The Intranet and its Tormented Governance

The first intranets were often spontaneously developed, “hidden projects” within a department, most often in IT. The importance of intranets has grown over the years — they are now useful to the entire company. New intranets or a relaunch of an existing intranet, regularly result in one of two extremes:

  • The department or group responsible had the budget, and simply implemented the project – often with a focus on technology or functions. This often leads to chaotic growth or chronic underuse.
  • As many stakeholders as possible were involved – everyone constantly discussed options and wanted to push for their interests. At the same time, no-one wanted to commit to anything, instead requiring that all possible use cases were clearly defined. Almost everything was strictly regulated and the intranet was barely used.

Of course, there are many degrees in between these two extremes. It’s clear though: Both extremes impact the intranet (or rather the modern digital workplace), and prevent its effective, productive and efficient use.

Governance

To ensure the effective and productive use of an intranet, a company should have an intranet governance (or digital workplace governance) — a compilation of rules and guidelines. Taken from the German Wikipedia entry on corporate governance:

Corporate Governance describes the regulatory framework for the management and supervision of companies. The legal framework is determined by the legislator and owner. The specific design is the responsibility of the supervisory board, the board of directors and the management of the company.

The company-specific corporate governance system consists of all relevant rules, directives, codes, declarations of intent, the corporate identity and the processes of corporate management and supervision.

Applying this to intranets, the definition of intranet governance is as follows:

Intranet Governance refers to the regulatory framework for the planning, management and operation of the intranet. This regulatory framework is determined by the rule-makers, owners and important stakeholders.

Owners and stakeholders

Tim Eisenhauer has previously looked at intranet governance and asks: What is it? Who are the players? Best practices? In order to answer the first question, ownership must be considered, and in particular, how the intranet is managed or how ownership is distributed dependent on the amount of centralization. He quickly brings up the topic of politics, the political conditions in a company, and how they influence an intranet and its governance.

Who owns the intranet? James Roberts covers four options in Who should own the intranet?

  1. IT
  2. Communications
  3. Human Resources
  4. IM (Information Management) or KM (Knowledge Management)

However, neither the article’s content nor the metadata indicates when this article was published (which I think is bad practice for both the internet and in intranets). There is no obvious temporal context for his suggestions. But given the departments mentioned, I’d take a guess that this article is many years old. This approach assumes one single department makes the decisions about the budget, structure, content, and functions of the intranet. This was previously quite common and is still possible. However, these days, intranets are typically far more complex and comprehensive than a single department could manage alone.

As early as 2009, Jane McConnell identified five mental models through her intranet survey:

  1. Single-owner
  2. Co-owned
  3. Triangle – 2 owners with one major stakeholder
  4. Single or co-owned, but strong importance given to multiple stakeholders
  5. Informal committee

McConnell discovered different approaches and difficulties in each of these five models. An informal committee, for example, leads to long decision phases. Model 4 mentions stakeholders, which are very important:

As a stakeholder, a person or group is identified as having a legitimate interest in the development and outcomes of the process or project.

This definition from the German Wikipedia entry is not fundamentally wrong. However, I am convinced that it is a bad idea to distinguish between legitimate interests and illegitimate interests. It suggests that ‘interest’ can be objectively relevant or irrelevant for an intranet.

If we start with the original English words, we can make a better definition. A stake is a pole or a post. A stakeholder holds it in their hands and rams it into the ground. People have claimed ownership of, or rights to property in this manner in the past. It is therefore less relevant what authority they hold (like the company or the intranet owner), but more relevant is the meaning behind the stakeholder’s action, and how intensively and seriously they will enforce their (even supposed) claims.

