Intranets should be task oriented

Terry McGovern

Intranets must help people do what they have already decided to do

Gerry McGovern helps organisations design value-driven intranets. That is, making corporate intranets create satisfaction and added value for employees, companies and their clients rather than pain and frustration. I’ve picked a few of his views on wise intranet design and management shared in a talk he gave in Oslo recently.

Intranets should be task oriented

  1. Organise the intranet according to tasks, not the organisational chart
  2. Allign to the users’ mental models

First, what does it mean to have a “task based organisation of the intranet”? McGovern claims that companies tend to copy the organisational chart when designing intranets. Instead he suggests to put oneself in the shoes of the employee. Employees entering the intranet would normally go there for a reason. He or she is likely to be looking for how to go about with a problem. A well designed intranet helps the employee find that solution quickly.

Most wanted functionality in an intranet (sample)

Thus, identify what are the most crucial tasks for employees in a company to solve. The yellow table below is an example from one of the companies McGovern has helped redesign their intranet. The list shows a set of tasks prioritised order from top (most important) to bottom (less important). This list was made by asking lots of people in the given organisation what kind of tasks they needed to solve in order to get their work done. Then the design, titles and elements of the intranet reflected those needs.

Second, alligning to users’ mental models is essential. McGovern provides an example of another company he has helped: TetraPak, a Swedish company producing milk cartons and containers for drinks and more. TetraPak adjusted the phrasing of their intranet’s menu. That enabled employees to find what they were looking for much faster. Within a few months, the company had reduced their telephone support staff from four down to two persons. There weren’t that many frustrated calls anymore. Suddenly employees started finding what they were looking for.

Test whether the intranet actually helps you complete your work

McGovern emphasises the need for testing the user value of an intranet. Does it deliver what it promises? Does it enable people to find what they are looking for? Does it help the company to cut time wasting or expenses? In order to answer these questions it is necessary to ask the users. One way of doing this can be to create tasks that are typical examples of needs that employees report. This is where the yellow table above becomes valuable. After having identified the users’ needs, now is the time to test if the design of its intranet actually answers those needs.

Observing users performing a given set of tasks will indicate whether people can do what they wanted to do with ease. If they can’t, then it is off to improve the design or phrasing. Because designing and developing intranets should be based on measuring facts, not someone’s opinions.

– The essence of the web is to help people do what they have already decided to do. The same goes for intranets, McGovern says. The purpose of any intranet should enable people in a company to get their work done more efficiently, by wasting less time looking for the information they need to get a task done and making the client happier.


I wrote this text after having listened to McGovern in a session aimed at intranet managers the 28th of January 2010. The talk was organised by NetLife Research, a user experience consultancy firm based in Oslo, Norway.

Check out McGovern’s web site or follow him on Twitter.

Intranets should be task oriented

Talk, don’t just do it

Online conversation within companies can help identify the real causes of a problem. It’s time consuming, but it can improve the end result.

A couple of months ago I joined a wonderful online network for people engaged in corporate intranets in Norway. It’s organised by NetLifeResearch, a web usability consultancy. The other day Ove Dalen, a member of the network shared a comment on the crossing interests of employees and companies when it comes to intranets. I believe the comment goes to the heart of implementing intranets in many companies: employees want to solve the problems they face at work. An ideal intranet allows people to interact with colleagues independently of space and time. However, problem solving is like a quality dialogue. It takes time to identify the causes of a problem. Drilling down to the root causes and involving other people can take time. Managers don’t necessarily like that, because it doesn’t look like any real work is done, only conversation.

Here’s the comment written by jeblad in an online discussion about corporate intranets:

