Episode 5: Internal Comms & Intranets

January 31, 2020

In Episode 5 of the Content Conversations podcast, Lucy Mowatt speaks to Wedge Black about intranets and internal comms. They discuss how to find the right solution and why internal comms is so important.

This article is a transcript of Episode 5 of the Content Conversations podcast: Internal Comms & IntranetsPlease note that the transcript has been edited for clarity. Listen to the podcast here ↓↓↓

Lucy Mowatt: I guess the thing that we’re going to start with is: who are you and what is it you do, for anyone who doesn’t already know you? 

Wedge Black
Wedge Black

Wedge Black: Well, we’re all unknowable, of course. But I like publishing, I like impacting people. There must be a better phrase than that.

LM: It sounds like hitting people!

WB: But it’s very satisfying to have an impact and influence or to be involved.

And comms people, they have a privilege to know a lot of things from a lot of different quarters, and the intranet is a great platform for sharing.

And yes, I did start off in the old days when [internal comms] was completely broadcast, so I did feel powerful because I decided what was on the front. But you know, we’ve evolved since then, and we want everyone to be [on the] intranet, whatever that definition of the word ‘intranet’ means. It’s about collaboration, it’s about two-way/multi-way communication now.

I am a consultant now, so I’m with ClearBox Consulting. Sam Marshall’s name is very famous. So, I’m fortunate that he found me on Twitter and [got me on the] scene. And so I do some consulting with ClearBox Consulting.

And that means we focus on the digital workplace and the many, many apps and tools that work around it.

Intranet can be central to it, so I very much care about the homepage layout, and I very much care about how we get our comms to the right people.

And I care about navigation actually, which may not be very sexy, but while everyone else is saying, “Oh, well, everyone just searches.” It’s so not true. The human mind cares about location. We care about the memory of loci and all of that. We like navigation menus that make sense to us when we’re guessing, [so] that we can also learn.

And I also run the Intranet Now conference. 

LM: Yes, I saw that you’d started that. 

WB: Yeah, yeah. It’s I think it’s six or seven years old now, which is just crazy to me. I can’t believe where the time has gone.

But I’ve got a business partner in that; Lisa Riemers and I put on a whole one-day conference just because we want to. So, that’s a great community. 

LM: Is that typically UK based? 

WB: Yeah, only UK. It’s London. I would love to get out of London. I’m not limiting myself.

But I’ve got no commercial sense and [I don’t think Londoners] travel, but people like me will travel to London. And it has a gravity; a well of money and attention. If I can grow it, I’ll do a northern conference one day, that would be my ambition. 

LM: If anybody who’s listening is interested in Intranet Now, then they should hit you up for that? 

WB: Are they already listening? You’re gonna edit this…? 

LM: Yeah, I think so…

WB: Oh, my word!

LM: I thought we’ve covered so many things already. So– 

WB: Oh, you’ll be the death of me. What about my reputation? 

LM: Your reputation will be brilliant. You’re full of enthusiasm and energy. It’s fine. It’s all good.

So, I suppose one of the core questions I wanted to ask was: What are the benefits of a business putting an intranet in place? What are the biggest benefits, in your eyes? 

WB: You have to have something, at a certain size, you can’t be doing email lists and just doing that broadcast:

“This is the latest”

“Oh, sorry, wrong version.

“Oh, this is the latest now.”

You can’t be doing that.

You need something that’s truly digital, something that you can update; something that you can be in control of; something you can take feedback upon, and amend and improve iteratively.

An intranet is a product; it’s a platform; it’s an experience; it’s a product that can be intuitively improved. That might mean the technology, but it may well mean the experience and navigation, the UI, and especially the content.

So, the benefits are employee engagement, employee knowledge, collaboration, and understanding, a shared understanding of where we’re going and what we’re doing. 

“The benefits are employee engagement, employee knowledge, collaboration, and understanding”

Wedge Black

LM: Okay. And if a business was looking to implement an intranet, where do you recommend they start? Is it, as with all marketing, with the objectives that you want to achieve? Or are there other considerations you need to think about first? 

