Real intranet managers: Emily Staresina’s lessons learned from going social

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Emily at a glance

  • Name: Emily Staresina
  • Hometown: Hamilton, 45 min outside of Toronto
  • On Twitter: @Emily_Staresina
  • Company: Stockland Property Group, a large Australian diversified property company
  • Headquarters: Sydney, Australia
  • Employees: About 1,400
  • Role / job title: Intranet & Usability Consultant (aka jack of all trades)
  • Name of intranet: stockXchange
  • Date of most recent overhaul: January 24, 2011 – completely new IA & graphic design
  • Technology stack: SharePoint
  • Size of intranet: Around 1600 pages. “We made it part of our mandate to keep this as low as possible. It’s easy to get a lot of content up that becomes out of date quite quickly.”

Intranet manager with a peculiar past

Emily Staresina doesn’t have your average intranet manager’s background (though this interview series has shown such a thing doesn’t really exist).

Before moving to Australia, Emily lived in Los Angeles and earned a Masters Degree in “Moving Image Archive Studies” at UCLA, working her way through school as a film projectionist. So how does that translate into a career in building good intranets?

Emily’s first job after her undergraduate work in History and Film Studies was as an Archivist for the National Archives of Canada, which taught her about, in her words, “organizing information and making it available to people who want to access it.”. Her Masters thesis project at UCLA focused on “home movies as historical reference points we overlook.” This gets at a key aspect of Emily’s personality that connects to her intranet work: she likes looking for things that aren’t obvious.

“Internal resources are often seen through the lens of ‘if it’s not broken, why fix it?'” Emily said that partly because they aren’t obvious she likes to “focus on internal tools and convincing people that they can get improvements in business efficiency by improving internal systems.”

So by way of early jobs in archiving, being drawn towards the non-obvious, and a previous job working for Google in Australia, Emily today finds herself working for Stockland Property Group, a large Australian diversified property company, as their Intranet and Usability Consultant. In her current role she focuses on strategic positioning of the intranet within Stockland and helping it deliver on internal communications strategies.

Intranet project started with business need

Today Emily and the intranet team at Stockland are smack dab in the middle of a major intranet project. The first phase of the project was delivered in January of this year and consisted of a completely new IA and visual design. Ever since, the team has been diligently working on the next phase which includes a major software upgrade and introduction of social intranet features. But how did it all get started?

Emily said “the project started in response to a mandate from Stockland’s leadership to break down silos.” Stockland identified a critical business need of creating greater business efficiency  and reducing duplication throughout the company. Different lines of business were replicating each others’ work, their many offices felt disconnected and the company seemed splintered.

Stockland’s executives decided to invest in helping employees, offices and business units improve knowledge flow, build and strengthen connections and increase the sense of shared purpose. The intranet’s potential to play a central role in this process has driven the project thus far and lent it strategic weight. According to Emily:

One of our key sponsors is at the executive level and is exceptionally passionate about the project. She spends time communicating with the executive team about the alignment of the intranet project with broader corporate strategy and explaining the business benefits the project can yield. We have met with several members of the executive team to discuss questions they have about how social media can benefit the Stockland team. After the proof of concept we’ll have a show and tell so they can have a real feel for the new intranet. We’ll show situational based examples and the business value of real life examples at regular intervals.

With this kind of executive support and alignment with organizational priorities in place, Emily’s team has moved forward in implementing a more social intranet. But they haven’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater and gone for a pure social networking or collaboration platform.

Social doesn’t replace traditional intranet

Stockland is shifting towards a more social intranet in steps and is still focused on providing a strong “intranet 1.0.” Their new information architecture (IA) and graphic design is an example of getting the basics right:

Our previous IA was based on corporate structure, but we found through user workshops that we are a very task based organization and we wanted the upgraded intranet to reflect that. By developing an intranet that is task based we have helped to break down silos between business units. Through the process and in using the revamped navigation, business units have gotten insights into what is happening next door.

Emily shared the example of Stockland’s three main business units that all have similar processes for property development. In the old intranet IA, which was based on corporate structure, the pages documenting each business unit’s processes were in separate locations. The new intranet IA provides simplified access to this information and shows all three businesses’ processes in one glance.

Even before “going social” Emily’s team delivered on the company’s mandate to break down silos by taking a new, task-based approach to designing the intranet’s navigation.

In addition to breaking down silos, the new IA is very simplified. During their research the Stockland team realized that there were tasks that people needed on a daily basis (“need-to-know” content) and then there was lots of “nice to know” information that wasn’t critical to daily work but had a home on the intranet. The new intranet IA has focused on dividing this content, increasing the priority and visibility of the task-based content by putting it in the global navigation and moving the “nice-to-know” content deeper down in the secondary navigation. This has reduced the competition for the user’s attention with “need-to-know” material.

