Single Source of Truth

Although this sounds vaguely poetic, it has a specific meaning in the world of information systems. It has particular relevance for large systems.

Done well, it makes content management a whole lot easier.

I’ve heard this used most often in relation to company intranets – large companies where the intranet must serve a mass of information to thousands or hundreds of thousands of employees.

In many large companies intranets grew rather randomly, each business line created their own intranet site, as connectivity improved these were joined together allowing employees to browse from one site to another. But the business retained control of all the information that was available on their site, and employees tended to enter the maze of the the company intranet via their business line home page. Very often this works out well.

In companies of this size there are a policies and defined processes on a wide variety of subjects. Many relate to the employee’s own situation; holiday/vacation entitlement, performance review processes or claiming expenses. Others relate to the company’s operations; finance, brand guidelines, recruitment. Often there is a potential legal penalty if the employee does not follow the policy.

In an intranet that is a collection of connected sites the policies tend to be copied and republished multiple times. Which means keeping those versions up-to-date and consistent becomes difficult and introduces operational risk. Imagine an employee in a far-flung office following the finance policy she has downloaded from her local intranet, relying on it to conduct business, and finding out later that it’s months out of date.

The idea behind the single source of truth relies on improved connectivity between local intranets, and a strong information architecture so that a piece of content – in this case a policy – is published in just one place. It may appear in more than one place across the intranet, but in fact each appearance of it is drawing from the same place; that single source of truth.

To deliver this companies must have a connected intranet, a fully thought-out information architecture, a good content managements systems, technical know-how, and governance on the publication and storage of documents. It’s not easy to put this in place in large companies, particularly as intranets are often the “poor cousin” in terms of digital spend.

Obviously the content management should become easier and cheaper, but the really big benefit comes from a risk and compliance stand-point. Having a single source of truth means that you know people are using the same policy across the company, this lowers the risk of errors being made, errors that might leave the company financially liable or create a reputation error. It’s a cost avoidance benefit that can be hard to quantify – until such an event occurs in your company.

Image: truth / Jon Starbuck / CC BY-NC-SA-2.0

Change Management in One Slide

startsmall2I was a the “working social tour” yesterday, a Microsoft event focusing on customer use of Yammer. It was great to hear the customer stories, they’ve all done well bringing social into their companies and I recognised a lot of the challenges. But my favourite slide of the day was this one, presented by Yammer co-founder and CTO Adam Pisoni.

Start Small

There’s a temptation to design and build a perfect solution and roll it out globally with a fancy big launch.

Don’t do it. Instead start small, find some willing candidates to try using your enterprise social network. Collect success and evaluate the business impact, use these stories to build support for further roll out.

I would urge companies to get the platform available for everyone as quickly as possible – you want people to be able to use it as soon as they’re ready – but the awareness and adoption steps can follow.

With Like-Minded Colleagues

Some colleagues will understand social business straight away , others will be neutral, and few will see nothing in it for them and resist the change.

Work with the ones who “get it”, you’ll get further. They’ll see the potential it brings to their work, and they’ll run with it, often building success cases in areas of the company that you’d never think of.

Those who don’t see how it works and struggle to see what’s in it for them aren’t ready to work with you – if you try you’ll spent a lot of time frustrated and make little progress.

On Projects that Matter

Look for uses that will generate genuine business value, such as;

  • improving service
  • reduced costs
  • innovation
  • supporting virtual project teams
  • leadership communication –

I like this simple mantra of how to bring social into a company; it’s not a “how to”, but it could be a useful check when working through all the challenges that come with driving change in an organisation’s culture

Ignore Technology

I posted a tweet recently that one of the lessons learnt in the implementation of our Enterprise Social Network (ESN) was “Ignore Technology”. I think it confused some people, it sounds wrong, afterall an ESN is technology. Isn’t it?

It’s true that we spent a long time thinking a lot about the technology; from infrastructure and hosting, to functionality, to user experience and design.

But if I think about what a successful ESN is those aren’t the things I think of, if I talk to new users or to managers those things do not come up in conversation. Trust me the fasted way to kill interest in an ESN is talk about the infrastructure behind it.

It’s much more important to focus on the people using the ESN, they’ll be the ones truly making it a success. Here’s a handy guide from Joyce Hostyn demonstrating the difference in the questions you’ll face with a people-centric approach vs a technology-centric approach.

Of course you cannot have an Enterprise Social Network without technology, of course the project implementation phase is focused on making the technology work. And I’m genuinely convinced that bad technology and bad user design are demotivating. But good technolgy and great design are not enough. In fact technology in many digital or intranet projects is comparable to a hygeine factor in Herzberg’s two factor model of motivation. It is not a case of “If you build it they will come”.

My not-so-secret KPI for the success of Buzz (our ESN) is this.

It will be a success when it is just the way we work.

The conversations I have about building adoption are about what’s in it for the user, what business purpose an Enterprise Social Network might have, how can community managers and leaders get the most out of it. We almost never talk about technology. Very occasionally a user might propose a functional change but that’s the most I ever talk about technology.

