The value of informal groups is underestimated
25 years ago in a German government agency, there was an exciting incident. Employees formed an inter-divisional community which regularly took their lunch breaks together. This time was not spent in the canteen but instead in a comfortably furnished cellar room where they discarded dress codes and the usual formalities. The key to the private room was held by the head organizers’s secretary, who gave it to the employees at the start of the lunch break then took it back when lunch was over.
This informal, non-hierarchical gathering enjoyed consistent, apparent and even passionate stability until one person, cast out from the group, retaliated by letting the cat out of the bag.
The local newspaper exposed the operation with comprehensive coverage. These reports hardly touched on the implications that informal groups have on internal communication, corporate culture and harmony in the workplace. The reports were also not about the fascinating betrayal which ultimately brought down the ill-fated network. Instead, the local press painted the incident as a spectacle more than anything else, neglecting to cover the more relevant and useful aspects of the story.
The use cases are already there!
This incident was a textbook example of use cases that already exist in a business, which simply require the permission of those managing the intranet, to create attractive and useful user standards. Well chosen applications invigorate an intranet without need for an expensive redesign or complicated relaunch. If the applications work, they’ll get used. If they don’t work, employees will only ever use them out of necessity. It’s that simple!
This really isn’t anything new. On the contrary, it’s old hat. Nonetheless, thousands of business intranets are still asleep like Sleeping Beauty. Many princes in the communications and IT departments make the error searching for technologies, processes, standardized methods and “additional value”, instead of simply kissing the princess awake so that the story can progress and the intranet can come into its own. In this respect, those Germans having their lunchtime meetings were objectively and, most importantly, organically on the right track.
But how can we translate this example practically into other businesses? What can we learn from those German employees? Is there anything in particular that we can generalize? How do you find use cases that will make your intranet a sure-fire success?
It’s worth keeping the following in mind:
In the office, the chance for employees to pursue their own interests can be activated and mobilized. People like to seek “peers” out on their own, and manage to build collaborative structures under unusual conditions. When these collaborative structures are of a non-hierarchical and informal nature, the office infrastructure is used both skillfully and willingly.
And right here, at this intersection of personal interests, like-minded people and business infrastructure, is where you will find interesting uses cases that can be seized on and supported by an intranet. Some businesses have very successfully operated this way for many years. Here are some examples:
- At some Telecom offices, employees can plan out bicycle routes using their intranet. With minimal effort, a person can use the intranet to check whether “something” will work – goals, duration, difficulty of the route, whether they can take children or not, etc. – their network figures out the rest.
- In some large businesses, employees can use the intranet to arrange lunches with colleagues who share similar interests.
- In a number of businesses, employee representatives organize bulk orders for employees (e.g. for wine), or the internal sale of Christmas geese through the intranet.
Use cases like these can be very successful and have positive side effects that will make the application worthwhile. Unfortunately, decision-makers in businesses see this in a completely different light – since these use cases “ultimately don’t have anything to do with the employees’ work tasks”. It’s true – from a purely formal perspective, these examples typically don’t focus on achieving work goals. Furthermore, it’s not such a simple task to assign these use cases to a department which will have to bear the cost of the use case and ensure its quality. It’s rare for a department to add “Christmas goose sale” to its official portfolio – at which point the use case would also lose its informal charm.
It is interesting that decision-makers in many businesses will give moderate budgets to employee apps hoping that tedious corporate information and a menu will inspire employees. The truly interesting use cases, which immediately inspire employees, still seem to be mostly excluded.
Keeping use cases under the radar
The dilemma arises where promising, employee-oriented use cases aren’t appropriate to the formal structures within which intranet managers have the capacity to act, especially as this is happening at the same time as the search for use cases which “reach” the employees, are wide in scope, reinforce the intranet and stay in the vicinity of business goals.
This situation is understood well by many intranet managers and more than a few would be ready to support informal structures with the intranet if they were allowed to – but, sadly, hierarchical structures, long-standing values of the business ,and the fear of using up goodwill that won't be rebuilt stops them.
On the other hand, employees in these kinds of businesses find methods of connecting with others in their fields of interest through parallel structures on FaceBook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms. Here they discuss – on open and accessible platforms – many topics that are relevant to the business, going far beyond Christmas geese and which, problematically, can’t be facilitated through the business.
