5 Key Lessons from Award-Winning Intranets

Insights you can leverage from the winners of the Step Two 2015 Intranet Innovation awards

I had the most wonderful opportunity this past summer to serve as a judge for the Step Two 2015 Intranet Innovation awards. The panel of judges reviewed more than 20 finalists to select the winners. You can read more about the winners in the official announcement. The winning solutions (“Gold” winners) came from very small to very large organizations but there were some clear and distinct lessons that I took away from the winning entries. They were all:

  • “Fit for purpose”
  • Built iteratively – with end users
  • Measured
  • Aligned with but not constrained by the chosen technology platform
  • Governed

Fit for purpose

Staff impact and organizational benefit together were key elements of the judging criteria (along with originality). One thing was extremely clear: the solutions where the intranet team could clearly measure value to the organization were not “cookie cutter” intranets with not much more than news, forms, staff directory, and HR information – they were all built with the specific needs of the organization in mind. For example, Gold winner Robin Partington & Partners, a UK architectural firm with a staff of approximately 60, make extensive use of often complex data visualizations to display information about a variety of key performance indicators for the firm’s staff. I initially thought that some of the examples looked extremely complex, but when I thought about the audience for the content – a very “visual” workforce of architects – I realized how appropriate they were. The data visualizations are not examples of “let’s make pretty charts just because we can.” Instead, they reflect a recognition and alignment with the target audience for the information. They work for that organization because they are completely designed for their users and fit their purpose.

Projects Summary Dashboard Robin Parlington & Partners

Projects summary dashboard page

Singapore Management University’s intranet for faculty and staff was another Gold winner. The intranet team recognized that staff were frustrated because even though there is an on-site help center where staff can go for help, there was no way to know how busy the center was. As part of their new intranet, the SMU team placed a webcam at the IT help center that provides a minute-by-minute live image of the “crowdedness” of the place, together with a list showing the queue number status. This webcam and queue status help faculty and staff better decide on when best to approach the service desk. It’s simple and fun and incredibly useful for an organization where most users are geographically located on the same physical campus. While this might not work or even be necessary in some organizations, it works for SMU because it is completely fit for their purpose.

Built iteratively – with end users

Though the 10 Gold and 8 Commended winners used different development methodologies to create their solutions, all 18 intranet teams worked closely with end users to create solutions that provided meaningful value – because the end users were involved in the design and creation of the solutions. All of the teams worked iteratively with their end users to test alternative designs and gather feedback.

When I am asked to review intranets for my clients, I can always tell when a solution was built without much end user involvement or feedback. One of my favorite examples often shows up on HR pages where I often see lists of documents called Summary Plan Descriptions (or even worse – SPDs). These documents are supposed to describe the rights, benefits, and responsibilities for a benefit plan in understandable language. With that noble of a goal, I never understand why they are published using a term that no one outside of HR understands! SPD is an HR term – not an end user term. I doubt that an end user would ever search for an SPD, and yet HR teams continue to publish links to SPDs without any context for the people who need to “consume” them. Though not perfect, the award winners consistently built solutions that value content use and “findability,” not just “publication.”

Gold winner Singapore Management University didn’t just involve end users in the design of their new solution. They are essentially involving end users on an ongoing basis – without asking the end users to do anything but use the intranet. How are they doing this? By assigning dedicated resources to pay attention to search so that they can continuously gain insight and focus on what to develop and make available to their users. As intranet consultants, we always tell organizations to do this and remind them how critical it is to ongoing success but it's rare that an organization actually follows through in a consistent and meaningful way the way that SMU does.


An important judging criteria for this year’s award was a requirement to describe how the intranet has delivered value to staff and the organization. The top award winners used a combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches to demonstrate value.

Gold-winner BNY Mellon, a US-based multinational banking and financial services corporation, takes the concept of measurement very seriously. As a financial institution, they clearly know about metrics – and measurement is a critical factor of everything that they do. What makes their intranet so effective and valuable is that they took a fundamental aspect of their culture – evidence based decision making – and used this core value in many of the capabilities they provide on the intranet. For example, they have a feature that allows employees to get a snapshot view of their expenses. This is helpful and useful on its own - but they don’t stop there. In addition, staff can also how their expenses stack up against others. They can see how their spending in each expense category compares to their peers within and outside their business area. And, they can get access to information to help reduce expenses right from the same page that provides the data dashboard. Providing benchmarks that allow people to compare their expenses (or for managers, their team's expenses) is really genius. It is about providing users with more than raw data – it’s helping users leverage the intranet to make better decisions.

