The Dream Team? Or Nightmare? – Microsoft and Yammer

Yesterday Microsoft confirmed the news Bloomberg reported 12 days ago: Microsoft buys 4-year old Yammer for $1.2bn.

Wow! This really has blown the game wide open. I will be honest (and apologies to my friends at Yammer) but I did have some concerns about Yammer being maybe a little too social (vs collaborative) and that it was slightly handicapped by the more limited level of integration with SharePoint and Microsoft Office suite which, lets face it, is pretty essential for most organisations (although Yammer was working on this already).

However, this partnership must have the others (i.e. GoogleJive, Chatter and Newsgator) running a little scared. And not without reason as the potential opportunities of this union could be massive.

The benefits are easy to see: the ease-of-use of Yammer, fully integrated  with SharePoint, Office 365, MS Dynamics and Skype is pretty exciting. If done well this will catapult it ahead of the competition and provide a seriously powerful collaborative platform. Add to that the investment capabilities of Microsoft, and this has got to be a partnership made in heaven.

However, as is to be expected when this kind of news is revealed, the doom-sayers are in a high state of excitement.

Not everyone is a Microsoft fan (suggested by the CEO of Jive) – although this may well be true, I dont think we will see people leaving Yammer in their droves just because Microsoft is now involved. First of all, most multinational businesses I work with have SharePoint and MS Office running in some shape or form and therefore are not Microsoft averse. But more importantly, considering the effort it takes to get a social collaboration structure up and running successfully (even with the easy-to-use Yammer) , I don’t think companies are likely to abandon their efforts and/or switch to an alternative platform just because Microsoft is on the scene.

Microsoft dwarfs Yammer and kills the technology – although Microsoft have made it clear that Yammer “will continue to develop its standalone service and maintain its commitment to simplicity, innovation and cross-platform experience”, there is a risk that they will see this as an opportunity to commercialise their other products through Yammer (i.e. force feed them to us). I don’t see this as a risk but as a benefit. It will add the necessary weight to Yammer’s offering rather than threaten its existence.

The Microsoft curse – the argument that for some inexplicable reason Yammer will suffer the same mysterious fate as some others, like Groove, have suffered after they have been bought by the software giant. The reality is that Groove’s fate was already sealed before Microsoft got involved, but for the more superstitious amongst you, here is a list of investments that Microsoft has made over the years. There are a couple of bloopers but I think you will agree they have won more than they lost.

I am conscious that I am starting to sound like a Microsoft groupie. I am not. In fact, I come from a totally platform agnostic angle. I believe that your needs should define your choice of platform (based on a clear understanding of the user requirements and well defined  business objectives).

However, I do think it is great news, not just for Yammer but for the whole socially collaborative landscape. It is going to spice up the competitiveness (hopefully bringing down the costs),  raise the awareness of the benefits of social collaboration in general and lead to more product development, thereby improving the functionality, usability and effectiveness of the platforms. Lower prices and better products – who doesn’t like that!?!

Do our customers deserve us?!?

The client is king! – There will be very few who haven’t heard this statement before and most people would agree with it wholeheartedly without a second thought. However, every time I hear it I can’t help but think that it must have been conceived by a client! My second thought normally is…’well, what does that make the supplier?’.

The term ‘supplier’ has always had a bit of a negative connotation, yet without suppliers there would be no product or service for the clients to buy, therefore making the relation between the two parties rather symbiotic and mutually dependable – a ‘partnership’ if you like.

Having worked in client facing rolls all my life (i.e. supplier-side), achieving this ‘partnership’ is the true utopia of account management and very difficult, but not impossible to achieve.

For my (potential) clients reading this, rest assured that I am not going to commit commercial hara-kiri by lecturing you on how you should play nice with your suppliers. However, a recent rather disappointing (but thankfully uncommon!) situation which involved one of the senior stakeholders walking out during the middle of a pitch (which we had painstakingly prepared for 4 days), claiming he had ‘something more important to do’ inspired me to focus my thoughts on how to nurture this delicate relationship.

