I haven't worked at a company for many years, but I remember the Intranets I used when I did. One was built on traditional portal technology and mostly supplied to links to software we needed to use, like time tracking and expenses.
Another was a custom build and offered features like news, training, department sections, and more. None were particularly great.
Like all software, though, Intranet technology has gone, and is still going through, an evolution. This time it's up against other enterprise collaboration tools, like Slack and Office 365. To get a clearer picture of how things are changing in the digital workspace market (of which the Intranet is one technology), I talked with Mike Hicks, CMO of Igloo Software.
The me, the we, the us
Hicks explained there are three key personas for the digital workspace:
- The me: The individual employees and what they need to do their job
- The we: These are teams and the tools, how they connect and how get projects completed
- The us: This is the company as a whole and the kind of access to information everyone needs to understand the company's mission and values.
Over the last 20 years or so, the market has shifted in terms of which persona to support, and the technologies needed to support them. So, in the early days, it was all about the corporate mandate (like those intranets I mentioned above). From about 2007 to 2010 or so, it became more about the individual. This was the social era when technology like Yammer was popular. Employees wanted instant access to information, and they wanted easy ways to communicate. Productivity, Hicks said, wasn't the main priority.
Move forward to the last few years, and the "we's" have it. It's about tech like Slack and Microsoft Teams, and the ability to collaborate and communicate easily. While this phase we're in is good, Hicks said it has created gaps, especially around knowledge management:
Eventually it raises the question of, well, what do we really use this for? And how is it helping us. There's a difference when you look at evaluating the effectiveness of these tools. Sure they might have active use and adoption, but is it actually helping solve a productivity problem? Is it solving an engagement problem? How do we measure really the effectiveness?
Measuring the cost of disruption
Slack is great, some people say. Slack is horrible, others say. It's a fast and easy way to communicate. Still, the challenge becomes over-communication, continually getting disrupted from the work you are doing to answer someone's question or to get pulled into a conversation. Microsoft Teams works the same way. Hicks referred to it as the cost of disruption, or the time and cost related to switching between communicating on these tools and doing work.
It's a very different way of trying to structure and organize your day when it was email. It was very easy because you had a sender and a subject line. And you could decide based on those two things, do I want to read it and action now, or do I want to wait till later? The challenge with a product like Slack or Teams is you don't get that benefit.
But email; who really likes email? They are too long, and people don't read them through, or sometimes even respond. Email is a disruption just as much as Slack or Teams in my mind.
It's not about whether or not one is better than the other, though, according to Hicks. It's about what you are using it for and how you are governing it. The challenge with Slack and Teams right now is that they have become dumping grounds with little to no governance. "It’s a noise management problem.”
So what’s the solution?
Hicks said the integration of tools like Slack and Teams with the new generation of Intranets is becoming a best practice for many organizations. The idea is that companies continue to use Slack or Teams as social channels, but when they are needed as part of the project or topic, they would integrate with an Intranet that can provide the project structure and governance required to manage the project effectively.
So, let’s be honest here. Governance challenges will continue. Yes, you can integrate Slack with your Intranet and explain to project team members when it’s okay to use Slack and when you need to do more formal documentation using the features of the Intranet. But you can’t enforce it. People still have to choose appropriately.
On the other hand, Slack claims it provides everything you need to be more productive and to organize and manage your information securely. The list of integrated tools also helps you manage information outside of Slack channels - like the integration with Google Docs or Office 365, or “apps with actions” such as Zendesk, Jira, Asana, or Trello.
Of course, you can ask the question - how many organizations use Slack for more than a communication tool?
And then there is Microsoft Teams, which has taken its own destination vision referring to itself as “The hub for teamwork in Office 365.” Teams provide video and voice calls, along with chat and collaboration.
Even with the approach that Teams is taking, though, there's still a knowledge management gap. It comes down to a navigation and UI experience. It's not as optimized as it can be and you end up missing key pieces of information because just like your Slack example, where everything's happening in real-time, and you might be off paying attention to something else, and you come back and you realize, whoa, in half an hour, there has been a novel written. The same thing happens in Teams. So, it's how are organizations going to provide a structure and integrate with other tools to prevent that from happening?
It takes up to 23 minutes to refocus
Twenty-three minutes seems to be an often noted stat. The reference comes from a 2008 study by Gloria Mark called The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress. This study, and other similar ones that are more recent, look at the disruption caused by social media and email. What Mark’s found was that it can take up to 23.25 minutes to refocus your attention after some type of disruption like scrolling Facebook or reading email.
I couldn’t find one that references tools like Slack, but one could draw the same conclusions based on how Slack is typically used.
By the way, if you are one of the people who have this refocus problem, here are eleven strategies to refocus in five minutes or less.
What’s your destination site?
Every company needs a destination site for its employees. And it needs to be a place to communicate, collaborate, and manage all its information. Maybe that’s an Intranet, like Igloo Software, the company Hicks works for. Maybe it’s Slack with all the right integrations. Maybe its Microsoft Teams connected with Office 365. Perhaps it’s somewhere else.
The way we kind of draw the line is every organization needs a destination, a place where employees can go to start their day and where they can come back throughout the day to get work done.
I don’t think there is one particular technology that is the right answer for the digital workplace. But I do believe organizations can have the wrong answer. Or they have good technology they aren’t using right.
We spend a lot of time figuring out the right technologies and the right strategies to support the customer experience. Now orgs need to do the same for their employees.