I’ve been reading with great interest a series of posts by Enterprise Strategies. They have conducted further research on data from the Worldwide Intranet Challenge with the intent to uncover which intranet attributes most impact a user’s perception of intranet value. In other words, what does the intranet offer that users find truly useful?

Here are the first 4 posts:

I have several thoughts on some of their findings thus far.


In the first article about look and feel, they found the ability to personalize actually had a negative impact on employee perception of value. I’ve long said that few users take advantage of the ability to personalize their experience. My own recent client research bears this out.

While conducting research for the client I kept track of how many of the users interviewed had availed themselves of the ability to personalize their home page image. Fewer than half had done so and some didn’t know it was possible. Among those who had not personalized, several were frustrated with the lack of usefulness of the home page. They perceived the home page as being less useful because they didn’t know they could make it their own.

Jakob Nielsen wrote about personalization back in 1998, however he defines “personalization” as the computer trying to intuit what the user wanted. He uses “customization” to describe the user’s ability to choose their own options, creating their own experience. In 1998 he felt this was the “real way to get individualized interaction.”

More recently, Nielsen Norman Group has updated their thoughts on personalization and customization in a June post about their fifth Intranet Portals report. The most important point in this post is:

“…more frivolous customization features such as colors, themes, and layouts often fail. Targeted customization features that are task oriented and streamline workflows are, however, both appreciated and well used by users.”

The lesson here is that you should consider personalization features carefully. Focus on things that involve business tasks and workflow, and limit how many of these you offer. Avoid things of low value, otherwise you may lesson overall perceived intranet value.

Search versus navigation

In their second article, Enterprise Strategies noted findings that good search improves the perception of value, while good navigation does not. They note this doesn’t mean you do away with menus. They recommend devoting redesign budget to search, not to navigation.

Here’s one where I must slightly differ. I’m working with a client that did away with nearly all menus in favor of search. Now, they are introducing navigation because no one can find anything.

The practical reality is that a solid percentage of users – some estimate 50% – still prefer to browse to their targets. The other reality is the vast majority of organizations will never devote the resources required to make intranet search a star performer. To do it well is not just a one-time investment; it requires ongoing investment and management. How do you think Google got so good at it?

This means navigation continues to be valuable and should not be downgraded when planning your project budget. Unless you’ve got big dollars to throw at search on an ongoing basis, your users need good navigation too.

Social versus web-enablement of tasks

I’m a cheerleader of social technologies. More because they drive collaboration and connection among employees who otherwise would never interact. But I’m a fanatic fan of web-enabling tasks.

Enterprise Strategies writes in their third article in the series that employees value the intranet more when they get to do tasks on it. At least this is how I read the completion of online forms, upload/download documents and finding task instructions online. I’ve always strongly believed online tasks drive adoption. Plus, there is great potential ROI in web enabling business tasks. This is where your budget should be focused.

But the finding that employees value the intranet more because they can comment or provide feedback seems dubious. I wonder if the data is available to demonstrate how many of those employees actually do things like commenting and giving feedback. The latest edition of Groundswell illustrates US online adult behavior:

  • 46% comment on other peoples social networking pages
  • 22% contribute to online forums or discussion groups
  • 20% comments on someone else’s blog

If we assume our employee base is at some middle point, then we might have about a third of employees who will engage in these ways. The good news is that commenting and feedback are pretty simple capabilities built into most platforms. So it shouldn’t be a budget factor. Still, the lesson is to drive more budget into web enabling business tasks than major customization of social elements such as commenting, liking and feedback.

SLAs and Mobility

The fourth article focuses on up time and mobility. It should not surprise us that employees expect the intranet to be on all the time, nor should it surprise us that they want access from wherever they are working.

Witness the fact that Microsoft’s Office 365 service level agreement (SLA) indicates that if they can’t deliver at least 95% up time in a given month, you don’t pay (according to John Huschka in his presentation at SharePoint Fest in Denver). Granted there’s a lot more in Office 365 than just your SharePoint intranet, but I think the implication is what Enterprise Strategies has confirmed. The entire digital workplace, including the intranet, should be business critical, which creates value with users.

If productivity is part of your intranet strategy, then you have to pay attention to up time and mobile access. Particularly as we shove more and more business process into the intranet, employees need it to get their work done; from a task basis, not just a content basis.

Some industries have a screaming need for mobile, such as:

  • Healthcare
  • Organizations with large sales teams/functions
  • Organizations with remote or site-based employees such as telecommunications, mining, manufacturing and energy
  • Food service

The lessons are to include an SLA in your governance model, and find out if mobile is important to your business. Both can deliver user value.

That’s as far as Enterprise Strategies has gotten so far. Can’t wait for the rest of the series!