Intranets are apps.

However, some define an Intranet as a place to access company news, HR information, and administrative forms, almost like the office bulletin board. According to an Appirio study in 2013:

  • 70% claimed their current sites are designed mainly as a source of communicating HR policy and procedure information with the workforce
  • 61% said it was providing employees and managers with self-serve access to pay and benefits information
  • 47% said it was a launch pad for HR applications

It seems that a lot of time and effort is placed into creating an app for HR. And this raises the question: Are we not creating solutions for other employee challenges so no one uses the app that way? Or do employees only want HR information?

It's becoming clear that we have expanded requirements for an Intranet. According to a 2012 Study by Siemens Enterprise Communications, 79% of respondents always or frequently work in distributed teams, but only 44% find it as productive as face-to-face teamwork. Most workplaces have grown out of their office walls and expanded to include virtual teams – people working from home or collaborating from other locations, even countries. Often, there isn't a physical office for a team, yet the team's need for collaboration hasn't disappeared. Neither has the need for employees or teams to feel part of something larger, like the company itself.

Additionally, companies are leveraging SaaS solutions to support their virtual and in-office teams. Each department and team has their favorite tools, and it's hard to keep track of who is using which tool on each team to manage their projects and store documents. If teams have to share work and ideas across departments, it's critical to connect these sites somehow. It's an old stat, but according to Gartner in 2012, 71% of companies were using SaaS solutions for less than 3 years. That's a lot of SaaS tools.

Then there is navigation design. How do you create an app with a navigation system that supports individual preferences? Some access third-party productivity tools or other apps to complete their work. Others don't. Some employees want to read company news every day. Some access IT frequently. Some people think about the company based on departments; others think about how to find things based on functionality. It's not consistent. And it requires a lot of research and work to access these sites.

Developing an Intranet requires the same type of team and activities as developing a product:

  • User Experience Design – Do employees think about a site based on how the company is structured? Or based on functionality? Create a navigation that is familiar to employees as well as an approach that mirrors their brand.
  • Usability testing – Before investing too much time and money into a direction, make sure that the users (employees) will understand how it works.
  • Requirements gathering and documentation (even stories) – Like any app, you want to be sure you know what you are building. Stories and acceptance criteria are critical to create something people will find useful.
  • Feature development – The developers create the features and functions.
  • IT management and administration – An app needs to run on hardware somewhere. An Ops team needs to manage the equipment.
  • QA and testing functionality – Sometimes we shortchange this part of the process. Without it, the app may not work completely as expected. We may think users will let a broken feature for one use case slide, but many won't.
  • Content maintenance: posting news, etc. – Refreshing content on a site takes time and energy. It's curation – what will matter to a user, what do they want to know. Someone needs to find content, think about where to post it, and then post.
  • Manage releases and updates – Apps are always growing and evolving. Someone needs to manage feature prioritization and the resources to make updates and changes.

That's a fairly expensive proposition – it could include a team of 3-10 full- or part-time employees or an outsourced team managed by employees. And in the end, many don't find it particularly usable. Corporate social networks aren't popular and, according to Altimeter, less than half employees use them regularly. Other reasons cited are poor design – from navigation to search – not considering the users in the process, not enough awareness or awareness of too many Intranets, and a number of other reasons.

With these factors in mind, maybe it's time for us to rethink and expand the goals of an Intranet to be a tool that not only fosters corporate culture, but helps corporate employees be productive and effective. And while we are at it, let's revisit how people navigate their work app.

Redefine the Intranet

What if we redefined Intranets to include:

  • Defining company culture and community
    Team members want to feel connected to something larger – the company. What does the company do to foster a community, online and offline? What's the language? What's the tone? What are the activities? How do people interact and communicate? What does the company and community value? Yep – this is what an Intranet is for.
  • Connection – communication, knowledge sharing, project work
    Today, many of us use tools like Slack, Basecamp, Sharepoint, Trello, Yammer and more to manage our projects, help us keep current on project communications and generally, share thoughts and information. We brainstorm through conference calls. We share ideas and files on sites. We are moving away from email to interaction methods that are more real-time and relevant to idea repositories.

    Unfortunately, many of these third party sites aren't considered to be part of the Intranet. And that needs to be fixed. We work by contacting other teams and blending workgroups.
  • Functional – HR functions, finance, etc.
    There needs to be a place for employees to complete day-to-day administrative functions, which are accessible today through links or search. However, since these are key functions that people regularly use, there has to be an easier way to access them.

In the future, some experts are looking to create user-defined intranets rather than a one size fits all approach for Intranet navigation. If we each are all defining a navigation that works for us, a global navigation model quickly fails. It's like the portals of early Web days. A bot would provide the best, most direct solution to access content.

Why bots?

Bots are trendy, but they aren't new. Google is a bot. So is Bing. Search is one of the first bots created to help humans find relevant information quickly and easily by entering a short string of text (keywords as part of a question) rather than clicking and surfing. The search bot has become more sophisticated to more closely mirror how people think, something along the lines of, "I want to find an object that contains this type of data." In some cases, it even maps to user preferences over time. Search results are based on what's contained in the content, not on the context of the content, which is what click navigation does.

We now have a whole segment of marketing devoted to making these search bots perform better for users – and marketers. Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing are evolving to help users find what they want and need, and help content creators make their content more easily found.

We believe that tapping and clicking options on a screen are simple interactions because we have been trained to see the simplicity of menus after years of UI screen design and interaction. But are they really intuitive or only familiar, according to Jef Raskin's arguments? Wouldn't it be easier to just ask the AI, or computer, directly what you want and it provide it to you? As a link, or the form itself?

