Association Intranets That Work

By: Beth Ziesenis

Intranets are no longer just static repositories of HR memos and board minutes. They’re collaborative tools that help your staff perform better with each other and with volunteers. Here’s how a variety of associations have built flexible intranets that earn high marks with users. (Titled "Common Threads" in the print edition.)

There's no getting around the intranet of the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade association with more than 60,000 members. "When we sign into our computers, a weekly brief pops up," says Valerie J. Cammiso, executive director of ICSC's foundation. "We can see the staff calendar with all the week's meetings. Then you see the button to proceed to the internet. You can't get anywhere without going through [the intranet]."

The intranet for the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) gives COO Carol Clark peace of mind. She knows she doesn't have to search through email threads to find critical information, and she knows that the business of the organization can survive a citywide blackout because the intranet server is stored offsite, allowing employees to work from home if need be.

For Cammiso, Clark, and many other association employees, intranets connect staff. As the name implies, an intranet is a company's internal internet, created to help organizations manage and deliver content without sharing it with the outside world. Intranets became prominent in the mid-1990s among corporations, and for good reason. "The goal is to make everything in the library accessible to everybody at their desktop," a library manager at National Semiconductor told Digital News & Review magazine in 1995.

Though 17 years have passed, that dream for the intranet holds true today, and new technology is helping association intranets achieve much bigger goals. The software structure for today's intranets include features such as content management systems, collaboration spaces, social tools, enterprise search, process integration, workflow automation, and more. Even so, it can still be difficult to get staff to use intranets, and integration with member users and volunteers can be challenging as well. Getting everybody on board isn't always easy, but a smarter and better-connected staff makes it worth the effort.

The Right Encouragement

APHL introduced a Microsoft SharePoint 2007 intranet five years ago. The rollout took four months and cost about $200,000 for consulting, software, integration capabilities, and equipment.

APHL's intranet gives all staff access to forms, manuals, and other common documents, says Clark. The association also uses it to facilitate reporting to the board, reporting on the strategic plan, managing the contracting process, and keeping track of IT problems. Plus, as a grant-funded organization, it can manage proposal development, reporting, and historical documents in one place.

Most important, Clark says, staff can collaborate on a single version of a critical document to save time and frustration. Staff can access the portal from anywhere, supporting those who travel frequently or telecommute. In addition, they use SharePoint to organize meeting minutes, agendas, and materials for board and committee meetings. In lieu of printing board books, APHL buys iPads for their 10 board members and posts board meeting materials online.

"It is close to mission-critical for the administrative departments—HR, accounting, office management, IT, web support," Clark says. "I also think that SharePoint has greatly improved how we manage our committee meetings."

Most organizations say they have a fairly good adoption rate for their intranets. At the Society of Critical Care Medicine (SCCM), the Staff Central intranet posts associationwide announcements, links staff to commonly used websites and documents, and includes key collaboration tools the organization has come to rely on, according to Manager of Technology Laura Lewis. "The site has become invaluable for everyone," Lewis says.

Created using SharePoint 2007 (with a pending upgrade to 2010), the site also provides department and team workspaces where staff can post announcements, discuss topics, and upload important documents. "We are also beginning to use the site for project management—nothing fancy, just SharePoint's built-in calendar function for milestones," Lewis says.

Many organizations set the intranet as an employee's homepage, and most post essential HR, payroll, and job-critical information in the system. Both Lewis and Kat Weixel, intranet manager for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, say their leadership banned all-staff emails, requiring that all announcements, except the occasional time-sensitive update from HR or other departments, be posted to the intranet instead.

Weixel says ASHA's intranet, built on an internally hosted SharePoint 2010 server for their 250-person staff, requires her full-time attention, plus the assistance of another staff member to help people locate information using their enterprise search engine. ASHA created collaborative team sites for team and project management, document management, and discussions.

The focus, Weixel says, has always been more on collaboration than on publication of resources. "It took a while and lots of encouragement for adoption to grow over time, and we are still working on making it happen," she says.

Build It and They Might Come

For Rhea M. Steele, information systems and technology manager for the Council of Chief State School Officers, intranet adoption is slow in coming for its 60-plus staff. CCSSO has intranet sites for each department, a section for services such as HR and IT, and an area to create temporary sites for project collaboration. When Steele joined CCSSO five years ago, the organization was using an earlier version of SharePoint, and an executive-level mandate to upgrade to the 2007 version did not come with "a real push to 'force' employees to use the system," she says.

With a recent upgrade to SharePoint 2010, Steele's team reached out to departments to get users engaged in discussions about their needs, and they formed an "innovation committee" to make recommendations for the upgrade. "With our most recent upgrade, we've taken a grassroots approach to system use. We've worked to make it so valuable that users can't live without it," Steele says.

