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.

The Room of Requirement – 10 Magical Tips for Intranet Requirement Gathering

Harry Potter had it all, amidst the moving staircases, the ghosts and the young wizards and witches, J.K. Rowling gave him the room of requirement. A perfect addition to any school for young wizards and  a stunning example of personalisation at its best:

“It is a room that a person can only enter when they have real need of it. Sometimes it is there, and sometimes it is not, but when it appears, it is always equipped for the seeker’s needs”.

Source: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix  by J.K. Rowling

It has some interesting features when we think of it in Intranet terms:

  • It’s there when it’s needed; de-cluttering the halls of Hogwarts when it’s not needed
  • It’s easy to get there and find it when you actually do need it
  • It’s equipped for the seeker’s need, so it’s going to help you do the task that you want to do
  • It’s not decorated with posters and news items that nobody wants to read, just the relevant ones about long lost relatives and intrigue in the ministry of magic
  • Harry trained an army in it so it’s got some good collaboration capabilities
  • It kept the enemy out, until they used a totally brute force attack, so good security features

On the downside

  • It did have an awful lot of clutter in it though… good enough to hide things that you don’t want to be re-found
  • It didn’t really present a common user experience

I’m sure that Harry wasn’t really all that interested in the Hogwarts intranet, but it would be interesting to see what a typical user made of the Room. Especially given the way requirements are often defined in Intranet Projects.

  • ‘I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it’
  • ‘Make sure it’s got all these social features that we’ve heard so much about and plate-spinning elephants’, even if they don’t fit in the doorway.
  • ‘Can’t you just adapt our Internet?’
  • ‘Could the door be a mixture of blue and green with small red spots to highlight where the door knobs are?’, ‘Content? That’s professor Snape’s department’

Requirement gathering for an Intranet project is an art form and in my experience there are a few things you should bear in mind. Here are 10 magical thoughts about business requirements and the gathering thereof.

Thought 1:

There is a difference between business requirements and requirements gathered from the business. Ask 20,000 people if they think the Intranet should stream video the answer will be yes, ask the IT department and the CFO for the money to upgrade the network to support 200 of those people concurrently live streaming the video, the answer may be quite different.

Thought 2:

There is often more to a requirement than meets the eye, it’s important to tease out the real detail. It’s not just a matter of requirement = function, requirement may be resolved with a number of different functions. If your requirements document says ‘we need a personalized news channel’ you’ve probably got something wrong. If it says ‘we need the ability to target specific messages to specific groups of employees’ which will be solved using a personalized news channel, a targeting system based on a taxonomy or channel approach, coupled with features to help employees find items that are no longer on the front page’ then you’re probably going more in the right direction.

Thought 3:

A lot of requirements for Intranets can be copy paste from other projects, even down to the functional description, but beware, just because two different projects use news on the homepage, it doesn’t mean that the REQUIREMENTS for news are the same. One company may require news to keep the employees informed whilst reflecting a radically different Strategy to another, for example showing which department the news came may be interesting for the user, but it may also undermine a single company approach and would be better served with a topic based classification.

Thought 4:

Some requirements will vanish when you follow through the consequences with the business. A seemingly simple function like a CEO blog may be much less attractive when the commitment to generate the content is required before the function to display it can be built.

Thought 5:

There will be more requirements than budget. You will have to prioritise.

Thought 6:

Requirements change, come and go. System requirements should be able to support different business requirements as flexibly as possible. The more you can match sets of generic functions to different requirements the more agile you will be with your workplace.

Thought 7:

Some project requirements may work against the current interests of parts of the business (usually individual department heads). You may need to find ways to create buy-in with transformational requirements. For example, replacing many small departmental intranets with a single portal will lead to ‘loss of control’ & ‘lack of agility’ type discussions, often culminating in masterly inactivity when it comes to migration. Providing migration assistance, methods for spreading migration over a longer period and improved ways of doing things specific for that stakeholder may be necessary.

Thought 8:

Be prepared to launch and learn. Put methods in place for continuing to gather, prioritise, refine and shape. What you think your requirements are can change based on how the system is used. A very detailed permissions model for editors may be so restrictive in practice that it needs revamping totally to be usable in the real world. Which leads to rule 9…

Thought 9:

Think about requirements in steps, are there ways to implement part of the requirements whilst testing the true case for more detailed elements. This can get you some quick wins with the business and help you to be sure that requirements are requirements.

Thought 10:

Don’t get cursed. It’s easy to get hexed into Analysis Paralysis, a state of perpetual requirements gathering. Believe me this is not a magical place to be!

How many organisations actually have an editorial plan for their Intranet?

I have a lot of customers and I’ve worked on a whole lot of Intranet projects and for the first time in my life, I have a client that does actually HAVE an editorial content plan for each of their portals (both geographic and business). It’s not a single aligned editorial plan, but the nature of the organisation means that doesn’t need to be the case.

With each internal communicator having such a plan, and a series of personae, it was possible to run a workshop testing real content in different display options and assessing the impact of that content structure on:

  • Strategic message (how you group content sends different messages? – if everything is in line of business containers it doesn’t really show a single integrated company’)
  • Usability (what volume of content needed to be displayed on a daily basis, what does that mean over the month in terms of number of items, was it enough to consider different groupings in order to make it easier? Was the content in logical groups for the user?)
  • Manageability (did some groupings become harder to manage for the communicators, did they require changes in editorial planning?)

Of course we only had indicitive content, we had to make some assumptions about the levels of unplanned content, but the exercise allowed us to have a very construtive workshop with communicators and let them see what relevance based targeting of content meant in terms of reducing the clutter their consumers saw.

At the end of the workshop we had 20 internal communicators who all had the same view on:

  • Content types
  • How content would be grouped
  • How relevance based targetting would reduce the clutter on the desk
  • How the strategic message of a single organisation would be supported
  • How the local communications needs would still be addressed and highlighted
  • How editorial plans would need to be aligned for some content types but not for others

2 very long days for everyone but fantastic workshop feedback, total agreement and a strong basis for the next steps of design…

Time for that wine bottle…