Real intranet managers: Nigel Williams is a workplace anthropologist

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They call Nigel Williams “The Intranet Bulldog”

That’s not actually true. But it would be cool if it was true, considering that Nigel’s father was a famous wrestler named “Kendo Nagasaki” who went up against “The British Bulldog” in infamous bouts around the UK. Nigel told me about his father’s history with a hint of pride in his voice when I interviewed him for this post. While he may not yet have the renowned nickname or national fame, he is gaining recognition for his excellent work as the intranet manager for Romec, an industrial services company based in Manchester, Britain.

Photo of Nigel Williams from RomecNigel at a glance

  • Name: Nigel Williams
  • Hometown: Manchester, United Kingdom
  • On Twitter: @FootShort82
  • Company: Romec, an integrated facilities management provider
  • Headquarters: Manchester, United Kingdom
  • Employees: 4,400
  • Role / job title: Intranet Coordinator or “Intranet Manager”
  • Name of intranet: “Intranet”
  • Date of most recent overhaul: 2 years ago went live on a whole new platform
  • Technology stack: Interact Intranet
  • Size of intranet: About 20,000 pages

Nigel didn’t start out working in intranets. After all, in college nobody majors in “intranets” and people don’t earn graduate degrees in “intranet management.” Like the other intranet managers in this series, Nigel comes to intranet management from a fascinating background and doesn’t fit a particular mold. And like other intranet managers he has, through commitment and ingenuity, become quite good at doing great things with his company’s intranet.

Standard unusual background for an intranet manager

Nigel’s original background is in recruitment and sales. Fresh out of college he started working as a consultant helping companies recruit for their open IT positions. During the many hours he spent on site for projects Nigel discovered clients needed much more than just recruiting support. He set up wikis to help clients capture details about their recruitment strategies. Other consultants  also contributed to the wikis, which became valuable sources of information for clients to retroactively examine the decisions they made.

Starting with his early roles as a consultant, Nigel learned to dig deeply into the problems clients were facing. One of the keys to his success is Nigel’s almost anthropological approach to improving the intranet. Like the very best usability experts, Nigel spends time observing real people doing real work. He runs focus groups in remote offices, captures video of colleagues using the intranet on project sites and builds a deep understanding of how people work before he tries to design solutions for their problems.

Nigel’s commitment to researching reality gives him the types of insights one cannot capture in more removed and indirect ways.

Favorite project: Wrangling 7000 Excel-based “Contract Briefs”

One of Nigel’s favorite intranet projects started with a giant problem. As an industrial services company, Romec works with many clients in many capacities. Unfortunately the different lines of the business were managing contracts and services separately. All in all, 10 different departments were managing over 7000 Excel files with data about clients, projects and contracts.

These “contract briefs” lived in many different locations on the company’s network, with differing formats and access levels. Information was siloed, wasn’t getting to the right people, and in some cases, people were seeing much more information than they needed.

People across the departments recognized the problem and it became Nigel’s job to find a solution.

Romec intranet homepage
Romec’s intranet homepage

The answer was to move all this information out of Excel and into intranet pages that could be accessed more easily. But that proved a complex job. Nigel needed to find a design that worked for everyone, from account managers to engineers. Additionally, the design had to look the same on all the different devices used to access the intranet, whether PDAs, “ToughBook” computers in the field, or desktops in the office.

As a critical first step Nigel went out into the field to examine his colleagues’ daily environments. He conducted focus groups with the people that used the contract briefs on a daily basis and learned about the typical conversations they were having. Through many revisions they developed a format for the intranet pages that would display the contract briefs in a format that was surprisingly simple.

The first step was to shift from a departmental perspective to a client-based perspective. Next, Nigel built in a layer of permissions so that people could only access the information they needed, but not other, more sensitive information.

They added at (“@”) commenting (similar to Twitter and Facebook) so people could be alerted to join conversations about specific contract briefs. The new consistent format ensured that everyone knew the “script” and helped elminate offerings of non-standard services. The design also broke down departmental barriers and allowed engineers and account managers to work together directly on services for specific clients.

By making the information more about the client rather than the departments, and by employing the simplest possible design, Nigel helped streamline the flow of information and improve collaboration. But none of that could have happened without extensive outreach and field-based observation.

Undertanding the real-world experience of users is really Nigel’s specialty, and it has helped him in many a project.

Addressing the low bandwidth challenge

Many intranet managers know that some employees have slow connections and can’t easily access code-heavy intranet pages, but they persist anyway with their designs because the intranet looks good on desktops in HQ. Nigel, however, takes the bandwidth issue seriously.

A simple page with embedded form on the Romec intranet
A simple page with embedded form on the Romec intranet

In all intranet projects he starts with the lowest common denominator. How will this look and how quickly can it be accessed by an engineer in the field wth a mobile device and low bandwidth? That question, along with Nigel’s appreciation for Steve Krug‘s usability mantra of “don’t make me think,” have guided the design of Romec’s intranet.

Nigel has even gone to the effort of capturing video of engineers trying to access graphics-heavy intranet pages. He then used that footage to show content contributors the real hassles people faced when accessing pages with rich content.

These are the efforts of a man who takes users’ experiences seriously.

Marketing the intranet without techno-babel

Before launching their intranet in 2010, Nigel and his team gathered feedback from colleagues through several different means and discovered that fancy technical jargon made people uncomfortable and would do no good in gaining adoption of the new intranet.

All the results of their research pointed to the need for a user-friendly intranet and clear communications. Nigel even started a “plain English” campaign and they created a “Jargon Buster” on the intranet where employees could go to look up the sweeping array of acronyms and terms they heard in meetings and read in communications. Communications from executives even started going through the internal communications department’s “plain English” review before going out to staff.

Romec intranet jargon buster
“Jargon Buster” page on the Romec intranet

All of this, again, was based on an almost anthropological approach to understanding the real challenges and needs of colleagues.

Can’t argue with results (or “The Intranet Bulldog”)

Nigel’s heavy focus on understanding employees’ real challenges has achieved results and helped to meet the company’s needs. Romec recognized they needed a new, good intranet when they brought Nigel on back in July of 2009. After the launch of their new intranet, the 70% reduction in calls to the help desk verified that need and validated Nigel’s approach.

Since Nigel came onboard, executives have been very supportive of the intranet and have made sure the content champions from different departments were the right people and were fully involved in the project.

The new intranet, along with improvements such as the Contract Briefs section and the Jargon Buster, have had a strong ripple effect at Romec. Sharing information has become a motivating driver rather than organizational hierarchy, and the siloes within the business have started to desolve. A good, user friendly intranet project can be about much more than just the intranet, Nigel told me, and that all starts with knowing your audience.

In a time when, as Nigel said, people launch new fantastic technology for its own sake and try to squeeze solutions into the technology rather than vice versa, it’s heartening to see someone taking a very human approach. Nigel’s workplace anthropology starts and ends with a respect for his colleagues, something every intranet manager should have in spades.