i2 Swiss Internet and Intranet Summit

I had the pleasure of attending and speaking at the i2 Summit in Zürich last week and I have to say the quality of the event was excellent. I had a really interesting day and that’s always something to write home about!

My first highlight was meeting Tim Walters from the Digital Clarity Group again. Tim and I worked together on the kick-off  workshop for a large SharePoint digital workplace project (which was actually presented later in the day) and it was great to see him again. Tim is a great presenter and his zombie stories were not only entertaining but really landed the message:

Things are getting faster, you don’t have time to change slowly anymore.

The day continued with a number of very interesting intranet case studies at different levels of development along the transformation to the true digital workplace.

It was nice to see so many people using our very own Infocentric maturity model to position their work and it is noticeable how many people have made significant steps forward in the last 2 years.

Infocentric digital workplace Maturity Model

Especially noteworthy was the excellent presentation from Dave Shepherd from Barclays Bank, not only the presentation style and delivery but also the great work at digital transformation within what would outwardly seem to be a very traditional institution. Search for “Digital Eagles” and you’ll see a whole lot on Dave’s sterling work.

My takeout from the presentations was very much that we are no longer talking about just content but more importantly context and there is a real understanding that enabling people is the way forward.

Enabling people of course means not only your staff, but also your customers and I’m always a little disappointed when I hear that we think this is a new idea. We talk a lot about increasingly demanding customers and yes, there is a piece that says customers are now more fickle but we shouldn’t forget that the basic human requirements for good service, good product, good prices and good clarity are the things that kept us going to the same corner shop for years. Only when the storekeeper went on holiday and put a useless temp in charge, did we TRY the guy down the road…and liked it… The same is partly true of the web, make the experience count and deliver on your promises and good things can happen.

My word of the conference, ‘Digital-Vegetarians’, we’ve all met some of these and our job has to be keeping these guys nourished. Despite the acceleration in the digital transformation, a lot of intranet managers are still fighting to get the necessary management attention and commitment. I believe a large part of my job for the next few years will be helping those managers to pick the right cases and battles and to bring real value to the business without impacting on the shareholders dividend payments. It is possible, we just need to think differently, the ‘Tofu Digital Workplace’ may well be required.

Some hidden factors that should influence your intranet design thinking

Something I’ve noticed with all major Digital Workplace and Intranet projects is that a lot of people focus on the important features and forget the important factors.

When people think about designing an intranet or digital workplace, there are a myriad of tools and methodologies available to help them consider the features and content they need to support. Today, most projects are getting pretty successful at looking at these things:

  • Content – What the site says
  • Features – Everything from feeds to self-service elements
  • Navigation – What do you need to navigate to, and why?
  • Corporate Identity – What should it look like? Of course it needs have the corporate identity.
  • Usability – Make it easy for your reader? Can the user orientate themselves? Can they find their way around?

But there are a number of more subtle balancing factors which you can play with to determine what lands on your pages and they have a non-traditional impact on the simple answers we get from normal business requirement analysis.


Do the choices you are making reflect the corporate strategy? Are you able to adapt when that strategy changes?

If your strategy is to consolidate there is a strong case for a single corporate intranet but if your strategy is to have diverse brands with diverse strategies then a single corporate intranet isn’t really going to add value. However, syndicating content directly into the separate intranets may just be a good answer.

Brand values

Much deeper than corporate identity, does the intranet represent your values?

If your values encourage openness and active feedback, then refusing to put a commenting facility on news doesn’t really live up to that. It’s easy to send out the wrong message and often intranets fail to give any really meaningful message at all.

Staff Impact

Can you roll out without training people? Are you actually changing something more fundamental then just the screen they are looking at?

When you roll out your intranet then all the fantastic work you’ve done on usability should minimize the roll out impact. But the soft changes can be really quite far reaching, if you think back to the dim and distant past email destroyed many quick discussions around the coffee machine, stopped people picking up the telephone and actually slowed down the process of communicating especially when tonality needed consideration.