My inner PR (Public Relations) guy jumps forward. Stakeholders are groups, who believe they could be affected, and therefore have an interest in the project. The following stakeholder groups often appear in intranet projects:

  • IT, who have to operate and support the intranet system.
  • The employee representatives group (workers’ council), who want to influence the design and functions, especially because there may be features covered by codetermination rules.
  • Knowledge workers, who want to exchange information as quickly and with as little regulation as possible.
  • Employees in production, who are anxious about not being able to participate or access information easily.
  • Corporate communication, who want to reach out to employees and distribute information in clearly structured ways.
  • Data security officers, who want to follow all federal data privacy and security regulations.
  • Compliance and the legal department, who want to comply with various legal requirements.
  • Retirees, who receive the printed company newsletter.
  • Executives, who want to have private communication areas in the intranet.
  • Executives, who fear that employees will waste too much time in the intranet.
  • Project leaders, who want private project areas in the intranet.
  • Management assistants (or low-level executives), who want to organize meetings, documents and tasks for their managers.

Whether the interests of a stakeholder group, such as the employee representatives, are objectively justified or not, is not that important. More importantly, a stakeholder group (like the employee representatives, executives or executive committee), can advocate for and actively support the intranet — or they can sabotage the intranet. The stakeholder concept is widely used in public relations. In practice, it’s not about who has the right, but about who has the power and uses it (directly or indirectly).

What is intranet governance?

Intranet governance includes everything that is important for all of the different stakeholders and enables the “coexistence” of these stakeholders. It forms the basic rules for activity on the intranet. If fundamental things are missing, this will lead to lengthy discussions and negotiations in the event of a conflict (potentially with legal regulations, between stakeholder groups). Intranet governance provides the basis for dealing with individual incidents:

  • Rules for making decisions
  • Guidelines on which all stakeholders can orient themselves.

In What is Intranet Governance Really? Ephraim Freed talks about decisions:

Intranet governance starts with four basic questions:

  1. What are the decisions to be made? (scope)
  2. Who should be involved in those decisions and what are the roles? (responsibilities)
  3. How should the decisions be made? (processes)
  4. How should the decisions be implemented? (implementation)

To establish guidelines, he proposes the following questions:

  1. Who “owns” the intranet?
  2. What software will be used to power the intranet?
  3. How will the site be organized (navigation, information architecture)?
  4. What will be on the homepage?
  5. Who will own and update the main sections of centralized content?
  6. How will user-generated (collaborative) content be > approved/managed?
  7. How will user access and content permissions be managed?

Many questions are raised during the conception phase of an intranet or an intranet relaunch. Groups who don’t answer these questions,  will stumble along the way, and end up in lengthy and difficult discussions later on. Thomas Renken recommends a checklist covering a variety of aspects, developed from his analysis results:

Detail the technical/specialist conception of intranet use cases
Define intranet content types
Define templates
Define the information architecture and user guidance
Detail of required multilingualism
Determine the portal layout (design/theme)
Define topics and categorization
Define roles and permissions
Define portal organization & processes

Intranet-Projekt: Intranet-Konzeption? mit einem Gewirr an Aufgaben & Fragen (in German)

When should you start developing an intranet governance?

In his article Was macht Intranet-User happy? (in German), Renken identified Projekt & Governance as one of six “happy factors” that contribute to employee happiness with an intranet. He therefore recommends that the intranet governance is developed in an early phase of the project.

An intranet continues to exist long after its launch. Your users and stakeholder, e.g. editors, need contact points for questions and answers. Therefore, define the intranet governance in an early project phase. This includes roles with tasks and competencies, processes and goals. The team needs to be ready for the launch, and should be supported with a clear commitment from management, including time and budget provisions.

Never without an intranet governance

During the intranet project, detail all questions that arise and document them in the intranet governance so that everyone can view it. Never launch an intranet without an intranet governance. It will save you a great amount of time and effort, because these questions will continually be raised in later discussions.

Sources

In the following list are sources for the above text, as well as additional helpful tips and articles:

The original article “Das Intranet und die leidige Governance” was published in German by Frank Hamm.

Frank HammFrank Hamm is a consultant for communication and collaboration who supports companies in their digital transformation. He has written for INJELEA-Blog about social business, intranets, enterprise 2.0 and company communication practices since 2005. Frank is an avowed nexialist and writes about this at Der Schreibende.

You can find more articles by Frank Hamm in our intranet special.

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