The case for agile intranets
It used to be the case that intranets would take months of planning and then months of development, but an agile approach flips this traditional model on its head. What do you need to know if you want to take an iterative, design-led approach to your intranet?
Before we explore that question: Consider the Queen Victoria Building in the CBD of Sydney, Australia. This Romanesque Revival building was constructed over a period of 5 years between 1893 and 1898. Its is a delightful example of a building from this period and the workmanship that went into it is evident in the roof. Originally designed as a marketplace, it was renovated in the late 20th century and returned to its original use - what we would today call a shopping mall. But as a rule, we don’t build new malls like this anymore.
We are all already pretty good at building intranets...
Similarly let's think about intranets.
"Back in 2004, the BBC’s intranet blended superb communication with real tasks that mattered, all on the home page. Using features such as expenses, staff finder and travel booking, the BBC’s pioneering intranet team created an experience that made productivity on the site into a compelling reality." - Source: Digital Workplace Group
The point is that we are all already pretty good at building intranets. Some companies and organisations have certainly adopted and implemented emerging good practices faster than others. But this isn’t the problem that agile intranets need to solve.
Addressing fragmentation across across people, place and technology
The problem is that the modern workplaces is becoming fragmented across people, place and technology. And new technologies - like mixed reality - and workstyles - like activity based working - are emerging more quickly than before.
Dell/Intel research: "Employees are generally happy in their jobs, but as communications and productivity technology advances, they are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with workplace capabilities." - Source:
Dell/Intel Future Workforce Study 2016
Our goals haven’t changed or the purpose of an intranet - the challenge today is to address this complexity and the pace of change.
How long should it take to develop an intranet?
So let me ask you: As the pace of change in the workplace increases, how long should it take to develop an intranet?
Nielsen Norman Group have been tracking this in their Intranet Design Annual and you can see that in recent times it has got quicker, but it still takes over a year to create an intranet. Over the years I have heard many good and valid excuses for delaying an intranet. The worst excuses are those when the IT infrastructure or other commercial arrangements dictate the timeline.
But isn’t user research and fixing content a good reason why intranets should take a long time to develop? This is the wrong way to think about.
What being agile is and isn’t...
Image credit: "Found on the wall at work, all the SCRUM post-it notes get put to good use after they are no longer needed." - CC-BY Jason Carter
Let’s think about what an agile intranet is and isn’t. Hint: It’s not just about sticking post-it notes on a wall (although I love post-it notes as much as anyone!). It's really about a following a continuous process of development, underpinned by a human-centred design mindset and an agile business culture than specific techniques. In other words it's not about how long, but what you do during that time.
An agile intranet needs means, motive, and opportunity
Image credit: "Murder of crows" - CC-BY Liz West
What do you need to take an agile approach to your intranet?
- Means: The right human and technological resources for the job.
- Motive: A focus on achieving a great outcome.
- Opportunity: Buy-in from stakeholders to take an agile approach.
I can tell you from experience that agile and traditional waterfall approaches do not mix well if left alone to work together. Lack of means makes it harder, but a lack of motive and opportunity is likely to be a show stopper.
An agile intranet manifesto
Let's frame this as an "agile intranet manifesto":
- #1 Think like a product owner - You need to love your product, be an innovator… and don’t suffer fools lightly!
- #2 Let’s get configurable - Avoid development at all costs (unless it's lightweight development) by favouring configuration over customisation. If you are allowed, the cloud is your friend here.
- #3 Coherence over elegance - People in the workplace don’t care about how elegantly the solution is architected. They want clever designs that actually help them or solve a business problem.
(Design in this sense is different from visual design - good visual design on an intranet still has a time and place, you just need to know when that matters)
Remember: At the heart of all of this is user or human-centered design. See: What the customer really wanted!
Can I be agile with SharePoint?
Yes, you can be agile with SharePoint. There is now an extensive marketplace for intranet accelerators and out-of-the-box solutions for SharePoint, which I've been mapping through a directory project.
Issues of time, cost and quality still apply but these solutions can help. Greater agility with SharePoint comes from working with the Office 365 platform and applying modern web-design and integration practices.
Project Manager to Product Owner
How can you move from being an intranet “Project Manager” to a “Product Owner”?
Instead of treating it as an "intranet project" - where the goal is to get to the end - become outcome oriented. Be prepared to change mindsets first, challenge the view that that is how it's always been done and the need to define everything upfront. We can't allow technology and content constraints shape our approach. You need to co-develop with the business and users, determining priorities together.
*Yes, agile intranet and digital workplace platforms will make an agile intranet easier, but it's not impossible.
Begin your mastery of focus, mindset, and becoming business and user led and you will be well on the road to an agile intranet.