Can you actually manage the structure that you have set in place? Do you have the resources, governance and willingness to take the journey you have started?

I often see great expectations for what a new Intranet will deliver, but the consideration of how much resource can be put into generating, editing and controlling content is often overlooked. There is no point designing a highly visual news rich corporate communications portal if you don’t own have a couple of good writers, a plethora of good images and a copy of Photoshop.

The X factor:

Of course there are also a secret set herbs and spices that actually deliver the real flavour.. this is where it gets fun.  It’s the behaviour you want to encourage, or even drive. This is what transforms organisations and this is where you need to consider usability in a totally different way.

I put it to you that it’s not always about making things easier for your users. If you want to change the way people deal with polices or standard operating procedures, you may want to make it harder for them to find a policy stored in collaboration spaces than it is to find official (and governed) policies.

The take home is that intranets and digital workplaces are complex beasts. Really good system design has to go beyond that of the internet, we don’t want to make people work hard to use an intranet but we might want to help them learn new ways to work.

Greece and Microsoft – Language and SharePoint

Boat Picture

“Outside Athens, Greece is still, Greece.”

Well I got you with the title; it’s not what you think. I’ve just had a wonderful holiday in Greece, sailing round the Islands and thinking about SharePoint. In my thoughts I wasn’t quite at the stage of firebombing Microsoft  but I can appreciate that certain customers, perplexed by some of the ‘features’ of SharePoint, may be driven to such desperate acts.

Before I went away, I was battling with SharePoint experts, trying to find solutions to a number of problems, including language.

All I want is enterprise language support, nothing too clever, just a few minor things:

  • True multi-lingual support for the content (I only want to use 25 or so languages at the moment but will increase)
  • A real language concept, which recognises that a base language principle works on a site but not for an enterprise. There’s no way an organisation can deliver on a base language promise in the real world. Especially if that organisation has no base language (welcome to Switzerland)
  • The ability to change attributes and elements on variations easily. Variations are a good idea in principle but it’s the same principle that says the human cannonball is a valuable mass transit solution.  If you try it in the real world you are going to hit a wall one day, the result will be nasty.
  • The ability to detect language at link-to not just on the landing page (and process the relevant fall back rules).
  • Oh and not to create a million pages of dross (ROT) just by having other languages used from time to time.

Sure you can program your way round them, build custom interfaces that break the next time a major patch comes out. However, even in SP2010 the language handling is still ‘My-First- Collaboration-Platform’ and not a true enterprise tool.

I guess this post has been a bit of a whine; I like to bring solutions not problems.

The solution appears to be to step outside SharePoint to do the things we want it to do. That’s not ideal. SharePoint does some things really well and if an organisation is SharePoint-centric then you often don’t have the choice of using different tools to solve the problem, nor do you want to custom develop a tool up to or beyond the bleeding edge.

My key messages are therefore:

  • If you want to use SharePoint at an enterprise level (and you haven’t bought it yet), think about your language requirements at the time you consider your architecture.
  • If you need multi-base-language support then, if you can subdivide into sites you may be fine. If you can’t (perhaps because your strategy drives you to harmony and integration) then be prepared to develop or use a thin layer above SharePoint in your architecture.
  • SharePoint is getting better, from the disastrous language support in 2007, it’s moved forward in leaps and bounds. Unfortunately it’s leapt over some of the fundamentals that would make it a truly usable solution. In some cases it’s as though gravy were spilled over the napkin of inspiration, a huge hole exists in a really damn fine idea. So please don’t fire-bomb Microsoft anymore, at least until they’ve had a chance to get this right in the next release… if they don’t then I suggest a small thermonuclear device may be a more appropriate response.

Just keep banging the rocks together guys! Stone Age Intranets are not extinct.

That pivotal moment, that moment in which the caveman realises that the spark from banging his rocks together can ignite his pet pterodactyl’s nest, it’s a world changer (for both caveman and pterodactyl), he’s warm.

