Over the last four decades or so, IT systems have transformed organisations and delivered some big productivity gains, by automating and streamlining core processes like IT and HR. But by focusing on big-ticket macro systems, we overlook the impact of the micro.
Employees are, for the most part, committed to doing a good job. All too often, though, the organisations we work for don’t make it easy. Getting work done means overcoming tens of inefficiencies every single day.
Often these are small, affecting only a specific team or type of role. Others are more widespread, and affect almost everyone. But together these affect the overall productivity of organisations, and those minor irritants and pain points start to stack up and leave people feeling frustrated and disengaged.
At the same time, the continued reliance on manual processes or workarounds leads to missed opportunities, lost productivity and duplication of effort.
As intranet managers, we can do something about that.
In 2004, Clay Shirky wrote an essay on what he called Situated Software; “software designed for a particular social situation or context”. Some people have described it was “opportunistic software”.
He predicted that “the design center of a dozen users, so hard to serve in the past, may become normal practice… we’ll see a rise in these small-form applications”.
And he was right; the emergence of the smartphone, in particular, has given rise to a landscape in which whatever you need to do, there’s an app for that. But where we’re really seeing the value of small-form applications designed for their own specific social context is on intranets.
Take, for example, Framestore, who have a visual effects project management tool on their intranet. It’s a custom-built workflow management tool, supporting the organisation’s core business by helping artists manage their visual effects projects. A specific need for a specific group of people, removing the pain points to help make the working day a bit easier.
The engineering firm Arup have a range of these kind of things, from a project management tool to a mobile app that allows people to crate work portfolios for sales on the move.
This is, to my mind, the holy grail of web projects; turning the difficult and complicated into a good user experience that precisely meets the needs of its user group.
Like Shirky’s idea of situated software, this approach to intranet design does not embrace scale, generality or completeness as virtues; instead, the focus is on making a product which is designed for a specific group of people in a specific context performing a particular task or set of tasks.
And this is where so many intranet projects fall down. Analysts and managers fail to see the value in an application which benefits only a few hundred users performing a specific task. Instead, projects grow in scope until they’re attempting to meet the needs of myriad groups performing all manner of different tasks – and doing none of them well.
It’s argued that you need scale because web development is so expensive. Yet so much of that expense comes from the requirements of scale itself.
Design, development, testing and release becomes harder and more complex the larger a project is. If a project precisely meets the needs of 200 users, is it necessary to can it in favour of one which less precisely meets the needs of 2000? The former is cheaper and quicker to build, and more likely to meet the identified need.
This kind of thing doesn’t need to be personalised; it is personal to the group from its very inception. The bespoke nature of situated software – or intranet development – means it’s guaranteed not to work at the scale generic apps do, but for that same reason it can work in ways generic software can’t.
Framestore’s animation workflow app isn’t going to scale – but it’s because it doesn’t scale that it meets the needs of its users so well.
Designing for your own users and not generic users, development is grounded in the user community from the start. The result is form-fit tools which more precisely meet the needs of users.
There are thousands of different ways that intranets can deliver tangible benefits – from streamlining a process, to smoothing a pain point, or simply injecting some fun into the working environment.
You might – but you probably don’t – need an ESN idiot filter, or a fridge cam, or a meeting room booking tracker. The important thing to remember is that by identifying user needs, delivering tools that work for your users, even just small groups of users, in order to help them do their jobs better, intranets can deliver real business value.
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4 Sharon O'Dea - Intranet features you need right now - Intranet Now
THE RIGHT TOOL
Deliver business value by meeting
your own organisation’s specific
- Automating simple tasks
- Meeting local business needs
- Use intranet functionality to
overcome existing challenges
IT has automated the big systems
But we’re forced to overcome tens
of small inefficiencies every day
“software designed for a particular
social situation or context”
- Doesn’t embrace scale,
generality or completeness
- Focused instead on designing
for a specific need and group of
By designing for your own users
and not generic users,
development is grounded in the
user community from the start.
The result is form-fit tools which
more precisely meet the needs of