Creating an internal corporate product – a little more personal history

I am finding this product management theme to be a rich seam for thinking and organising ideas around my work. Having shared some personal history, this is a little more self-indulgence in that respect. It is a different example however, prompted again by recent conversation. It’s not strictly about learning and development but in a sense, there is greater value for that (although you will be the judge of that claim).

Prior to departing a certain large media organisation, I took on the role of programme director for the refresh of the corporate intranet. Looking back on this period, I recognise that it was educational in many respects. In the main, I learned so much because it was very difficult. In a large and complex organisation the intranet can have an intriguing presence. Few, if any, want to own it, but everyone wants to decide what to do with it. Here are some characteristics I observed at the time that I think it is safe to generalise from:

  • Intranets are relied upon by all staff – but not often by most
  • They are used as top-down communication channels by stakeholders (that’s you, comms folks)
  • Employees rarely, if ever, use them as a communication tool
  • Employees expect to be able to find everything they need there
  • They rarely can
  • The home page (old school, I know) is often horribly crammed with content, links and ‘tools’
  • Every department/team/business unit wants a space on the home page (hence the point above)
  • The intranet will not meet the consumer grade expectations we all hold
  • Be clear about that and make it work in possibly boring but important ways

As I said, it was a difficult time. Thankfully, there was some very good help at hand in the form of an unlikely team. They included: a fresh and energetic product manager; a highly qualified and well conected idealist (not to be underestimated in reminding one what all this is for); grizzled veterans of the intranet wars (they know where the bodies are buried); product owners from around the organisation (they were vital in herding the most relevant departments). This might not be the assembling of avengers we might depict but, with added funding, there was momentum to be gained.

Managing the design of the home page was very instructive. This is where the categorisation, taxonomy, navigation and look and feel come to life for most stakeholders. They often lose interest at the next click and page, so much consultation focused here. The biggest challenge was in the attempt to avoid internal jargon creeping into the product. We kept drumming on our plain English catchphrases which resounded with users in concept and mock up testing: “The intranet: find things out and get things done” and “where I work and what I want to do”. Often, utility departments such as finance and operations are more relevant than those with the biggest budgets and brand clout (more to be found out and got done here). Interesting discussion ensued. The lesson: focus on the home page for stakeholders – focus on the use cases and journeys for users.

My enthusiasm for establishing product principles was grounded in this experience. Drafted in an open and collaborative way, principles for what you are trying to achieve are invaluable. Everyone has the chance to contribute to them, creating a shared set of expectations. We used intranet principles for the staff (what it is for and what they needed), for the organisation (the tone and management approach etc.) and for the team (including stakeholders). This help balance points of view and make tensions between groups explicit. It took a while but worked out in the end.

And now a few points of learning from my errors:

  • Keep the roadmap really simple for communication – have two versions one, if necessary, one for board/committee meetings and another for the team and suppliers
  • Find a stakeholder who understands technology and can help to coach others
  • Talk about money and budget before anyone else does, particularly in formal meetings
  • Watch out for vendors who promise agility and flexibility and agree to a fixed price
  • Bang on about data and metrics all the time and put them at the front of updates – eventually, after time, at some point, everyone starts to look for them

Some L&D insights

I came to this role via the L&D team. It was very useful to understand how staff, other departments and stakeholders viewed learning, both as content and an activity, from the outside. Compliance learning brought us close to the top of the charts in usage terms but that “find things out get things done” slogan did not clearly include the L&D world for staff. Working with other teams who were responsible for the “get things done” stuff is a good route to relevance and connection for learning needs. There are natural partnerships to be created around organisation problem-solving uses cases. They often struggle to describe and present what to do and how to do it.

The intranet was not our route to most usage ultimately, we had the oxygen of traffic from elsewhere thankfully. But, from an audience perspective the context and presentation of our products and teams on the intranet was crucial in setting and managing expectations. Plus it was a helpful, if jarring reminder, that staff didn’t really care, they just wanted their work to be easier to get on with. That needed to be our L&D product focus as well – the customer is always right, after all.

And finally, a free offer

If you are interested in the idea of product management for learning – the rationale, benefits and principles – we are hosting a conversation about the topic on the 26th of May at 11.00 am. Read more about it here and register here. It will be great to hear what you think.

Entrance gateway, Haining House Selkirk © Jim Barton cc-by ...
Your Intranet gateway awaits

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