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5 key ideas to embrace when building an Intranet

There comes a time in the growth of any business when the question gets asked: "Do we need an intranet?". Just like any technology, the answer will vary depending on the business. It's a question we get asked regularly.

Actually, the question we get asked first is "How do we build an intranet?". The thing is, there many more questions you have to ask of yourself and your business before we get to the design or build stage. I've put together this article to help businesses make those decisions. I've narrowed it down to the top 5 key questions/ideas you need to answer before you can get down to the running a successful intranet.

So what is an intranet?

An intranet is a website which is only available to your internal staff. Your public website is available to the world. Anyone with a device (computer, tablet or mobile or even watch these days) can view your products, services and contact information. 

Your intranet, however, will only be accessible via a staff login or in some cases when you're connected to the business' network. After that, what an intranet is, really depends on your business, your culture, and your internal processes.

Some intranets will store a plethora of documents and information on them. They will be the first and last place your team will visit in order for them to find the information they need to do their job.

Some intranets will be a portal. The first place a staff member will visit. From there, they will be linked out to other sites, file systems and tools where they will complete a task or read a process. Then they will return back to the intranet in order to kick off the next item on their to-do list. 

Some intranets will contain the latest news from within the business. Changes to management or structure, or information on an upcoming event.

Some intranets will have their staff whereabouts listed, full contact details of team members across the organisation.

How-to articles, what the printer configuration is in Sydney office and photos from the last Christmas party can also be made available.

We've built intranets that have key tools built into the framework such as pension calculators for accountants and SMSF managers to use.

So what an intranet is, is really up to you and your business to decide. So how do we decide? Good question, but we're not there yet.

Are you ready for an intranet?

An intranet is another tool in a business' toolkit. When you introduce a new tool, it must Must MUST have buy-in from management. The executive team will need to decide that, yes, they are ready to introduce an intranet to the business. Just as important as that decision is, they must also have a continued commitment to using and keeping the intranet up to date beyond the hype period.

Each branch of your organisation needs to adjust their processes to work with the new intranet. Are they ready to do that?

For example, let's say your organisation runs Office 365 but all your files still reside on your file server. One of the key reasons for moving to Office 365 was to make use of SharePoint. The idea was to move all files to SharePoint folders and retire the file server. All staff would no longer have a shared G: drive and every time they created a contract for a client they would select a template from SharePoint, generate the contract and they save that back to the relevant shared library.

Sounds great in concept but what happens when someone generates a contract from a previous contract, instead of the template because "that's how they've always done it"? If that's allowed to happen, then the intranet descends into irrelevance. People will action items the way they know how instead of the way they need to. Without management being there to encourage and champion the intranet and using it themselves, this is a guaranteed outcome.

Management must update all procedures to include the use of the intranet before it goes live. This is a big commitment. So before you can decide what your intranet will do, you must get buy-in from your management team that they will commit to its success.

What do we build it in?

So you've got buy-in. Everyone wants an intranet. They are ready to embrace it and can see how modernising with an intranet will have great benefits to the business. Time to call in the techs!

Not just yet.

You don't want to start the build of the intranet until you know what you want to use it for.

You need to gather your business requirements. Yawnnnnnn. Yes I know, you're all excited about implementing the future but if you want it to succeed, then you need to document what it needs to do. Otherwise, you run the risk of implementing the wrong intranet for your business. If this happens, this will cause frustration for all staff members. Management will be frustrated because they've spent time changing procedures and the system isn't the right one for their team. Staff will be frustrated because they want this new tool to work, they've believed the hype and it hasn't delivered.

So what do you do?

Well, start with your existing processes. Find the issues and pain points and develop new concepts for these pain points. You don't have to have the new procedures completed 100% at this stage. You can't because you still don't know what the final system looks like. You will need to list the key features the intranet will need to have. There are many ways to do this. At Intuitive we like to use "user stories". They are simple statements that cover who the user is, what they want the function to do and why they need the function to do it that way. 

They follow the format of:

As a <user> I want the <system> to <perform action> because <of this reason>.

