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Your Culture = Your Intranet

The last month at Perficient has seen me working on various social intranet projects both here in the Midwest, and outside of my usual stomping grounds.  On a project in Philadelphia, I was treated to a close-up sight of that city’s beautiful City Hall every day, and it got me thinking about architecture, culture, and corporate intranets.
How exactly does an American civic building designed to evoke the grandeur of Imperial France lead me to intranets?  You’d be right to wonder, so I can tell I’ve got some explaining to do.  Let’s start with my least favorite question.  When it comes to SharePoint portals, applications and intranets, it seems that clients and customers always love to ask me one thing:
“C’mon, Rich, you’ve built a lot of these.  What are other companies in our industry doing?”
It’s not a bad question, mind.  Some people are genuinely curious, looking for ways to deploy an admittedly rather general toolset in a way that provides direct business value.  Sometimes, it’s their thinly-veiled way to get an idea of what their competition’s up to.  Other times, they lack confidence in their own ideas and want to borrow from what’s working elsewhere.  In many cases it’s all of the above.
I get it.  Business, and the ways technology supports it, isn’t always rocket science.  If it works in one place, there’s a pretty good chance that it works somewhere else.  A repeatable process or best practice quickly becomes part of the public domain.  (Of course, what’s best isn’t always what’s cool, or all pop music would still sound remarkably like The Beatles.  Thankfully good business only cares about the bottom line– so, what’s best.)
When it comes to designing intranets, though, I’m going to say that approach does not hold up.  In general, enterprise IT is like offensive schemes in the NFL– as any student of football could tell you, there’s only two or three ways to do things well in any given era of the game, and any winning innovation is relentlessly copied by coaches leaguewide.  (This is how Gartner and Forrester make their money– always driving the next best-practice trends.)  But I think intranets are more like high-school football, where a team’s offensive scheme is built to maximize the talent around it, and often reflects the very nature of the community the school and its team represents.
And that idea of reflecting a community– or a culture, as the case may be– is what brings us to civic architecture and intranet design, my friends.
The Intranet as City Hall
I’ve always believed that you can tell a great deal about either a city’s heritage or its aspirations by the architecture of its civic buildings. Not so much the courthouses– those always seem to hearken back to Ancient Rome in their neoclassical designs, in an overt homage to the Roman code of laws, I suppose.  I’m thinking of City Halls in particular.  New York.  Philadelphia.  The list goes on.
Emerging, outer suburbs, meanwhile, build sleek, modern courts and offices to set themselves apart from their inner-ring brethren. In many cases, “who we are” is defined as much by “who we want to be” or “who we were” as it is by whom we really are.  Who we want to be?  That’d be your institutional vision.  Who we are/were?  Your corporate values, ladies and gentlemen.  You see where I’m going now, I think.
As an example, my own adopted city, Milwaukee, was once home to an overwhelming majority of German immigrants.  As an outward display of this Teutonic heritage, Milwaukee erected a City Hall for itself of brazenly Germanic design.  The building still stands as the emotional and geographical heart of the city, even after assimilation and successive waves of immigration have long since pushed the actual German  presence in the city to its margins.
When people think of Milwaukee, they could think of any number of things: the Brewers, the Violent Femmes, Happy Days, divisive recall elections– oops, that’s Madison.  But no, when it comes to Milwaukee, they usually think of bratwurst and beer.  They’re not wrong.  The German influence is alive and well, even now with all the Germans living out in the suburbs and unable to speak a single word auf Deutsch.
There’s a parallel here when we consider good intranets– you can learn a lot about the culture of an enterprise from the look, feel and organization of their portal.  Done right, an enterprise intranet will work like Milwaukee’s City Hall.  It will project a sense of what makes a company unique and individual, and in the best cases, what makes it a special place to work.  That’s where the “what are other companies doing?” question runs out of steam.
If your company has a certain culture, a certain personality, that needs to be reflected front and center in your intranet.  Consider the mission, vision and values of your company– how can we use a shared understanding of those concepts to drive how our intranet works?
Making It Real
Branding is certainly an important aspect of this.  I once worked for an infrastructure-focused Microsoft partner that only paid vague lip service to UI design and branding.  Coming from a web design background myself, I always believed companies like this were doing their clients a disservice by trying to build them a collaborative intranet application without a real effort to give it a unique identity that lined up with the company’s mission, vision and values.  An ugly tool is an unpopular tool.
There’s a reason businesses spend so much money on marketing to the consumer.  They want their products to look good, because if all else is equal, people will buy the more visually appealing product.  If you care about your employees and their productivity, you want their internal tools to be welcoming as well as functional in this world of slick applications and beautiful, content-rich websites.  (Now that the UI of a SharePoint site is so easy to customize, there’s no reason for anyone to suffer through an out-of-the-box SharePoint experience.  Any consultant who tells you otherwise is hiding something.)
Beyond branding, what else can you do to reflect your corporate culture in an intranet?  In agile, open organizations, enabling social media with tools like NewsGator Social Sites is an obvious answer.  These social applications bring the discussion, creativity and innovation already present at the grass-roots level and bubble it up for all to take advantage of.  Not every corporate culture is best reflected (or even energized) by internal social networking, however.
Many clients have asked me about a “killer app” for SharePoint, and my answer is typically, “Well, what can’t you do today that you wish you could do tomorrow?”  SharePoint is never going to replace your ERP or CRM systems; it’s not a line of business application.  What it can do, of course, is integrate with your line of business systems in powerful and valuable ways.  Whether it’s through BCS and the Microsoft BI suite, a slick and powerful connector to meaningful data like Duet Enterprise for SAP, or integration to customer relationship management software like Microsoft CRM, that’s how SharePoint provides the so-called “killer app” to support your business.  That’s definitely a reflection of culture.
Other applications enable people to do the things most typical of your organization.  If you’re a matrixed organization that’s heavily dependent on process, approval workflows and document management will be your keys to success.  If you work in healthcare, tying into your EHR system will help you keep the focus on the patient.  If you work in a fast-moving organization of any kind, Lync integration for real-time presence and communication throughout the portal becomes a must.  That’s the nice thing about a SharePoint-based intranet in particular– the list can go on and on.
Of course, I wouldn’t write about this stuff if we hadn’t done it.  I’ve got examples and war stories to cover the above and so much more.  The obvious irony in my saying so, of course, is that those stories don’t matter– yours do.  I only hope that I’ve made some sense, and helped others out there realize that when you’re redesigning your intranet, who your company is should be far more important than what the competition is doing.  Intranets can’t be one-size-fits-all, or you could install them off a disk and go your merry way.  Build your own City Hall, and build it to reflect your own corporate or institutional mission, vision and values.  You’ll be glad you did.

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Rich Wood

Rich Wood has been planning, designing and building enterprise solutions and internet sites with an emphasis on stellar user and customer experiences since 1997. Rich is a National Director for Content and Commerce Platform work in Perficient Digital. One of the rare breed of strategists to truly understand both the business needs of the customer and the platforms that serve them, he is a keen advocate for and accomplished speaker/writer on issues that surround that inflection point. His work has been published on CMSWire, Sitecore and Microsoft partner blogs, and his own LinkedIn page as well as our various blogs here at Perficient, and he has spoken at multiple major conferences including Microsoft's SharePoint Conference 2014. Married and a father of five, Rich enjoys spending time with his wife and family. He is a native of South Milwaukee, Wisconsin and a graduate of Marquette University.

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