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High wire balancing actIn our recent blog post series on social intranets, and also in the entries which are coming into our “My Beautiful Intranet Goes Social” contest, we’ve seen how interaction in the workplace is being facilitated through microblogging, activity streams and social networks.

We’ve also seen how user-generated content (UGC) is being surfaced and featured more prominently on the homepage, gradually transforming intranets from repositories of stale corporate content into dynamic channels with meaningful dialogue and the potential for greater business value.

However the introduction of social tools and focus on UGC is not the only way in which intranets are changing. This blog post attempts to set the current fashion in social intranets into the wider context of other trends which suggest that offices and some areas of work culture are becoming more relaxed and informal, at least on the surface. It then goes on to look at some of the ways that intranet managers are making their corporate intranet feel less corporate, above and beyond the roll-out of social tools.

Towards a more informal workplace culture

Over the last few years many aspects of office life have become more rigid and regulated, partly driven by a more acute awareness of risk. However in many other areas the workplace has become more relaxed. Many of the symbols of “hierarchy” within the office have started to unravel to something which, at least on the surface, sends messages that the office is a more inclusive and informal place.

Many physical offices have gone open-plan, business dress is more casual, there is more flexible- working, corporate information is increasingly available on employee-owned devices, and corporations are now employing people with job titles like “Chief Happiness Officer.” Employee engagement is big business.

Benefits

The benefits around these sorts of trends are fairly obvious. People like to work in places where they are treated as adults and as equals. This has obvious business benefits in attracting and retaining the best talent. For example an interesting post from “Great Places to Work”, which produces Fortune’s annual “100 Best Companies to Work for” survey, observes that:

“In 2012 [people] are still seeking work that is meaningful, and challenges that make them excited to get up in the morning. They crave transparency in communication with management and want to feel respected as human beings – not just as employees or cogs in a wheel.”

The post goes on to identify various trends in top places to work such as the importance of trust, ensuring employees are brand ambassadors and the formal promotion of inclusiveness. They also say that “creating a unique culture that supports business strategy is a critical talent advantage”.

Going hand-in-hand with trusting employees, and also a major contributor to successful employee engagement, is allowing staff to work from outside the office. This has clear tangible benefits. For example in our recent research report “Digital Workplace Business Case: What is the financial value of investing in digital working?” (published by the Digital Workplace Forum, also part of the Digital Workplace Group), there are raft of statistics which show that having proper flexible working in place helps reduce employee turnover and lower absenteeism, resulting in substantial cost savings.

Has the intranet changed?

So if there are benefits in a less “corporate” culture in different aspects of working life, has the intranet undergone a similar process? Are intranets more informal, more relaxed, more inclusive and more personable? Judging by some of the recent trends, there seem to be many ways in which intranet managers are going out of the way to make their corporate intranet feel less corporate.

Besides allowing commenting and rating, and featuring microblogging or creating social networks, many attempts to move the intranet to being a more personable and informal channel revolve around content, some of which may be user-generated, curated or written by internal communications. Other tactics include positioning the intranet as a separate and distinct channel which is less subject to corporate standards.

A few of these methods are explored below:

The rise of the CSR page

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives are now a core part of internal and external communications. At their worst CSR pages tend to be dry lists of initiatives, but others have introduced imaginative and often interactive elements to drive engagement, or to run an initiative itself. For example Arup provided a micro site for its “Amazing Race” game where teams raised money for charity by doing exercise and could track their progress around a map of the world. Meanwhile Credit Suisse ran a site within its SharePoint intranet for a competition which required a charitable donation to enter. This was integrated with justgiving.com to track the donations. These CSR initiatives tend to highlight the actions of individuals and teams within the firm.

Featuring non-corporate content through a competition

Focusing on non-corporate content sometimes divides intranet managers, who feel some elements can trivialize the intranet’s functions and waste valuable real estate. For example having “a photo of the day” submitted by employees on your homepage is featured as one of Intanetizen’s “14 signs that you have lost the intranet plot”! Personally I can’t see the harm if a competition and the related content drives engagement and adoption, and some organizations do seem to be able to pull-off a successful photo competition.

Featuring lifestyle content and news

Another tactic is to simply feature other topics than business, although content may still be authored by corporate communications. For example Unilever’s award winning global news centre on its intranet, also features content relating to lifestyle and health and well-being. This has helped contribute to a 41% rise in overall traffic over six months.

Allow non-business use

Another way in which intranet managers are making their corporate intranet feel less corporate is by allowing non-business use, which we observed in our social intranet blog series as a tactic to drive adoption. Common examples of this are allowing classified ads, or having community spaces with a social purpose such as book review clubs.

Intranet software provider Intranet Connections even includes its own recipe area out-of-the-box “where employees can post their secret family recipes, share good tips and recipes from the internet, search for recipes A-Z, bookmark favorite recipes, handy quick print and option to email a recipe to co-workers”.

Some intranets give non-work areas some prominence – for example the November edition of Digital Workplace Live revealed that Danish company Chr. Hansen’s intranet has a top level menu item called “Time Out” which links to a page with non-work items such as Dilbert cartoon (incidentally another of Intranetizen’s signs that “you’ve lost the intranet plot”.)

