Real intranet managers: Tanis Roadhouse’s blueprint for building a social intranet

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Tanis Roadhouse
Tanis Roadhouse, Collaboration & Intranet Manager

Tanis at a glance

  • Name: Tanis Roadhouse
  • Age: 33
  • Hometown: Regina, Saskatchewan
  • On Twitter@theothervoog
  • Company: MD Physician Services / Canadian Medical Association (CMA)
  • Headquarters: Ottawa, Ontario
  • Employees: About 1,300
  • Role / job title: Collaboration & Intranet Manager
  • Name of intranet: The Verve
  • Date of most recent overhaul: December 2010
  • Technology stack: ThoughtFarmer

Tanis Roadhouse’s social intranet marathon

Just two days after I spoke with Tanis Roadhouse, the Collaboration & Intranet Manager for MD Physican Services / Canadian Medical Association (CMA), she ran her first marathon, a fitting metaphor for her social intranet success. Even though MD Physician Services and the CMA implemented out-of-the-box social intranet software (ThoughtFarmer) for their shared intranet Verve, they didn’t go live until a full year after Tanis first started the project.

The intranet team spent much of that year rigorously gathering requirements, engaging stakeholders, learning and planning in the lead up to launching Verve. And while they had a very successful launch in February 2011, it wasn’t seen as the end of the project; rather it was really just the start of the second phase.

To understand their project and their blueprint for success, it’s important to first learn about Tanis’ background.

Not an intranet nerd, but a “knowledge knerd”

Tanis doesn’t have a traditional intranet manager’s background (if such a thing exists). She worked for a long time as a techincal writer and has a Masters degree in Organizational Communications. She started out at MD Physician Services, a national firm that provides Canada’s physicians with a range of financial planning, investment, and banking services in both French and English, as a Business Analyst and has since morphed into the Collaboration & Intranet Manager.

Tanis didn’t come from a traditional technology background, but told me she’s a “knowledge knerd” — a term you’re sure to see me tweeting about in the near future. Tanis said:

I’ve always looked at our social intranet project from a knowledge management perspective and how we can improve the way we access and share what we know. When we were doing requirements I realized how much knowledge and information was sitting in email. How do we make it so a new employee can learn that stuff too?

We sometimes think that project management is really just communication. Tanis is a communicator at heart, which may be one of the keys to her success. She and the intranet team have run their project according to virtually every intranet best practice and have avoided many of the common pitfalls that stall intranet projects. They took a thoughtful approach and neither rushed nor stumbled, just like a a good marathon run.

FastTrack MD Corporate Orientation Program
Screenshot of Verve, the CMA’s ThoughtFarmer-powered intranet

7-point blueprint for building a social intranet

1: Start with an inspiring vision: the value of a collaborative culture

Shared vision for collaborative culture: Many new employees had used social software within other companies and were keen to see it at MD Physician Services. The company itself went through a three-year business transformation process which left Executives and staff at every level thinking about collaboration and communication.

Codename “groundswell”: This unofficial name for the intranet project emerged out of many employees’ shared passion for and value of a truly collaborative culture.

Must respect & value colleagues: As intranet manager William Amurgs said in a previous post from this series, a good intranet is rooted in respect for employees. Tanis told me:

We really do believe that the contributions of everybody in the organization are important. Their knowledge, backgrounds, skills – what employees can collectively contribute to products, services and ideas is much greater than the sum of the parts. When we can bring to bear the best thinking we’ve got as a group, that gives the best outcomes for our members.

2: Secure executive support

Connect social intranet to business imperatives: Tanis lucked out where many intranet managers are less fortunate: The CEO and other executives were already committed to building a truly collaborative work environment. While a social intranet doesn’t accomplish that alone, it is a critical enabler and Tanis tied the project directly to the company’s strategy.

Communicate early & often: Executives from the two main divisions of the company were on the steering committee for the project, which allowed Tanis to maintain communication with the C-suite. Since the new intranet launched, the intranet team has kept Executives in the know. “We regularly send the Executive team highlights of what’s been going on in Verve, including interesting groups and great stories. It’s easy for them to get in there and see what’s going on.”

CEO who walks the talk: It sounds like MD Physician Services has the social intranet manager’s dream executive champion: “Our CEO was always a supporter and now is on Verve. He updates his status with where he is, he comments and he blogs.”

3: Pick a name that matters

Include many perspectives: The team that brainstormed and selected “Verve,” the name for the new intranet, included representatives from throughout the company. Tanis said that “early on we engaged with content owners in our intranet naming exercise. The name needed to have similiar definitions in English & French and be truly reflective of the collaboritive environment we were after.” By including many perspectives in the naming discussions, Tanis ensured both a rich dialogue and broad engagement.

