The 4 big mistakes of stakeholder engagement for intranets & digital workplaces

October 3, 2014 by

Stakeholder engagement sounds like a boring, wonky word, but it is in fact central to success in intranet and digital workplace projects. This article explains the main mistakes of stakeholder engagement and offers related solutions.

Stakeholder engagement… is everything!

“Stakeholder engagement” sounds like a business wonky word that doesn’t mean much of anything. I might as well talk about “dynamic synergism“ or something of the sort. And yet, here I go…

In the simplest possible terms stakeholder engagement means “involvement”. It refers to how you communicate, make decisions and collaborate with different groups who are affected by your work.

And it turns out that stakeholder engagement is just about the most important success factor of any intranet or digital workplace project. It influences:

  • whether or not executives support your work
  • how committed departments and implementing partners are
  • employee use and satisfaction with your end products.

Stakeholder engagement can be seen as “winning the hearts and minds” of those impacted by or involved in your projects. Effective stakeholder engagement can take many forms, but when it’s done poorly it virtually guarantees failure.

Your users are also stakeholders

It’s important to note that your end users (typically employees when we’re talking about intranets and broader digital workplace projects) are, in fact, stakeholders.

They may not hold the purse strings like executives, or manage staff you’ll rely on to implement your project, but do they have a stake in the end results? Absolutely!

Ignoring users during planning, or involving them improperly, is one of the most common weaknesses of middling and poor intranets. This is all covered below and in the associated SlideShare presentation.

Four big mistakes and their solutions

These four mistakes cover a broad range, from high-level strategy to detailed tactics. The thing that ties them all together is the frequency with which we see the mistakes made.

  1. Mistake #1: Starting too late

    Might as well put this mistake first!

    Many people see stakeholder engagement as an act of getting approval. A digital workplace team has a strategy and plan, and just wants a rubber stamp from a supportive executive and the heads of involved divisions.

    But when you start involving stakeholders too late you risk alienating them. You’ll face uphill battles and will spend countless hours trying to convince them to commit resources to your project.

    Instead, start working with key stakeholders at the very outset of your project in a highly collaborative way.

    You’ll find that strategic stakeholder engagement actually shapes your project vision, strategy and goals, rather than just providing a barrier to overcome.

    In a nutshell, you’re aiming for shared ownership rather than just buy-in, a concept explained further in the linked blog post from ThoughtFarmer.

  2. Mistake #2: Poor selling to executives

    Over and over again we see digital workplace managers struggle to make the business case to executives. It’s almost as if there are language barriers preventing clear communication.

    The key is to build a clear understanding of executives – what motivates them, what data they’re interested in, what problems they’re facing.

    If you do this early enough in your project, you can align your efforts to address key business needs that executives care about.

    Here are five questions to help you understand your executives:

    1. What are the goals of their job?
    2. What are their main challenges/business needs?
    3. What are the data and metrics they care about?
    4. What might they need from this digital workplace project?
    5. How would it work best for them to engage in the project?
  3. Mistake #3: Horrible meetings

    When I jokingly say something like “death by meetings” you immediately, at a gut level, get it.

    Knowledge workers generally seem to spend an excessive and ungratifying amount of time in meetings.

    The worst meetings have these characteristics:

    • Participants feel the meeting is irrelevant to their work.
    • The team rehashes the same issues from one meeting to the next without making decisions.
    • People leave the meeting feeling a lack of accomplishment.

    There are plenty of causes behind ineffective meetings, often tied to a company’s specific culture. But one of the common causes is a lack of structure.

    I like to say that “there’s a long way between a list of discussion topics and a good meeting agenda”. This means you need to use structured processes for making designs, rather than hope that open discussions will yield insightful outcomes the whole team aligns around.

    One helpful approach to structured decision making: Use the K-J Technique to set priorities. The linked article by Jared Spool provides a thorough written explanation and the SlideShare presentation embedded in this article gives a visual explanation.

    Also known as a “silent affinity” exercise, the K-J Technique magically smooths the road for making decisions within a group.

    The benefits of the K-J Technique include:

    • Minimizes power differentials: It puts all participants on a level playing field and stops those who are loud or higher up in the organizational hierarchy (or both—yikes!) from overwhelming other people’s perspectives.
    • Focus: The exercise always starts with one very specific guiding question and leaves little room for digression.
    • Shared ownership: Because the process is very interactive and all members of the group have had an equal hand in it, participants usually feel committed to the results.
    • Efficiency: While the process seems highly detailed and intensive, it avoids the milieu of endless circular discussions and tangents.

    There are many ways to adapt the K-J Technique to a specific situation, and there are many other ways to hold structured discussions.

    The key, though, is to go beyond the often ineffective cycle of presentations and open, wandering discussions.

  4. Mistake #4: Poor user involvement techniques

    I like to explain this final mistake of stakeholder engagement with one of my favourite quotes from James Robertson (@s2d_jamesr): “Don’t ask users what they want on the intranet.”

    The first mistake is to not involve your users. The second mistake is to involve them through ineffective techniques. The point of the quote from James Robertson is that: 1) users are not intranet/digital workplace experts; and 2) what people want is not the same as what they need.

    In order to deliver truly useful and user-friendly end results, digital workplace teams need to understand their users, what they do on a daily basis, the tools they need, the barriers they face and how they work.

    In order to do this, you need to employ the techniques of user experience design (UXD), which include:

    • observational research
    • interviewing/focus groups
    • user personas
    • user stories
    • card sorting
    • tree testing
    • wireframing
    • usability testing.

    While many digital workplace teams conduct user surveys and gather user feedback, the industry as a whole lacks adequate skill in implementing these structured techniques.

Stakeholder engagement IS the strategy

The mistakes listed in this article are fairly universal and the solutions suggested require time and practice.

Involving your stakeholders in structured, well-planned ways requires a lot of effort. But just like saving for retirement, it’s an investment that pays strong dividends when you start early.

If you can implement the solutions explained above, you’ll basically embed stakeholder engagement so fully into your intranet or digital workplace project that it becomes the strategy itself.


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Categorised in: Strategy & governance, Usability & design

Ephraim Freed

Ephraim is a communicator, community builder, digital strategist and employee experience leader. He helps innovative, growing organizations provide meaningful experiences of work that enrich employees' lives, grow strong, positive organizational cultures, build community, drive productivity and performance, and bring employer brands to life.

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