Intranet governance is one of those big, vague, scary words that people toss around a lot. What does it really mean? What does it look like in real life? Where do you start with it? Tony Byrne, CEO of the Real Story Group, said that intranet “governance is like sex: people tend to talk about it more than they do it.” This article breaks down intranet governance into concrete, relatable terms and focuses on what it means to “do” intranet governance.
A simple definition
In its most straight-forward meaning, governance is decision-making.
Whenever you have more than one person involved in making a decision you need governance in place to facilitate the decision-making process.
A congress or parliament is the primary national-level decision-making body of a country. The president, executive branch and administration implement the decisions made by congress/parliament.
Similarly, in intranet governance the two main parts are 1) making the decisions and 2) implementing them. The governance problems many intranet teams face start at the very foundation, with unclear decision-making roles and processes.
Intranet governance starts with four basic questions:
- What are the decisions to be made? (scope)
- Who should be involved in those decisions and what are the roles? (responsibilities)
- How should the decisions be made? (processes)
- How should the decisions be implemented? (implementation)
You can provide tremendous clarity around every part of your intranet project by consistently returning to these four simple questions.
The 7 big decisions of intranet governance
In the realm of intranets there are many large and small decisions that need to be made. But a few decisions get a huge amount of attention and are critical to any intranet project or program:
- Who “owns” the intranet?
- What software will be used to power the intranet?
- How will the site be organized (navigation, information architecture)?
- What will go on the homepage?
- Who will own and update the main sections of centralized content?
- How will user-generated (collaborative) content be approved/managed?
- How will user access and content permissions be managed?
Without clear purpose, roles and responsibilities, decision-making processes and data these seven decisions can turn into political nightmares. We’ll lay out the concrete aspects of these decisions shortly. But first let’s look at a real-world example of governance in action.
A real-world example of applied governance
This useful example I’ve stolen from the wise Sam Marshall (@sammarshall) of Clearbox Consulting. It helps me think about “governance” in terms of the very real decisions I and other people make in our everyday lives.
Imagine a busy intersection in a big city. Imagine a snapshot of that intersection at rush hour. What do you see that reflects governance?
Visual manifestations of traffic governance
These are some of the concrete manifestations of traffic governance that we encounter daily. They help us apply the decisions of governance in our real life:
- Stop lights and stop signs
- Cross walks
- Parking spots and parking meters
- Buses and bus stops
- Streets with lane markings
Pre-determined traffic decisions (rules) people operate by:
These material, visible elements of governance help individuals act in accord with decisions, such as:
- Drive on the right side of the street (at least in the US, where I live)
- Stop at red lights
- Only park in designated areas
- Allow pedestrians to cross at certain times
- Stop behind school buses when they stop
What’s most impressive about this snapshot of governance at play is the fact that people are all operating by the rules (for the most part). They understand what’s expected of themselves and the other actors in the system.
This begs the question, “How do all of these people know about the rules and know how to follow them?” In the real world of traffic safety there are many support systems that reinforce the predetermined rules of traffic:
- Drivers training for EVERYBODY (training)
- Parents teaching their children about traffic safety, e.g. “look both ways before you cross!” (mentoring & informal education)
- Signs and systems communicating the rules (embedded visual instructions)
- Penalties for people who break the laws (disincentives)
These interpersonal activities help people understand the rules (the decisions) about how to drive and use the streets, along with the results of misbehavior.
Applying intranet governance
This brilliant (if I do say so myself) real-world example of governance inspires a few very practical questions about applying the decisions of your intranet governance:
- How will people learn the rules of the road? (Training? Mentoring? Instructions?)
- What contextual “signposts” will you create to help people make the right decisions? (Like “Walk” signals at crosswalks, bus stop street signage, etc.)
- Who will be responsible for monitoring activity?
- How will you respond to infractions/mistakes?
These sorts of practical questions are where the rubber of governance hits the road (what a brilliantly placed pun!). Many people think of intranet governance as being primarily about a set of official documents, but these actionable questions tell a very different story about what governance is and how to apply it.
The three big challenges of intranet governance
Three issues contribute more than anything else to intranet governance road blocks. These issues are highly interrelated and feed into each other like some sort of symbiotic parasitic subsistence relationship. But there are excellent strategies for dealing with all three of these problems.
Politics is about power and relationships. Internal company politics surfaces quickly as varied intranet stakeholders try to look after their own needs.
For example, the HR director is understaffed, so wants to put as little HR information as possible on the intranet because she thinks there just won’t be time to manage it. Or perhaps the IT Director is worried about maintaining control over the technology and looks at only the software options that seem easiest for his team to implement.
The problem of politics can stem from or be worsened by the following two issues.
#2: Lack of clear purpose
Have you ever seen what happens when two people share a vision and sense of purpose and work closely together to bring it to fruition? It’s a beautiful thing.
Unfortunately most intranet projects lack this clear purpose and do not aim to address specific business problems. This creates a vacuum which quickly fills with stakeholders’ personal agendas. The resulting tug-of-wars produce decisions that compromise on all the wrong things.
#3: Lack of data
I recently had to decide between two used cars to buy. One main criterion was the number of miles on each car’s odometer. Other data include the size of the engines, the basic features, the feel of driving the two cars, the model years and warranties.
All of this data came into play in helping me make my final decision. But imagine if I had none of it? What would I do if I just saw two similar-looking cars and had to choose between them?
In the world of intranet decision-making, data can play a critical role and almost answer some questions for you. But like with purpose, a lack of data creates a vacuum which politics quickly fills.
Five tips for successful intranet governance
#1: Clear purpose & focus
Purpose is like the navigational tools on a boat. Having a clear direction and knowing how to steer to get there lets you make course corrections when necessary and continually move in a steady direction. But without a navigation system, the boat simply drifts aimlessly, pushed in many directions or none at all by the wind, the currents, the waves and chance. Having a clear purpose for your intranet, especially one that includes concrete and relatable areas of focus, sets a clear direction and calms the seas for safe passage.
#2: Data, data, data
Data. It won’t answer your questions, but it can inform decisions. People can argue with other’s opinions, but you can silence a lot of arguments by bringing data into the room. Data can come from surveys, user research, usability testing, benchmarking, stakeholder interviews, external analysis, etc. They key is to collect and analyze the right data aimed at making the important decisions before your governance bodies.
#3: Clear decision-making processes
Process is important — just ask a baker. Skip a step, do things in the wrong order, or do one step improperly and you can easily ruin a batch of chewy toffee and chocolate chip cookies… or, you know, whatever. Often the worst way to conduct a decision-making meeting is to have people just start talking about the topic at hand. Instead, try a structured decision-making process like the K-J technique, variations of which I use in many types of situations.
#4: Recurring meetings for governance bodies
Basically, make governance an expected part of people’s jobs. Recurring meetings allow you to build upon previous decisions, report back on issues raised, and make governance groups more coherent. Consider having a standing agenda. Report on specific data consistently at each meeting. And provide sweets.
#5: Manage your one-on-one relationships
Some of the most effective politicians from recent history weren’t just brilliant leaders or strategists; they were relationship-builders. While it’s important to invest each governance body with its own sense of purpose and role, you also need to have individual relationships with members of the group. These relationships will strengthen group conversations and help you manage the overall group better.
Deciding to do intranet governance well
It takes a lot of time and effort to implement effective intranet governance. You must make a conscious decision to work at it.
But every moment you invest in good intranet governance will save you two or more minutes of argument, confusion and failed projects down the road. Good governance slows you down at first, but then paves the way for smooth sailing (and mixed metaphors, apparently).