So, how can we ensure that we find the right partner for us? I don’t claim to have all the answers but here are my thoughts:

Qualify each other
The initial stage of getting to know each other (in my sector it is normally the presentation and pitch process) is hugely important for both parties. The client will want to see if you are a safe pair of hands and capable of doing the job. As a supplier it is your chance to find out if the client is right for you. Ask the difficult questions and dig deep. If the client is unwilling to answer your questions for fear of giving the game away, you might want to consider if this is a relationship that can be built upon. How can you give a client sound advice if they don’t trust you enough? If their tender process includes 15+ other potential suppliers, is the client really confident in your abilities (or sure of what they want)? And therefore is your time not better spent on the clients that have taken the time to understand your business and value your time and work?

Trusted advisor
Once the relationship has begun it is only natural that as a supplier you will have to work hard to maintain the relationship. By now you should be working with someone who values your opinion, so make sure you voice them. Provide them with proactive communication and honest advice. Of course the relationship has to be win-win, but if you attain the trusted advisor position the client will not want to lose you, and will be much more inclined to treat you fairly. Don’t take advantage of this relationship and don’t allow yourself to grow complacent.

Evaluate the relationship
In an interesting blog post by Jason Ross on how to re-pitch for an existing account, he raised the importance of evaluating the relationship. No one likes to admit when a marriage has failed, but most of us also know that it is a lot worse for all involved to let it fester. Evaluate each other on an ongoing basis. An interesting approach is to score each other at regular intervals and on a mutually agreed scoring system. Present each other with the findings and discuss them openly. This way adjustments can be made before it is too late.

Now, I would love to say that I follow these rules all the time and that it is never our fault that a client relationship has turned sour, but you would all know I was lying. It is incredibly difficult to build ‘trusted advisor’ relationships and it also requires courage, especially on those occasions when you need to say ‘no’ to a client. But it does work…ask some of the  clients I work with…(but let me select which ones!).

Ps. We won that pitch!

Social vs Collaboration – Are organisations getting the mix right?

If you have recently attend events on corporate digital communication, you will undoubtedly have noticed that there is really only one topic on the agenda: ‘social collaboration‘.

The format for these events is pretty predictable. First the thought-leader confirms why we must all go social, then an organisation show-cases (or shows off!) their social collaboration platform and lastly the vendor (sponsor) takes a few minutes to explain how their platform can deliver the new ‘digital workplace’ straight out-of-the-box.

The first question from the audience is also pretty predictable: what measurable result did this collaborative utopia bring to the business?

Unfortunately, that is when the organisation (and some of the vendors) come unstuck and more often than not bring out the statistics:….more than so many thousand active profiles, over 1,000s of groups and communities, and more than a million posts, etc., etc. Alternatively, out come the results of the latest employee survey, normally concluding that “the employees using the platform feel x% more engaged than those not using the platform”.

Interesting stuff. Essentially, these figures do show that people are using the platform, that they are socialising and interacting and that the interaction can lead to improved employee engagement, which is essential to any successful organisation wanting to keep its best staff.

However, what is so frustrating for me is that none of the organisations or vendors talk about tangible business benefits. Surely, if you are going to invest in a new way of working you would expect measurable, financially beneficial results?! Dont we expect 1+1 to equal 3 if we go down the social collaboration route?

In my opinion, the reason why most organisations and vendors find it hard to be specific about the tangible business benefits is because there is still too much focus is on the ‘social’ and not enough on the ‘collaboration’.

Don’t get me wrong, conversations are good. They can cross cultural divides, make distance irrelevant, build team spirit and create a sense of belonging. It is also a great way to get people to use (and get comfortable with) the platform provided. But it is not to be confused with ‘collaboration’ and, I would argue, that it is in the collaboration where you get the tangible benefits.

In order to make collaboration successful, an organisation needs to have clearly defined objectives and establish the KPIs to measure them. The outcomes might include one or a combination of the following: innovation, cross-selling, knowledge sharing, growth, increased profitability, improved customer service, faster on-boarding.

