The Secrets of Company Intranets
I worked from 1996 through 2016 within several very different organizations in the United States of America to develop company intranets. As a rare long-term veteran of this line of work, I can tell you the truth: There is nothing mysterious about intranets—computer networks that usually are built with restricted access for use by people inside an organization to share information, services, and culture. Yet, somehow, it often becomes very difficult for people to make their intranet work successfully for internal corporate communication.
Free of any charge or sales pitches, here you can download a December 2015 Las Vegas presentation I gave at a professional conference on the subject of intranets:
Below is an expanded text version that contains very valuable additional knowledge that I provide here (also free of charge).
Connecting The Dots
I am going to “connect the dots” for you concerning lessons I learned while working on intranets and public-facing website in several different organizations. After you read this, I promise that you will have a very unique and far-reaching perspective on how to succeed with your intranet where others may have failed.
What makes my professional experience set and the lessons I learned so potentially valuable to you unique is that I have major-market experience in using the Web for business minus all the usual awe and overselling of promises about today’s social media technology. I have chosen to set myself apart as an unusual realist in our current era of over-promising and exaggerations about what can be accomplished with digital technology and apps.
Most importantly, I was born into a world just before there were computers and the online experience to automate one’s life. This means that I had no technological shortcuts at my fingertips growing up, and I had to learn how to think about successfully meeting business objectives and how to write for business without computers and the Internet.
In short, I discovered that communicating successfully does not depend at all upon technology. Successful communication and writing requires knowing how to use your brain to make the correct choices in how to communicate and write for your intended audience. By itself, technology can never help you succeed in communication and writing. Most people born after 1980 may not understand this simple reality.
Power in a Cowboy Song
I wasn’t yet ten years of age when I heard a local radio station in my little home town play the Hank Williams song, Your Cheatin’ Heart. I saw my father get tears in his eyes. Because of a cowboy song! I was taught that men aren’t supposed to cry. I kept listening. I concluded that there was POWER available to those who were on the radio.
That motivated me. I wanted in on that. I wanted to be cool like the guys I heard on the air. I wanted to tap into the power that they had. So, I sought a career in radio broadcasting. And, yeah, I’m talking about what motivated me as I grew up. I longed to work in professional fields using technology.
But, it’s the process and the power that’s so critical to understand if you want to succeed with your intranet. If you learn how to blend emotions with technology, then you, too, can access the power to control and influence attitudes and behaviors of people.
Adventures in Our Nation’s Capital
My career brought me to our nation’s capital where I was hired as a speechwriter in the 1990s. In 2001 created one of the first blogs to provide professional services in internal communications. My work was one of the earliest examples of what was then called “Web 2.0” which was an awkward name at best. The site I conceived of and launched was not even thought of or called a blog because that term was not widely used until around 2004. Nor was this site called an intranet.
By whatever name we all used at the time, my particular goal was to create an internal communications website for employees only using what we today call social business apps. Because of the heat that gets generated by partisan political bloggers, it’s really easy to mistake all blogging as serving primarily the function of stirring up emotions and initiating public action on issues. However, I can tell you about the real world of blogging for business—without any and all partisan political controversy. The reality is: Blogging is only one small part of today’s use of the Web for business.
I created a unique internal communications website to keep employees who worked across the United States all on the same page using central or core messages. The 2001 site was named AARP Message Center, which was probably not the most engaging choice since the name succeeded merely in conveying the immediacy and excitement of an employee’s email inbox. This internal communications website was for use by the Washington, DC nonprofit association for older Americans, AARP.
I chose to use blogging software for AARP Message Center website because that particular software—which was new in the early 2000s—enabled AARP to make frequent (sometimes daily) postings online in reverse chronological order with links to summaries, digests and full text. This use of technology was essential since AARP at that time was a large and decentralized, with staffed offices located in over 60 locations in all five of the United States time zones, including the states of Alaska and Hawaii.
I recognized the reality in the early 2000s that using blogging software online was the most practical way to share up-to-the-minute documents and details will all employees no matter where they were geographically situated. This use of technology provided extreme flexibility in the continuous sharing of knowledge, approved language and documents with thousands of employees online at a cost savings and time savings compared to using traditional, low-tech and more costly alternatives such as mailing hard copies through the United States Postal Service.
Not Sexy or Sizzling
This practical, everyday business use of social business apps certainly is not “sexy” if compared to today’s sizzling commentaries in partisan political blogs. And that lack of sexy sizzle is a very good thing! Blogging or today’s social business apps need not be perceived as “sexy” or “hot” or “sizzling” when it comes to your everyday business needs in internal corporate communication.
In fact, I demonstrated vividly with this blogging effort in the early 2000s a very important fact: Strip away the fanfare and your organization can nonetheless derive many tangible cost-saving and time-saving benefits by choosing to use social business apps to interact with a decentralized target audience such as your employees.
Life After Nonprofit Work
I was recognized for my efforts in nonprofit work three consecutive years in a row (2003, 2004, and 2005) when I received the Apex award—an annual competition for publishers, editors, writers and designers who create print, Web, electronic and social media.
In 2006 I was hired by a small marketing consulting firm in the Washington, DC market named Summit Marketing to provide editorial management of a US military outreach effort. I led the efforts until 2008 to upgrade their outmoded website into an interactive online communications vehicle to motivate people to remember and honor those who support our military service members. The US Army’s Freedom Team Salute program was ended in 2010 due to budgetary priorities.
After my accomplishments with that outreach program on behalf of the US Army, I went to work for the Washington, DC management and technology consulting firm of Booz Allen Hamilton. Initially, I was part of a very small leadership team assigned to launch an internal communications suite of apps named Hello.bah.com whose purpose was to enable collaborative efforts for all employees of Booz Allen Hamilton around the world.