This work on the traditional aspects of Stockland’s intranet highlights an important point: a social intranet is still an intranet! Companies shouldn’t just replace their traditional, very valuable information with a social networking or micro-blogging platform that has no structure. Instead, they can update their core intranet content through user-centered design approaches and also implement social software features.

Lessons learned from social pilots

Now that they’ve rebuilt their core intranet in a user-friendly way Emily’s team is setting its sights on implementing social features. But they are taking a deliberate approach that includes pilots and has yielded important lessons about how to roll out social features company-wide.

“At the moment we’re a quarter of the way in for planning a social intranet layer,” says Emily. “We’re developing a proof of concept, are holding workshops with people from business units across the company and have hired Step Two Designs to help develop an adoption strategy.”

Lesson #1: Don’t talk about social media

From the beginning of the project Emily’s team realized that talking about a “social intranet” was not a door opener:

When you talk about social media here internally, you get a lot of blank stares and people turn off. They ask, “Why would we do that internally?” or say, “We’re not a big enough company to do that internally.” The solution was simple: The second we stopped talking about social media and instead talked about better ways to communicate and collaborate internally, people listened and asked, “What do you mean by that?” We realized we had to sell the social layer’s business value rather than social media itself.

Lesson #2: Give examples people can relate to

Once they started talking about business value and got people’s attention, Emily’s team realized they needed to help people understand at a gut level what they were talking about.

Stockland conducts research for their development work and the team honed in on a useful example of collaboration that resonated with colleagues. “We told people that they may be commissioning research that someone else is commissioning,” says Emily. “Wouldn’t it be useful to have a place to ask other researchers about what they’re working on to avoid duplication?”

That simple example didn’t use the words “social media” but instead spoke about solving a real business problem with a more effective way to connect and communicate.

Lesson #3: Specific purpose & daily value

One of the first internal social media experiments at Stockland was the “Purpose Portal.” The company needed to capture employees’ ideas and feelings about their corporate purpose statement, so they set up a blogging site. In this social media space employees could craft short responses to questions such as “what animal does Stockland most represent?” Emily said that “people really responded to those short, sharp activities.”

Following the “Purpose Portal” the Stockland team launched a response blog called “The Better Way Blog”, which didn’t go over as well. People were hesitant to post comments on Executives’ blog posts and the intranet team struggled to get adoption.

“During the interview and workshop phase we asked a lot of questions around social media,” says Emily. “The results of our research showed that people will need a reason to use the social stuff, that we need to understand cultural expectations, and that technical challenges can create barriers to use. Don’t just launch the social tech to everyone, but instead have it available and then let people come to you with real needs and offer them a solution that uses the social features.”

Lesson #4: A second tier of stakeholders

Emily and her team also learned a key lesson about the difference between official stakeholders and the employees who will use the software the most. “You have known stakeholders with whom you communicate about the project, but there is a secondary layer of stakeholders who are quite powerful in the business,” says Emily. “They are heavy users of the intranet and when you change the complete structure it’s important to identify secondary stakeholders and give them opportunities to provide feedback and to explain why we’re making the changes.”

While it is crucial to involve the standard stakeholders in an intranet project, it may be just as important to engage with the employees whose daily tasks are more directly at stake. If the actual power users are not happy, the path to intranet adoption may be riddled with bumps and bruises.

Social intranet strategy: Communities & enhancing daily work

Through their pilot efforts the intranet team recognized that employees were willing to use social intranet tools, but not for just anything. In order to mitigate the risks they discovered during their pilots, the Stockland intranet team will focus on creating communities so they can, according to Emily, “provide social media tools in targeted ways that can be valuable on a daily basis.” Emily continues:

We just had a workshop about what communities to get started with and a few have become really clear. We have offices in four states across Australia. One particular team that’s based across all four states came to us and said they need a place to communicate better and a place to push out messages. We realized they are perfect for piloting communities. They have a keen interest and a need to collaborate and communicate across geographies.

Emily thinks this approach could be successful and expects to end up with a large variety of communities.

The grand experiment continues

Stockland’s intranet team has done its due diligence and moved forward thoughtfully, but their success is not guaranteed. Emily told me, “We may need a role around community management and in terms of governance for communities we’re still in the early days of planning. But it’s all very exciting!”

There is no guarantee that the social aspects of Stockland’s intranet will work out. Many companies struggle to get the full value out of their social intranets. But Emily and her team have taken a very strategic approach thus far and have built a foundation of strong traditional intranet content that is helping staff already.

Often the difference between success and failure with a social intranet comes down to whether or not a team has a strong roll-out strategy and supportive executive leadership. Since The Stockland project has both, I’m betting on success.

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