Once the objectives have been clearly defined, organisations need to provide their people with the tools to collaborate and work effectively. It is essential that your chosen collaboration platform is seamlessly integrated with the other tools (e.g. ERP, CRM, file servers, email, etc.) that your team needs to perform their day-to-day tasks.

And as a prerequisite to it all, the organisation has to have the right culture and drivers in place. Social collaboration doesn’t just come about by buying a few user licenses, or as Oliver Marks summarised it is his blog “buying a toolkit doesn’t make you a mechanic“. Successful social collaboration requires an organisation to already understands and embraces the spirit of traditional collaboration, from the top down. Without this, understanding social collaboration is like trying to understand a foreign language and what will they do instead? Two outcomes: revert to chatting or do nothing at all (the most common failing of social collaboration platforms is inactivity).

Let me substantiate the above with a practical example: a client of mine defined one of the objectives of social collaboration as ‘improving profitability through better customer service and feedback’. Traditionally customer complaints were dealt with through a system of reporting. The customer-facing staff would report a product complaint to their line manager, who in turn would report it to his/her director, who in turn would report to the buying director, who would pass it down the chain to the specific product buyer who would finally discuss it with the supplier of the product in question and pass the answer back up the chain…Phew. I almost lost my train of thought twice writing that.

This process was resulting in numerous customer complaints being missed or going without action. Faulty stock was going to waste because nothing was done about it as no one knew why it wasn’t selling.

On the positive side, the organisation had an incentive system in place to motivate staff to report product complaints and feedback. So it had an excellent ‘driver’ to help achieve the objective.

What (social) collaboration is going to do is to reduce the reporting process from a few weeks/months to a few hours/days by linking the customer team (and their feedback) directly to the buying team (and eventually the supplier). The KPIs attached to this objective will measure response times and time spent by staff dealing with the issue, the affects on the number of product returns and complaints, and ultimately the affect on customer satisfaction. “Hold it, hold it…customer  satisfaction is not a tangible benefit” I hear some of you say. Yes, of course it is! It directly influences the organisation’s bottom-line, turnover and profitability.

It is good to socialise, even better to collaborate!

Some interesting articles I came across whilst preparing this post:

Luis Suarez – Why Social Business Keeps Failing to Deliver
Sam Dyer – The social shift in internal communications
Alistair Rennie – More Than Facebook: The Time Is Right For Social Business
Elena Galitskaya – Enterprise Social Networks Failing to Meet Expectations

Corporate web design trends

Conscious of the fact that I have been very much focused on the internal digital landscape, I decided to have a look at what is happening on the external front. The most notable development in external web design, for me, is the shift in focus and importance placed on ‘user-experience’ (hallelujah!). And I dont just mean visual user-experience.

Gone are (…or ‘should be’) the traditional heavy corporate rhetoric and the self-gratifying websites that the CEO could show-off to his family and friends. Gone are the big images that are completely irrelevant to the content and what the visitor is looking for. Gone are the long lists of over-glorifying ‘news’ stories and gone is content for content sake. We are moving from ‘look how big/important we are!‘ to ‘how can we help you?‘.

Below I have selected some sites that I believe are best-in-class examples of these new trends.

I must stress at this stage that I have deliberately avoided any designs from my own agency as I don’t want to be accused of bias or favouritism, and also to show that I am a very good sport. I am a firm believer that good work should be recognised even if it is not our own.

If you have any other suggestions please feel free to add the link in the comments below.

Bloomberg

Visually engaging and definitely different. The user-experience (UX) is one step ahead of most sites. The information is well organised and you are immediately and subconsciously drawn to the most important content. Everything is only one-click away and I like the ‘get to know the company at a glance’ approach. Bloomberg is ‘selling’ itself but in a refreshingly direct and no nonsense manner.

Petrofac

I really like the practicality of this design. There are definite hints of the new Facebook layout. It is clean, easy to navigate and still visually engaging. Great use of font sizes to attract your attention to content, and the imagery tells the story.

Standard Chartered

Normally I am not a great fan of sites with heavy background images, but I really like the way that the background image is part of the content on the page and the interactivity it brings to the page.