Of course it’s nice to hand the guy the rocks, the right sort of rocks. It’s a delight when those rocks bring real results to his banging… it’s not just the nest but the whole tree and the surrounding forest that is swept by the wave of fiery inspiration.

A new Intranet doesn’t just mean you bang different rocks together, it brings about a wave of change (if you do it right). In fact, almost nothing escapes; only the deep bedrock of the business survives and even that can be left seriously charred. Communication, engagement, peer to peer collaboration, information flow and deep-rooted business process can all feel the heat of change. But beware; if you don’t think first, even banging your rocks together can start a conflagration so large that you will never get it back under control and many organisations just want to start by getting warm.

There are, of course, lots of ways to make heat and as consultants we know that, we often do it just by talking. The match and the lighter are perhaps more effective, if a little passé. However, not all companies are ready for these, there are still a great many organisations banging rocks or even multiple sets of rocks together and doing pretty well out of it. Our job is to help these companies evolve, that sometimes means stepping back from our vision of Fuel-Cell-Powered-Pocket-Laser-Intranets and trying to bring the future in manageable steps.

In large multi-nationals multiple Intranets are almost a disease, lots of little fires left over from the first enthusiastic rock-banging of the last 5 or so years, most of them only partly doing the job of warming the cave and many standing as flaming barriers, keeping real communication away from the troglodytes inside.

Most companies certainly recognise the need to progress. They can feel the break in communication flow, sympathise with the need for the employee to ‘hunt’ the right source and they can even measure the costs of maintaining lots of different sites. However, the barriers to moving the whole organisation forward as one are often simply too great because real-life things get in the way, things such as:

  • Project costs – “Intranet isn’t core business after all”
  • Project priorities – “Yes we know we have to do something, and it’s important but the transformation workshops for the top managers must come first”
  • Analysis Paralysis – “It would take forever to get the requirements”
  • Resources – “I don’t have time to give you my needs, let alone the time to migrate my content if you actually get something going”
  • Complexity – “Well we started looking at this corporate policy material and found we had to involve Ben, Fred, Joe, Karl, Mary and most of Dawn’s team not to mention….”
  • Politics – “I’m not giving up my intranet, it does everything that I need it to do”

And strangely, the one that I’ve heard a lot (probably due to the above)…

  • Believability – “You’ve been talking about this need for the last 3 years and you’re no further, why should it work now?”

It’s often the case that we think big, try to do everything right and in the process spend so long defining our requirements that the world has changed by the time we get the project live and if you promise the world, the gift under the christmas tree is only going to be disappointing. More often, we find devolved responsibilities and aligning those, even with a CEO mandate, is harder than building the time machine to hand the guy the rocks in the first place.

If you want to succeed in this environment, you often need to take a super-pragmatic approach to building new Intranets, simple steps with a view on the big picture (the pocket-laser of internal data systems that is the Digital Workplace). This means I still find myself building Stone Age intranets, from Digital Workplace point of view, but the concepts and structures behind them are very 2012. I don’t often get to play with social media, I don’t get to gamify, but I do get to build a really strong foundation for the future and I get to transform the way the organisation works, in bite-sized chunks.

With all that in mind here are eight thoughts on how to focus the fire-starting, regardless of the tools you use.

  • Get power from the top…

You need top level buy in. Get it. Don’t start without it. End of discussion.

  • Think strategic, build small and assimilate to get big – M&A time for Intranets…

Start with a well-defined and effective nucleus and build out from there. Put the essentials and easily manageable components in to your first build. Don’t get too ambitious but, at a minimum, provide a good routing mechanism to ‘legacy’ Intranet content of worth.

Tackle the integration issues and assimilate your targets, bit by bit and case by case. As with any merger; some parts you’ll want to replace straight away and some will have to merge into other areas of your existing nucleus (which will require some thought). Some parts will be gold dust in their own right, ripe for the picking and some will be superfluous and can be axed there and then.