WB: Absolutely objectives. But strangely, I’m not a huge fan of 1,000 requirements gathering. And the reason is, as a consultant, I’ve seen a lot of Excel sheets with 1,000 requirements and they are so basic, they are so obvious.

It’s like, yeah, we know it will have security. Yeah, we know it’ll have a site, you know, all of these things are so basic now. So, objectives are a great thing to focus on.

What is it you want to achieve? What is it you want to focus on?

It may be multi-way communication and engagement, in which case, a very social intranet, which is fantastic for news and views, and involvement, groups, and communities.

You may also want collaboration as well, real work. Sorry to use the word ‘real’, I know we’re not allowed to do that. But actual work where you’re actually working together; it’s in real-time and so you’re talking about files, and that’s not very sexy. But a good collaborative focused intranet can be a jumping-off point; it’s your starting point for collaboration and getting work done.

So, yeah, focus on your objectives.

The trouble is, your IT department will probably bring you SharePoint in some form automatically. So, you’re going to want to consider: Can SharePoint on-premises serve your needs, or can SharePoint Online, as part of Office 365, which you may already be paying for, serve your needs? 

LM: Okay. I hadn’t realised that they’re separated now. I suppose, thinking about it logically, they would be because I remember it being networked within the building, but yeah, it’s now part of Office 365. I hadn’t thought of it. 

WB: Oh, absolutely. I mean, they’re the same beast and yet completely different.

SharePoint Online offers what Microsoft referred to as the ‘modern experience’. And SharePoint on-premises probably offers you the classic experience, which looks very much like Windows from 10 years ago. Except, of course, SharePoint 2019 exists on-premises, and it is working hard to also deliver the modern experience.

But if it’s online and part of Office 365 already, and you already have it, it’s right there when you visit Office 365. Your IT department might suggest that, hey, you can just build an intranet from it. And that’s partly true, but not entirely true. 

LM: So, there are a few considerations there? 

WB: Yes, if you want a starting-off point or homepage for communications, you can do it yourself in SharePoint Online and in SharePoint on-premises, you can do it.

But if you want a comprehensive intranet that really includes all of your departments and all of your projects, then you might find that SharePoint offers quite a fragmented experience.

I think every SharePoint site is an individual island that floats in the ocean of Office 365. And so putting them all together can be a challenge.

And that’s where intranet products come in, where you might purchase an additional product for on top of SharePoint, to pull it together to be a cohesive intranet.

LM: Oh, interesting. Yes, I noticed from looking at the ClearBox website that there are a lot more apps and plug-ins and things that integrate now with SharePoint, which adds to the functionality of it. 

WB: Yes, some of these products, they transform SharePoint into something that everyone would recognise as a modern intranet.

Others add functionality, and of course, then there’s the mobile experience and the idea that actually, we don’t all sit at our desks, working or reading. We’re on the go, some people have stood up all day long, and so they need a different solution to a desktop intranet. 

LM: Yeah, I was gonna ask about mobile responsiveness and their functionality if you’re remote or thinking about retail […] The entire internet and intranets have come such a long way since [I managed an intranet] 10 years ago. 

WB: For sure. As standard, you should expect your modern intranet …

Whatever the product, (it doesn’t have to be SharePoint. It could be Interact; it could be Igloo; there’s lots of other products on the market that don’t require Microsoft) you should expect, as a standard, that it will be responsive to your device.

So, if you log in on your Safari browser on your iPhone, or your Chrome browser on your Android device, you should be able to have your intranet over the internet security arrangements (as long as you’ve got security arrangements) and your intranet should work. But it might be a bit awkward for some people, for instance, for me, if I log into an intranet on my Safari browser, it tends to log me out every single day. 

LM: Okay, yeah. 

