Grasp the Intranettle
I want you to do something right now. Odds are you are at your computer at work, or will be in a short enough while. I want you to open up a new window or tab and go to your intranet page.
Take a look around. Drink in the sights, the attractions, maybe even dive into a new area or two and take a look around and try to find out about something new. It won’t take long – just be sure to come back here afterwards.
Done that? Good. Now; think about what you saw. I would like to put my Mystic Meg hat on (wow, that dates me…) and hazard a guess that your browsing experience was, for want of a better phrase, underwhelming.
I’m guessing there were some notices from your chief executive, maybe some links to some basic business information and probably something up there talking about the impact of the cuts. If you took the chance to delve below the surface I would put money on the fact that before long you found something very simple which was significantly out of date, wrong or just didn’t make sense.
Why intranets seemingly have to be this way is beyond me, and is beginning to get my metaphorical goat.
My own usage of our intranet is minimal at best. I occasionally use ours to find colleagues’ phone numbers and that’s probably about it. From time to time I might read one of the notices on the front page, but usually this is a proclamation of some kind that regurgitates news that’s been buzzing around the floor for ages. I have once or twice downloaded a document or two, perhaps a programme management template or pay scales list, but that really is about it.
I have found that the intranet has become an online version of what used to be known as a staff handbook. It was filled with information produced years before, with various policies and procedures hidden away and which was pointed out to you on your first day and then promptly ignored. Ignored that is until you did something wrong, whereupon it was highlighted that the appropriate procedure was available and accessible in the handbook (on section 9b, page 284, paragraph 12, point 7).
Intranets in my mind are surely about enabling officers to quickly and easily find information, and then giving them the tools to get things done. I should be able to access not just some static information that was out of date three years ago, I should be able to ask questions and see if others can help answer them. I shouldn’t have to spend half an hour searching through endless navigation trees because the search function is useless. I shouldn’t have to then find a static page with a bit of information on it, only to be told that the function I need is actually part of a separate system.
Usually this separate system requires me to log on to it separately, although only after I have requested a username and password and perhaps gone on a training course. It will usually be a system so fiendishly difficult that only daily use will render competence, and will not link up with any other system at all.
As well as access useful systems and functionality, the other thing I want my intranet to be able to do is to help me ask and answer questions. There are free systems out there which allow this to happen in the public domain such as Quora or Yahoo Answers, and you can use private free tools like Yammer to do this as well, but ideally I’d want to see some conversational ability built in to my intranet. The concern is always “what if people say something bad”, a concern that borders on the ridiculous – any comment is tied to their user account, so they are identified and dealt with normally. Simples.
In an ideal world I want to be able to access my intranet and then have access to everything in one place. To manage my annual leave, to make a payment, to request some IT equipment, to book myself onto training, to ask a simple question, to share some good news; all should be done from the same front end without requiring additional logins.
And what’s more, none of this should be super complicated. If something needs a days worth of training then it is too complex; for the average user, a simple system is the most effective and useful.
I know that there are a host of reasons why this doesn’t happen; conflicting operating systems, different database storage, different companies, historical apathy and more all make it like walking through treacle. My question is why is this perpetuated?
In local government we are always looking for new developments. Systems are always being upgraded and retendered for, never more so than during this time of spending cuts, when every last penny of value for money needs to be wrung out.
There is nothing – NOTHING – stopping us from simply stating in any tendering document that any new system must be compatible with a chosen intranet operating system. What powers the intranet matters not, as long as from a users perspective the experience is seamless. There can be some oddities, and slightly different processes, but with modern technology and simple things such as CSS (Cascading Style Sheets to the rest of us) and some bridging to create a usable single sign-on procedure the user will only see a comprehensive suite of options and abilities laid out before them.
To me it’s like buying a mobile phone; when I purchase it I want it to be easy to set up and use, and preferably offer all I need in one place. Some functions might be more complicated, and only really be fully utilised once I’ve read the manual, but I don’t care that the battery was made in one place, the screen in another, the processor somewhere else and the operating system is an amalgamation of seven different systems; from my perspective it is one product with multiple uses.
If the Council stands firm and demands that things all need to work together, sooner rather than later IT companies will wake up to this and start providing more usable and integrateable systems.
We have a number of influential people who read this blog, people who not only sometimes agree with a few of the things we say but also have the power and/or know-how to make things change, so I want to ask all of those people to take another look at their intranet and stop accepting it. It could be not only something that you have because it’s always been there and someone somewhere said you should provide one, but a useful and interactive tool to make the lives and jobs of officers easier and more productive.
Stop accepting it when you’re told that a system needs to be separate, that the job of upgrading is too big or that there are too many risks; we haven’t got the time or the money to waste on inefficient, ineffective systems.
And to finish on a terrible play on words; let’s ensure we make an excellent intranet, rather than an intra-not-good-enough.