Introduction: Designing Modern Intranets Using Office 365
This is an excerpt from Designing Modern Intranets Using Office 365
Over the past two decades, we’ve witnessed the emergence, evolution, and democratization of intranets. Some have been welcomed as successes, others have been abandoned as failures. Most intranets linger somewhere in between, with vocal supporters and detractors.
The best intranets measurably improve employee productivity and morale. They consolidate knowledge, streamline processes, and promote collaboration among teams. Successful intranets enable business transformation, allowing employees to make better, faster, and more autonomous decisions.
Many intranets suffer from problems such as poor usability, confusing content design, technical issues, lack of adoption, and/or unclear governance. While some of these are temporary growing pains, underperforming intranets often lead to dissatisfaction, confusion, and inefficiency.
Fortunately, a combination of factors now makes it easier, faster, lower risk, and more affordable to reap the benefits of a successful intranet than ever. Design philosophies have matured, tools are more capable, employees are savvier, and more turn-key solutions exist.
Whether building from scratch, iterating on an existing platform, or buying a pre-built accelerator, “Designing Modern Intranets Using Office 365” will guide you through the decisions required to provide your team with a Modern Intranet in 2016.
Primer: What Are Intranets?
Before we proceed, let’s set a baseline of what we’re referring to when we talk about “intranets”.
When you see the word “intranet”, you may imagine a cluttered SharePoint page with links and stale news. Maybe it’s your browser’s default homepage that you skip past on your way to visiting more useful day-to-day websites. Depending on how it’s used, you may even refer to it as your “portal”, “file share”, or “bookmarks”.
Whether you have experience with intranets or not, try to keep an open mind about what’s possible. Just as we’ve seen a dramatic uptick in quality and quantity of other applications, intranets have become more usable, capable, and diverse over time. Whereas intranets may have once seemed secretive and isolated, enthusiasts now graciously share ideas, best practices, and tools, allowing everyone to benefit.
At its most basic, an intranet is a website for your organization that provides relevant content and tools securely. Intranets are often built on Content Management Systems (CMS), which simplify creation, access to, and searching of content.
Content is at the heart of an intranet , which can be absolutely anything (e.g., client and project intel, sales data, engineering blueprints, or simply your cafeteria menu). Content can be presented as web pages, documents, reports, rich multimedia, or structured content.
Intranets are often synonymous with Enterprise Content Management (ECM), meaning that all of the organization’s assets are either stored in, searchable from, or at least accessible from a single platform. This content is usually secured by user or group, often versioned, and sometimes all access is logged. Not only is data itself stored, but metadata (data about data) allows us to learn from how users interact with the content.
Side note about “Content”, “Data”, “Information”, “Knowledge”, and “Wisdom”
There are conflicting definitions and interpretations around each of these terms. Information scientists have established a “Knowledge Hierarchy” or “D.I.K.W. Pyramid”, which describes how organizations track and learn from their assets.
“Data” represents raw facts that need to be interpreted while “information”, “knowledge”, and “wisdom” refer to useful, meaningful, and institutionalized content. In the context of this book, it’s okay to interpret any of these words to mean “stuff that my organization cares about and wants to track”.
In an intranet, content might be organized by department, business unit, geography, team, or all of the above. Content may be secured tightly by group or open by default. Some intranets are primarily read-only while the best one ones enable co-creating content.
Intranets often serve as communication hubs. Historically, they were designed for authoritative top-down announcements, allowing executives, managers, and line leaders to post news to their teams. Intranets now frequently provide bottom-up and many-to-many communications. Tools have evolved to add group discussion boards, real-time messaging, and social experiences similar to what employees expect from consumer tools like Facebook and Twitter.
An intranet should make it easy to find anything you care about that’s related to your business. There will be some “pull” use cases where you browse or search for information. There should also be “push” use cases, making it easier to discover relevant news, personnel, or content you didn’t know to look for. The best intranets anticipate what you’re looking for even if you don’t know it.
Over the years, a number of features and use cases have been associated with intranets. Social networking, business intelligence, project management tools, workflows, and widgets have been shoehorned into intranets either because that’s what the business case called for, or all too often, just because it was possible. It’s usually better to focus on doing a few workloads well than trying to do everything.