Xstrata

Although I like the layout (it is fresh and colourful), the main thing I like about this site is the story….and everyone knows that a good story is not just about content but how you tell it. The colours and imagery do the content justice.

ARUP

I really like this. It is a great example of liquid design (fluid layout), making it not only ideal for the different screen resolution but also for mobile devices (according to Office of National Statistics 50% of us are now going online via mobile devices). It also follows the trend of blog-style layout, which is easy to read yet not often used for corporate sites. It works and I like it a lot.

I hope you like the examples and, as mentioned above, please use the comments box to highlight other good corporate design examples…or let me know your thoughts on the trends that you feel are important (examples please!).

What can we learn from The Gruffalo?

The Gruffalo by Julie Donaldson

If you are a parent with small children you will have undoubtedly heard of The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson. If you don’t or haven’t, don’t worry… it isn’t prerequisite to this post (but I’m not going to lie… it does help).

After being made to watch the film for the fifty-fourth time (yes, I have been counting) the kids mercifully asked if they could watch some of the other content on the DVD. My initial joy quickly sank away when I saw that the ‘additional content‘ comprised of the Extended Credits (I’d rather stab myself with a blunt spoon) and ‘The Making Of…’. Briefly considering the spoon in my one hand, I opted for the controller in the other, selected the ‘Making of’ and prepared myself for a few more wasted minutes of utter boredom.

This was not to be the case. In fact, what followed was 10 minutes of the most fascinating film footage I have seen in a long time.

Although The Gruffalo is only a 30 minute animated film aimed at kids who barely have a notion of the world around them, the level of detail and meticulous planning that went into making it is astounding.

The original 11 page children’s book was first turned into 1000s of pages of sketches and walls covered of storyboards, making sure that every detail was true to the original story so that it would not only meet the expectations of the hordes of faithful fans but also of the other stakeholders, such as the writer herself.

You would think at this stage a couple of clever geeks turned on their Macs and started animating. Not so. In a bid to achieve a higher level of depth and realism, they decided that they would mix CGI with the traditional plasticine approach, building the ‘set’ (woods and streams) in clay and superimposing the computer-generated characters onto it.

This relatively untried approach was first thoroughly tested and only when it proved feasible and effective was it applied to the making of the movie.

Then the characters themselves were analysed to a granular degree. As they had only existed in 2D in the original book, how would they adapt to 3D? How would they interact with each other in this semi-digital/semi-real world? The characters were first plotted out in sketchy 3D, their facial expressions and body language analysed and only when the original cartoonist, the CGI team and the producer were happy, were they signed off for animation.

The producers considered the music an integral part of the storytelling. They didn’t want it to distract from the characters and the story but were convinced that it would add an essential ingredient to the experience. An entire orchestra was wheeled in to add music that can, at best, be described as background, but anyone who has watched the film will no doubt agree with me that it is what makes the film.

Finally, there were the voices to consider: although it is only a 30 minute film, and each character, apart from the mouse only plays a small role, the voices add so much to the experience. Not a penny was spared, as the likes of Helen Bonham-Carter, Robbie Coltrane and Tom Wilkinson were selected for the roles. Getting the tone of voice right was the icing on the cake and added to the success of the film, which has won an Academy Award and a BAFTA nomination.

I think (hope) by now you can see where I am going with this… What can we learn from The Gruffalo? Lots!

For sketches, read planning. For doing the story boarding and getting the writer’s buy-in, read building a solid business case. Stopping the geeks jumping straight in with animation can be interpreted as not letting IT lead the way. Trailing the CGI and plasticine approach suggests proof of concept. For analysing the characters to a granular level, read understanding the users and gathering the requirements. Getting the background music right is equivalent to ensuring the design and layout adds value to the user-experience. And finally, getting the characters voices right refers to ensuring the solution has the right tone of voice, one that appeals to the user/audience.

These steps are key to the successful implementation of any digital solution, whether an Intranet, a social collaboration platform, a corporate website or a public facing digital campaign… And yet so many clients don’t give themselves the time or budgets to ensure these steps are completed to the required level of detail, often resulting in an inadequate solution that needs to be rebuilt/re-analysed 1 or 2 years later.

