Why do intranets grow old so fast?

Most employees do not use their company’s intranet. There are multiple reasons. The worst and most important is, that these intranets do not offer any significant value to their job. That’s devastating as most projects have started with different goals.

Employees often describe their intranets as old and stale. This post talks about how this happens.

When new intranet projects start, they often promise to improve information and projects for all employees. The calculations that want to calculate the project’s return on investment (ROI) then often include all employees. If intranets would really improve information and project work for all employees, that would be a very attractive story. That’s why intranets are sometimes relaunched with the same devastating effect as in the first project.

Large companies want real productivity too desperately. Just the promise and hope for that is already worth a lot.

But you do not calculate the success of an intranet on slides or in spreadsheets. There are two relevant questions that a successful intranet has to address:

  • Will our intranet improve how we work and behave with emails?
  • Can our intranet help improve our meetings and reduce them altogether and transform them into more and more ad-hoc-conversations of those who are really involved?

Most intranets are already dead when they go live. But there is a strong Corporate Communications department and their desire to change the company which will cover that fact at first. The sad part is, that in nearly all cases the majority of employees does not know about the futile fate of the intranet. They give their best and try hard.

The promising start of a new intranet

At first you often see new news pop up on the intranets homepage. Departments try to update their own areas regularly and inform coworkers with news.

Coworkers are curious what the new intranet is all about and take a look early and open-minded. That’s where the first disappointment hits them.

One intranet homepage for thousands of people will make any news section irrelevant. How much happens in your company that is really relevant to every single employee. Basically nothing. It is not even relevant news for a lot of people if your company buys or is bought by another company. In most cases, their job will just stay the same it is. But at least this type of news is interesting for everyone. After all, it could be my job that is laid off after the merger, couldn’t it?

But if you’re honest, this type of stickiness is rather the exception than the norm. News we see often include big trade shows the company presents, changes in products and services, won customer deals, economic and financial results, etc.

One of the things to make those tiny details relevant to employees is personalization. We have built in personalization in our Linchpin Intranet suite, based on Atlassian Confluence. It allows you to cater your news to certain departments, locations, languages and roles in your company. But most intranets today have no personalized news.

So for most employees, all they see in the “brand new intranet” is interesting at best but not relevant for their job. They will come back 10 or 20 times more. After a while they will learn, that it does not make a difference whether they look or not.

Everything that does not help is abandoned

Today’s world’s biggest challenges are influenced by rising complexity and a dramatic increase of the pace of change in all business sectors. Relevant information and collaboration is key to creating and maintaining a successful business. People know that. And as they learn, that the intranet cannot offer this info outlet, they turn to other faster and more helpful options to gather relevant stuff. In the worst case that is email and meetings.

Trying to keep it alive

It does not take long for Corporate Communications to understand, that the amount of attention for the intranet is decreasing dramatically after launching the system. That was not intended and sometimes some promotion-type activities are carried out to gain more attention. They may create another or even multiple spikes but they do not solve the problem that the intranet is irrelevant for employees daily routines and work.

The decline of help from news sources

The people who helped Corporate Communications create news will start to do so more reluctantly. If I am writing about my business as a high level manager I want everyone to read is. The more I learn that attention is declining the more reluctant I become to write new stuff.

As less info is pouring in on the intranet’s home page, the attention of employees is declining. A self-sustaining downward spiral is triggered.

Some intranets maintain a minimum attendendance to at least appear to be updated regularly. But basically everyone knows, that the intranet news and the intranet is more or less irrelevant.

Some intranets even grow so old and stale that you can see it at first sight on the homepage when long past events are advertised or the dates of the last news updates are so old, that everyone can tell that this is more of a graveyard than a hot buzzing info place.

Special killer features make intranets live longer

But it gets even more strange. A lot of intranets came with a massive budget. That also means that they often solve important use cases. So top-down communication with news as described above is not the only thing.

We implemented an intranet in a local hospital in Wiesbaden (Germany) back in 1997. It allowed the employees to quickly scan the files of patients with an EAN code. That way everyone in the company searching for that file could track it down easily.

The intranet was never accepted by the mother company and literally forbidden shortly after it started. But it still lives today as no one could provide a better and quicker way to handle the paper based files. That’s an almost 20 year old intranet zombie. Nice one.

It is likely that your intranet has a similar “killer feature” as Jakob Nielsen would call it. It allows it to live on and on even with outdated news and stale content. And no one wants to pay again to solve this custom use case again. Why should they. After all it’s working.

In Linchpin we have implemented a so called “AppCenter” to allow for the easy link-based integration of such custom solutions. And they are not the exception but the rule in large enterprises. You find dozens or hundreds of them. And again some personalization can hide the ones that are irrelevant to me.

Are intranets dead in general?

So why don’t you kill the intranet altogether and let the custom use cases have their own entries? That could be an option, but messaging is still an important issue in companies.

But there are different types of messaging:

  • Top-down communication of official news needs a personalized news portal. Linchpin Intranets offer that. I know of no alternative at this point. But tell me in the comments below. I am curious.
  • Real-time messaging is good for smaller teams and their group communication. Leading solutions include HipChat from Atlassian, Slack and Skype for Business from Microsoft. Only HipChat can be deployed behind the firewall. This is still very important for our large customers.
  • Team announcements are often handled via a threaded microblog. They are smaller than official news but more important than one single line in a group chat system. Leading systems for companies include Yammer from Microsoft. We have built a microblog natively for Confluence into our Linchpin suite.

Is your intranet stale? Which reasons do you see for intranets to grow old fast?

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