The intranet is dead!? Long live in the intranet!?

Does anyone need the intranet?

Jenni Tellyn

The Covid pandemic threw into sharp focus how firms communicate with their employees and we started to embrace informal communication platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Slack and Yammer in earnest in our quest to remain connected through the enforced separations of the lockdowns. With this development in communication channels, businesses have been given the opportunity to reflect on whether they really need their more formal, stuffier intranets. Keeping your intranet fresh and well-maintained takes resource so it might be tempting to wonder whether you could leave the intranet throne empty (as the crown was loathe to do in 1422!) and live without it. Especially where there is a time-consuming and potentially expensive move to a cloud-based system on the horizon for many firms. This piece sets out some questions to ponder if you are grappling with this conundrum.

This article was written by Jenni Tellyn, KM Consultant and former Head of Knowledge Management at Stephenson Harwood

What is your intranet for?

If you’re hard pushed to define the purpose of your intranet, the chances are that it might not be a key tool in your arsenal of communications, information, and knowledge management systems. Does it exist because it has always existed or is it truly a frequently visited, trusted source of firm information and a vibrant communication channel? Good intranets are user-friendly and enable the communication of key strategic messages, promote cohesion and collaboration, and enhance the productivity of your people. This could be by reducing email traffic, enabling people easily to access key systems, self-serve and solve straight-forward information requests, and present key matter information in easily digestible form.

Neglected intranets are not trusted sources of information, are cluttered and bewildering to navigate and house stale content which doesn’t reflect the firm’s culture or personality. Many lawyers seem to be suffering from change fatigue, whether as a result of the pandemic and the overwhelm that that brought, the tinkering which many vendors have done to their platforms in the past few months which firms have had to implement, or as a response to the proliferation of legal tech tools which firms brought in to streamline aspects of the work (or all of these things). Not known for their patience, lawyers tend to soon give up on a tool if they can’t find content intuitively in a click or two. If your people use your intranet less and less it can become a standing joke that “if you want to keep a secret, put it on the intranet”. If you aren’t sure whether your intranet needs some attention, use the analytics to see which content is frequently used (and if you don’t have analytics, consider a user survey or at least a question in your next pulse/employee engagement survey to get some basic data).

What should the intranet be for?

Before you declare the death of your intranet and ponder on a worthy successor, it is worth reflecting on what a well-maintained intranet could do for your firm in addition to the good stuff mentioned above.

– It can be a great tool for welcoming new joiners to give them a sense of the firm’s personality and help orient them with what the firm does, how your teams fit together, who’s who and which key clients you act for. It can provide a curated way into the firm’s policies and handbooks and ensure new joiners are guided to work their way through the requisite HR forms and AML e-learning tasks.

– Many firms look to their intranets to house dashboards revealing at a glance key client and matter information to help lawyers manage their matters and teams more effectively.

– Knowledge teams use the intranet to help their lawyers navigate their way through their matters, linking key knowledge resources to key matter tasks and phases in a user-friendly way.

– A mobile-ready intranet is a must these days so employees can connect to colleague and client information on the go and connect to the desk-booking system on their commute.

What do you need for a successful intranet?

You only get the benefits an intranet can bring if your platform is well-maintained, easy to navigate and your content is good enough to grab and hold your staff’s attention. If content is out of date or navigation is poor, firms risk ploughing effort and resource into a white elephant of a tool. Robust governance frameworks and more ruthless policies about who even needs a page on the intranet are key to policing the maintenance of the content by enforcing ownership of pages and sensible review and deletion cycles to keep the content fresh and, more importantly, visited.

Does the intranet need to be personalised to succeed?

Many intranet platforms now allow users to interact with the content by liking, upvoting, and commenting on items. This could feel tempting as managers try to tap into our apparently insatiable appetite for social media to connect with users and set up a feedback loop to test the popularity of content. Before investing time in enabling these interactive features, be honest about whether it’s truly in your firm’s culture to interact like this on the “public” intranet platform or whether this behaviour is the preserve of the more informal messaging channels like Teams/Slack/Yammer/ Instant Messenger?

If you get the security groups right in your Active Directory/HR system tools behind the scenes, it can be worth exploring whether you can personalise your staff’s intranet experience so their practice group or office page is set as their home page and they can subscribe to different sector or interest group feeds to allow them to focus on key information and avoid irrelevant content. If this seems attractive, you might review your content strategy to see if there is too much “irrelevant” content on the intranet you’re trying to avoid but it can be very effective for knowledge teams and management to push selected content to users as well as allow them to pull it for themselves.

Other points to think about

Lots of firms are currently grappling with how best to knit their inter-generational knowledge ecosystem together so legacy repositories stuffed with useful gems talk effectively to the new tech on the block and they don’t exacerbate the change fatigue lawyers are already feeling. This begs the question of how enterprise search fits in to the ecosystem. Whether you use the native search technology built into your intranet platform or cast a wider enterprise search net over several systems, the decision around whether to include your intranet content will hinge on what you want your lawyers to be able to access and the state of your data. There is no getting away from the fact that, if you want a powerful people search (the raison d’être of the early intranets which put the firm’s people directory online), you have to do the foundational work on cleaning up your people data in Active Directory or your HR system to ensure you can pull through the right information (from staff photos to PA information to up to date office locations of a more globally mobile workforce). This is no small task and needs to be factored into the project timetable.

Of course, a review or revamp project doesn’t mean throwing out all your existing systems. You can seek to make the most of licences you already have by including integrations with key existing systems or applications or, for example, using tools such as Power BI or Microsoft Forms to build out client/KPI dashboards or self-service processes. How you integrate any existing collaboration tools in use at your firm is also important so you avoid confusion around where your people should go to perform particular tasks. There’s work to be done to set governance policies to make sure people know what should be shared in your Teams/messaging channels, what by email and what should go on the intranet. This will bring some much-needed structure to the informal knowledge sharing so it can be searched effectively, curated if necessary, and people know where to post pictures of their lockdown dog.

Ultimately, if you are embarking on a review or revamp project, be clear about what you want to achieve as this will drive the design and content discussions. As always, it’s not just about the tech but crucially also about the people and process that goes along with it. You need to get the right stakeholders talking from the get go to achieve a really effective intranet tool. This means not only the technology, comms, and KM folks but also the innovation team and other key business services teams like HR, Finance and Risk who will be sharing frequently visited content.

Tracking our monarchy metaphor, perhaps firms are not ready to leave their intranet throne empty but their intranet may become more of a figurehead than a powerhouse governing every aspect of subject’s lives? You may very well need to retain a focal point and may be attracted by the simplicity of being able to direct staff to one source as a starting point for their daily tasks but this only works if it’s a good source. Your future intranet might bear less of a burden at the firm by not housing all the content, just the most useful slice of it. As always, the best KM teams and tools will help support and develop the wider firm’s strategic priorities such as driving productivity, increasing collaboration, and enhancing wellbeing. Is your intranet up to the job?

Jenni Tellyn is a recovering debt capital markets lawyer and knowledge management consultant. She works with 3Kites Consulting Ltd and helps professional services firms on a range of knowledge management and legal tech strategy, process and implementation projects. Fiercely supplier independent, she bridges the gap between lawyers and technologists to support adoption of the right tech and KM solutions.