Knowledge is boring stuff and not the real reason why people use an intranet. People want to get in touch with other people and talk about their problems and solve them. Companies do not want their employees to talk about the problems. They only want the problems solved. Dialogue in itself expands the phase of defining the problem. However, when problems are defined, that process in itself creates knowledge about how problems can be solved. Still, recycling that information can be hard. (…) Mailing lists normally have immense amounts of information about how problems can be solved. [I miss] the same possibility to [go back in time] and look for knowledge in an intranet. Normally it doesn’t solve my problems that the intranet lets me know that it is the birthday of our boss. (The comment was originally in Norwegian and I’ve translated parts of it. Please see bottom of post for original version.)
Let go of control
I think there are a few challenges with corporate intranets that jeblad’s comment illustrate quite well. First, spending time on looking for the reason behind problems are not that popular. It looks better from the outside to provide a quick answer to a problem, rather than solve the underlying aspects. Second, the people in charge of many intranets still tend to believe in editor controlled news rather than user generated anarchy. This puzzles me. I thought Wikipedia had long ago proved that user generated content is king. Thus, anyone in charge of an intranet must let go of control. Let people go crazy, experiment and do whatever they like for a while. Even though there isn’t policing from the top, any group will apply a certain degree of internal, social control and common set of rules.
So why don’t we learn from Wikipedia? Why don’t we open up and let go of control? How come companies stick to the old fashioned, editor-in-control mode? Someone please tell me.

Original statement in Norwegian, copied from the jeblad’s comment on the NRK blog post, December 2009:

Kunnskap er ofte en nokså kjedelig greie og ikke den reelle grunnen til at folk bruker et intranett. Folk vil komme i kontakt med andre og snakke om problemene og løse dem. Bedriften vil ikke at de ansatte skal snakke om problemene, de vil bare ha de løst, dialog forlenger selve problemdefinisjonsfasen. Når problemene omtales og defineres så skaper imidlertid det kunnskap om hvordan problemene løses, men å gjenbruke den informasjonen er vanskelig. Noen som har løst og nøstet i gamle diskusjoner på epost? Mailinglister har enorme mengder informasjon om hvordan ting kan løses. Den samme muligheten for å nøste i kunnskap savner jeg på intranett, det løser sjelden mine problemer å få vite på forsiden at sjefen har bursdag.

Talk, don’t just do it

Embed collaborative culture: recruit t-shaped people

Recruit T-shaped people in to order create a collaborative, organisational culture.

Morten Hansen, a lecturer at INSEAD business school in France, has written a wonderful book on how to transform collaboration as a buzzword into real, corporate value. He claims loads of interesting things in his recent book ‘Collaboration: how leaders avoid the traps, create unity, and reap big results’ (2009). In his book he offers a couple of really interesting suggestions on how to ensure collaborative culture is embedded in a corporate culture:1.

1. Recruit T-shaped people

When searching for colleagues or leaders for your organisation, look for people who have demonstrated asking other people for help to solve a problem. He mentions Roy’s Restaurants in California and Hawaii where the interviewer may ask the candidate to describe ‘what obstacles have you faced in a previous job that prevente you from doing a quality job? How di you overcome these obstacles?’ In many companies the interviewer would be satisfied with a response showing that the candidate managed to take care of the situation and solve it all by herself. However, for Roy’s Restaurants, that kind of answer would likely indicate that this person possibly is someone who do not ask for assistance when in trouble and communicated the situation to colleagues. Asking for help indicates a collaborative orientation, Roy’s Restaurants would claim.

2. Give the assignment centre a twist

Hansen brings up another example on how to recruit t-shaped people. The example is from Southwestern Airlines, a hugely successful airline company in the U.S. In this company the interviewer in an assignment centre context would ask applicants to spend a some minutes preparing a statement about themeselves that they are supposed to present in front of the group. Job applicants may think that they are being tested for their oral and communication skills. However, what they are really being tested on is their listening skills. Is the applicant listening actively and supporting the others when they are making their statements? Od to they mostly look into their papers, concentrating on their own statement? In case the candidate doesn’t manage to listen provide the other with attention and feedback, this would indicate low degree of collaborative orientation.



Embed collaborative culture: recruit t-shaped people

Work as most of us know it

How would you challenge default work tools as email, telephone, face to face interaction and saving ones documents on your local drive?

I’m a strong believer in the power of web 2.0 tools. They can offer leaders and workers the possibility of increased transparency in organisations, better transfer of knowledge and better products and services. Not to forget about revenues – o la la.

Transform the way we work, please

However, if you were to take on the challenge of transforming these fundamental ways of work, where would you start? Is it possible to change our ways of work as dramatically as I guess is necessary in order to change these four powerful streams of work routine? I’m not sure if it is necessary to get rid of them. However, alternative tools for cooperation and communication must prove more valuable in order to be viewed as relevant alternatives.

