probably not.

But would you take some time out to watch a video of colleagues at a sports day? Or a preview of a new product? Possibly.

Its certainly not suitable for every kind of message; the disincentives to access mean it certainly can’t be relied on for business critical information.

But nor should we write off podcasting for internal comms just yet. Video and audio can bring colour and tone to communications that traditional channels can’t. With home consumption of online audio and video expected to continue to grow, as well as increasing numbers of people working remotely, audio and video look set to play an increasingly important role in the internal comms mix.

In the meantime, it’s good to experiment. You can listen to Abi’s AudioBoos here. Why not add your own?