bnymellon managerview BNY Mellon

BNY Mellon Manager Expense Dashboard

Aligned with but not constrained by the chosen technology platform

The winning intranets use a variety of technology platforms. Many leverage Microsoft SharePoint – in part or in total – but other technology platforms are also used. What was especially interesting to me was how each of the winning organizations started with a technology platform but was willing to extend the platform if it didn’t provide the specific outcome or user experience that they needed. Truth be told, I wasn’t crazy about some of the approaches that the winners took – because they sometimes adopted non-standard user experiences that while elegant and beautiful, may not ultimately be a good use of their technology dollars because “cool and different” doesn’t always equate to effective end user experiences. I don’t love eye candy “just because we can” – but I do love it when organizations make a conscious decision to invest in enhancements that make it possible to solve a critical business problem for their end users.

Singapore Management University developed their new intranet based on SharePoint, but they didn’t use SharePoint as a constraint – they carefully thought through how to add value to SharePoint – when and where customizations clearly demonstrated value – and developed re-useable approaches that they could apply in multiple scenarios. For example, they created re-usable software to enable the ability to pull and display faculty expertise information from their public web systems and make that information available for intranet users to do on-demand filtering directly within the intranet. This means that faculty only has to enter expertise information in one place but it can be leveraged in all of the solutions where that information is needed.


UK pharmaceutical GSK (GlaxoSmithKline) received a Gold award in recognition of their phenomenally well-executed initiative to ensure consistency and brand compliance across hundreds of SharePoint sites on a global intranet. Their approach combined a new template for sites as well as an incredible set of user-friendly instructions to help teams apply the template correctly. If you follow this blog then you probably already know that I think one of the key pillars of an effective SharePoint governance plan is providing power users with guidance about how to use SharePoint effectively within the framework envisioned by the intranet and collaboration team – without constant reach-back to IT for support. GSK started with thousands of pages, different developers, different designers, different agencies, and very little documentation or governance available to define how a site should look or how it should work. They ended with guidance that I called “rock-star brilliant” in my judging notes.

Here’s a short summary of how they did it:

  • They did an analysis of the web parts and styles being used on the existing intranet. They learned that while many pages looked different, they had underlying similarities that could be defined as the basis for a new design. For example, they noticed that while all of the sites had bulleted lists, some used an orange check mark, others used a star, and others used the “out of the box” bullet. (You’ve probably seen this on your own sites. Everyone has their own view of what looks good and depending on the skills of the site designer, they apply “just because we can” customizations that result in a disjointed user experience.)
  • Looking at the patterns that people were already using, the intranet team at GSK came up with styles and functionality that site owners could apply in a variety of ways and still be compliant. For example, today, if a site owner wants a bulleted list, they can select from six custom styles of brand-compliant lists, including traditional bullets, a bullet with a description, a custom “group by” view, and more.
  • To ensure success, they defined a governance plan that requires site owners to adopt the new standard template. To make the governance plan “consumable,” they developed step-by-step support materials to guide users through development. And, because training and governance are two sides of the same coin, they also implemented a training structure that has allowed site owners to quickly learn how to apply the template to their sites with a minimum of time and cost.

I really thought GSK should win in a category of their own – because their approach isn’t an intranet, it’s a way to ensure that your intranet is successful, which is what a governance plan should do. I love that they created choices for users that are all within the overall governance framework. This allows users to design solutions that meet their needs – but within some guardrails to ensure consistency across the organization. They estimate that they have saved the equivalent of several million dollars in agency spending with the development of a flexible but consistent intranet brand standard. Moreover, they have also improved productivity for users because users do not have to waste time figuring out how different sites are presenting information – site structures and approaches follow a consistent pattern and once users are familiar with the pattern, they can quickly move from site to site without suffering from the “cognitive dissonance” that often happens when users change contexts on intranet pages.

For more information about each of the award winners and a peek at hundreds of screen shots from which you can take inspiration, you can purchase a copy of the full 2015 Intranet Innovations report from Step Two at this site: http://www.steptwo.com.au/products/intranet-innovations.

Throughout November and early December 2015, the folks from Step Two are doing a series of road show events. You can find out if the show will make it to your town by checking http://www.steptwo.com.au/iia/intranet-innovation-roadshow/.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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