WB: And maybe I get a bit frustrated by that when I click a link in my email, and I open my intranet, I’m logged out again […] So, apps, which we all know, kind of keep you logged in for much longer – at least a month or so.

So, it may be that while you definitely expect a mobile-responsive intranet for whatever products you’ve got today, you might also want a native app just for those additional functionalities like a great menu, push notifications, and a brilliant login experience. 

LM: Okay, that’s interesting.

WB: If you think about retail workers, or those of us that stand up all day, they might not even care about your full intranet. You know, they’ve got a very specific role in a very specific location physically. And so then you start moving to employee apps.

I’m not an expert, because I focus on internal comms and channel matrices, and an intranet and digital and all of that, but I’m looking at apps now, because we might publish and communicate on the intranet, but it may be that some of them are appropriate for our retail staff, and therefore we want them pushed to the apps. Whereas some of them are not actually retail staff or not for that physical location, and shouldn’t be pushed to the app.

Again communicators need to be skilled in knowing their audiences. 

LM: Yeah. Which is good marketing at the end of the day. 

WB: You mean in an internal marketing area?

LM: Well, just in terms of any sort of communication, [you need to be] thinking about who are your audience, before you go out and rush out and do things. Who am I doing it for? 

WB: Yes. My phrase, which I always use, and maybe it needs updating, but I always say: ‘Match the message to the audience to the channel’. If you’ve got those three things in mind, you can do well.

Obviously, there’s things like feedback, metrics, and performance afterwards, and all of those additional value-added things. But I always say: ‘Match the message to the audience to the channel’. 

LM: That’s very wise. 

WB: It’s something I say it in presentations. It tends to go down well with communicators. They already know it. 

LM: And sometimes you need to remind them of it. 

WB: Exactly. You know, I go to a lot of conferences and I run one, and I’m speaking one in March, and it’s great to be reminded just how good you already are.

I think we need to get out. We need to leave our desks and we need to meet our peers, those who are listening to this podcast today. And remind ourselves just how good we are and how far we’ve come and learn from each other, steal the ideas that work elsewhere, that maybe we can massage to work at our place. 

LM: Saving yourself time and learning from other people’s mistakes, surely. 

WB: Yes, we should talk about mistakes more often. 

LM: Yes. If you can save people the time and the heartache of getting something wrong, then share that. 

WB: And they are great stories. You know, and people say: ‘Hey, we did version one and got nowhere. So, here are the changes we made. We went back, did our research, changed our strategy.’

You know, those are great stories and I know there are bloggers and speakers out there sharing their stories, and they are good to read. 

LM: Fail culture is becoming a real thing, I have noticed. 

WB: Yeah. Yeah, not to be proud, but you have to be responsible for your choices and what you did. And so when you got the results, there’s a lot to learn there. 

LM: You could help somebody else. 

WB: Yes.

LM: Okay. Coming back to sort of the audience and the objectives, would you suggest some sort of internal communication strategy as a way for people to keep focused and continue to build their intranets and internal comms efforts? 

WB: Always, always start with strategy. My advice is, realise how many strategies you need and consider how they work with each other.

For instance, there will be an IT strategy, and the top line might be we’re a Microsoft house. So, you have to ask yourself: ‘Hey, am I going to challenge that because they wrote that phrase 10 years ago? Or am I going to accept that that’s how we are financially and strategically?’ 

LM: Sure. 

WB: So, there’s the IT strategy that we want to be aware of; there’s the internal communication strategy; there’s a digital workplace strategy; there’s the intranet strategy; there may well be the HR strategy and the employee engagement strategy.

I think we need to be aware of these strategies so that we can key into them. And I know that’s a lot of work and a lot of meetings, which not everyone appreciates. You know, a lot of meetings can be a lot of hot air, but we absolutely need to be talking among ourselves about these strategies.

My advice is to have that elevator pitch strategy, where you’ve got it in a couple of paragraphs. 

