Why intranets fail: What mistakes you need to avoid
Updated: Dec 22, 2020
Calling out the intranet issues that we have been tripping over for years.
Imagine. The project team worked hard to deliver the new intranet on time and within budget. Twelve months later, the promised features that did not make the initial cut remain undelivered. Search is starting to deliver content results that are irrelevant and out-of-date, again! Disappointed, staff are now going elsewhere for trusted information. Sound familiar?
After fifteen years of working in this area, this scenario remains all too common in my experience. It is no wonder intranets have a poor reputation, especially amongst senior executives. While a glossy new intranet homepage is nice-to-have, an intranet is only successful if it delivers measurable business value. Without that, it is easy to question the need for an intranet at all.
As a consultant who has been exposed to hundreds of intranet projects successful and not, here is my list of the most common reasons for intranet failures. It is not exhaustive, nor will they automatically lead to failure, but are worth considering before starting your next project.
Vision & Strategic Direction
Lack of clarity around the business problem to be solved
Why is an intranet needed in the first place? If the answer is vague or not measurable, then it will be challenging to make a case for the significant expenditure. Without an understanding of what the business problem is that the intranet will solve, then there is no anchor, no clear purpose for the intranet to serve or be measured against.
Failure to align intranet strategy with organisational objectives
Similar to the previous point, without being able to demonstrate how the intranet supports the strategic direction of the organisation, it is unlikely that support and funding will be forthcoming. This is not unique to an intranet, but given the struggle that intranet teams often have to get their projects over-the-line, an intranet business case must demonstrate how an intranet supports strategic goals and delivers business value.
Insufficient ongoing funding
Like most projects, the initial launch of an intranet is an endeavour to get a minimum viable product in place within a specified timeframe and budget. Inevitably, corners are cut and features ‘postponed’ until a future phase. Too often, those next phases never happen, leaving the organisation with an incomplete outcome and an intranet that does not meet the promises made at the beginning of the project and without the ability to respond to changing business requirements. A rough benchmark for ongoing Business As Usual funding is 20% of the original project cost. Budgeting for this amount, at least for the first year, needs to be part of the project budget.
Making technology decisions before defining user requirements
Intranet consultants hear this all the time — “IT has purchased [product name], and we now have to determine how it will work for our organisation.” Most intranet products have very similar capabilities, but their implementation and how they function will vary. It is not a good idea to force work practices to change to fit a product capability, and it can be costly modifying a product to work in a way not designed for.
Not considering the intranet as an integrated part of the technology environment
Intranet projects often occur in isolation of what else is happening around the organisation, both from a business and a technology perspective. While the IT team should not necessarily run an intranet project, they have an essential role to play in ensuring that the intranet platform and its capabilities fit as an integrated part of the organisation’s digital ecosystem, with defined points of interaction with other applications. Staff will turn away from the intranet if it is just another standalone system they have to go in and out of.
Failure to manage search capabilities
Every consultant faces the following two statements with nearly every client: “Search doesn’t work” and “Can’t you make search work like Google?” If search didn’t work, there would be no results displayed. Most often, search works precisely as it should, all those irrelevant and out-of-date results are because a) the intranet is full of rubbish content and b) no one has taken the time to set up search correctly or done the necessary maintenance. While the first issue is a governance and training matter, the second involves time and effort to learn how the search engine works and how it can be adjusted to improve the findability of content.
Not identifying end-user requirements
Many Head Office-based intranet managers will tell you that they know what their people need. While occasionally correct, more often, intranet teams fail to spend sufficient time with their users and do not understand the information challenges that staff face every day. And while users may not be able to articulate what they specifically want from new technologies such as an intranet, they are well aware of which tasks are difficult to achieve or which processes are not working.
Failing to include users throughout the project
Completing an intranet project without involving those who will use it is a surefire way of delivering something that won’t be useful. If an intranet is not useful, then it won’t be used. Not including users throughout the scope, design and test phases of the project reduces the opportunity to pick up errors and make valuable improvements to the design and functionality built. Don’t miss the chance to harness the experience of users.
Failure to balance organisational need with the requirements of users
It can be somewhat of a balancing act for an intranet to reflect both the organisation’s strategic direction and the needs of staff. Failing to address strategic objectives can result in a lack of support and funding for future developments. Failing to provide value or address staff needs, will result in staff avoiding the intranet altogether. A good example is around communications. Strategically, an intranet is a great communications channel, improving the delivery of news from the organisation to staff. However, people do not go to the intranet just to read the news, they go to the intranet to complete a task, and while they are there, they may catch up on a story or two. The success of the intranet as a communications channel relies on its value as a business tool.
Failure to implement intranet governance
Unlike other systems, intranets are often not seen as business-critical; this can result in governance being ignored or implemented too late when the intranet is already in a mess. Governance is less about being a ‘big stick’ but instead having a framework in place that enables the decision-making and planning processes for the intranet. Implementing a governance model must be part of the initial project scope, or there will be an impact on the intranet’s success.
Lack of clear ownership
An intranet will more easily fall into a neglected state when there is no clear senior-level ownership. And without the appropriate level of championing, it will be almost impossible to source funding or get support for ongoing improvements. Clarifying senior-level ownership for the project and then of the intranet post-launch is imperative.
Poorly managed authoring model
The quality and quantity of content will be compromised if there is not a well-considered authoring model that reflects the information needs and the capabilities of the intranet authors. A centralised, but insufficiently resourced authoring model, will end up as a frustrating bottleneck where it takes forever to get content published. A decentralised model of inadequately trained authors will result in content chaos that users will find unusable. Each organisation needs to determine the best authoring model to suit them, even if it changes over time; this could well be a hybrid of the two classic models.
Embedding the intranet
Poor transition from project state to ‘business as usual’ state
Problems will arise at the end of a project if the intranet is handed over to a different group of people to manage it ongoing. By excluding these people from the project phase, they will not have the appropriate background or knowledge to run the intranet to plan. Running an intranet takes more than just platform knowledge or content publishing skills. They need to understand the original project requirements, how implemented features are supposed to work and the reasoning behind individual design decisions. Without this knowledge, confusion may occur, or the strategic direction of the intranet may change.
Insufficient change management
Neglecting change management even when an intranet has been brilliantly designed and is easy to use, will negatively impact adoption.
Intranet users are busy people using a range of other systems; they focus on getting their tasks completed. Springing a new or changed intranet on them without warning or detail about why and what the changes are is at minimum irritating. Users need to be respected and provided with the necessary detail to get familiar with the intranet and adopt it into their ways of working.
Lack of intranet management skills
Intranets are like a garden; you need to keep investing time and effort into keeping them up-to-date and running well, along with continuing to meet changing business needs. Without the correct management, the intranet will turn into either a neglected desert or an overgrown jungle of out-of-control content, pleasing no one. As with the other governance issues mentioned above, clarifying what the required skills are and the right people to perform them, needs to be done early on in the design and implementation phase. Like a garden, it does not take too long for the weeds to take over all the good stuff.
Intranets continue to battle with image problems. Too often they have not delivered on their promises, and the value versus the amount spent has been questionable. Does this mean intranets are obsolete or does it mean they are just poorly understood? Intranets still have a role to play in our digital workplaces, but that role must be clearly defined and agreed. Then the requisite amount of care and funding needs to be provided to develop and manage that intranet so it can fulfil its purpose.