Intranets in the worst of times

Sooner or later, something bad is going to happen in your organisation, and your digital workplace will be the place your colleagues go for information and support. You need to be ready.

Ten years ago this January, I left home extra early on the first day back from the Christmas break.

Something awful had happened to a colleague, and I needed to write something sensitive and current to put on the front page of the intranet.

As I was on the verge of publishing something I hated, the CEO walked in with a few words he said he’d “put together”. Far from being put together, it was outstanding, heartfelt, and compassionate. Within minutes, I had something ready to go live to the staff who were arriving and starting to log on.

That page was viewed by almost everyone in the company, and helped spur an international fund-raising effort. I had complete control of content on the home page, and we were able to set the right tone in a non-obtrusive but fitting way. To this day, I don’t know what I’d have done if my only option was a carousel with headlines and images.

In retrospect, we could have been a lot better prepared. In my time running that intranet we’d had to cover the deaths of the founder and a former company chair, but we were still caught out by something that was always a possibility.

Looking beyond the short-term

It’s a common complaint that intranets are treated as short-term projects when they need to be a consistent part of employees’ working lives. That thinking means that intranets aren’t conceived to take into account the certainties of company life.

Awful things happen – it’s only a matter of time – and it doesn’t have to take a high profile death to affect your colleagues deeply. But, if you only think of intranet news as CEO pronouncements, product news, personnel changes and occasional events, your intranet may not be ready to handle something significant.

Your intranet needs to be ready for a crisis

You need to spend time preparing. Ideally, this should be while planning your intranet, but doing this at any time is better than never.

Talk to colleagues and leaders about what crisis communications plans already exist. If there aren’t any, this may be your chance to lead.

Consider the kind of news that is likely to affect your organisation. Look in the media daily, and take time to reflect on what’s happening, and how you might approach such a story if it affected your business.

The more you look at the news, the better you’ll understand the intranet as a tool for emergency communications. Accessing information on the intranet can often be as simple as clicking on the home button in the browser.

For some organisations, the next crisis is only a matter of time from happening. This requires a lot more thought and connected thinking between the intranet and web teams, internal and external communications, HR, the board and other parts of the organisation such as legal or compliance.

This isn’t about you, and it isn’t about the intranet

This is about people having to work normally while under extreme stress, and how they can be reassured and supported.

And this could mean making changes to ensure that happens, possibly. Consider how major news events often start as confusing and contradictory and only become clearer later.

Your intranet should be designed to be able to react to these differing challenges. You probably don’t need to be ready for all eventualities, but you will benefit from considering how you might react from time to time. This is something you might consider for a team workshop or project.

Think about how intranet content is written for day-to-day use, particularly HR-related resources. How might information look on the worst day of an employee’s life? Amy Hupe’s excellent talk to SofaConf in June 2020 Designing Content For Emotionally Distressed Users is primarily for people designing web services, but anyone responsible for intranet content will learn from it.

Emotional distress may sound a strong term but, when highly stressed, employees can be distracted and more likely to make ill-informed decisions. In the face of uncertainty and speculation, people looking for quick answers might make all kinds of mistakes, with all kinds of knock-on effects.

One of Amy’s recommendations is to “reduce noise”, this makes sense for individual pages and, in a crisis, the home page too.

The emergency intranet home page

A modern cloud-based intranet is probably faster and more reliable than one on an old server sitting in a basement corner. It is unlikely to be overwhelmed by a wave of employees. However, bandwidth may be an issue, particularly when things are going wrong, and you may want to consider constructing a stripped-down version of your home page with just the information employees need, and all the extra content turned off.

There may be circumstances that radically change your organisation’s activities and you may choose to have alternative pages or designs ready for those moments. This may include being prepared for the death of a head of state. In the UK in 2021, this extended in some cases to the Queen’s husband the Duke of Edinburgh.

Getting the balance right…even for the good times

The bigger your organisation, the more competition you’re going to have for top-level content, and it is easy to get into the cycle of keeping up rather than one of analysis, reflection and preparation.

Bad things will happen within your organisation, it’s only a matter of time. Even if you aren’t fully prepared, that is very different from being completely unprepared.

However, this isn’t about you. It is about giving your colleagues, and therefore the whole organisation, the support they need at the time they most need it.