But then maybe the mouse was right…

“Don’t you know, there is no such thing as a gruffalo”.

Social business and the internal evangelist

social collaborationAs we find ourselves on the eve of the largest IPO in history, and Mark Zuckerberg is about the join the elite and enviable ‘top 10 richest billionaires’ list at the ripe old age of 27, there can be no doubt that social media has not only revolutionised the way we spend our time and how we interact but also that it is here to stay.

Facebook is not the only social platform but it has been the most active in adding functionality and content, making sure that we spend more time there. The question is why does Facebook spend so much time, effort and money on making our experience richer? Well, the real reason is because Zuckerberg & Co is not selling a platform…
he is selling us!

We are not the customer, we are the product. A product that has an estimate market(ing) value of $100bn.

What Facebook, and social media in general, offers is an incredible and unrivalled insight into the human psyche, behaviour, habits and likes/dislikes. It is this and the fact that social media has changed the way we communicate that makes it such an asset to the business world.

There are already a wide variety of social business platforms out there including giants like Yammer, Jive and MS Lync as well as lesser known options like Igloo. Even Salesforce, the CRM giant has jumped on the bandwagon with Chatter and I suspect we shall see many more come (and go) over the next few years.

Putting the choice of platform aside there are many obvious benefits to implementing a social business strategy, namely that it allows people to collaborate in real-time, facilitates exchanges of ideas and discussions without geographical boundaries. It is more mobile, and provides the generation Z workforce with a platform that is familiar, slick and quick. It allows them to have conversations on their turf, in their language and on their terms (we are after all talking about a generation which is arguably more comfortable typing LOL than actually laughing out loud!).

And of course then there is the cost benefit. Social business platforms are relatively affordable in terms of licence fees but the enormous savings are made in the deployment. As they are to be used ‘out of the box’ and don’t need (can’t/shouldn’t) be bespoke, they are unwrapped and configured in weeks rather than months and there are less bug fixing or training requirements. You don’t need a battery of people in a dark room tinkering away 24/7 to keep it going. Add it all together and the savings over implementing an intranet are enormous (note: that is not to say one replaces the other!).

The fears about conversations getting out of control or it becoming a distraction rather than a benefit are real but with the right governance in place and the essential absence of anonymity, experience shows that these platforms do become self-policing and hugely effective. The harsh reality is that the conversations are going to happen anyway so the question is: would you rather they ‘graffiti the inside of the company or the outside’ (love this analogy but can’t claim it as my own – Thanks Nick Crawford).

But now the million dollar, euro, pound (and soon drachma??) question is: what makes them successful?

I am sure some may disagree and offer suggestions like usability, adoption campaign/internal marketing (all of which are important!) but for me it is the same ingredient that made external social media platforms such a success: The Evangelist.

This is the person who is first to post a comment. The first to like a post or start a poll. The first to use locations to identify where he/she is. More importantly the person who loves to talk about it and who people listen to.

Identify your evangelist(s), give them subtle incentives, allow them to be the ‘alpha leader’ who influences the rest. Make them part of your core team and let their enthusiasm enthuse others. There are few things as effective as endorsements from your peers and colleagues.

It is these evangelists that have a commanding influence over success and failure. Embrace them, I say!

Intranet trends for 2012

It is generally accepted that Intranets will play an even more important role this coming year, as companies begin to understand the ways they can use it to address their business pains, and help create efficiencies, as well improve employee engagement (and thereby satisfaction). Here are a few trends that I think will be important in 2012.

1. Importance of people

This might seem a little obvious but it is probably the most fundamental trend for 2012 and one that underpins all the suggestions I mention below. Intranets will need to focus more on the users. They will need to talk to them in their language and on their turf. This will be brought about by a shift from the traditional departmentalised approach to organisations (i.e. internal comms, HR, finance, etc.) to working together to focus on the needs and best interests of the user.