Because of Microsoft’s innovation and reach in the 2000s, the majority of the world’s intranets have been built on SharePoint or Office 365. Other platforms exist with unique strengths, but it’s easiest to find resources, expertise, and collateral for intranets on Microsoft’s toolset.
What Are Intranets Meant to Solve?
Like many great creations, intranets have been invented and reinvented by different people for common purposes.
A successful intranet accomplishes the following:
- Finding knowledge: Regardless of department, team, geography, language, type of content, or system, we should be able to locate anything in one place quickly.
- Collaboration: Finding out who has expertise, communicating with them, managing version control, and creating work product should all be possible from one system.
- Communicating and anticipating: Employees want to stay up to date with news, insights, and discovery of relevant knowledge. They’re interested in what’s happening both inside the organization and elsewhere.
- Unifying culture and reinforcing brand: A successful intranet breaks down silos, promotes diversity and inclusion, and reflects your brand.
- Streamlining processes: Modern intranets provide consistency, whether through formalized workflows or an “invisible hand” that guides good decisions. Context and personalization: Everybody has unique needs, goals, and interests. Successful intranets provide contextual content, often following the ratio of 80% common and 20% personalized.
Do We Still Need to Build Intranets?
Let’s break this into three underlying questions.
1. Do we need intranets at all?
Assuming your organization still needs to find knowledge, collaborate, communicate, unite, streamline, and provide personal context, I’d say the answer is yes.
2. Can’t we just buy an intranet?
If you already use a suite of applications (e.g., your Enterprise Resource Planning or Client Relationship Management) that tackles everything you need, that’s fantastic. If so, semantics aside, that tool serves as your intranet and it sounds like you’re in great shape.
With the proliferation of polished business apps, high-quality consumer apps, and turnkey Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), it seems easy to buy or rent any tools we need. That’s true for both enterprise-wide solution and “Shadow IT” implementations by individual departments. We all have high expectations and crave instant gratification.
Paradoxically, user experiences have improved for individual apps while becoming fragmented and worse as a whole. It’s more important than ever to unify disparate systems and provide a cohesive experience.
Your organization has a unique set of content, tools, personnel, and goals. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to intranets, so I recommend building something that exactly meets your needs. Fortunately, a little bit of design and planning goes a long way.
3. But won’t it be a lot of work?
This might be your biggest concern. Designing a modern intranet that accomplishes your organization’s goals doesn’t have to be difficult, expensive, or time-consuming. Yes, it will take effort but the reward is a multiplier.
This book aims to make the process of launching your modern intranet as predictable and efficient as possible.
What’s In This Series?
This blog series will guide you through the decisions required to design, build, launch, and maintain a successful modern intranet using Office 365.
Each post represents a decision you’re likely to encounter when planning for user experience, information architecture, technology, change management, or governance.
I’ll propose a Lean approach wherever possible, allowing you to make iterative decisions and achieve benefits more quickly. I’ll be honest and realistic about tradeoffs and gotchas. Perfection isn’t possible. Modern intranets require pragmatism, taking advantage of what each platform does best and focusing on providing the greatest business impact.
Over the past decade, I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with and learn from more than 100 enterprises deploying modern intranets. I aim to share my experience, practical guidance, and enthusiasm for modern intranets.
Who Should Read This?
Business executives, analysts, designers, information architects, developers, consultants, and project managers can all benefit from the guidance herein. This book is not unique to your IT, Corporate Affairs, or other departments. My goal is to make each chapter valuable and interesting regardless of your role.
In future posts, we’ll talk about intranet teams, underlying roles, and responsibilities necessary for success. It may be beneficial for your entire intranet team to read along and make cross-functional decisions together.
Most examples will incorporate Office 365 and SharePoint, but concepts should apply regardless of the tool used. An intranet’s success is more about content, design, communications, and governance than technology.
This book is for anyone invested in making their organization more productive, cohesive, predictable, and satisfied. I think that’s many of us. The outcome may not only benefit your organization, but also your career. Thank you for reading.