References and additional reading

Five Ways the Intranet Can Help During Difficult Times – Suzie Robinson (suzie-robinson.com)

Designing Content For Emotionally Distressed Users – Amy Hupe at SofaConf June 2020 on Vimeo

The lessons of history – the evolution of intranets | Intranet Focus | Intranet strategy & management

Life & Death Design by Katie Swindler | Chicago, IL (lifeanddeathdesign.com)

Flash.gotoAndStop(2020)

Pixelated website background with two flash logos

As I write, Flash plugin is about be wiped off millions of computers around the world, and the web will become a safer place. I’m not sad about this this closing of a chapter in the web’s history, although I do want to remember Flash for some of the bad and a lot of the good.

It’s the early 2000s in Hammersmith, London. The banquet hall of the Hilton Hotel has hundreds, possibly thousands of seats facing a brightly lit stage. We walk in to Rick Wakeman-esque organ music, and are treated by Macromedia to the state of the art in Flash including a hotel booking tool that updates on the fly.

“That’s it,” I think, “they’ve won the web.” I wouldn’t need to continue to battle to get site designs to look perfect on every browser, it could just work in Flash. We could have real-time interactions and get away from page-by-page transactions for even minor changes. Of course, that’s not what happened.

Screenshot of iHotellier application in Flash. Three panels across the width of the display contain in turn: date selection, room selection, and payment details.
Screenshot of the iHotelier interface for the Broadmoor Hotel – from https://articles.uie.com/potential_of_flash/

I’d been tinkering with Flash since 2000 when it started emerging as a more practical alternative to Macromedia’s own Shockwave. Like many, I played around with transitions, and then tried out encoding simple physics, and various elements built to operate in image-sized windows on HTML pages. Then came the era of full page websites in Flash, a strategy I fought but I was unable to reject. Ultimately, we built a very attractive website for my employer at the time.

BDP website from around 2004. Large format image of the Glasgow Science Centre with introductory text plus three news items, and a navigation menu.
The BDP website from around 2004

What’s funniest looking back at this design, is the tiny size of the overall Flash movie at 760×468 pixels. The download size was small too, at around 64kb, to minimize any need for a tedious loading animation, and nearly all content was loaded on demand. Background image loading first used a tiny 1-3kb image, and cross-faded in the higher resolution 50-80kb image once it had loaded. You might note the use of the Frutiger font too. I’d later run project pages on this Flash site plus a number of HTML sites from a single database.

So, with a relatively small plug-in, we could have pixel-perfect cross-browser design, exciting animation, AJAX before it became a thing, progressive loading and even low-bandwidth alternatives, all in a single package and years ahead of HTML at a substantially lower level of complexity.

Yet, I found I was more than happy to take a step backwards and return to building websites in HTML. I’d learned a lot about JavaScript through Flash’s equivalent ActionScript, and the Prototype and jQuery libraries took a lot of the pain out of developing. Meanwhile, CSS had reached the point of being robust and consistent enough, and sites like CSS Zen Garden changed the way we looked at it. Furthermore, we could manage content in far better ways than we could in Flash.

To me, Flash would be best for games (the Grow series, Flight, Hedgehog Launch were a few favourites), and would find a life of its own as the only practical tool for video. It would also become synonymous with intrusive and ghastly adverts, and enjoy more than a decade of high-profile vulnerabilities.

I wouldn’t work with it much more. I’d build a graphing tool, and a few interactive apps and newsletter tools for intranets, but it wasn’t what was needed most of the time. It’s now eight years since I had to do anything in a Flash timeline, and I haven’t missed using it.

It saddens me that Macromedia, and then Adobe didn’t push Flash towards its potential. It was always going to struggle without a free creation environment, and later versions seemed to become more complicated for fewer benefits.

While I’d been arguing for standards-based HTML, it really took the 2007 announcement that the iPhone would not support Flash to get the attention of my directors.

The Apple announcement alone would not be enough as it would take years to build up a significant base of users, and I suspect the arrival of Google Chrome and an ecosystem of powerful javascript engines brought usable web technologies at a far lower cost. Ultimately, Adobe was probably not the custodian that Flash needed.

Spending half a decade working in Flash made me a better user-centred designer, and a better programmer too. I came to better appreciate working with content in limited space, and the timeline helped me understand designing with time as one of the dimensions. Some of that, I’ll even say was fun.

I won’t miss Flash, but it showed us the heights and depths of what the web could achieve. I’ll remember that fondly, and I’m glad it existed.

Footnote: other people’s reactions

I knew I wouldn’t be alone in wanting to bid farewell to Flash, and it is fun to see some very different opinions. Flash, for me, was a tool for building on the web, but for others it was an animation tool or something else.

Review: Introduction to Content Design

Montage of images relating to the course Introduction to Content Design

“Work on end-to-end journeys to help users complete their goals”

In September 2020, the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) published the Introduction to Content Design course on FutureLearn. The course takes a suggested 16 hours over four weeks and is free to take, although you will need to pay for tests and certification.

