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.

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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?

Is the Digital Workplace in danger of being the board’s next taboo?

I’m wondering if, in 1812, as the embers of the looms were swept away, a group of consultants were sitting around a table trying to convince management that what they really needed was a good industrial revolution.

As an industry we’re very good at inventing terms that nobody really defines or possibly understands and scarily we are getting better at it. I’m not the only one that thinks this, Mr Carlin also had something to say on the subject… but before you run off and look at the clip that I dugg out of one of the many social media channels of web 2.0, that contribute to my digital workplace, consider this…

The industrial revolution was a process, with a whole lot of new technology that business had to assess, adopt or reject and stand or fall by their decisions. When assessing what a business needs to do to stay up to date or even get ahead of their competition a board want concrete business cases, supported by facts.

It’s hard to convince a board that they need to embrace social media when most of them believe that the whole point of that is looking at pictures of your party when you should be working. However, it is somewhat easier to get buy-in when you can show how activity in particular channels can lead to increases in customer interest, satisfaction, engagement, retention or even sales.

The digital workplace is a harder sell… because it’s not just a channel, it’s an attack on the very fabric of the way an organisation works. It’s a moving target and ironically, even if it has a strong case for the management, it’s an even harder sell to the investors who have to finance a transformation when a company is already healthy. One could argue that the smart move is to invest in someone else; someone who has built from the ground up with these new technologies and just milk the old investment dry. At least up to the point it gets bought up by someone more in line with market trends.

This means we need to find pragmatic ways to move organisations forward and at each step we have to try to be ready for the next big thing. The majority of large organisations that I work with aren’t ready to talk about the digital workplace. They are still fighting legacy issues from the last set of buzzwords they were sold. I often find myself in a situation where I’m not allowed to use words like ‘portal’ (nobody ever knew what that was anyway), ‘knowledge management’, ‘taxonomy’ and ‘e-business’ because someone has burnt their fingers badly. Possibly on the basis of a rather flimsy business case, scribbled on the back of a paper napkin during a rather drunken night with a bunch of salesmen.

Wikipedia defines a revolution with the following text “A revolution (from the Latin revolutio, “a turn around”) is a fundamental change in power or organizational structures that takes place in a relatively short period of time.”. We’re not looking at just a digital workplace, we’re in the midst of a revolution and we will have to evolve with a whole lot of new possibilities, ones that will rock businesses to the core. How do we ensure that the Digital Workplace doesn’t become one of the taboo words of next year, is it already a Euphamism for some of these previous taboos? It’s all about the tools, practices and channels we can use to support business growth and even survival during this time. On the subject of channels, here’s that clip I promised…

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…

Tools of the trade

My Macbook hasn’t been out of my bag for a few days.

It’s not that I don’t love my Mac, I’ve been an Apple convert for years, but I finally found something that can do exactly what I wanSamsung Series 7 Slatet in meetings (if I tolerate Windoze 7).

I’m now carrying a Samsung series 7 slate as well and it is not only performing perfectly. It’s also changing the way I work (for the better).

What I love:

  • Weight (or rather lack of it)
  • Screen is lovely
  • Handwriting in OneNote
  • Handwriting recognition (even of mine)
  • Using it as virtual whiteboard – and documenting as I go
  • Mindjet Mind Manager with writing (so much more focused when you don’t have to type… and using that as a whiteboard for flashstorming is fantastic)

What could be better:

  • The Samsung badge fell off the back (come on Samsung you can do better than that!)
  • Battery life could be better (but it’s enough for typical meetings)
  • Still haven’t found the ideal carry case
  • Windows 7 isn’t perfect even with a stylus
  • Touch keyboard delay is annoying
  • Bluetooth keyboard config sometimes vanishes for no reason

I’ve never totally abandoned Windows, but until I bought this I never questioned if I would need to carry my Mac or not…. I guess it’s doing what the iPad should have done for me and OneNote does everything I want from a note taking tool, that’s allowed me to dump my pen and paper totally.

My typical day now involves printing out slides and word documents directly into a cloud based OneNote repository, where I can annotate and adjust on screen during meetings. The changes get sent as PDF to someone who is supporting me on a project, or printed and dealt with after the meeting. This saves forests of paper and means that when I have support from the office that the slides adjustments get passed on hours sooner.

I have a feeling this could be an interesting year for tablets, and Windows 8 could well pull me even further back to the dark side.