2. Higher expectations

As a new generation of employees is being on-boarded, organisations are going to have to accommodate their expectations as well. These new members of the team don’t know a world without apps or social media sites. Sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have had a profound impact on the expectations of ‘look & feel’, simplicity of navigation, and functionality. Users expect an increased level of engagement and immediate and dynamic communication. This will need to be reflected in your Intranet layout and functionality.

3. Mobile

Most businesses understand the importance of making their Intranet more accessible, whether that is on mobile phones (through mobile sites or apps) or mobile device friendly (including tablets and iPads). The target should not be transporting the whole Intranet onto other devices but to instead to deliver the right content and functionality to an ever-increasing workforce, such as collaborative tools, people finders and segmented news.

4. Social collaboration

I believe that businesses should focus on creating fully integrated social workspaces throughout their organisations. Facilitating knowledge sharing and collaboration will lead to better informed and more engaged employees. To achieve this will require companies to combine the best platforms and technologies, i.e. social collaboration platforms like Jive merging with content management platforms like SharePoint, integrating profiles with LinkedIn, etc.

5. Findability

As user-generated content is being added to the already growing levels of corporate content and documentation, surfacing relevant information becomes more challenging. In 2012, faceted and semantic search functionality will become essential to sift through the noise. Search-driven menus and navigation will become more prominent and Intranet managers will need to spend more time looking at statistics and search logs to ensure the site is making the ‘right’ content available to the user.

6. Content

Although this was one of the trends I highlighted in 2011, I see this continuing in 2012. This will be the year of ‘content culling’ and ‘content segmentation’. As the ‘noise’ levels increase, people will have even less time (and patience) to wade through irrelevant content. Ensure that your content is streamlined, up-to-date and customise-able. Ensure that the content is also relevant to new methods of delivery like mobile devices and don’t forget self-help content and e-learning.

To conclude:

I believe 2012 will see a shift from ‘Intranet’ to ‘digital workspace’ – a space that focuses on the users and the tasks they need to perform rather than on technology. Different platforms will need to work seamlessly together to make collaboration easier and these needs to be accessible whenever and wherever the user finds themselves.

 

Interesting event:  The Intranet and beyond… – 29th February @ Hospital Club

This event, organised by View Plc (where I work), will look at case studies from large multinationals who have implemented SharePoint and enterprise social collaboration software (Jive and Yammer) to communicate with there internal audience. It will focus on the highs and lows, the challenges and the achievements. There will be expert’s speakers, real client case studies and a lovely continental breakfast to accompany it all!

To register your interest please send an email to – nclayton@viewplc.com

License or open-source CMS, that is the question!

I promise I will try to improve on the Shakespearean rip-off titles but as I have been asked this exact question several times over the last few months I have decided to tackle this topic in my first post of 2012.

Over the last 10 years I have worked with a wide spectrum of CMS platforms, ranging from in-house built systems to Joomla and Magento, from Open-Text to SharePoint. Which one is better? Why? And most importantly, why should you pay for a license if there are free solutions out there?

Firstly, the final decision should not be taken lightly and certainly should never be based just on the financials. The cost of choosing the wrong CMS is almost certainly going to be more expensive and painful than any license fee.

Having said that, Gartners CMS Quadrant might be ‘Magic’ but no amount of wizardry will get round some of the extortionate fees that are being charged for the CMS solutions presented in it.

So here it goes…based on my experience working with a large variety of CMS options, I am putting my stake in the ground and giving you my  preferences…

Enterprise level

If you are looking for a serious enterprise solution that can easily be integrated with an Intranet, CRM or ERP then you will want to look at a licensed solution like Sitecore. Honestly, it will all but make the coffee. It is totally flexible in terms of design, extremely user-friendly and relatively easy to set-up and configure.

Sitecore offers an impressive Direct Marketing System (at an extra charge), which is truly unique and integrates full email marketing, CRM and reporting functionality directly into your CMS. Very useful if your company runs marketing campaigns and microsites. Personalised content obviously comes as standard with Sitecore.

However, be careful if you need more than 10-12 concurrent CMS users – which, in practice, even for large corporations tends to be a lot…remember its ‘concurrent’) – as Sitecore license fees take a steep jump at that level.