I took the course to learn more about how content design is applied in reality, and also to gauge its potential for content in intranets and elsewhere inside organisations. This review will cover my impressions of the course, how well it introduces the subject, and how valuable it might be for internal content.

Week 1:  Introducing content design

After an introduction to the concept of content design, the course moves into talking about understanding your users and their needs. This may be strange if you’re expecting a guide to creating content for online pages, but this is essential to the discipline of content design

User needs aren’t optional extras. When we get them right, they’re the irreducible core of what any service is there for.

So, by talking about user stories, acceptance criteria, and user journeys, the student is given a framework for understanding whether the content meets real needs. Here, I’d like to have seen more practical exercises, to help embed these skills.

Week 2: Accessibility and user research

Continuing the first week’s framework of meeting user needs, we move onto the themes of understanding those needs, and of ensuring that content can actually be used. Internally, there’s a lot of resistance to building accessibility into digital tools, but it’s not only the right thing to do, it leads to better services.

The section on user research is a good introduction to the subject, going through preparation, planning, designing and running good interviews. For me, it falls short in not discussing how to organise your results, or communicating those to stakeholders.

The week concludes by discussing designing for a range of digital skills. Working on digital workplace tools, it is just too easy to assume high levels of digital skills and end up excluding your own colleagues.

“People shouldn’t notice good content”

Week 3: Content and style

The third week is about making readable content that is understandable to your user.

This covers structuring page content, and effective use of headings. It was nice to see acknowledgement that the F-pattern doesn’t always happen, but I’d like to have seen more concrete examples and discussion of approaches.

There’s a short tour of style guides, but more of an expectation that you go and digest the GOV.UK guide. This is followed by an even briefer plug for the use of plain English.

In the middle of this section is a discussion of using paper and browser-based prototyping to mock-up content. It also introduces the highlighter test, which is really the only way the course discusses testing content.

Comparison of two versions of the gov.uk page for bank holiday information. The older version has a table of bank holidays across multiple years. The newer version prioritises the next bank holiday, plus the next few.
Before and after (left and right respectively) example of bank holiday information

Week 4: Content lifecycle and building better content

The last module, to me at least, is weaker than the preceding sections.

The content lifecycle (below) is focused on the production of content, but it lacks discussion on how it might fit into different models within a CMS or intranet.

  • Content discovery and research
  • Design and writing
  • Peer review
  • Fact check
  • Publish, maintain and iterate
  • Remove and archive

The section on metrics leaps into talking about Google Analytics with little context. Its conclusion to iterate and improve frequently is extremely important, especially in the case study of how driving test booking needs changed over time (Redesigning content to match changing user behaviour). Importantly, the article also touches on thinking about search results.

There are brief discussions of pair writing and content crits which could have been expanded somewhat. Pair writing with a subject matter expert is a valuable tool that speeds up and reduces potential conflict in the content creation process. This was written as though all organisations will simply agree to support this approach.

The course touches briefly on A/B testing before tailing-off with a discussion on skills and career progression.

Tests and certification

The end of module tests and thereby certification are only available to those who pay for either the course £52, or a year-long FutureLearn subscription for £199.

The tests are quite short and attainable with a pass mark of 70% . Like so much e-learning, it is easy to get caught up in working your way through the course but miss some of the detail along the way. I gained a lot from a second run-through to make mind-maps for this review.

Conclusion

The course is designed to broaden knowledge of content design as practised within UK government, but it will be of great value to many others. For some, it will be the discipline and practice of content design, but for others it will be the understanding of a user-centred approach in a broad ecosystem.

I don’t think it will leave you completely satisfied. I would have benefited from more exercises, plus a look at content design beyond government. Also, and this may be a flaw of content design itself, there is nothing on handling more complex information.

Intranet professionals will get a lot of value out of taking the course, but may see content design as more of a tool than a discipline, perhaps to be used for sections like HR or compliance where results can more easily be measured. Elsewhere, it may be a struggle to win over stakeholders without a focus on attractive and emotive content.

I would particularly recommend the course to the many people who have found themselves to be the solo intranet person, especially those with little grounding in user-centred design. This will give you sound principles to build upon, in user needs, accessibility, content creation and management, plus ongoing measurement and improvement.

For larger organisations, I believe content design could be transformative. Instead of delays and other friction between divisions and departments, alignment along user-first principles could mean faster and more measurable creation of content. This could be centralised or distributed, and ultimately could benefit everything from learning content to support materials.