The reason I’m asking is that I’m currently involved in a project that is about to roll out a set of online collaborative tools that will hopefully alter the way we work across our company. I find it quite hard to actually believe that the majority of people will actually switch to sharing their work documents online, collaborating online, edit a common workspace (wikis, if you like), leave their email behind and unless it demonstrates quickly that it contributes financially or practically to improve the end product or service. I think this is the core challenge of social media: it hasn’t yet proven relevant to most of the people.

I’d be happy to listen to feedback and ideas on this.

Work as most of us know it

What I’ve learnt from the media industry

I’ve spent two years working for Schibsted, a European media group. Upon leaving the company I’ve tried to summarise my learnings as an employee.

  1. Media will prosper: The web has enabled us all to become media producers. That’s fun! The big question is how to capitalise on heaploads of people who are actually sharing their insight through the channels offered by interactive web sites, blogs, Twitter, YouTube, chat clients, etc. One day someone will understand how to make money on online news. That’ll probably improve the quality of the journalism as well as serving shareowners with higher value and customers with better user experiences. I’ve no clue on how it will become reality, but I’m looking forward to it.
  2. Respect to everyone making profit: Business is about creating value for your customers and shareholders when it’s a public company. That’s actually quite hard. Thus, when the advertisement market plummeted for many of our companies during second half of 2008, crucial veins of income dissappeared. Then, what do you do if you’re in charge of a company? You’ll have to cut costs. People tend to be the largest post on the budget. I was downsized (together with 25 percent of the head office’s staff) and it does make sense.
  3. Diversification is king: Schibsted has survived the economic turmoil after Lehman Brothers hit the ground in September 2008. This is much thanks to Kjell Aamot, the visionary CEO of Schibsted, who acquired a large, online classified company (previously knowns as ‘Trader’, now Schibsted Classified Media). The steady incomes from the classified business made us capable of leaning on this revenue stream when incomes from printed and online news shrinked dramatically.
  4. Knowledge work requires long term perspective: I’ve been part of a company where its primary asset is its employees’ ability to create ideas that they transform into viable, commercial initiatives. These will next need to trigger incomes for the company. When one business model dissapears (advertisement incomes steadily pouring in) and new ones are still at the stage of being invented, there is logically a stark contrast between income and costs. Nevertheless, it is necessary to invest over time in knowledge workers in order to make them prosper.
  5. Organisational transparency requires courage: In 2008 Schibsted managed to launch an intranet that was available across the group. Even though it’s still in its moulding pot, it’s steadily growing its traffic and unique visitors. However, my impression is that a lot of people find it tiring to share knowledge outside their own cubicles because it requires an extra effort that it is hard to gras p if will be reciprocated soon, later or never. Thus, high ranking leaders must repeatedly drive forward the value of sharing, involving ‘strangers’ and building upon each other.
  6. Feedback is underestimated: My own company is not good enough at providing its employees with systematic, constructive feedback. Even though several segments of leaders in our company has carried out 360-degree feedback processes, employee surveys tend to highlight the need for leaders to acknowledge its employees. Of course there are exceptions (both companies and individuals). But why on earth can’t our business get a grip on the crucial, motivating power of continuous feedback to people. It’s all about being valued and developed.
  7. Change is good: Sudden changes can help one prioritise and discover until then hidden possibilities. The two years I’ve spent at the company has been a constant flux of work tasks: designing a performance management system for young professionals, rolling out a 360-degree feedback process for executives, developing leadership training programmes for executives, implementing learning initiatives across corporate and national cultures, and implementing arenas for knowledge sharing across companies within the group. It’s been a joyride – and at times quite demanding.

That’s some of my reflections. I guess more will be drippling ino my head the next few months.

When did you last reflect upon your own job and what you get out of it?

What I’ve learnt from the media industry

The change monster: how to domesticate it

Boston Consulting Group and Jeanie Daniel Duck shows how organisational change can be tamed.

Duck has written a wonderful book about how people can experience change as a dreadful force. Even thought it’s academically not the most perfect book written on the topic, the author’s use of plain drawings and vivid, corporate examples all makes it an enjoyable read.  She makes you realise that it is perfectly possible to control the fear of change. Her book may be useful for anyone in charge of managing an organisational change process.

Check out a rather critical review or take a look at the main ideas put forward in the book.

The change monster: how to domesticate it