Making the Business Case for the Intranet: Penn State Outreach

ThoughtFarmer has been working with Penn State University’s Outreach department since January 2009 when they launched their new ThoughtFarmer-powered intranet, our.outreach. Bevin Hernandez recently keynoted at Enterprise 2.0 in Boston and shared some of her experiences with conference attendees, talking about some of the cultural elements and aspects of social intranets. You can view her presentation on the E2Conf website [PDF].

photo: Bevin Hernandez keynotes at Enterprise 2.0 – credit: Alex Dunne

In a two-part blog post, we’ll take a look at the history of their social intranet our.outreach and then share some of the usage data gathered across the last 18 months on the intranet. We’ll start with how Penn State made the business case and their famous launch and then look at activity on the intranet and what trends have happened over 18 months of organizational change.

Making the Business Case for a New Intranet
Every year Penn State University Outreach hosted the Day of Connection. Staff from across the 1800 person department at Penn State would come together in a day-long conference to listen to keynote speakers, share stories and experiences, and connect with co-workers from the various program areas under the Outreach umbrella: Continuing Education, World Campus/Online Education, Youth Programs, Cooperative Extension, and Penn State Public Broadcasting. The Day of Connection was designed to educate, inspire, and connect Outreach staff, offering a unique opportunity to forge links across a wide-ranging and geographically distributed organization.

It was a special event for participants, many of whom had never met each other before or only heard about each others’ work through meetings, newsletters, emails, and traditional means of communication. But while the Day of Connection left employees feeling energized and engaged, it was limited in its reach: approximately 400 people could participate and it was only one day of the year. And it was costly: travel, facility, and coordination costs were significant to organize the one day event.

Following the January 2008 Day of Connection, Outreach’s Vice President Dr. Craig Weidemann tasked a group of Outreach HR and Internal Communications employees to review the format and goals for the next Day of Connection. The team analyzed results from a 2006 internal communications survey and the follow-up survey for the 2007 Day of Connection. They also reviewed the direct and indirect costs over the past 5 years for the Day of Connection.

One of the key findings from the 2006 survey result showed that employees wanted to use technology to enhance their productivity at work. At the same time, the existing intranet scored low in their evaluation of communication channel effectiveness. On a 4 point scale from 1 = Poor to 4 = Good, here’s how their internal communications efforts stacked up:

  • one-on-one meetings with immediate supervisors: 3.21
  • all-staff meetings: 2.71
  • newsletters: 2.66
  • email listserv announcements: 2.53
  • intranet: 1.99

My Outreach: the Penn State Outreach intranet prior to January 2009

The team returned to the VP with a proposal to move Day of Connection online via a renewed intranet, aimed at reducing costs and increasing reach and access.

By moving online, Outreach would be able to invite all staff to participate instead of selected Day of Connection participants and experience the benefits of allow employees to connect the other 364 days of the year. Effects would be lasting, coordination costs would be reduced, and other communications initiatives would benefit.

The intranet launch positively addresses many of the challenges of a traditional Day:

  • Employees participate when it best fits into their schedule
  • After initial cost for intranet, decreased annual cost
  • No travel or facility costs
  • Interactive
  • Decreased keynote speaker costs
  • Little coordination/training
  • Employees have same opportunity to participate
  • Gateway to everyday connections, networking, and knowledge sharing

From internal document on our.outreach: “A Serendipitous Collision!” – January 28, 2009

Intranet Return on Investment: 365 days of connection

The renewed intranet was sold on the return on investment of turning Day of Connection into an online event. All funds previously allocated to the annual Day would be turned into a many-to-many, collaborative intranet environment where knowledge sharing and connection would become a regular occurrence in Outreach, not just a one day event.
The project got the go-ahead, a new employee was hired to project manage the effort, and the team set out to create the new Outreach intranet.

Defining the Intranet’s Goals

The team crafted goals that were designed to address the previous shortcomings with the Day of Connection as well as take into account the findings of the previous communications research.

“The intranet will engage employees to connect across Outreach with peers, management, and leadership, encouraging collaboration and knowledge sharing. These connections will provide greater service to our learners, our communities, and each other. It will:

  • Be a one-stop location for current, relevant, and searchable information about Outreach goals, initiatives, news, and employees
  • Feature a customizable interface with a contemporary and intuitive design that is easy and fun to use
  • Contain multi-directional communication tools to facilitate grassroots collaboration and knowledge sharing
  • Streamline common tasks through single sign-on, easy access to important links, and up-to-date Outreach information

From internal document on our.outreach: “A Serendipitous Collision!” – January 28, 2009

Launch of our.outreach

The launch event on January 28, 2009 was the culmination of 7 intense weeks of work by Outreach, including the Christmas holiday break. The our.outreach team launched a multi-pronged marketing campaign throughout the organization, including postcards, posters, technology training sessions, welcome packages, videos, and day-of launch party celebrations. For more details on the remarkable launch campaign, please read Best Enterprise 2.0 Launch Ever? Penn State’s ThoughtFarmer Roll-Out on the ThoughtFarmer blog.

Penn State Outreach’s re-launched intranet, powered by ThoughtFarmer

After the party

As remarkable as the launch of our.outreach was in its scale, scope, and inventiveness, the true success of the intranet could not be measured in one day. January 28, 2009 was the beginning of a new way of communicating, collaborating, and learning at Penn State, one which had never been attempted before. But the real results would be uptake in usage, new connections formed, knowledge sharing, and changed behaviours amongst staff.

In our next article, we’ll look at 18 months of activity on the intranet since the January 2009 launch and share some of the usage statistics that Penn State has gathered, detailing their adoption efforts.