References

Recent learning: Content, data, and collaboration

Close up of a slide showing slightly nested circles, going from the central circle outwards read: user, interface, user touchpoints, socio-technical system

Last week’s learning was a big week of content and data, with a touch of governance.

I completed the Introduction to Content Design course by FutureLearn and GDS. Prompted by Lizzie Bruce, I’ll be writing a review for the course’s suitability for people responsible for intranet content. In the meantime, my overall opinion is the course itself won’t make you a content designer, you’ll have to put in the practise yourself, but you will have a much greater appreciation for creating accessible content that meets the real needs of users. The course is free to take, but you’ll have to pay to take the tests and for the certificate. 

Since working on the Barclays Global Academies, I think a lot about how content and data can work across boundaries in an organisation, and it’s always good to hear other people’s views. Forrester analyst Kathleen Pierce presented a stimulating argument on The Rise of Content Atomization as an approach to support AI and personalisation, and suggested that breaking down content can create all kinds of organisational efficiencies. 

Kathleen touched on another theme covered by Professor Karen Cham in the final week of the Data-Driven User Experience Design https://www.techcircustv.com/driva, that of governance in the era of exploding quantities of data. This is absolutely something that organisations will have to cope with. I thoroughly enjoyed the six week whistle-stop course about applying data and UX to all kinds of problems, and hope to go back and explore some of the thinking at a more leisurely pace. 

Everybody is present in the process

Paul Epworth

Finally, one of my long-time favourite podcasts, Sodajerker on Songwriting, not only interviews some of the greatest songwriters, it also sheds light on the nature of creativity and collaboration. In a recent episode, musician and producer Paul Epworth is asked about his his studios which don’t feature the traditional control room. Paul says that he likes the vibe, and that “everybody is present in the process and, even if only one person is performing, everyone is there listening and passively participating.” It struck me that, just as studio design has followed a path having a mechanical need for sound isolation, that workplace design might have been stuck in its own rut. Are there assumptions that office design, and possibly remote working tools, that actually work against that passive participation?

This was first published at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/notes-learning-content-data-simon-thompson/

Life changing: a tribute to Intranetters and the intranet community

Ten years ago, I attended my first intranet community event, the appropriately-named Intranetters. Looking back, as plans take shape for a 2020 revival of the meet-up, I can see it as the starting point of a chain of events that is reasonable to call life changing.

I actually felt nervous, a fraud almost, as I stepped out of Temple tube station on my way to the event at British American Tobacco. My boss, the director responsible for the company intranet, had just let me know he wasn’t going to make it and I felt rather exposed.

The welcome, of course, was warm, and I quickly found myself in conversation. Even so, it was hard to shake the view that these people were doing bigger, more important things. Then the talks began, and they felt bigger and more successful too.

Slowly, though, I began picking up details that I could use, realising these experiences weren’t so different from my own. And the principles I’d learned from years of building websites, thinking about user experience, of wrangling SharePoint and running an intranet, meant I felt I had something to contribute.

Over the course of 2010, I’d attend a number of community events and jointly organise four more. At work, I’d ask to move from information-led websites to a new role building and running the intranet.

This career change was largely inspired by the people I’d met, and their friendliness and desire to contribute. Few things delight me more than watching someone realise, as I’d done, that their problems aren’t unique and there is a whole community ready and willing to support them.

Through this community, I have been able to do more. Through these connections, my work on SharePoint was highlighted in a report by StepTwo, and later appeared in Essential Intranets. My first roles as a contractor came via people I’d met and paved the way for ongoing work over the last eight years. Conversations and connections led me to developing the idea behind my Lessons from Learning talk for Intranet Now, and it was a professional highlight to be asked to take it to IntraTeam in Copenhagen last year.

And it’s not just me either. Through this likeminded, supportive community, I’ve seen other capable people find new opportunities and do amazing things.

So it is particularly exciting to see a revived Intranetters group getting together. At the time of writing, there is a survey asking for your feedback, please complete it at https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/Intranetters2020

For news of events, please follow @intranetters on Twitter

Learning Technologies – a digital workplace perspective

Long exposure image of the Learning Technologies exhibition hall at Excel

Last week I got to spend a day and a half at the Learning Technologies exhibition in London, and had many interesting conversations. As I’ve commented before, learning tech feels like a strange parallel universe where intranets barely exist, so would this year’s show be different?

Something borrowed, something blue

There is a concern in Learning and Development (L&D) that too many organisations throw e-learning at anything that looks like a problem. E-learning is, I suppose, the core of “learning technology” and naturally there were many designers, developers, providers, aggregators, distributors and Learning Management Systems on display.