How bots address the different site goals
Culture

Corporate culture is more than a list of values or mission statements—it's what happens employees interact with each other. It's how they communicate. It's how they act towards each other. It's team dynamics. It's a system of management styles and values.

It's hard to fully understand a company's culture described on a content-only Web page. Those are simply words. Reflecting culture in the navigation experience through labelling and taxonomy doesn't do much either. That's simply what the group calls the different departments or jobs. Culture can only be captured through a live, interactive experience with other people.

Bots allow someone to experience a culture in two ways:

  1. The language of the bot.
    Why write a paragraph describing your culture when your bot can provide an interactive and almost personal experience of your company's culture to the team through its communication style? How the bot asks questions, answers questions, reaches out to people is a reflection of the culture. Have the bot speak – and act - like the ideal teammate for a company. It's a live demo of what the culture is envisioned to be.
  2. How a company communicates with employees
    Posting content on a Web page is like posting a notice on a bulletin board. It isn't an effective method of communication, since you depend on people taking the initiative to read it and make it a daily habit to check news. Instead, distribute the information in ways your teams will consume it.

Some ideas to distribute news to your team rather than waiting for your team to reach out for the news:

  • Each day, the bot distributes key news to users, prioritized by the team you are in, department, and then company. It can do this through an app or email.
  • There could be a bot channel publishing news that an employee could easily access and skim for updates.
  • There could be a way to configure the type of news that is delivered via email, text message, or through the bot as a private message in social media, or more, depending on user preference.


Someone would still need to enter the messages into the bot for distribution. However, given that often users don't access an Intranet for news, it may be a better way to send news around a company.

Connection – employees and projects

There are a few ways a bot could provide connection between employees and projects. Today, most of our work doesn't happen inside the walls of a siloed department—we work across the organization with individuals in different departments and teams. We often depend on third-party sites like Slack to keep us organized and connected across the organization.

We don't want to just leave a message, we want to make that connection and be there. That's very different from texting a message and hoping they got it.
— Jeffrey Rodman, "The Future of Collaboration Technology Will Change the Way We Work, Forever," Wired

However, finding these sites on your own without help from a member of that project team is difficult, if not impossible. There is a unique URL for each instance, and it's rare that a company would have a corporate license that would allow someone to view all of the sites. And what if each team uses different tools because they work better for them because of their workstyles?

We all occasionally need to access work from other teams. And it shouldn't be challenging to find the right team member, request access to the site and ask to see a doc that you should be able to search for on your own.

A bot would provide a way to easily access the various types of project management sites where internal projects are managed, like Basecamp, Yammer, Sharepoint and other sites. The site URL could be associated with the team members, the project name, and tags indicating what the project is about.

The user could ask the bot to show the projects that someone is working on, or ask to show projects in a particular department. The bot could then list the project names and you could request access to a specific project and the bot would arrange it. Or the bot may proactively suggest related projects that complement your work, or there may be a way to find a document that you need.

This would simplify access to associated projects and connect these projects into a network that could promote stronger collaboration. Today, there are projects that occur in companies that aren't connected because people aren't aware of them. A bot would increase that awareness.

Functional

Accessing HR content is one of the most common needs for an Intranet. And it is a showcase for bots.

Finding and completing forms

Today, most of us use a search bot to find forms and other HR information on an Intranet. We also ask people for links, or we bookmark links for later. (If you are fortunate, you have access to a Web site with great navigation, and you find them easily).

Rather than pointing and clicking, why not interact in a conversation, say what you want to do and as a first iteration, the system presents a link to a form?

In future iterations, the user could complete the form by being asked questions that the form includes. For example, for a vacation request form, the bot could simply ask for the vacation days you want, validate those days as available and approve them right away. Or, a department may have rules for approval that could be incorporated – like scheduling conflicts, or other requirements.

When I worked at HP, they worked with American Express to leverage card data to pre-populate expense reports with your expenses. The user would confirm or deny the expense as work related (those expenses would be paid separately). This model could be easily translated to a type of bot that asks the user immediately when an expense occurs if that expense is work-related. The user could then use his phone to take pictures of receipts and attach them immediately.. This would simplify the expense report process, make it less overwhelming to do, and make it more timely for finance to address.

Accessing information

There is other information that users want to access – company holidays, common mistakes, FAQs, training, awards, etc. These could all be made easily available through a bot. Want to award a colleague for a job well done? Quickly type your intention and it's sent! Want to find an employee quickly? Type the person's name and find the person right away – call or email too. Common HR functions could be automated and made available easier by a bot – and probably save development costs and reduce time lost by users searching for the right form or information. Functionality would be available at their fingertips.

Conclusion

Intranets have grown organically based on functions, rather than through a taxonomy-based navigation structure. Companies need to revisit their Intranet efforts to bring unity, rather than division, to their internal experiences. The simplest way to do this is through a bot. There would be no need to complete navigation design or visual design – the cost would be based in bot development and complementary content creation. There would be tremendous savings because users could find what they need quickly by typing a quick question or statement, rather than hunting through a navigation that is based on organization structure or another model that isn't familiar to the user's experience with the company or using search, another type of bot, that provides results based on the content of the document rather than the context of it. It would also bring unity to a company, allowing different project sites to be accessible through a bot.

We now rely on the search bot to find us the sites we need, as the Web is just too big to navigate by pointing and clicking. But is that the best model to help us find the information we need? It seems we are outgrowing that model and need to develop a new model that more closely resemble how we think and work. Direct questions and answers is probably the best way – and the most human way – available for now.




Image of a robot with a pencil courtesy of Logan Ingalls

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