Ellie Ashman

Director of Product & Services

6 Ways to Improve Your Nonprofit's Intranet

6 mins read

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many organisations and teams started to refine and formalise new ways of working as hybrid, remote or distributed teams.

Many of us will have experienced workplaces where information was hard to find and share, or where simple administrative tasks take 30 minutes and a host of logins. Lots of us are also now exploring new ways to collaborate with colleagues spread across a wider geographical range than we have previously, and thinking more critically about how to make those connections collaborative, trusting, and mutually beneficial.

These common challenges and opportunities are creating a bit of a renaissance for the humble intranet.

Cambridge University Hospital's Intranet Homepage

The home page of Cambridge University Hospitals recently launched Intranet

All intranets are the same

…aren’t they? Many of the organisations we work with are focused on connection and collaboration, and providing a genuine and positive workplace experience for everyone, with objectives like:

  • Enabling staff to feel connected to each other, and to their organisation
  • Providing ways to engage with projects, colleagues and strategic initiatives
  • Ensuring every staff member can find the resources they need to do their jobs, and to feel safe and supported at work
  • Facilitating two-way communication between teams, departments, and functions

At the same time, we’re also helping our clients to navigate some common challenges that can really impact the effectiveness and long term sustainability of an intranet. These typically include things like:

  • Information isn’t necessarily organised and described in the ways that staff are looking for or talking about it, which can make it difficult to find and frustrating to search for
  • Your workforce is distributed, whether that is across your sites, working in the field or working remotely from home (or a combination of all of these!)
  • You have different types of content that churn at different rates - some content is evergreen, some ages fast - and you want staff to be able to trust that they’re always looking at the latest information
  • You need staff to have secure, simple access - whether they’re on a work laptop or a mobile device, and using a company network or a data connection

Technology is less than half of the puzzle - done well, intranets are about empowering staff with the information they need, enabling them to make connections between departments, locations, service areas and roles, and levelling out hierarchies of knowledge; building trust and leadership through transparency. Done badly, intranets are just a new place to put old stuff.

Here are my six tips for intranet success: most of the time, the thing your users want more than anything else is to be able to easily find the tools, resources or information they need to do their jobs brilliantly.

Tips to kick off your intranet project

1. Understand the problems you have to solve

Every intranet is different. Whilst we do see common requirements and needs, they aren’t entirely universal.

The things that are most important for you and your colleagues will depend on a host of factors including the kind of work you do, the types of users who will access the intranet (will field workers, trustees or volunteers use it, for example), and the locations and devices they work from.

Existing ways of working and experiences with the tools you already provide can also have an impact on things like trust, engagement, and anticipation. These factors can all make or break your shiny new intranet project.

We start every project by understanding the problems to be solved, the objectives you have, who your users are, and what they need. By applying this user-centred approach to intranet builds, we’ve learned about a few other aspects that can have a big impact on project success.

Park discussions about technology and solutions for now, and spend time understanding:

  • What your staff need to do
  • What your staff are struggling with
  • What information and knowledge flows already exist, and how well do they work?
  • How your staff relate to each other
  • How your staff relate to your customers, users, or audience
  • How your staff relate to the organisation

2. Prioritise

Intranets run the risk of becoming an unloved dumping ground of ‘miscellaneous’ content; without clear and well-communicated meaningful value to them, your staff won’t have cause to look at your intranet, and can even end up avoiding it at all costs.

Generally, we find that our clients already understand the importance of staff engagement, trust and excitement when it comes to launching a new intranet. Sometimes, this can create a temptation to add lots of bells and whistles to your first release, in the hope of delighting your users so much that everyone starts enthusiastically using the new intranet as soon as it launches.

You might be tempted to add shiny chat interfaces, or personalised user dashboards, for example - the risk here is that these complicate your build, extend the time you need to wait before your users can start sharing their feedback, and make it harder for your first adopters to see the value you’ve added for them by meeting their core needs.

If your first release is mostly clear, simple information architecture and a small selection of the most frequently used or searched-for content, backed up by a usable interface and a well-implemented search, you’re giving your users a big chunk of what they need. At the same time, you’re showing them what it means for the intranet to be designed around their needs, and that builds trust and engagement to carry you through the rest of your agile, iterative development.

3. Start with people

The users and clients we speak to often have strong ideas about what a good intranet is, but there’s a lot of variety in the mental models and images that different users tell us about.

For example, your HR team might be most focused on communicating policy information and ensuring systems access, because a big part of their role is in making sure that staff know what support and benefits are available to them, and can easily access and make use of what is available.

Different departments and service areas will typically bring some additional - often highly specific - needs and expectations, too.

Needs and expectations aren’t the same thing. On any project, identifying what your users really need helps make sure you build the right thing, and design with your users in mind. But, replacing an old intranet or really any frequently-used platform - however creaky or failing - requires changes in behaviour.

User research can help you understand where users might find this more or less difficult, so that you can think about how to scope, communicate and deliver your intranet so that your users can’t wait to try it out.

Acknowledging and engaging with the expectations of your users and stakeholders can help establish their engagement and trust in the project and the resulting intranet, and help you to build open feedback loops so that your colleagues feel a sense of ownership and community before your new intranet even launches. Doing this regularly and openly helps you protect your focus on needs, while acknowledging those expectations and managing them transparently when you need to.

Cambridge University Hospital's Intranet Hub Page

4. Measure, inspect, and adapt

Identify ways you can measure or test your success. Ask yourself and your stakeholders about the changes you are expecting to see, and how that compares to the current picture.

By thinking about this early, you create a mechanism for prioritising work, course-correcting if scope starts to shift or creep, or taking a step back to reassess and adapt the work if you aren’t seeing the changes you expected.

5. Think about the future

If your goals for your intranet include embedding new ways of working, collaboration, engagement, or better information flows, think about what will change when you realise those goals. It’s worth spending time exploring the negative or unintended consequences your work could have, as well as the planned or positive ones. Your intranet will form a powerful new hub for your organisation, and it’s important it embeds the culture and values you want to take forward.

Your project may also unearth new, exciting opportunities for your employees and organisation. It’s worth thinking about whether the route and technology you choose for your intranet can support your longer term goals and keep growing with you. If you’re considering a platform that will meet your initial scope at a stretch, think carefully about whether it can grow with you and support your longer term ambitions.

Central resources like intranets can be the beating heart of a healthy organisation, and that makes them painful and disruptive to pull out and replace. Make sure that’s part of your rollout plan, but also think about your broader ambitions and make sure you find a technology platform that’s equal to those, not just convenient today.

6. Engage and inspire

We often hear from users about the deep care and thought they put into the ways they work and collaborate. We see the ways staff look to connect their work to broader objectives, or to related work elsewhere. In practice, this means that your users care deeply about flows of information, trust and insight - they care about intranets!

It’s easy to underestimate this, but this care has the potential to supercharge your intranet project. Making time to regularly share the things you have learned, the prototypes you’ve experimented with, refined or discarded, and the work you’re doing now and next, helps create a rhythm for the project that extends beyond your delivery team. Your future users now have a designated space where they can engage with the project, share feedback and ask questions, and you have a space where you can effectively communicate project progress to your users. We often find that this helps users engage gradually, so that they’re prepared and excited when the first release comes around. Regular show and tell sessions, demos or weeknotes can all provide this space.

Get in touch to talk about your intranet project

If you've got any questions about where to start or concerns about progress that you'd like to chat through, let us know by emailing [email protected]