Looking at these learning delivery tools, I couldn’t shake the impression of follow-the-leader (or next big thing), and lots of solutions for apparent problems. There were many LMS or LXP designs with card-based designs, and a good proportion of them were coloured blue. I might have suffered a mild case of déjà vu, especially since many also included functionality to “favourite” items—something we introduced at Barclays nearly six years ago.

It feels that no-one has addressed what I call the playlist problem. It doesn’t take long for favourites to become unmanageable, and I didn’t see approaches for sharing playlists of recommended learning, for managers or HR people to add or manage other items. Neither did I see course rating or feeding back to raise standards. The LMS stands are some of the busiest, and finding the right people to talk to is hard when you’re not a corporate buyer.

Serving people in their broader needs

It’s always nice to find surprises at a trade show, and I had a few “do people really pay for that?” moments. Of course, there are very tangible needs for products that handle learner management, co-ordination for trainers and bookings, testing and invigilation. Similarly, tools for coaching and mentoring can be valuable, but I struggle to see how well they can work as a destination rather than being integrated into the digital workplace.

There were lots of apps aimed at front-line workers, particularly aimed at collaboration. It’s hard to tell from a cursory look, but Yoobic could be as useful as the likes of SpeakAp and LumApps. Looking at Squadify, I began thinking about the benefits of a low-cost ready-to-launch app: could it be used to as a temperature spot-check across a business before designing bespoke training?

Meeting-meets-collaborative-sketching app Klaxoon was there too, making its pitch as a training tool.

Whatfix presentation describing the impact of using WhatFix: user adoption increase from 10% to 50%; data accuracy increased by 20%; training creation reduced from 80 hours to 3; time taken to make changes from hours to less than 10 minutes.

One practical tool that I found was WhatFix. It’s an overlay tool that provides all kinds of contextual help, and appears useful in creating other forms of training too.

I believe that there is only going to be more learning content to manage, as it becomes easier to build individual learning resources or curate en masse. Aside from the many libraries of content (courses, microlearning, videos, ebooks and even ebook summaries), there were tools for authoring, animating, managing assets, documentation, and probably a lot more. These resources appeared to be dedicated to learning, but clearly run the risk of duplicated content.

Content, content everywhere…

If I were feeling ungenerous, I’d say there seemed to be even more ways of accumulating content debt, and building an even less manageable library of resources. Some of these things are possible within a digital workplace, while other tools need to show greater potential for integration.

From content to connectivity

Learning technologies are built on connectivity, indeed LMSes would be pointless without protocols like SCORM and xAPI. So it puzzles me why too often they tend to be a destination and not open to integration into other tools. It was good to see LMS365 exhibiting again, but the team were kept busy by a continuous stream of attendees, so it proved difficult to see how the product has developed. I note the recent announcement of their new partnership with Content Formula, and hope to see some interesting integrations.

In many respects, the most exciting thing I saw was Signature’s PROPEL platform which makes the connections between LMSes for you. This could be for a migration, or it could be to unify learning management systems across an organisation. It appears possible to connect disparate sources of training, or even create tools to bring useful learning information into the intranet.

I didn’t see as much as I’d hoped for enterprise social network integrations, and only a handful of chatbots were on display. One tool combining the two is Filtered’s AI-powered Magpie (this article shows it working in Teams), their stand was consistently busy, so I take that as a good sign of both the product and the level of overall interest.

Another company talking about AI is Elephants Don’t Forget. which supports learning with mini quizzes and reminders that adapt on the fly to employees’ answers and other factors. It’s the kind of thing that could integrate well onto intranet home pages or on more “doing” parts of the intranet. It’s important to know where training is most or least effective, and I also enjoyed talking to Watershed which provides an analytics platform. It can extend the idea of training data through the likes of xAPI to all kinds of employee interactions, and could lead to useful and timely insights.

Conclusion

Most telling was the first seminar I attended. Social training tools and content company Hive curated a good discussion on how to create a culture of learning. Many of their points weren’t about learning, but went beyond L&D into change and adoption.

Walking around the exhibition, I kept feeling that learning tech risks solving problems that have already been solved, and potentially creating multiple shadow digital workplaces. This suggests to me that there are much better opportunities for conversations and co-operation between L&D, intranet and digital workplace, HR, Comms, IT, compliance and more.

Everything I’ve argued, for example in Lessons from Learning – the post, suggests there’s plenty of room in the digital workplace for learning, but there’s a long way to go to make room in learning for the digital workplace.

Lessons from Learning – the post

In 2019, I was thrilled to be invited to present my talk Lessons in Learning to the IntraTeam conference in Copenhagen. This is a summary of the majority of the talk, where I argued that intranet professionals need to pay more attention to learning and development.

