In London late last year, I took part in a rather interesting conference on "Practical Strategies to Encourage the Frequent and Consistent Usage of the Intranet for Demonstrable ROI." This title probably merits an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest conference title but at least it does clearly set out the objectives of the conference; objectives on which it delivered. For the record, the conference was organized by Marketing Week Conferences; as a result, many of the delegates had a marketing communications background.
I am not going into the question of how relevant metrics like page hits are to an intranet. But without a doubt, the issue of how to increase usage merits focus because, whatever the measure used, there is almost always reason for an organization to make more effective use of its intranet.
One topic that arose in the early sessions was the value of using promotional messages as a way of getting employees to use the intranet. Stuart Butterfield is the Web manager responsible for the intranet at HBOS plc, the UK's largest mortgage and saving company, which supports over 60,000 staff. One truly effective feature of HBOS' intranet is the way in which the company uses competitions to stimulate use of the intranet.
These competitions are designed in a way that trying to win them requires an employee to make effective use of the intranet. A typical question might be to ask which charity HBOS has just supported with a grant. Employees have to dig into the intranet to find the information and, in doing so, will explore areas of the intranet that they might not otherwise use and at the same time learn about the work of the company. Butterfield reported that the tricks in getting a high level of participation was to offer "substantial" prizes ($200 plus) and to make sure that the fun and the business elements are combined. This results in learning about both the business and the intranet and also allays senior managers' fears that staff will just do the fun stuff and not gain anything useful out of the exercise (other than maybe a wide-screen TV).
Another approach to getting the best out of an intranet was presented by Michael Munro, Web Foundation solutions manager at Cisco Systems. His key message was that the intranet must be positioned within the overall communications strategy of the organization. He focused particularly on the way in which an intranet could help staff manage emails. There is a nice feature on Cisco's intranet that enables emails on related subjects (such as from staff requesting vacation time) to be presented in a Web interface with check boxes to speed the replies. The Cisco site also supports a great deal of personalization of content access and delivery, and there is no doubt that the benefits of this are considerable.
Of course implementing full personalization may be beyond the budget of many organizations, so the approach that has been taken by Invensys both to understand what employees wanted and to deliver some of this in the form of "community" sections on the intranet is interesting. Their initial intranet user survey showed that 23% of staff wanted to see the share price of the company on the intranet when in fact it was already there—in three different places. This type of feedback is invaluable in working out some of the navigation issues that may be inhibiting use. In fact, many conference presenters emphasized something about which I'm passionate—making sure that user feedback is handled well. This takes more than just a box asking for feedback. Several companies set up their content management systems so that any feedback automatically sent the URL of the page concerned so that the intranet staff could very quickly identify specifically what the problems were. The need for feedback on the feedback was also highlighted. If staff feel that their participation is valued and acted on where appropriate then they will be much more willing to provide quality feedback in the future.
Ultimately, however, the general consensus was that the focus of a successful intranet must be on content. No matter what is being offered—in the form of competitions, feedback, or neat applications—if employees can't find the information they need and also can't trust the information to be correct and current, then all that the other features might do is highlight the given intranet's deficiencies. All the speakers emphasized the ongoing work they were undertaking in reviewing content and ensuring that the information architecture was flexible enough to accommodate new content without causing users to have to learn new navigation routes to familiar content. Content remains king.