Microsoft’s new intranet put staffers in charge

The new design moved away from being an ‘encyclopedia’ of information to a tool for helping employees find their own solutions.

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It used to be that people had to call travel agents to book a plane ticket, or had few outside options for preparing taxes other than places like H&R Block.

Nowadays, you can book your flight on Expedia or use TurboTax to prepare your forms for the IRS beast to sniff over.

So why, asks Microsoft‘s Margie Medd, does human resources lag at organizations? Why must staffers spend so much time answering questions about stuff that’s right there on the intranet? Maybe it’s because intranets aren’t organized with the employee in mind.

In a video session titled “Shift your intranet from information to action,” Medd explains how the software giant converted a static HR intranet into an action-oriented tool for employees. Using SharePoint 2010, designers and planners from HR, IT and comms took the site from an “encyclopedia approach”—stashing away knowledge—to providing a tool for employees.

“We want them to take action, not read about how they can take action,” says Medd, who leads Microsoft’s global HR marketing and communications.

Restructuring the intranet for them

Walking employees through minor tasks amounts to poorly allocated resources. Yet it was hard for Microsoft’s employees to do things on their own in the old site. It was crammed with links and was organized around the structure of HR, rather than built according to what employees needed to know or wanted to do, Medd says.

“We even had a tab for staffing—like an employee would ever go seek staffing information from us,” she says.

Even the photographs had nothing to do with how workers really spent their days. The site was illustrated by what people jokingly called Our Lady of HR Web, along with a picture of a guy holding up an engineering triangle—something no software designer uses.

Microsoft’s HR staff was stretched thin. In its China and India offices, HR employees were spending half their time producing verification of employment forms, Medd says. They needed these forms not only to buy a house but also to buy a cell phone. The forms had to be printed on a certain kind of paper and authorized in blue ink.

“These [HR] folks were just churning these out,” Medd says. “It was incredibly burdensome.”

The new site made it easier for employees to get the documents themselves.

Change of philosophy

Part of the secret is changing your philosophy of what the intranet does—going from telling to doing. The new HR intranet constructed with a “me-centric” information architecture. It’s topped by tabs that read, “My information. My benefits. My career.”

Common activities are all in one place. Microsoft’s new site makes it easier for employees to answer common questions, such as an individual’s performance or compensation history.

The software giant offers timely information, featuring announcements that spur action. These rotating “internal ads” boost awareness and add color to the site, says Medd. They are personalized according to the employee’s role and geography, so the janitor in Redmond, Wash., doesn’t see the same ads as does the software designer in India.

The Web has given people more autonomy in recent years, and HR must follow, she says.

“Not only do the people want to be in power, but we want to give them more power and give them more responsibility and control,” says Medd.

Off-site information

Microsoft hasn’t entirely given up the idea of the intranet as a place to find information. But it has taken a more expansive approach, deciding, after working with legal and other departments, that staffers could be referred to information that resided off-site.

Simplicity reduces barriers to self-service and provides easy ways for employees to answer common questions. Step-by-step how-to guides make it easier for people to accomplish tasks, such as searching for a new job in the company. Employees could also look up the car policy in Germany versus that in the U.S.

The site also makes it easy to schedule something to one’s calendar, so that if you find information but don’t have time to take action, they can follow up later.

The new site also required a change of behavior in HR. In Germany, the HR team baked cookies and handed them out at the front door, telling people, “Don’t forget to call me if you have any questions.” So Microsoft had to convince them of the business case for the new approach.

But things are changing.

“Not only is HR enjoying the transition, employees are finding they get answers faster,” Medd says.


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