So what might an approach that seizes on and supports informal use cases while distinguishing them from the intranet look like? How can formal business processes and the power of employee interests (which tend to make decision-makers uneasy) be brought into harmony with one another?
A “deep intranet” can get employees involved
We’ve known since the Dark Ages that harmony occurs when light and shadow are brought together. This wisdom has not changed in the technological era.
Intranets of this generation are typically not used by unsanctioned groups and, for that reason, can’t bring about harmony on their own. The supposed "darker" aspects are not addressed, although human resources and the workers’ council do actually know exactly what is going on in their businesses and what is wished for. Besides, the question of what is light and what is dark depends on perspective – a unifying approach to achieving harmony should bring together different attitudes and opinions.
The interpretation of light and dark for a business intranet lies with the intranet managers and higher-level decision-makers, so typically everything in the realm of smooth information flow, orderly collaboration and cleanly-defined businesses processes gets defined as the “sanctioned” intranet. To us, the intuitive conclusion that follows is that the “sanctioned” intranet should be complemented with an “deep” intranet – for each employee-oriented use case that encourages harmony, peace in the workplace and motivation but is conceptually not (or not yet) a part of the official intranet.
This approach might seem precarious to some intranet managers and make their superiors anxious, since any number of nasty things which would otherwise only take place outside of orderly business structures could happen in a deep intranet: tampering with parking tickets, work logs and incompetence reports, counterfeiting salary slips and interim reports, selling business property without permission, exchanging photos of past office parties, renting private holiday accommodation. No one wants to face the music for anything like that.
But these concerns are for the most part unfounded, since these kind of things practically never escalate in business intranets. The fear is greater for someone who is somewhat removed from the operative culture. But for years it’s been possible to monitor whether employees are using the intranet facilities meaningfully. Corrections can be made to handle the occasional individual case very quickly through the environment. This is the motto: Be brave enough to handle your own intranet! Appropriate use cases for starting a deep intranet reveal themselves quickly enough if you give interest communities in the business some weight in the exchange of ideas and some free reign over particular application scenarios.
Proposing to start an “deep” intranet has many dramatic and editorial advantages: For all involved it ought to be intuitively clear that the “deep” intranet is something distinct and different from the typical intranet. Someone who enters the deep intranet knows that they are no longer working in the part of the business intranet that is reserved for the business itself. This could be indicated by a slightly modified layout or style, bu also takes into account the obligatory company logo. Explicitly calling it the “deep” intranet is a bold move which may strengthen its separation from the “sanctioned” intranet. It’s an intellectual game of laying down borders and of polarizing it in a way which will be much stronger once actually implemented – and in exactly this exciting field, lies the potential that promises to be very productive once it unfolds. In fewer words, you can do something with it.
The deep intranet is the place for all the good things which don’t quite belong in the classic business intranet but are nevertheless relevant to the employees and corporate culture. It gives decision-makers and executives room to play as well, since they can also use the deep intranet once it is available. Maybe then some of the use cases could even be cautiously moved from the deep intranet to the sanctioned business intranet – an idea that should interest organizational developers and HR strategists.
What can you do?
This is what I’d like to recommend to intranet managers in businesses:
- Pick two or three themes that interest engaged employees for which the existing intranet infrastructure might be helpful. The themes should be positive – from Christmas geese to sports meets to cultural nights.
- Make a place in your existing intranet for these use cases, call it the “deep intranet” (or something else) and make sure that it is visually differentiated.
- Support the employees who get involved by helping to implement their ideas. Don’t make a competition out of the deep intranet. Just leave it to the community.
- Quietly keep track of what’s going on and invite the employees to exchange their ideas with you once every quarter.
- Continue to develop the deep intranet carefully and, when the time comes, move appropriate use cases to the “sanctioned” corporate intranet.
If you have the opportunity, please let me know how your deep intranet goes. As the case may be, we might discuss your experience in this article series.
Those Germans with their little lunch break meetings probably never intended that the structure they used out of necessity would, 25 years later, form the basis of advice for starting deep intranets. Sometimes the wisest path isn’t the most obvious, and everything needs time.
Karsten Wendland is the head of the Institute for Information Design and Complexity Reduction® (ininko), which is part of the Steinbeis network, and a professor of media informatics at Aalen University. His current work topics are the digitalisation of the world of work, information management and technology design.