  • Pick your battles…

Do your due diligence, prioritise based on impact. Identify the areas where maximum benefit can be had and focus your attention there. Then slice and dice the legacy Intranets to get the value under your control. Deliver measurable improvements for the bits you take; better search, better structure, better content or better governance etc.. Help the remainder to die quickly and painlessly.

Have the ‘difficult’ discussions where necessary and argue from a strategic point of view but remember we are talking strategic for the bottom line of the company, not just for the development of the Intranet.

  • If you build it they WON’T come, unless…

Make sure you train and empower your authors. The best system in the world is useless without good content. A common error is to assume that people want to read an Intranet, especially Intranet news. They don’t… Unless it’s interesting or helps them do their job.

If you want people to come; don’t just a fabulous venue, fill it with good acts.

  • Choose Ambassadors…

Pick some super-committed stakeholders and do something good for them. These people become your ambassadors. If you can improve their processes instead of mirroring painful off-line processes then it’s all the better!

Make sure you can measure and prove your success to them. Their support can be used to help  you convince your next troglodyte.

  • Be the belle of the ball…

Build the features and functions that people want and need, make things easy to use, clearly managed and not overly constraining. Make it attractive and fun to play with you. Make it peppy enough that it’s better than the stuff they do themselves. Delegate governance as far down the organisation as makes sense.

Make it attractive and easy for the users too. Make it more appealing than the legacy sites they have to use. Support the legacy environment as it moves, help them find old material that they value and remember; if you try to block their way to it and they need it then they will bookmark and go round you.

  • Use that executive power correctly…

Stop the business building new things in parallel if it makes sense, but don’t stop them doing things that will give them huge wins in the short term.

The world can’t always wait and it may be beneficial to have your focus elsewhere but do take time to think about how to align these activities and nudge them in the right direction.

  • Remember that an Intranet is all about content…

The expensive part of any Intranet project is not the specification, it’s not the design or build and not even the system on which it runs. The expensive part and the valuable part, is the content itself. That means you need to plan your systems to ensure that the business does not need to keep re-touching and re-migrating content each time something new comes along.

Tools change, Suppliers change and IT systems change but your vital business information just keeps growing. Provide ways to help control that growth; try to stop issues building up for the future.

Do things that detach you from the technology problems; Separate your content and information structures from your systems and you are on to a long term winner.  A few other tips are:

  • Have a strong information structure, make it stable and extensible.  Get the core right on day one.
  • Remember that with your extensible structures, you can go into far more detail when you need to; for example with the taxonomy for standard operating procedures. All that detail doesn’t need to apply to the whole Intranet.
  • Lastly, don’t build your information structures on unstable foundations such as organisation structure, unless of course you want to feed hundreds of hungry consultants in the future!

It’s OK to use new tools, better rocks, water proof matches and branded lighters… but warmth is warmth, don’t keep trying to reinvent that. More importantly, there is nothing that puts out the fire of enthusiasm faster than repetition of annoyingly mundane tasks such as content migration!

 And as a closing thought…

I know I’ve mixed my eras up with my metaphors. If that bothers you, my advice is to just think of the Flintstones. Of course, if it still gives you a problem when you do that, then you might just be stuck in the details instead of seeing the big picture.

Kicking and screaming with the digital workplace.

In my post “Is the Digital Workplace in danger of being the board’s next taboo?”, I wanted to explore the dangers of spending too much time on the esoteric nature of giving modern business evolution a completely different name. I firmly believe the greatest danger of the Digital Workplace is that someone associates that term with their product as a cute marketing idea and connected to this is risk that key decision makers start to think that a single product is the solution.

However, I do believe that the Digital Workplace, as a goal and a differentiator from today’s clunky information handling is a worthy objective and one that we will see adopted by all businesses in the near future, the question will be if they have moved seamlessly towards this new world or if they have been dragged kicking and screaming all the way.