Verve Page

Account for dual-language company: Many intranet teams treat multilingual requirements like the “Check Engine” light on a car’s dashboard – they see it, but ignore until it goes away. The team at MD Physician Services made sure to select a name that had the same spelling and meaning in English and French. “We needed a name that made sense for a national company with offices across Canada, a country with two official languages.” They also sought out intranet software with excellent multilingual functionality.

Inspiration & aspiration: The name “Verve” represented the energy and enthusiasm that the company was building into its culture. The name captured the shared vision behind the new intranet and acts as a constant reminder of the company’s aspirations.

4: Gather requirements to learn the business

Leverage your social network: Tanis found colleagues to speak with by asking her existing contacts for suggestions of influential and passionate employees. She built new ties by leveraging her existing social network.

Talk to people in the field: Tanis and her team went directy to employees in the field to learn about the challenges they faced. This approach contributed to their undestanding of the overall business and user requirements, as well as strengthened and broadened employee engagement in the project.

Connect with social media super users: The intranet team sought out and gathered requirements from employees known to be social media mavens. This fostered engagement with people sure to be more comfortable on a modern social intranet and helped Tanis understand the expectations of her “hipper” users.

Build birds eye view of company: An intranet manager can develop a unique understanding of a company that few other employees have. Tanis’ extensive and broad requirements gathering helped her develop an “enterprise view” of the organization and its needs. “We took all those requirements and started to boil them down into things that could be met through a social intranet and other things that were business processes that needed to be reworked.”

Distill & compare against software: “We set up the intranet requirements against various software and decided early on to look at off-the-shelf intranet software because we didn’t want to invest in custom development.” Requirements and software are not like the Chicken & The Egg conundrum. Requirements come first, or at least they should. But don’t mistake technical specs for user requirements. One of our clients showed us a simple way to write user-centered requirements that aren’t overly constricting and technology focused.

5: Partner with IT early

Not about technology, but is about IT: Like many companies, the MD Physician Services social intranet project was led from outside the IT Department because it was seen as a strategic initiative. But the IT Department will implement and manage the software for any intranet project, so it’s critical to build strong communication with the technical team.

Technical details critical for project planning: Tanis made sure that user needs & business requirements guided the intranet project, but technology is always an issue. By involving the IT Department from the start, an intranet project can avoid being slowed down by unexpected technical details or complexities.

6: Treat content owners like royalty

Content migration iceberg: Tanis and the core intranet team were surprised at the huge amount of content that needed to be migrated. Fortunately, they planned for it early and engaged content owners from the very beginning. (See Bryan Robertson’s post on planning intranet content migration for lots of concrete tips.)

Big change from tight control to open & flexible: Moving from a standard CMS to a social intranet was a big change. “You can never do enough for staff who are migrating content. It’s a huge job, especially to go from an environment where you don’t have a lot of control to where it’s very open and you can have control and flexibility.”

Involve early, before choosing new software: Tanis involved content owners very early in the process to engage and empower them:

We brought content owners into the project early, before we picked the tool. We gave them early access, even before it was branded and we had a name. The very first group on the new intranet was for content owners so they could share information and ask questions.

Unfortunately, many intranet teams make the mistake of involving content owners only when the time for content migration rolls around.

Provide content audits for them: The intranet team conducted content audits of material on the old intranet for all the content owners. This helped each content owner understand the scope of his or her content and plan ahead.

Training opportunities galore: Tanis and her team provided extensive training to content owners. The training covered both the technical details of using the new intranet and best practices for writing web content and communicating internally.

7: Embrace continuous improvement

Launch is simply end of first phase: Tanis’ team definitely celebrated their successful launch, but they knew it was a milestone, not an endpoint. Some companies make the mistake of resourcing an intranet redesign, but not ongoing improvements.

Phase one was getting info into Verve and having people start to use it. We just wanted to make sure the stuff people needed to do their jobs was there. Now we are taking a look at functional content like ‘Employee Resources.’ We’re going to do an IA (information architecture) and usability study of this content and try to improve it.

Perfection not needed at launch: Simply moving to a social intranet was a huge step forward for MD Physician Services and the CMA. Tanis and her team focused heavily on engagement throughout the process to ensure adoption, but still have a lot of work to do on the information architecture for some sections. If they had waited until every page was perfect the launch would have been delayed much longer.

Have a plan: Your intranet project plan shouldn’t end at launch! Tanis already had a series of specific improvement projects in the pipeline on launch day. For example, they have a section on the new intranet for supporting employees in the field. The first phase was to move that information from multiple sites into one section of the new intranet. The second phase will be to test and optimize the content so field staff are getting exactly what they need.

What’s your blueprint?

This is the story of Tanis’ social intranet journey. While no two intranet projects are the same, this story exemplifies many useful tactics and strategies for planning a social intranet. Have you had a similar experience? What good practices would you add to this list?

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