I think a successful ESN means a culture change in many large companies, and making it successful means relentless attention to answering “what’s in it for me?” for all the people using the technology.

Image; Technology

The Role of a Community Manager

Community Manager is a role that did not exist when I started my career, but it’s a role of growing importance as the usefulness of social media continues to rise and rise. There’s even a “Community Manager’s Appreciation Day” (it’s on the fourth Monday in January – put it in your agenda). There’s an ongoing discussion on the role of a community manager, most often in relation to externally focused activities of a company, but I’ve been thinking about it more in relation to the work we do with community managers working on our Enterprise Social Network (ESN).

What does an ESN community manager do? Here are the four main areas the Community manager makes a difference;

  1. Aligns with Business Purpose
    Communities formed within a company should be supporting a business purpose, it’s up to the community manager to maintain the alignment between the community and the business purpose. We have communities that are about sharing knowledge, others provide a service channel, some are related to specific projects or events. In all those cases the community managers are working with all community members to make sure the community supports the business. Of course we also have some more “social” communities, I’m the CM for a travelling community for example, these are considered the “water cooler” of our ESN.
  2. Maintains Community Culture
    Community managers are there to help new members find their way, encourage contribution and make sure behaviour within their community remains respectful. In a mature community all members will take this on, but we’ve seen that it’s up to the Community manager to lead by example.
  3. Manages Content in the Community
    Content feeds a community, and it’s the community manager’s role to develop or curate content that will build a community, to encourage contributions and discussions from all community members, and to moderate/mediate any discussions that get out of hand.
  4. Represents Community
    The community manager should act as an ambassador for the community within the company, showing the value of the community to colleagues and managers, and working to attract new members.
  5. Platform Development
    This might depend on how you’ve implemented your ESN, for us we’re looking for user input to help the development of the platform to meet future needs. We give this as input to our supply company or make our own customisations. For bigger needs we have to start a new development project, in which case the community manager might be securing a sponsor and working with us to develop and test a solution.

Some ESN experts advocated having full time community managers, with specialist expertise. We have made a deliberate choice to train subject matter experts on community management and support them as they build communities. We believe this helps connect the community to the business purpose. I’m not aware of anyone who has a full time job as a community manager in our company (yet!). The successful community managers tend to be a great communicators, unflappable, generalists and have some geek genes – for the right person it’s a fun role to play.

What matters on your Intranet?

At the Interact Intranet Conference we played a game of “intranet tetris”, putting together the pieces needed to run a successful intranet, as a bit of a fun exercise. This is the finished jigsaw, as deemed correct by the presenter.
I could quibble with the labels – knowledge management is meant to cover all forms of content – but my bigger issue is with the hierarchy the presenter tried to imply.

  1. Governance
  2. Intranet objectives
  3. Business objectives
  4. Roles and responsibilities
  5. Knowledge management (content)
  6. Information Architecture
  7. Toolkit
  8. Brand (look and feel)
  9. Engagement
  10. Analytics

Shouldn’t business objectives be the starting point? How can you decide governance or intranet objectives if you don’t know the business objectives? Let’s face it; if you’re creating an intranet that does not serve the business objectives you’re destroying company value.

Another presenter asked what was most important about an intranet; giving options such as finding information, interaction, processes, brand and performance.

Most of the room suggested “finding information” upon which he whizzed through some data proving the room wrong. According to his comprehensive survey of users the right answer was “interaction with colleagues”.

I’m all for a bit of colleague interaction – I’m keen on coffee chats rather than meetings. But I have two problems with this conclusion.

(1) it’s rare that an interaction on an intranet can be so neatly categorised;

Imagine; Sue posts a question on a collaboration platform and a colleagues answers pointing her to the IT service site where she can make a request online for a new secure access card. She completes the process and gets her access card in the next day’s mail.

Was that finding information, interacting with colleagues, supporting a process? I suggest the part Sue remembers is the personal contact, but in fact there was more than the interaction making her visit successful.

(2) I have a theory that users don’t rate items like “finding information” very highly because their intranet already does that well. You can test my theory; remove the information on your intranet site that relates to paydays and holidays. See how long it takes for someone to complain.

I think users list what their biggest wish for the intranet is, not what they actually use.

Actually there’s no need to experiment. Our intranet went down a week or so ago. I’m pretty sure my colleagues would have listed “performance” as their biggest need at that moment.

Screen Shot 2013-09-26 at 12.37.39 PMAnalysing intranets is a bit like that old tale of six blind men describing an elephant. There are a number of ways of doing it, none of which are wrong per se, but no single list is right. To make a hierarchical list or define a single “most important” item seems to imply that setting up an intranet is a linear process. A tightrope walk from one side of the big top to the other. But setting up an intranet, like most digital projects is a messy and iterative process. More like the plate spinner with 9 towers of plates all spinning at once.

