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Why Intranets Fail (and What to Do About It)

It is about time that we all face a hard truth: Many traditional intranet projects fail to achieve their stated business objectives. There, I said it, and I’m already starting to feel better. According to one recent Gartner report, “Since the emergence of the intranet in the mid-1990s, organizations have seen wave after wave of intranet failure, renewal, stagnancy and failure once again.” So not only has the intranet been a singular failure within many organizations, but it has been a repeated failure. From the same report Gartner states, “Enterprises that fail to adapt their intranet strategies will be swept into the next wave of intranet failure.” Wow, that sounds foreboding!
At the same time as many organizations have been launching their failing intranets, there has been a Renaissance of sorts in intranet technologies. We now have portal technologies such as SharePoint, Liferay, Jive, Yammer, and a host of others attempting to fulfill our intranet needs. With all of these technology solutions, we could assume that many of the intranet failures are “technology” related, but we would be wrong to make that assumption.
So what is the cause of failure? Why are intranets failing and continuing to fail? As you can imagine, there is no one cause of intranet failure but rather a “perfect storm” of a variety of contributing factors. Every organization is different but you may recognize a few of these traits in your own organization:

  • Poor user experience – Many intranets have a poor user experience which leads to user frustration and abandonment. Today’s users have high expectations based on the commercial sites they use on a daily basis. Inability to drive great user experience across multiple devices formats sets the intranet up for failure.
  • Inability to “find” content – The search capabilities of the intranet can be notoriously lacking. In many cases this is related to a lack of tagging and content categorization which enables the search to offer up better results.
  • Ineffective content organization – A great intranet has great information architecture and navigation based on how users look for content and not on a rigid corporate structure.
  • Outdated information – Too often the intranet is the corporate “junk drawer.” If content doesn’t change, users quickly lose interest and stop coming. Still need that travel policy from 1998? Probably not!
  • Change is not communicated effectively – There is a perception that people are resistant to change. The reality is that people are resistant to change that has not been communicated effectively. Change without justification will meet resistance, while change that communicates the “Why?” and the personal benefits will garner adoption.
  • Company culture is not taken into account – Intranet solutions which fail to incorporate the company culture fall flat. Understanding the culture and willingness to adopt intranet strategies is key. Pivoting a company with a culture of working in silos to one of open social collaboration does not happen overnight. Does your company culture readily embrace new ways of working, or does it require baby steps? Your intranet strategy can vary widely based on your answers.
  • User voice is not heard – Communication on the intranet cannot flow one-way; allowing mechanisms for user expression and feedback are critical. Gathering feedback is important, but action upon feedback drives success.
  • “Set it, and forget it” mentality – You can’t treat your intranet like your rotisserie chicken (remember those commercials?) – the initial launch of the intranet is just the first step in a journey. The intranet must evolve as organizational and user needs change over time.
  • Multiple sources of the “truth” – Many organizations have multiple intranets (or portals) that often have conflicting information. Users become frustrated because they are unable to find a single accurate source of the “truth.”
  • Lack of stakeholder buy-in – Often, the intranet is signed off by stakeholders, but stakeholders do not remain engaged. It is not enough for the leaders of the organization to tell the masses to adopt this technology; stakeholders must lead by example.
  • No measurement of results – What is measured is improved. Too often intranet adoption and success are fuzzy concepts. Establishing criteria, measuring results, and incorporating strategies for improvement are critical to intranet success.

This is by no means an exhaustive list; you may see some of these scenarios play out in your own organizations (hopefully not all), or there may be others reasons that your intranet is not driving the levels of adoption that you desire.
How to Avoid Failure
Ok, we recognize that we have a problem. We also acknowledge that the intranet can be a critical tool for driving communication, collaboration, and productivity within our organizations. So, what do we do to reverse the trend of intranet failures to one of intranet successes?
Our first step is to acknowledge that we will not achieve our goals by simply “launching” an intranet. Intranet launch is NOT a destination. The launch of the intranet may culminate in some short-term progress towards your goals but without a cohesive long-term strategy for success in place, the intranet can quickly revert to the same old patterns that led to past intranet failures.
At Perficient, we have helped many organizations achieve intranet success. There are many commonalities that drive the most successful organization. Let’s take a look at the most important ones.
Organizations that were wildly successful with their intranet:

  • Executed their intranet strategy based on a strategic roadmap – The most successful organizations based their intranet strategy on a strategic roadmap with clear definitions of business objectives and success, as well as a clear measurement strategy for when success is achieved.
  • Listen to their users – These organizations know their users well and solicit feedback often. Users are engaged in the process and feel that their voice is heard.
  • Put the “A-team” on the job – These companies leveraged a team of engaged stakeholders working together to drive organizational change. The intranet was seen as a tool for meeting larger organizational objectives, and the team stayed focused over the long term.
  • Used an iterative approach based on measured results – These teams relied on an incremental approach to focused on delivering continuous improvements, rather than a “big bang” approach that overwhelmed users with change. The teams understood their objectives well and set in place a measurement strategy to gauge success. The teams adapted their strategies based on the measured results.
  • Adapted well to change – These intranet teams had a clear understanding of company culture and adapted strategies for communicating change effectively to the organization. The intranet success was not predicated on technology solutions, but the teams adapted well to changes in the underlying platforms.
  • Kept engaged with a trusted partner – Successful intranet teams remained engaged with a trusted partner and relied upon them to deliver expertise and augment the intranet team with additional skills, knowledge, and expertise.

While every organization is different, the companies that demonstrated the above traits delivered ROI to their organizations through their intranet success and continue to achieve new successes every day. As you begin your intranet journey, be sure to keep an eye out for the pitfalls that have contributed to the intranet failures of the past, and stay focused on adopting the traits that lead to intranet success.

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Patrick Falgoust

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