The Biggest Problem With Building an Intranet

two people working on a computer solving a problem together

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People like to build things. Cars, washing machines, tables, computers, ERPs and, of course, intranets.

Cars and other mass-produced products are all at least of decent quality. Transactional software such as ERPs, because of their function supporting certain processes, all of the required information and flows are surfaced and implemented during process analysis. As a result, I would argue that most ERP implementations meet their requirements at least at a decent level.

When it comes to intranet building, it’s a different story altogether.

The Visible Impact of Poor Intranet Design

All intranet projects start with the same generous goal: we need a tool for better internal communications. The output is a website, and, in that respect, intranets are pretty similar to each other. They all have text, pictures, documents and link to various resources such as employee directories, apps and so on.

Yet in the end, the intranet is a business tool. And in most cases, intranets aren’t good enough. They do not support the business across the board to the level that they should. The problem is compounded by the fact that their owners are unaware of the issue.

I will give you two short examples:

A few years ago, I consulted with a German multinational company. Its SharePoint implementation was state of the art, the graphical design was flawless, one of the leading UK SharePoint consultancies built the system — so you might have expected a great solution. Yet when I asked the IT product owner why an employee could not easily find the very sophisticated company products, he told me that “probably we don’t want our users to easily find the product information.” “Not unless you want to sell them,” I replied. Overall, the information architecture was inconsistent and, while it was better than nothing, it was not really at the level it should have been. Some of the most basic information was not easily reachable, which means it was as good as nonexistent.

In the other case, I saw the intranet of an Italian financial services organization just a few weeks ago. Once again, the graphical design was impeccable and the system was operated by a top consultancy. Yet the content coverage was scarce, mainly covering news, procedures and some contracting flows. There wasn’t a whole lot going on. Afterwards I looked at the company’s reviews on Google Maps, and it confirmed what was visible on the intranet. Some locations received great reviews, while others got mostly poor ones. While they were selling the same financial products, the quality of the service was dictated by the local manager and not by the strength (or weakness) of underlying systems.

Basically, the inconsistent level of customer satisfaction in the physical world was in part determined by the poor design of the intranet.

Related Article: Intranets Are Back, But Not How They Used to Be

Does Your Intranet Answer ‘Why’ and ‘How’?

You might be thinking: how does poor customer satisfaction relate to intranet design? It’s a good question. Whenever the customer interacts with an employee, that employee will perform some sort of task. Every task can be broken down using Simon Sinek’s Why, How and What model. As I will detail below, the intranet should be able to provide the Why for any given task and offer easy access to all the required information to support the How. If it doesn’t do this very well, the employee is limited by their and their colleagues’ experiences, which lead to higher variations in service quality.

The main problem in the two examples above (and countless others I have encountered over the years) is digital workplace/intranet managers do not have a simple, actionable model to apply in their work. A guiding framework would allow them to design a better load-bearing structure for their digital workplace.

Intranets are managed by people from IT, HR, internal communication, operations or sales, to name a few. Every intranet manager brings their own bias to the implementation, which can make them unaware of challenges other areas of the business face.

In most cases these lead to intranet systems that are lacking in basic areas which generate lots of frustration, both internally and externally, and mediocre business results.

This, I believe, is the biggest issue in intranet design.

Related Article: Applying the Why, How and What Model to Your Intranet

A Framework for Creating a Resilient Intranet Structure

Below is my approach to one such framework. I have been applying it for more than 10 years and it has allowed me to significantly improve operations in some key areas.

1. Each employee task is somebody else’s service. To improve task execution, we need to improve the way employees consume that service. Instead of asking department heads what content they have, we need to ask them what services they provide internally.

2. Make an inventory of all the services provided to employees internally and their owners.

3. Rate their impact in business, because not all services are equally important to your bottom line.

4. Describe each service using a simple model:

  • Why: Explain why the employee performing this task well is important.
  • Inform: Provide the employee with the information required to do their job: procedures, recent changes, FAQs, linked to the supporting app module.
  • Train: Provide direct access to related training materials.
  • Support: Who can help.
  • Feedback: Mechanisms for sending feedback directly to the internal service owner.
  • What: This includes the management of tasks and notifications, related KPIs and the actual app module that allows the user to perform the task.

5. Manage a phased implementation of all the internal services. Not all services require the same level of details and not all of them can be implemented to the desired level of detail in the initial phase.

This model will help you build intranets that really improve the way the people work together in the company, the way the company operates and how it serves its customers. In addition, it helps make the intranet manager aware of what stage their product is in and what the next steps should be.

Cristian Salanti is working as a Digital Employee Experience Architect at He has been developing Intranets for the past 20 years. He is advocating for a more practical, managerial approach to Digital workplace design.

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