Subverting the Corporate Visual Identity

Companies often have strong guidelines for their external digital presence, but subverting the Corporate Visual Identity (CVI) can send a subtle message that the intranet is something different and perhaps less “corporate”. Altering the company logo is one way to do this, for example in the same way Google changes its logo to celebrate special days and anniversaries. Taking inspiration from this, Epilepsy Action in the UK regularly tweak its logo on the intranet.

An alternative and arguably more elegant way to be off-brand is to use a different colour from the main corporate brand, an obvious visual cue that the intranet is different and distinct from other corporate channels. For example legal services firm RPC had a strong distinctive purple on much of its output, but the first iteration of its social intranet, Edge, used pastel colours with not a whiff of purple anywhere. The colours have changed slightly since, but it’s still not subject to the same visual guidelines.

In general “subverting” the CVI may need to be done with some caution. DWG’s benchmarking model suggests that this is not good practice. Also ironically many intranets are not completely “on-brand” anyway, often because the branding and design on the external web presence has taken precedence, or applications have not been adequately integrated.

Perhaps the ideal situation is if you have a brand that has elements which already feel informal. A great example is how Kellogg’s used some of the cartoon characters synonymous with its brands within the intranet space. Strictly speaking those are corporate images, but Paul Miller highlighted this as one of his “ten intranets that have defined the industry” , showing how Kellogg’s have used brand icons such as Tony the Tiger used to drive fun, brand-driven culture messages”.

Give the intranet a name or persona

Sometimes giving the intranet a distinct name or even persona can help to position it with employees. Whilst not all agree with naming an intranet and it’s not right for all companies, it may be particularly important for some types of organization which are less inclined to have a corporate culture, for example within the not-for-profit sector. A great example is RSPCA Victoria’s award-winning intranet called Daisy, represented by a cartoon cow. It’s informal and core to the organization’s values, and with a user-base which includes volunteers, something to identify with.

Getting employees to name an intranet through a competition or poll is also a good start to create engagement.  For example DWG’s very own Ephraim Freed, when he was intranet manager at Oxfam America, got employees to vote on a name. They settled on Padare, which means “community space” in Shona, a language in use in Zimbabwe. The fact that the suggestion came from somebody in the South African office was a powerful statement in itself which Ephraim believes “set a stake in the ground to guide the rest of the project and symbolized the empowerment the new social intranet would provide to employee voices…it can be surprising how small things like this influence the feel and trajectory of a project.”

Go off-beat

If there is a more informal brand to an intranet it can also be enhanced by matching the tone of the content. Being off-beat or adding humour can lighten the tone on an intranet, but done incorrectly it has the risk of sounding very self-conscious.

Catherine Grenfell at Step Two Designs mentions an example from Canadian firm Vancity who asked users to rate searches using phrases like “Okay.. but Google still kicks our butt!”

Do something silly

If offbeat isn’t going to have impact, sometimes there’s the option to do something completely off-the wall. For example UK games developer Media Molecule created “fridge-cam” – a webcam which takes a photo of anybody who opens the fridge and then posts it to the homepage of the company intranet.  According to community manager James Spafford , “it didn’t serve any useful purpose other than to provide us with amusement.”

It might sound ridiculous (and it probably is), but the company went external with the details, showing that the office was a fun place to work, and quite possibly attracting like-minded candidates who might want to fit into a particular culture. Of course this approach is only appropriate for a workplace with the right culture – unless you are trying out a spot of internal ‘disruptive marketing’.

The benefits of being informal

Individually these kinds of changes are perhaps not that important, but they act as a both a reflection and a reminder that work is carried out by people. The benefits of the intranet feeling less corporate may be intangible, and may cause scepticism amongst some, but if it can drive adoption and more active contribution then I believe it has value. Do you agree? How does your organization make your corporate intranet feel less corporate?

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About the author

This is a guest post by Steve Bynghall. Steve was the content producer for IBF 24 2011 and helped research Paul Miller’s book “The Digital Workplace: How Technology is Liberating Work“. He is also a benchmarking evaluator and has written three research reports for IBF, and regularly blogs for DWF and IBF. Steve is the founder of Two Hives Ltd, a consultancy specializing in KM, collaboration and web-based projects. Steve previously worked at accountancy firm BDO in a variety of knowledge roles, including managing its global extranet programme. He has co-written a book on crowdsourcing with Ross Dawson titled “Getting Results from Crowds“. He tweets (less than he should do) at @bynghall.

 

About the author

Steve-BynghallSteve Bynghall is a research associate, benchmark evaluator and knowledge manager for DWG. He is also a freelance consultant, researcher and writer specializing in knowledge management, collaboration, intranet and social business. Steve previously worked at accountancy firm BDO in a variety of knowledge roles, including managing its global extranet programme. He recently co-wrote a book on crowdsourcing with Ross Dawson.

Steve is passionate about being able to work from anywhere, and is occasionally seen in local coffee shops with his trusty laptop. When not working, Steve can be found exploring London with his family.

Connect with Steve on Twitter: @bynghall or on Google +.

2 Comments

  1. I enjoyed reading the different examples of how intranets are becoming less corporate. When this happens, it’s a sign that users are taking more ownership of the intranet. This results in a transformation from top-down communication to a more participatory, engaging and effective virtual workspace.

    Reply

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