LM: Yes. It’s good to be nice and succinct…

WB: Understandable and easy to sign off; easy for your director to say, ‘Hang on, didn’t we say in our strategy that we would?’ And you went, ‘Yes, let’s do it that way.’

And of course, the strategy is not a plan. So your intranet strategy or your internal comms strategy doesn’t say: Install intranet. Your strategy is all about objectives, about what you will achieve.

So, then it’s your plans that tell you how you’re going to achieve them. And that may well be very, very tactical, and it may be about technology. But hopefully, it’s about people first. 

LM: I think, as part of that plan, is having some sort of measures and controls as well to see what’s working. So, if you are going to follow a strategy of internal comms, what are the outcomes you’re looking for? How are you going to measure the success of what you’re doing? 

WB: Yes. There’s a lot of chat about what a good metric is versus what’s easy to measure. I don’t hate KPIs at all, but they can be a little bit all-encompassing. You know, the difference between hitting a four and hitting a five is very nuanced. It’s like, well all my traffic lights are green. So, am I doing well? Who knows.

You know, they’re very large numbers, but certainly decent measures, decent metrics…

When it comes to digital, though, we’re often relying on tools to tell us what’s working, but we have to … we need to interpret those numbers because hits and views, these are all such old-fashioned numbers, and they don’t tell you if you’re having an impact on people.

What’s your advice for getting those metrics that demonstrate the impact on people? 

LM: I am a big fan of internal comms surveys and reviews from people. Well yes, something like a formalised survey, but also speaking to people and finding out what they like.

Read more: Episode 1: Internal Comms & Content Marketing

And so again, I am someone who will go out, if I can, and meet people within the business and find out what do you know, what don’t you know, what do you like, what do you not like, and really try and get that honest feedback from someone face-to-face, where they feel like their feedback has been taken into consideration.

But then having a big numbers survey [too] where you measure how you perform and what people are saying, often anonymously, just to give people that freedom to say what they think.

WB: Definitely. So, not so concerned about hits and the technology and the analytics behind the scene, but more concerned about understanding people.

I do some user research as part of intranet design and UX. I also am quite excited about content design for intranets, and so employee research has to be at the start of everything that I do, ideally.

I’m often challenged about, well, how many people do we need to bother? You know, is this gonna go out to everyone? Do I need to survey 5%? of employees? No, no, I’m going to do the bare minimum research.

I need to understand who the audience are, who the end-user is, and talk to some of those or get them to tell me or show me what they’re doing currently, and show me where the gaps are to what they ideally want to experience.

So, I agree with you; understanding people is really important. And that can mean just getting out of the office and getting involved with other people’s work. 

LM: Yeah. As I say, I’m nosy, so it comes naturally. I think that about covers all of the questions.

So, if people want to know more about you and Intranet Now, how can they find out more? 

WB: Gosh, who would want to know more about me?

You know, like you were saying, we’ve been on Twitter for a decade, over a decade together and this is our first conversation over video, which is very nice. So, I’m Wedge on Twitter. I’m very proud to have a five-character handle. 

LM: Yeah, that’s impressive. 

WB: It works for me.

And I work at ClearBox Consulting with Sam Marshall.

And outside of ClearBox, I do the Intranet Now Conference. And our conference is coming up for October the 9th in London. We are going to be talking about internal communications and intranet as a platform and channel. Can’t tell you who the speakers are because we’re very organic. As in we’re gonna start doing the call for speakers in and a couple of months and we’re gonna see who rises to the top, and we’re gonna invite some of our favourite people who we know are doing great work. 

LM: Sure. But they can find out online or follow the account on Twitter. I’m assuming you’ve got an official account for Intranet Now? 

WB: Oh, you’re so kind to ask. Yes, Intranet Now is on Twitter as IntranetNow. I’m on Twitter as Wedge, and you can find ClearBox Consulting on Twitter as well as ClearBox. We’re at ClearBox.co.uk, and I’m also an IntranetNow.co.uk

LM: Perfect. Thanks very much for your time. 

WB: Thank you for having me on.

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