B.C. government turns static intranet into a community

Lessons from the 50-day revamp start with a vision of employee engagement.

Lessons from the 50-day revamp start with a vision of employee engagement

They came. They saw. They posted.

Within the first week of its launch in April last year, more than half of all public service employees in British Columbia flocked to their new, souped-up social intranet, @Work, logging 16,000 unique visits. By month’s end, double the number of staff had entered the online fray, leaving twice as many comments than they had on the previous site.

More employees visit and comment on BC’s social media-heavy intranet, @work. View larger.

The intranet, that oft-maligned hinterland of the Web, is usually associated more with dread than buzz by employees. But thanks to social media, employers like the Province of British Columbia can use Web 2.0 tools to transform their intranet from static to collaborative, from Monday-morning-meeting drab to watercooler cool.

“So much of communications is strictly push,” says Kathleen Walsh, B.C.’s Manager of Creative Strategies and the business lead on the revamp. “The intranet was a bulletin board, and we wanted ours to be more of an active community.””

The intranet @Work serves 30,000 public service employees in diverse jobs and locations. It already had an active audience for its rich content that included audiocasts, video and weekly polls.

Employees and executives wanted to amp up the site with social media to energize knowledge-sharing and a sense of community, because the centralized comments section was the most visited part of the site.

And so they did.

“We did this with a tiny team and in a short amount of time,” says Robin Farr, director of corporate internal communications, “because they saw the vision for this—an interactive intranet to support employee communication and collaboration—and figured out a way to make it a reality.”

An overhaul in 50 days

The intranet was rebuilt from top to bottom within 50 days with only three developers who were learning the open-source platform Drupal as they as went along.

They went from a site built on an ASP.net platform to a new one on Drupal, adding functionality that enabled employees to rate and comment on all site content.

The new organization-wide wiki platform, Wikilumbia, had more than 80 entries in the first month, while throughout the site 190 commentators left multiple opinions. Although the site traffic of 2,000 employees logged on at any given time didn’t change, the level of participation doubled. Moreover, the quality of useful feedback improved after the site did away with anonymous posts last year.

Allan Seckel, head of B.C. Public Service, blogs on the revamped intranet. View larger.

Blogs (by Allan Seckel, head of all B.C. Public Service employees and employees), discussion forums and tagging feed into a dynamic home page which shows the most-discussed, highest-rated, and most-viewed sections. Employees can also call up a mobile version remotely. Standbys from the old site, such as RSS feeds and multimedia, were tacked on.

The success of a social intranet ultimately has less to do with technology than with planning, governing and managing change. Walsh had these lessons to share.

• Ditch perfectionism: On a project of this nature and given the time, had Walsh’s team decided it needed to be perfect, it would’ve been a 950-day project instead of taking 50 days, Walsh says. Technology and organizational culture changes so fast, they just needed to get it going and show progress. Farr decided it was OK to release the intranet in beta and then continue improving it, without the fanfare of a major launch.

• Communicate! Communicate! Communicate! “There’s all sorts of needs 30,000 people have that that 20 people can’t anticipate,” Walsh says.

Being clear about audience went a long way to building acceptance and participation. At launch, they hadn’t figured out how to include the popular classified section on the new site. Once told about the technological limitations, the community found an ad hoc way to replace it, by creating a forum. At each stage, readers were updated and asked for feedback. Reader polls, a survey (including non-users) and employee feedback helped form the team’s choices. Walsh’s team also consulted cross-government stakeholders as they developed the information architecture, design and user acceptance testing, culminating in a soft launch to these groups.

Trust your team: Walsh’s trust in her team members’ talent, expertise and instincts freed them to take risks and make decisions on the fly, saving time and allowing creativity to flourish. Says Walsh: “If we had to run all the decisions to through the regular project management chain of command, it would have tripled the time needed.”

Not your government’s voice: Voice is central to engagement. The group that first built @Work in 2006 worked with the leadership’s direction in mind that the voice shouldn’t be stiff, as one might expect from government. The resulting voice is approachable, engaging and informative. The tone is fun, even irreverent. Corporate-speak was banned. Walsh quotes Rueben Bronee, the executive director of B.C. Public Service, who once said: “”Bureaucrats are people. Informal can be informative.””

The plan now is to expand the site with a social network as its foundation, though not for its own sake; the network help employees do their jobs, Farr says. Many challenges remain, but the biggest, she says, is one many organizations face: “Unlimited dreams, but limited budgets.”

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