This talk originates a year before at IntraTeam Event 2018, as I found myself asking why almost no-one was talking about the connection between intranets and learning. The project I’d been working on, the Barclays Global Curriculum, had earned an Intranet Innovation Award in 2015, but I didn’t see people building upon that. The same month, I’d been to the Learning Technologies exhibition in London which felt like a world where intranets didn’t exist.

You have new mandatory training…

For some people, compulsory training is their only experience of the Learning Management System… and quite possibly their only exposure to learning and development. Yet, and I’m guilty of this, all too often the link to the LMS is tucked away into a remote corner of the intranet.

The more I looked at things, the more it became clear that we need to look beyond learning as purely about developing people and skills, but as something to drive change and develop the collaboration that will define the digital workplace. 

And we need to make sure the intranet is core to the business, its people, the digital workplace, continuous change, the learning it has to do.

So, why learning?

I particularly like Satya Nadella’s characterisation of the turnaround at Microsoft as moving from a “know it all culture” to a “learn it all culture”.

It isn’t enough for businesses to become faster, cheaper, or more efficient. John Hagel at the Deloitte Center for the Edge argues “large organizations need to shift from providing scalable efficiency to providing scalable learning.”

And it’s about skills too. Kelly Palmer, the Chief Learning Officer at Degreed, says most CEOs think that they will need to re-skill a quarter of their workforce to be “future ready”. 

For me, these are about building a culture where staff development goes beyond box ticking, so that employees are informed, engaged, and have the skills to help the organisation sense and adjust to changes in the world.

These are the kind of skills regarded as important in the 2018 Future of Jobs Report from the World Economic Forum:

  • Analytical thinking and innovation
  • Active learning and learning strategies
  • Creativity
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem solving

They say these in-demand skills will become more competitive and costly for companies and “there is an opportunity to support the upskilling of their current workforce toward new (and technologically reorganized) higher-skilled roles to ensure that their workforce achieves its full potential.”

In Future-proofing the Workforce, Adecco describes “the acquisition of skills as a means of future-proofing” and recommend employers “awaken a sense of responsibility in workers. ” It quotes a professional training provider, General Assembly “if companies decide to reskill and redeploy employees instead of laying off and rehiring, they could save up to $136,000 per person.”

Both reports talk abort building a learning culture, but does that belong in learning and development, change management, internal communications or elsewhere? It’s certainly not something we can do in a tool that people go to once or twice a year.

So, I’d like to contend that a well-designed intranet can contribute to building a stronger learning culture in many ways.

The Barclays Global Academies project came out of the then leadership’s desire to rebuild its public reputation, and part of this would be to improve the workplace culture, particularly in teamwork, self-management and leadership skills.

My involvement came initially at the SharePoint development level, but I was involved in a lot of the contributions to the overall user experience, content flows, and nearly all of the tools for administration.

The project started with lists of items pointing to resources in the LMS and elsewhere, but user testing revealed how users scrolled past the item titles. Then a team member suggested  a Pinterest-style card layout, which I was able to prototype using live data. It made the same content stand out, and immediately more useful, especially when we built in “pin” and sort functionality.

To be truly useful, the Global Curriculum, as it was then called, could not be all things to all people. The vision was to build academies with curated content for specific employee groups, each built on the foundation of the existing shared content.

I was one of a small team making this work in SharePoint, but a lot of others were involved, including: UX designers, content strategists and copywriters, designers, project and channels managers, a search specialist, learning experts including curriculum specialists, trainers, training designers and others.

And that brings me to my first lesson.

Lesson 1: You cannot do this on your own…

…but you, as an intranet manager, can do a lot, and this is why I think this is the first step.

  • Talk to the people involved in training
  • Start investigating their pain points
  • Use your skills in governance, content design and interaction design to help make a difference
  • Look for broader themes and commonalities
  • And keep looking wider, for the skills that are being under-represented, for the knowledge that can unlock the potential in your organisation – and turn it into one of continuous improvement
  • And use your intranet as a shop window

If you’re not using your intranet to talk more about your people, their skills, and what’s exciting and possible, then building learning into your news processes is definitely your next step.

Lesson 2: Sharpen up your comms

When we bring in learning of all kinds, we can start to create a home page that is about positive growth, and shows the business as it might become. “New security training is available” is dull, but it can be rewritten to make it relevant and give it a point such as “Learn to protect your team and clients”. It gets even better when you make it about people and feel personal. Here “Security Wise Saira saves client £80k” celebrates the success of successful training. There is almost always a training angle in a good news story.