The thing that is most important for your intranet is the next step in improving it to match business goals – and serve user needs.

Image; Like Spinning Plates / BY-NC-SA 2.0

Intranets; inside-out

NOTE: this is about companies making parts of their intranet public; a braver move than creating employee extranets.

When I first started working in digital not everyone in the company had access to the internet, there were still concerns about time-wasting and risk (in fact exactly the same concerns now hover around access to social media sites). The result was that information on the company’s site was separately published on the intranet.

Companies handle a range of information, which can be roughly classified as;

  • public = for anyone to see, can be published or shared anywhere
  • internal use = for employees only
  • confidential = restricted to a small group of employees, often this information relates to customers

The first will be published on websites, and the first two on the intranet, the third would only be published in secure internal environment, if at all.

But these lines are becoming blurred. In a large company the information going onto the open intranet is increasingly considered “public”, partly because of the large audience it already reaches, and partly because it’s increasingly easy to share information outside the company. Secondly there’s an increasing expectation that employees will work from home, or from more mobile locations, it’s complicated to deliver an intranet within a firewall to mobile workers; and the work experience tends to be disappointing. So companies are turning to the internet as the infrastructure and building an extranet – where employees login to their work environment, IKEA is one such company.

This is not new, more than five years ago the Jericho Forum wrote about this, calling it de-perimeterisation, and predicting that companies not facing this reality will increasingly be left behind in the technical sphere.

So why have a separate intranet? Well the arguments come down to a different purpose for the intranet, wanting to use a different tone of voice, and a different target audience. But I suspect that the tone of voice and the purpose are merging, there used to be a striking difference in the formality of tone on external sites compared to internal, and that is disappearing. And the purpose is often to inform, to tell the whole company story – it should not matter if that is internally or externally.

A few companies have decided that it doesn’t and have made their intranets into public sites, these examples are from ASDA, Tesco and Royal Mail;

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I’ve heard Neil Barnett talk about the My Royal Mail site, and for them it solved a huge technological barrier, most of their employees are by the nature of their work on the road. It was really difficult to provide them with up to date information or give them any sort of engaging internet experience on the traditional “in-house” model of intranets.

All three companies also have parts of their intranet behind a login, but have chosen to share employee stories, information about working at the company, and employee-relevant campaigns. My Royal Mail, for example, has been campaigning for better dog control laws following attacks on delivery staff. Tesco’s showcases employee fundraising efforts – a source of pride for colleagues, and they provide an app for the site. ASDA connects to their public social media channels and publishes stories of incredible customer service.

I suspect this is a challenge for any company to consider, we are so used to thinking in terms of intranet for colleagues and internet for everyone else and the structure of communications functions within organisations reflects that. But our audiences are not neatly distinct – they may be customers and shareholders as well as employees- our content is no longer as compartmentalised as it once was and technology allows more permutations in presenting content.

It’s time to move away from rigidly defined channels, and think more holistically about our content, keeping in mind our shifting audiences and their changing needs.

images; screenshots taken of ASDA and Tesco sites 21 July 2013, image of My Royal Mail from the Digital Workplace Group

Intranet Investment

I was listening to the UX podcast on Intranatverk, a conference held in Gothenberg they made a comment that struck me;

Intranets are like the poor younger brother; they get the least resources, the least research the least of everything and end up being years behind everything else.

(It’s at about 9.35 timestamp of the podcast).

It’s true; investment in intranets has been low compared to external sites, which is low compared to e-commerce sites. It makes sense, those e-commerce sites make money, they’re your company’s online revenue. In our company they have more traffic than non-transaction sites, which in turn have more traffic than intranet sites. Some years ago we encountered an intranet site with an average of six visits a day, it belonged to a department of 20 people, but I digress.

On the surface spending less on a site based on traffic makes sense, but not all visitors are created equal. When we start changing a site we often create personas, these are rough character sketches of visitor types complete with their reason for visiting. It’s pretty easy to see that the value of someone who has come to a site with the express intention of buying has more value than a random person who visited via clicking on a link by mistake.

But it’s a little more complex than that; for our corporate site we consider analysts and journalists as an important audience, even though it’s a small group, because they have a multiplyer effect. What they write and say about the company has a bigger impact – possibly even a direct impact on share price – than say, a university student research a project.

So what about intranets?

Traditionally intranets have been about publishing information; typically work policies and company news. Services were added; employees could now book meeting rooms, authorise invoice payments and request annual leave. Working tools were added; the infamous team sites of sharepoint, and later more collaborative tools.

Slowing intranets have moved from “read” to ” do”, and we’re starting to talk about “digital workplace” to mean the collection of tools that an employee finds within their company to enable them to work. So as it develops into a work tool employees using it to serve customers the intranet starts to show that “multiplyer effect”. It becomes business critical – without it customers cannot be served.

In theory it should start attracting greater investment, I think we’re starting to see this shift with many companies putting serious money into making their digital workplace something their employees can really use.

Image:  Cash Munny / CC BY-SA 2.0