NEED, USE & EFFECT OF AN INTRANET:
The information age demands ready access to critical data for the modern business environment where all transactions are possible across geographies at a speed that would seem magical if we didn’t understand it. In such a competitive and immediate decision taking, any corporate entity would be wise to invest in an infrastructure that allows sharing of knowledge within its organisation while also reducing costs, boosting profit and engaging its employees.
Some of the top intranets of the world have implemented successfully the idea of a common platform for all corporate data, activities and interaction. These companies are mostly large organisations with offices in more than one country or spread throughout a single country. Their aim is to create a task-oriented structure for employee’s benefit instead of the oft seen corporate structure. There are many elements in these portals that make them most favoured business tool for its users. The basic point is to realise that what management looks for in an intranet may not be what users want in the intranet.
The intranet is not for corporate propaganda or hard sell marketing aimed towards employees. It is emerging as a single-most utility that can guide communication and bring together resources for the organisation’s long-term benefit. Such is its latent power that the Government of People’s Republic of China is implementing a National Intranet for its citizens; when done it would be the world’s largest intranet.
The common feature in successful intranets such as IBM’s ‘W3 ODW’ (On Demand Workplace) or O2’s ‘vitalO2’ is the employee directory. This is essential for employees to get connected with concerned people in the many departments in large companies. An updatable, searchable directory, they also offer search of the company’s human resources through skill-based search or experience-based search. IBM’s employee directory’s estimated time savings is at US $194 million per year.
For multinationals like IBM which has employees in 75 countries speaking 165 languages or Vodafone spread across Europe, the intranet not only delivers corporate communication but also differentiates between “global pages”, “shared pages” and “local pages”. Such customised settings are possible through single sign-on identifying the user’s location, department, profile, etc. This helps avoid overwhelming the user with too much data and reach relevant material.
WHAT IS ON TOP INTRANETS:
Clearly content, navigation, design, consistency, engagement and accessibility are elements required to benchmark any intranet portal.
The content has to be aimed at informing users and at providing them with knowledge required to improve or support their functions. Apart from Corporate News, top intranets like Capital One’s ‘My One Place’ also provides industry news, external news on entertainment, sports, events and local news. Management Announcements and initiatives are also important part of an intranet, enabling the employee to see all circulars on a single portal. Allianz Australia’s intranet makes this subject attractive by using graphics to captivate employee’s attention to new management actions. Audio or Video supporting such News with accompanying text adds to the effectiveness of such information. These would also include Press Releases and Company’s Advertisements for customers. They could then be sorted by date or alphabetically.
Articles that keep users updated on various topics are sourced through intra-department collaboration or by a content team for the intranet. Defining the guidelines for content management is essential for uniform, standardised articles which can then be classified on the basis confidentiality, criticality or usefulness as has been done by ‘InSite’ intranet of Bank of Ireland. Keeping articles and other data fresh & updated is important to satisfy the users as seen in Vodafone’s site which includes VTV broadcasts as well. Capital One’s ‘My One Place’ conducts an audit of content to keep track of useful data and update where necessary. Employees not having internet access can be provided web content on the intranet to assist them. Many employees may be so dedicated on the intranet that the company’s public internet website may not be browsed by them; so integrating the website’s content with that of its intranet would enable companies to better manage the content dissipation. Also the dull text may get tedious. Merrill Lynch’s WorldNet portal has attractive images to keep the user interested with image captions & clear headings that convey the article’s subject matter.
Web writing differs from print writing. So the articles have to be concise, useful and with simple, to-the-point titles.
The layout is critical. The navigation through simple menus (with clear names), breadcrumb trails on sub-sections or pages, single page listing, one click access, all enable the employee to save work hours to get to required information immediately. Readability of the text, colour-coding, spacing, etc bring out the simplest and most effective attraction in any intranet. Altana Pharma AG and Metro Group’s ‘NetWorking’ implement such simple ideas to assist users get to where they should look for data. For large organisations like IBM a dual-masthead helps separate the group companies for clarity and avoid clutter.
The intranet should also have recreational content so as to provide employees with a break and they also need not be connected to the internet for the same. Wallpapers, ring tones, e-greetings, games, staff discounts, roadmaps, office lunch menu, city guide, etc are content any good intranet would opt for. ‘InSite’ even has a classifieds section for employees’ mutual use.
EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT, TIME, UTILITY:
Employee engagement is a widely discussed topic in corporate scenario. Applications and online resources that cater to this should be available through the intranet for ease of use and access. A ‘favourites folder’ on the intranet helps Altana Pharma and O2 employees use their respective personalised intranets to keep important links to articles & tools at a single section. Each department can have a section of their own as with InSite (Bank of Ireland) to tailor content to its needs yet have a shared corporate vision. Online transactions can be made for discussion room bookings, parking, company vehicle, purchase of supplies, travel, fitness facilities, etc. Vodafone, O2, Altana Pharma AG, are some companies whose portals include such transactions. Bank of Ireland has a Facilities Management System (moving furniture, fixtures, cleaning, etc) while Staples’ (an office supplies seller) site ‘Staples@Work’ has a Management Action Planner assisting shift managers to inform other managers of their actions, decisions and updates.
Other important tools for employees on an intranet are HR related activities/formalities, IT resources & support and a new employee section to ease them into the$ company’s corporate culture.
Career development and e-learning are important for employees. Any organisation addressing this need assures its employee’s of its commitment to improve office work while developing its human resources. Capital One has a section called ‘Capital One University’ on its ‘My One Place’ intranet. Allianz Australia Insurance has an E-Campus section. IBM has Learning@IBM portlet for personalised training to employees covering learning plans, real-world classes, online training and study materials. Metro Group’s ‘NetWorking’ has an interactive e-learning section that gives the essential information such as length in time or pages for a subject, check their progress and creative games where the user is rewarded for learning by solving the game.
Management and other staff in an organisation need sufficient information to take or suggest decisions. A central document library enables an easy online MIS for concerned people to source information on the intranet.
Employees doing the actual work might have good ideas for profitability. At Staples the ‘Profit Improvement Culture’ section collects business suggestions from employees of Staples to cut costs, change processes or boost profit. These ideas have saved an estimated US$200 million.
Telecom companies like Vodafone and O2 have enabled access to their intranet on their employee’s mobile phones. Apart from this, their intranets have tools for users to send SMS to their team members. Staples use kiosks for intranet access outside offices which have a locked down version so that customers / external people can’t view corporate data. Altana Pharma AG too provides kiosks for intranet access.
All this data has to be usable. An extensive search that can find data, files (of specific formats) and people is common to top intranets of the business world. This is best seen on IBM’s W3 which has about 25 million pages of content. Further assistance is provided through a ‘Help’ section containing FAQ, feedback forms, helpdesk contact, etc. O2’s ‘vitalO2’ even has a unique id for feedback to track its progress. Altana Pharma’s portal has a guided tour of the intranet for new users.
WEB-TRENDS IN INRANETS:
Among this wide and comprehensive coverage of utilities on intranets are a growing acceptance of web-trends. Altana Pharma provides a shopping-cart for its intranet users to procure office or lab supplies. Articles are rated at Capital One so that a list of top-rated articles can be viewed by all users. Altana Pharma’s intranet tracks most viewed pages to form a list of popular articles for its users benefit. They also have a ‘Mail this page’ feature to help users share knowledge, a key cultural habit for a research-based company. Bank of Ireland’s ‘InSite’ has provided links to printer friendly versions of articles for their employee’s convenience. They also have opinion polls to get employees views on a variety of topics. A ‘wiki” functionality, presents Vodafone employees with blogging, glossaries, boards and project areas on their intranet ‘Vista’. IBM has ‘Blog Central’ on their ‘W3 ODW’ intranet mega-portal. Among all this, a notable but not critical web-trend is branding the site; most intranets have a unique name and reflect their corporate colours. An unappealing web-trend in poor intranets are pop-ups and excessive advertising.
Intranet designers need to know how people work to know their daily needs. User testing, surveys, behavioural research, enabling transition from old to new structure are some ways to build a useful, effective and productive intranet portal. Many companies have built their intranets with support from external web designing professionals.
All these examples of real-world companies, with real-world profits from a cyber-world intranet prove the need for a business solution through a common platform of the intranet. The Intranet is a need of modern corporate environment and not a fanciful element of the workstation.
Copyright Ujjwal Dey 2007