Conclusion: a compelling argument for enterprise level businesses that require multilingual web sites, integration with CRM/ERP/Intranet and top level support, security and continuity (latest technology updates).

Alternatives: Episerver, SharePoint, Autonomy, Open-Text.

SMBs

Although I have directed this at Small and Medium Businesses, the reality is, whether you are a large or small business, you might not need fancy integration or digital marketing systems. You might just want an honest, easy-to-use CMS that offers continuity and security, doesn’t cost more than the mortgage on your house and allows for total flexibility in terms of concurrent users. My preference would be Umbraco. It is a great CMS. Yes, multi-language sites are a little more clunky to deploy. Yes, it is open-source (honestly, does that make it less secure…no!). However, it is FREE and just as capable of managing large sites as any other CMS out there. But the reality is that, out-of-the-box, that is all it does…manage your site.

Like most well recognised open-source platforms it does have a massive community that is constantly generating new plug-ins which can be relied upon if you need to go beyond the pre-fab functionality. But integrating bespoke code does tend to add to the development costs.

Alternatives: Django, DotNetNuke, Drupal, Worpress (dont knock the latter…I have seen great sites in my time developed on WordPress).

Bespoke CMS platforms

Many agencies, including the one which I founded and owned until 1 year ago, have their own in-house built CMS platform. I would approach these with a huge helping of caution and pinch of scepticism. First of all, and lets be honest, the main advantage for an agency to have a bespoke CMS is that it ties the client in. What they dont tell you is that if you want to change agencies, you dont get to take the CMS with you…so its start from scratch I am afraid! They are also normally accompanied by hefty SLAs and maintenance contracts, because no one else can mess with the code except for the agency.

There are advantages. They tend to very much geared to specific requirements, so rather than trying to do everything and being ‘a master of none’, they should do the job better than standard CMS systems. They can be tailored more easily, because the agency has probably done it before for another client, and because, as it is their system, they are fairly comfortable at making it even more bespoke.

But honestly, I am finding it hard to conjure up a compelling argument that can’t be shot down faster than Dick Cheney’s hunting buddy.

My conclusion:

Unless they let you own the source code, the agency has a seriously credible portfolio, their financials are as solid as the rock of Gibraltar, I would stick with the the well established platforms.

The choice between open-source or licensed CMS platforms is a difficult one and really depends on your business requirements. Usually a license fee implies you will get solid ongoing support and updates, as well as a more seamless and complete platform. However, consider carefully if you need these added benefits and, if money is tight, whether the license fee is better spent on improving the content and functionality of your site.

I have chosen two .NET platforms because that has been the framework I have worked with in the past. I would love to hear (and get push-back) from the PHP evangelists out there.

I hope this has helped to demystify things a little bit and steer you in the right direction. However, remember to research the options carefully, ask for demo’s and be clear about your requirements before you make a choice so you avoid excessive costs or end up getting a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.

A Merry Christmas and a Digital New Year

Is it wrong to say “It has been a great year!”? Well, there… I have said it. And it is true!

I know the credit crisis has affected us all, budgets are shrinking and we have to fight much harder to win new clients and bring in projects.

But working hard is only a negative if you don’t enjoy what you are doing. I am very lucky that I love what I do.

Secondly, although it is true that budgets are shrinking, there is always spare cash for great ideas. It just means that we have to work smarter and give our clients more. This arrangement can sometimes feel a little one sided, but my experience has shown that a little more effort does pay off.

For me 2011 has been the year of the Intranet. Although I have been active in public facing digital work, I have found the developments in internal communication the most fascinating and exciting. There has been a massive shift in the perception of importance of Intranets amongst large corporate clients.

The realisation that Intranets are more than just document repositories and address books is now commonplace. The focus on making them more collaborative, most significantly through Social Collaboration (social media, social networking, social listening, etc.) has allowed me to work on some exciting projects this year (and get involved in some heated but interesting debates).

My prediction for 2012: Intranets will no longer be treated as a ‘bit of software’ but as communications platforms that need/deserve the same strategic approach as Above The Line advertising has enjoyed for decades. And why not? Every Intranet user is after all a consumer, and should be treated as such.