James Robertson’s excellent paper “A week in the Digital Workplace” runs through a real world example of how Morris, a company’s Digital Workplace can help a new employee through the pains of onboarding and being productive fast in her new role. But this approach, whilst totally valid, allows us to easily miss an important part of the message. The digital workplace is not just a tool for a knowledge worker, it’s not just a really cool intranet; it’s the enabler for the business.

In thinking about what the Digital Workplace looks like for another class of worker all together I thought I’d start right at the beginning with a birth (I said we would be talking about kicking and screaming). I’m not going to suggest that we stick a Logan’s Run style chip in the kid… but let’s look at what happens with the Digital Workplace for the midwife.

I’m able to use the case of a small local hospital with around 500 births per year and some scarily chaotic processes, mainly because my partner is one of those midwives but also because Infocentric Research is involved in some exceedingly interesting information management and Intranet projects in other hospitals.

My first observation is that midwives in hospitals often start without the right information at hand. This is certainly scary; it’s totally possible that a patient comes into the hospital and that her patient records have not been processed and that key facts such as blood group information is not to hand. The midwife is expected to do the intial processing. The patient is expected to be the custodian of much of the information and to remember to bring the right documents and papers to the right people at the right time.

In a true Digital Workplace that information will be at hand for the midwife the moment the patient staggers into the maternity ward. We will know that Mrs. Smith is here for the delivery, the key information such as blood group is at hand, we’ll know all her allergies and even what her thoughts on an epidural are so far. It’s very likely that Mrs. Smith will have already pre-registered with the hospital via the Internet and may even have been provided with an app for her mobile phone to give the hospital a status update, before she leaves the house for that one time that the police may turn a blind eye to a little heavy-footed driving.

If some part of this vital information is missing, a string of telephone calls will no longer be necessary. Instead, a simple request from the midwife’s hand held device will initiate the procedures to get the information, be it from the doctor or by activating the call-out service for the lab technicians.

The Digital Workplace must be:

  • Connected
  • Relevant
  • Process driven

My second thought is that midwives spend a lot of time doing what they shouldn’t be doing;  this goes for care and emergency services as a whole. They spend of lot of time documenting. Even in a slightly less litigious society than the U.S. such as Switzerland or Germany, a great deal of documentation is required for any birth.

Most of this documentation is done after the deed itself, there is little time during the process to visit the systems and they are too cumbersome to deal with quickly. Here the Digital Workplace will be capturing and sharing data when possible. For example, cardiotocography data (heart and uterine conditions) will be stored automatically; a simple recording app will be used by the midwife to enter milestone events on the fly, such as examination results, medications given, patient well-being etc.

Data entry will be highly process based, so it’s not a case of hunting for right fields all the time and all this may even be connected with expert systems that start to react to unusual events.

The Digital Workplace must be:

  • Invasive
  • Multi-device
  • Mobile
  • Simple
  • Effective

The doctor will often only attend part of the birth, but in the Digital Workplace they are able to remain informed of the whole process so far. The midwife is able to give the youngster’s ETA directly from her app and the arriving doctor will already know what’s happened so far.

In the case of a birth at home, the midwife will still have access to many of the same tools and will also be keeping the e-paper trail running. The trail will not only inform the doctor, but will also be passed to the health insurer who ultimately pays the midwife’s bill. If things go wrong, or change, then the data from the birth so far arrives at the hospital before the ambulance.

The Digital Workplace must be:

  • Interconnected
  • Flexible

In summary, in the modern world even non-information workers have to deal with information of some kind, the Digital Workplace is not somewhere that you go, it’s the environment in which you move.

Someone once asked me what Intranet stands for, whilst tempted to make something up, I resisted and was able to describe what a typical Intranet is. With the Digital Workplace, I hope to be able to say, “It’s all the things going on in the background to make your job easier”. Which just leaves me to wonder, how easy is the birth of the true digital workplace going to be?