Start reinforcing the message that learning is part of the business

Promote employee-driven activities such as Communities of Practice (CoPs), and be public in your commitment to industry standards. My made up headline “make it big in big data” demonstrates company investment, a vision of the future business, and potential opportunities for staff.

However, the more you explore learning, the more you’ll discover it’s a personal thing and it scales badly.

Lesson 3: Curation is king

Curation, as I see it, is finding a balance between helping people explore huge amounts of training material, and giving them the kind of expert guidance that helps them do their jobs.

There is a huge amount of training material out there, and it’s only going to grow as the cost of creating it comes down. I’ve heard training professionals say their number one competitor is YouTube.

At its simplest, you should use your experts as curators to design better starting points, and use your understanding of users and their needs to create something of value.

  • Build on information architecture principles to help people find the right materials
  • But also make it easy for users to explore
  • A successful project will outlive the current corporate structure, so make sure you build in flexibility
  • Use organisational expertise to create learning journeys
    • These may be simple sequences or more complex decision trees
    • They may be long programmes
    • A skills diagnostic tool may help get people to the right training
  • Ensure search helps people find the results they need

Remember, employees may be self-conscious about the training they’re doing or admitting to gaps in their knowledge. They may need reassuring that they won’t be judged for following prescribed training.

Even if you don’t have access to domain experts, then there are other shortcuts that can go a long way to helping. A “Workshop finder” connects people with potential courses close to where they work. Do watch out, these can be a real struggle to keep up to date without proper resources and commitment from your stakeholders.

Lesson 4: Allow room to grow

What we built over 6 years scaled from a proof of concept, to a single site and then several. Then after consolidation work, we were able to extend it to 30 with an optimised roll-out process.

It was a huge benefit to have had to start with a very limited scope, and even to be limited by what we could do within SharePoint. It forced us to be creative, and it gave us time to understand our content, how people were using it, and how we could improve what we were offering.

A connected intranet platform

Naturally, the impact starts on the home page page but goes beyond that. Relevant links put learning materials in front of every user wherever they are doing work, especially where an employee needs specific training. With proper consideration for use cases, that would include mobile platforms.

Microservices

It feels strange to look at all the benefits of a digitally-connected workplace, and then force everything onto a single platform, or a series of single platforms. What appears to be a single web page or app could be integrating information from all kinds of sources. Imagine the value in a travel booking page being able to tell you that you need to complete risk assessment training for your destination.

Mobile

Corporate leaders love the idea of employees doing their training on the bus or at home, in their own time, of course! But it doesn’t always work that way. I’ve heard people disappointed with the results, and I’ve heard of others who were thrilled and say it drove up staff engagement.

Video

And that goes for video too. Get it wrong and you’ve got video after video of men in suits telling you how important something is, yet it’s buried at the bottom of the page after all those videos. James Robertson, a long time ago, highlighted an incredibly popular video from an Australian supermarket showing colleagues how to use the staple function on their photocopiers – it’s something simple that meets a real need. 

Virtual and Augmented Reality

I think we’re still learning about AR and VR. Geert Nijs from KBC talked at IntraTeam in 2018 about his adventures with VR and shared some valuable lessons. Also, look out for an interesting video showing Verizon use of VR to train store staff in how to react to armed robberies.

Microlearning

Microlearning is a broad name for training materials that are short, but hopefully of practical value.  I think you can include short quizzes and other tools to help reinforce training. 

Chatbots

Everyone was talking about Chatbots last year, but perhaps they’ve still got a way to go before they’re really useful and so much depends on the AI behind them. Talking with vendors at the Learning Technology show, one vendor was excited at how much data they had, another was far more cautious. The big question that organisations are waking up to, is who owns that data?

Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning

For those of us who’ve seen decades of promises of machine intelligence, it’s easy to be dismissive. I’d suggest AI is only as good as your data and models, but keep an eye out for simple enhancements such as image classification, auto-translation, plug-in sentiment analysis and meaning extraction.

Gamification

Gamified training has been the next big thing for ages, but it is interesting to hear it is having some success, Vodafone Ukraine have recently been talking about using it to engage call-centre workers. 

Big Data

Whatever the technology, it will generate valuable usage data which we need back into the system, to continue to making it better.

Learning Experience Platform (LXP)

This is the big buzz in Learning Tech, in some respects the successor to the LMS. I see these as aggregating learning resources, testing and other elements, and illustrate the the real value in technology – to simplify the interfaces and bypass a lot of the fiddly stuff. But the LXP is still being sold as a destination.

What I’m trying to suggest is there’s [something] valuable in using technology as a uniting factor to help people work and learn in the same place.