Let's use an example of a currency exchange calculator we wrote for a client for their intranet. When they purchase stock from overseas suppliers, they wanted a quick and universal way for staff to calculate the cost of the freight. They needed this generated quickly because they may have a customer on the phone and need to give an immediate answer. So one of the user stories for the calculator might be:

As a salesperson, I want to provide the number of widgets I need to order and the supplier code and have it return the cost of shipping in AUD so I can quickly provide cost estimates to my customers.

User stories are simple and easy to understand and importantly, explain why a piece of functionality is required. They are written in the first person which makes buy-in easier.

You could end up with hundreds of user stories covering all facets of the business.

This is independent of the technology and we use this when our developers are building websites and applications for our clients. 

Once you have your key user stories developed, then you need to work out which are Mandatory, which Should be implemented, which Could be implemented and which Won't be implemented (at least initially). This is called the MoSCoW method of prioritisation.

Now you have all your requirements and the start of a road map for how it will be implemented.

Now you can bring in the techs. Hand over your requirements and tell them "find us the best framework to get this built". And they will love you for it!

The technology

There are many ways to skin a cat. Almost as many systems to build your intranet on. Which one do you use? Well, that is definitely not a straight forward answer. Here are something to consider when choosing your tech.

Best of breed

The techs may come back with the ultimate system to satisfy the user stories they were given. If it ticks every box and integrated well with your current system, then this might be a no-brainer. But what happens if it runs on a technology stack which isn't compatible with what you currently use? Is that an issue? How a big an issue? Can the disparate systems be integrated with one another? How much additional work will that require? How does that affect the ROI? These are questions that require debate and no doubt more research and meetings. Remember that best of breed doesn't necessarily mean for your business.

Best of brand

If you run a Google G Suite then maybe Google Sites is the first place you want to look for your intranet solution. If it meets your requirements then it's easy. If it doesn't, how much extra effort will be required to make it work? As a general rule, I prefer to look at the "best of brand" option first. You've built your technology stack on Microsoft, or Amazon or Google for a reason - hopefully a good one. 

Other options

There are other options and usually, these are considered due to budget. Best of breed and brand cost too much to implement so what else can we do? Well, instead there may be a free framework out there which seems to do the job. If it meets your requirements, then that's fine to use. Just remember that the intranet needs maintenance. Just make sure it's available to you, no matter the solution.

Start simple

Trying to make your intranet a world beater from day one will only end in pain. Painfully painful pain. Simple for one organisation can be completely different from another. Put together a Minimal Viable Product (MVP). This might mean you get the Accounts department using the intranet first while the rest of the organisation waits for the guinea pigs to work through the teething issues.

Or it might mean each department puts 1 key process on the intranet, casting a wider net. It might mean you launch it with basic common functionality (such as latest news, social events, staff whereabouts, etc). The important thing is to release it so the staff can start to use it while the hype is high.

Dragging out an intranet implementation after announcing it to the business is a bad idea. Staff will become disillusioned with the change process and that's bad news for this project and future projects. So plan for an MVP and release it as soon as you can. Don't rush it, but make it a priority. Once it's launched, you can always release changes incrementally. No one expects the ultimate product on day one. Think of the first iPhone and its functionality compared to the current versions? Copy and paste didn't come in until version 3! Like any web application, an intranet is always a work in progress.

Appoint a champion

Although you have buy-in from the business as a whole, you still need the appoint someone to champion the cause of the intranet. Staff will need a voice that is promoting the current features of the intranet as well as thinking of what can be implemented next. Someone where all feature requests can be collated, distilled and merged to ensure there isn't competing resources. This should be someone in the management team. They need authority to push the ideas the organisation comes up with.

Conclusion

You'll notice that this article is very light on technology. That's because making an intranet work is more about your business, your people and your culture. It's about change management. Embrace those when building your intranet. The technology should be used as the medium for your more modern work environment, humming away in the background while people and process are front and centre - and that's the sign of well-implemented tech; and intranet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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