So for my Intranet recommendations for 2012: focus on tasks and platform delivery (namely mobile) and consider the importance of adoption campaigns (think advertising!) as well as introducing (very) rich content.

Public facing digital: there is still a lot to do in 2012…we need to work hard at making our solutions more distinguished! We have had personalised content for a while now, but in the coming year we need to make sure that web sites know what we are looking for before we do (intelligent personalisation)!

That is it for me for 2011 – festive greetings, merry Christmas but most importantly…have a digital New Year!

Mike

An Intranet is not just for Christmas!

I admit that the title is a little obvious given the time of the year but that makes it all the more appropriate for the purpose of this article.

For those who are not sure what an Intranet is, I am afraid the Wikipedia definition is not particularly helpful and will probably only add to any existing confusion. Essentially an Intranet is an internal platform that allows people within an organisation to share documents and content.

Most of the businesses I work with already have an Intranet, or even several Intranets. They have had them for several years. However, all too often, their purpose has long been forgotten. It is there and people use it but mainly to order sandwiches or as a very expensive common address book, and the organisation might use it to force-feed corporate news that nobody reads. A little harsh…yes, but true!

Most of these Intranets were set up with the best intentions, but after they were deployed, or sticking with the Christmas analogy ‘unwrapped’, there was initial excitement but after a few months they were left to fend for themselves. Not unlike most Christmas presents.

So what makes a good Intranet…one that is not left abandoned?

  1. Good looks – yes, sadly in the Intranet world, good looks are key. Users are now so used to seeing attractive web content and web sites, that an Intranet simply has to follow suit if it to stand a chance. This doesn’t mean bells and whistles but it needs to looks alive and engaging.
  2. Address business issues – the Intranet is one of the most effective mechanism to address change, cultural divides, HR challenges, collaboration. Make sure you have clearly defined business objectives and that the Intranet is addressing them. Don’t try to hide from the negative issues and challenges either. Your staff know they exist…so use the Intranet to deal with them.
  3. Content, content, content – it is all about the content. Make sure that you know what the users are looking for and surface it in the right place. Create content owners and content focus groups. Train people on how to create interesting content. Provide guidance through ‘how to guides’.
  4. Accessibility & mobility – according to the Office for National Statistics mobile internet usage is now nearing 50%. Consider your users. How are they accessing information? Would they (and therefore the business) benefit from a mobile (or even multi-device) friendly version. These can be easily implemented using platforms like SharePoint or Sitecore at a negligible cost, but with considerable benefits.
  5. Communicate & market – promote your Intranet, launch it with a bang and keep promoting it.’Build it and they will come’ might have worked in Field of Dreams, but it doesn’t work for Intranet. An Intranet needs to be supported by communication and marketing campaigns. A nice example I saw last week was a client of mine offering an iPod to the person who invited the most colleagues to set up their MySite.
  6. Dedicated core team(s) and buy-in from the boss – create core teams that are responsible for the Intranet and its content. Get senior management to set the example. One of my clients runs a great blog on their SP2010 Intranet. Hugely popular and throws down the gauntlet to the rest of the organisation.
  7. Governance – I know…it sound bureaucratic and maybe even a little dull…but it is essential. Strong governance is a critical component of a well managed and effective intranet. A governance model will provide clarity, give purpose to the content and avoid duplicating effort and costs. Consider not just an operational but also a content governance model.
  8. Measure success – statistics and analytics are used for public facing web sites, but rarely on the radar for Intranets. Metrics are hugely important to know what people are visiting, how they are getting there and where they are exiting (read losing interest). I would strongly suggest monthly evaluations!

Finally…An Intranet is not just for Christmas!…Build on it, let it evolve, refresh it, reassess its functionality, measure its effectiveness and keep your fingers on the pulse of technology. Tomorrow social media will be today’s fax machine. Digital moves fast and your Intranet should be at the cusp of technology because most of your users are.

Merry Christmas and festive seasons greetings to all!