One core element that enabled the initial success of Hello.bah.com was the backing and support of key organization executives at the firm’s headquarters in Tysons Corner, Virginia. Notably, one very strong and charismatic leader on the information technology side of the firm stepped up his presence. He spoke and wrote often about encouraging employees to use this intranet suite of social business apps that included Microsoft SharePoint and Yammer. Were it not for him and his specific support and encouragement, the launch of Hello.bah.com would not likely have gone well.
One unforgettable lesson I learned in 2008 while working on Hello.bah.com was that there exists a common but false perception that social business apps are intended for young employees. During one of the training and orientation sessions I was conducting for Booz Allen Hamilton employees, someone asked these questions directly: “Isn’t this only for young people? I’m not young. Why should I want to use it?”
I was 48 at the time. I was highly qualified to speak from experience to the reality that no, the relevance and utility of social business apps has nothing at all to do with how many birthdays you’ve had.
Your Attitude Matters
The simple truth is this: Your attitude toward technology and social business apps means everything in determining whether you will be successful using such 21st century tools of business. You can choose to fear or disdain contemporary digital technology. You also can choose to exclude yourself from the everyday world in which people use desktop or hand-held devices running social business apps. You do not want to make either of those choices if you want to remain relevant in the world we live in today. Fond anticipation of retirement at age 65 or so can provide one with a false sense of relief. I hope that you don’t fall into that trap.
I’ve seen how it’s possible for a person to look forward to retirement especially because they no longer have to use the technology that everyone else uses every day in the world of work. I know that’s the wrong way to look at life. I know that’s the wrong attitude to adopt.
I mention technology in particular at this point because I am convinced that how you approach technology is going to be central to your success in the near future if you choose to remain in the world of work even once you’ve become a so-called “older worker.” Your particular techno-disposition is vital in determining whether you will be a success or not in choosing to avoid retirement.
This term from Viviana Rojas and other researchers trying to understand the digital divide means a person’s familiarity and comfort levels with digital technology. Without doubt, there is a digital divide in the United States that separates those who can succeed readily with digital technology from those who have difficulties dealing with it.
But, in my experience, the best explanation of why there is a digital divide in our country has to do with the culture of the United States of American and not with how young or how old someone might be. Each of us had to learn technology from somewhere because nobody is born with that knowledge and related skills. Philosopher Pierre Bourdieu identified what he called cultural capital, or our attitudes, knowledge, skills, education, and social advantages that helps or hinders us in life.
Your success with technology likely is directly connected both to your techo-disposition and your individual cultural capital. So, don’t get all worked up about the fact that you were not born into digital technology like younger generations were. Every human being must be educated in the ways to input words into a computerized device by touching fingers to keys, for instance. Nobody was born with that already in their brains, so it apparently is true that we all start with regard to digital technology with a similarly blank slate, so to speak.
I moved on within Booz Allen Hamilton to provide leadership for the social media outreach for another segment of the US military, the Department of Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury. I served as the technology architect of a campaign start-up deployment in May 2009 using three online channels to interact with target audience members—Facebook, Twitter, and an online discussion forum.
My leadership efforts gave this outreach initiative the solid social media footing that helped it grow and attract target audience members. I was not a young person. I brought social media tools that enabled that campaign to move forward and grow beyond modest beginnings in its first year. I often wonder how the Army brass would have responded to someone just fresh out of college compared to how they took me seriously as an “older worker.”
I continue to believe in the validity of using digital interactive media for outreach especially in an environment where trimming federal government expenditures leads to strategic and tactical changes. The outreach that I led using digital channels on behalf of the Defense Department was cost-effective especially since social media efforts usually are far less expensive than traditional public relations outreach in terms of both dollars and personnel.
Next, I went on to a leadership role in developing an intranet site within the Justice Department in Washington, DC. In that work, I drew upon all my previous digital communications experience and lessons learned, but this work did not receive the passionate support of leaders with the Justice Department. These efforts relied upon the use of Microsoft SharePoint and the intent was to create a contemporary interactive space for use by federal employees working within the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS).
Shortly afterwards, I was able to apply all my previous experience with public-facing sites and intranets when I moved to Las Vegas, Nevada in 2012. There I rebuilt and updated the outmoded public-facing website for the Las Vegas chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). I ultimately became chapter president of IABC Las Vegas.
Then I started working for a global financial services network. That is when I began my leadership role in the development, launch, and management of an intranet to reach their company employees—a multi-platform effort that uses both Jive Software and Microsoft SharePoint.
What I Know and Believe Today
Simply stated: Your age does not matter.
If you learn how to blend emotions with technology, then you, too, can learn how to control and influence attitudes and behaviors of people. Doing so will give you significant power.
Emotions by themselves won’t do it. Technology alone won’t either. But – Learn how to blend emotions with technology successfully. And you can generate the power to control and influence peoples’ attitudes and behaviors. In brief, the way you can accomplish this use of emotions is through storytelling on your intranet.
Yes, that’s what I said: Storytelling. To leave storytelling only to those who work in show business is to make a costly mistake.
We each have the exact same access to the power of storytelling. We may not all become celebrated and famous authors or actors or poets or musicians who can make money from the stories that we tell.
But, every human being is hard-wired, so to speak, inside their brain to be a storyteller. Whether you choose to belief this or not will never change the reality that somewhere deep inside your mind there is a story that empowers your life. Also true is that as humans, our brains are programmed since our earliest days to respond emotionally to storytelling. That is what you want to tap into if you want to inject emotions into your content on your intranet and be successful in internal corporate communication.