How to Choose an Intranet Provider

As a follow-up to my post reviewing the ClearBox SharePoint Intranets in-a-box Report, I thought I’d go through the steps I take when considering and choosing an intranet product. It’s an important decision and isn’t always an easy one, so I hope this helps your thinking process.

A Note for Non-Intranet People

There is an industry built up around intranets for a reason: they aren’t as simple as they look, they’re difficult to get right, and it’s very easy to make a mistake. Ask any employee who works for a business that is inflicting a poor intranet on them. It’s wise to get some help to navigate these waters and end up with something your users really appreciate.

I’m not saying that you should have a dedicated resource for the intranet, but you do need one person to take ultimate responsibility for it. If that person doesn’t have much experience with intranets then consider bringing in a contractor, project manager, or consultant. You wouldn’t do something with your employees without an HR expert, or completely change your payment systems without a finance expert, so why not give a system that could be used by all your employees the same attention?

If you don’t have the budget to bring in temporary assistance, then invest in the person who will be looking after the intranet long-term by sending them on courses, getting them resources, or attend conferences. You’ll get a return on your investment if everything goes correctly.

Anyway, off my soapbox and onto the topic in hand…

Think B.U.T…

I’m making an assumption that you’ve made your arguments and got sign off to find a new provider already, so this is purely guidance on how to pick the right vendor for your business. “Ok, but which provider” I hear you ask. What you need first is a list of things to look out for during a vendor pitch. This is where you need to think B.U.T:

B: What Does the Business Want to Achieve?
By “the business” I mean the senior management and/or stakeholder(s) who are driving the intranet project. There is a reason why they have agreed to give you a fair amount of money to redo your intranet/digital workspace, so these should form the top of your list. Make a list of these requirements as a simple checklist of words, lifting them straight from the business case and stripping back to the basic need or feature.

U: What Do Your Users Want?
If you have done user research already, or indeed have any informal feedback, then bring this in now. Do exactly the same exercise and write out a list of keywords of features that your users would like (or will meet their needs as they’re unlikely to know exactly which features do what). Compare the two lists and get rid of any duplication. There are going to be some words or short phrases that are very similar – combine these and expand the resulting word/phrase as needed.

T: What Technology Do You Have Now?
Not only is what people want important, but you need to know what you have now or what technology might be being introduced to the business soon. Are there features of your current intranet that work well? Is the IT department going to be rolling out something new (Office 365 for example) that you should be aware of? Do a little bit of research if you haven’t already and make a note of these features in your list, removing any duplications and combining similar elements as you find them.

Your B.U.T. List
Your list might be a bit long still, as you’ve gone through a lot of different opinions and elements, so now it’s time to be more ruthless with what should be included and combining individual points. You want to end up with a list of keywords that you can use to shortlist from a long list of potential providers. You need to be able to do this swiftly, but not so fast that you don’t gain anything from the exercise. If the list is too long then you’ll spend too long on the first stages and end up with information overload.

I’ve found between 10 and 20 listed items works the best. These could include:

  • Cost per licence
  • Integration with payroll systems
  • A dedicated app
  • Discussion boards rather than Twitter-style social threads

Onto Choosing a Vendor

From a Lot to a Few
There are probably close to a hundred different digital workplace providers out there, each doing a slightly different thing and in a slightly different way. You just won’t be able to meet with all of them, but it’s important that you consider as many as possible. There are tools and other resources that could help with this first stage:

  • Attend conferences – see vendors’ demonstrations there and speak with like-minded people to get recommendations (there are a lot in just Europe in 2019)
  • Buy the ClearBox report if you have the budget for it, it will really save you time
  • Go to vendor workshop sessions or webinars – again you’ll get a sense of them, see their products, and speak to people within the industry
  • Talk to other people in the industry – either in person or online, to get advice where you need it

IN 2018Then, start looking at the websites for the products that could work with what you need. Keep your B.U.T. list in mind, but don’t do any detailed comparisons at this stage. Use your instincts and judgement from what you’ve learnt to form a list of vendors to revisit in more detail. Your ideal longlist will probably be about 8 providers, but don’t worry if it’s much longer or shorter – you should be comfortable with the number you want to explore more.

Forming Your Shortlist
Now it’s time to bring in your B.U.T. list. Put it into Excel, or something similar, along with the providers to make a grid. Use this to keep a record of your thoughts on each category for each provider, but don’t write too much – a few lines will do. Use the techniques mentioned above in more detail, plus ask more questions and look at providers’ websites, to gather your research. It’s up to you whether you contact the providers at this point to have an initial demonstration or conversation, or just ask them a few questions where you’re not sure. Keep in mind each demonstration will be between 30 minutes and an hour so it could take a while.

Once you’re happy you understand what you’re going to get from the providers, as far as you have researched in any case, colour code the cells as red, yellow, and green. These colours indicate at a glance whether that provider can deliver, can’t deliver, or if you’re not sure they can deliver that particular requirement. Those with more green, or yellow if you want to see a demonstration to understand the product, are the ones that will form your shortlist.

Making Your Selection
The exact steps you take as a business to make your selection from the shortlist will be down to you. You may have a steering committee who will make the decision, or it could be a senior manager, or indeed something else entirely. So, I’m not going to pass comment on that side of things. I will give you five tips or points to consider during this stage though:

  • Use your list – You put all that work in, so make sure you use it! These are the key elements you’re looking for so make sure the demonstrations and discussions revolve around those. Make sure anyone coming into those meetings is given your notes in advance too, or just a summary, so everyone knows the important features that are needed.
  • Challenge and ask questions – Following on from the previous point: make sure you challenge and ask questions. If you had red or yellow points for this vendor, ask them what you need to so that you can change their colour, or even set them to red. Also, make sure the people in the room have understood what they’ve been told and let them ask questions to delve into those subjects you may understand.
  • Cultural fit – You are going to be working with this company for a minimum of a couple of years, but potentially much longer. If you don’t think you could, or even if you don’t think their ethos or approach works with the company, then scratch them off the list.
  • Can you see it working for your business? – This is a simple point, but some vendors will have extravagant demos and will show you all possible features on their site. This can be overwhelming for those outside of the intranet industry, or may not be relevant to you, so try to see past the glitz to the nuts and bolts to figure out whether it could work for you.
  • “We could do that” – Are the features you’re being shown already part of the software, or is it on their roadmap? Are you being promised the world? Consider these promises carefully to see whether their promises will come to fruition, you don’t want to commit to a product that just doesn’t deliver on what you’re being shown.

This step, in whatever format you decide to take, will lead to selecting a vendor for your intranet. You may have to meet them a couple of times, or it might be an easy decision. The decision is yours and that of the business, so do all you need to make sure you’re reaching the right decision.

What if You Get it Wrong?
You can achieve a lot, regardless of the software you use. This sort of goes against a lot of the other things I’ve said in this post, but the important thing to remember is that any new system is likely to be better than what you have now and you really can make a big difference regardless. Get your governance right, with good content, and appropriate social tools, and you’re well on your way to a good site. It’s not what you have, but what you do with it that makes the difference. A good product should support you and allow you to do the absolute best you can with ease.

Choosing Provider Signpost

Cover and above photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

Conference photo from IntranetNow 2018



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