This is how workplace learning expert Jane Hart sees it – she calls it a seamless working and learning environment – and I like it a lot.

This is my redrawing of Jane’s diagram with, at its core, a collaboration platform – Jane’s talking about Slack or Microsoft Teams – with here Learning and Development’s responsibilities on the right, and the tools for managing a user’s own learning, as well as for team learning and collaboration, on the left.

What I like most is the idea of employees managing their own learning. I’ve not touched on digital literacy, I do think it’s important, but I don’t think we should just be teaching digital skills for today’s technology, but also teaching the skills that will help people continue to learn as technology changes.

Intranets, whatever people say, bring incredible value, and it’s not just the emotional connections of news and company history, there’s a structural work-related element too. And we, as intranet professionals have a lot to contribute.

So, why learning? I’ve come to think that learning should be core to the digital workplace. It’s a massive area, yet we can start with a few small steps.

I believe only good can come out of closer integration between learning and the digital workplace.

Everything you know about learning is wrong…and what might that mean?

Nick Shackleton-Jones on stage

Nick Shackleton-Jones is an entertaining and occasionally puckish speaker, and kept the Brighton audience for last night’s Tilt Talk on their toes with jokes, challenging questions, short activities and giant marshmallow-throwing.

And that wasn’t just playfulness, but illustrating one of Nick’s key points about how people learn: that we are much more likely to remember things when we are engaged and active. He joked that “something has gone horribly wrong”, that in spite of everything now known about learning, the audience was sitting there waiting to hear from “the sage on the stage.”

Drawing on differences between learning and education, Nick discussed the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve which, he argued, only shows “human memory is very good at throwing out rubbish.” And so, leads onto his particular theory as described in his book How People Learn.

Learning is emotional

In the Affective Context Model, Nick argues that learning is only made of emotional responses, from which the memories are reconstructed. This got me thinking about what might count as emotions, and also how I really got into cooking not from TV chefs and their overproduced programmes, but from the kind of shows that showed live cooking.

An important point here is that if we are engaged and motivated to learn, an educator merely needs to provide the resources. This is the Pull condition or what Nick calls “strong affective context”. In the “weak affective context” or Push condition, we need to provide experiences, narrative and more so that unmotivated learners become motivated.

Slide "but when to do which". A spectrum of activities going from Push or 'care less' to Pull or 'care more' respectively: experience, story, animation, guide, checklist.

Below "Push": The organisation wants me to: be convinced, feel inspired or engaged, and understand why.

Below "Pull": I want: support and guidance, simple practical stuff, to understand how

Describing some of his work at BP, Nick described a very user-centred approach to understanding real needs. Don’t talk to stakeholders “about topics,” Nick says, “talk about what people need to do,” and then talk to those people about how to meet those needs.

In talks like this, we expect to hear about things that are exciting and innovative, but it was the inclusion of more ordinary tools that made me pay attention. These included factsheets and checklists that allow people to explore and understand a subject, and to help them take the right actions.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised as I’m a fan of tools built for explorability. The Design Process I helped build at BDP allowed different professionals to understand their responsibilities during any stage in a building’s design and construction. Also at BDP, redesigning the website, I made it a key principle that there would be no dead-ends in the primary information.

But, it’s not just about learning…

As I got to think about the importance of emotions in learning, it struck me that the same principles held true in internal communications and culture change. This shouldn’t have surprised me, as I’ve previously argued that learning is how organisations change.

It shouldn’t surprise me, or anyone working in learning, change, comms, or intranets, that this is all interconnected. We are all trying to win the limited attention of the same beleaguered employees, and that won’t work in the longer-term if the surprises become predictable.

That leaves listening and understanding as the tools we should all use. We can build tools that effectively support exploration and understanding, ones that can push users into the right learning, without creating too much noise for our colleagues. Choosing when and when not to use emotional hooks may be the most important thing we do.

Nick Shackleton-Jones is @shackletonjones on Twitter and his book How People Learn is available from publishers Kogan Page, or order it from your local independent bookshop.

Reflecting on 31 Days of Creativity

Bright orange page with caption "You are the visionary - imagining the impossible"

For communications consultant Helen Reynolds (@helreynolds on Twitter) January 2020 has been an inspiring month. She’s pushed a whole bunch of people beyond their comfort zones in her #31daysOfCreativity challenge. Here, I’m reflecting on what I’ve done and what I’ve learned.

Day one saw me fighting my journalistic instinct of not wanting to write a story where none existed, and to imagine a headline for what made a successful 2020 for me.

Continue reading “Reflecting on 31 Days of Creativity”