But, she adds, "We definitely don't have 100 percent participation." New-employee orientations now include a one-hour session on using the intranet, and use of the system is on the rise. Like ASHA and SCCM, CCSSO wants to phase out all-staff email announcements in favor of the announcement section of the intranet. But for now, "users are often still more comfortable sending a blast email to their project-mates instead of using the announcements feature," Steele says.

"There are still some managers that just won't use the system and require employees to provide them with files via other means," she adds. "Conversely, there are departments that use the intranet very, very heavily for internal and external collaboration. It's difficult to watch those departments who are resistant to using the intranet struggle with issues that would be easily dealt with via the platform."

Getting staff to use an intranet is just one challenge. Adding member volunteers brings another layer of complexity, says Michele Packard-Milam, CAE, former director of member engagement and regional relations for the Promotional Products Association International. PPAI's staff intranet works fine, Packard-Milam says, but its Volunteer Central site has yet to catch on. The volunteer site contains profiles and workspaces for each volunteer group, including the board, committees, and other projects. Staff members can post new projects and calls for volunteers; all related agendas, minutes, supporting documents, and other files are centralized for viewing and discussion.

The SharePoint 2007 infrastructure cost about $60,000 for its initial launch two years ago, and PPAI will embark on its first set of major revisions soon, Packard-Milam says. It is also planning to expand Volunteer Central for the 27 regional association affiliates, giving each region its own workspace and secure document storage.

So what's not working? "[The volunteer intranet] is mandated, but it's possible to manage without using the volunteer intranet, so some of the staff liaisons and volunteers still resist." (Some volunteers still send group emails with attachments, for instance.) She adds that they may switch platforms to use WordPress blogging software, which has more plug-ins, a lower cost, and a more user-friendly discussion platform.

Another barrier to intranet adoption by volunteers may be the technology itself, says APHL's Clark. She says the association developed its intranet in response to staff needs. "Overall our adoption was very successful—for staff. Our members' adoption is a little slower, and I think that is in part because it is harder for them to access the SharePoint," Clark says. "Since they are not inside our firewall, they don't have the same functionality that staff does, which can be very frustrating for them."

Who Creates Content?

Frustrating as the lack of intranet use can be, heavy use presents its own challenges. APHL's intranet grew to mammoth proportions when the staff became more comfortable with the platform, which makes the management of the site challenging.

"There is so much information and so many sites," Clark says. "We deliberately allowed a lot of experimentation to help with adoption. While it helped with adoption, ongoing management of the organic nature of our SharePoint sites is tough—and confounding to our SharePoint administrator."

Other organizations find it tough to grow the content base. SCCM's Lewis says getting staff to contribute to the site is the biggest challenge.

Andy Steggles, COO and chief social strategist for Higher Logic, LLC, says one of the key benefits of an intranet is what he calls the "institutionalization of knowledge" within the association. "With a central archive of knowledge, organizations can have better succession planning and retention of knowledge," he says. Steggles suggests creating discussion areas and collaboration functionality that would passively capture the knowledge that staff members share with each other as a part of their jobs. Higher Logic uses a social networking platform for its intranet that allows discussions and collaborations to be indexed and searched.

Steggles cites an example of the employee who poses an IT question to the support desk. "If he doesn't know the answer, he would email an exchange group and get the answers," he says. "But the problem is that he's not archiving that knowledge anywhere. It goes from one person's email to the other. By making the intranet part of the natural collaboration process between staff and capturing that, it's a beautiful way of collecting knowledge because they're not doing anything extra. They're just doing their job, but you're capturing it as they're doing it."

Successful intranets happen the same way any successful change in an organization happens. You need to start slowly, think clearly, listen a lot, and keep communicating.

"Before we start any organizational redesign/improvement/change initiative, I ask, 'What problem are we trying to solve?'" says Clark. She says associations should involve staff early to define the problem and agree on what the solution might be. "If you don't know what you are trying to accomplish, you can't pick the right tools."

Weixel says ASHA's business goals played a big part in the decision-making process when the intranet developed. "Find out what is and isn't working well for staff, and try to build a system around needs," she says. "If staff can find some immediate relief from their pain points, adoption will be smoother."

She also recommends patience. "Don't speed up the process or try to build a system that accomplishes everything. Focus and plan to constantly change and grow. Don't roll out all features at once, as you and staff will become overwhelmed."

Beth Ziesenis writes on technology tools for increasing productivity and is the author of Upgrade to Free: The Best Free and Low-Cost Online Tools and Apps. Email: [email protected]

Beth Ziesenis

Beth Ziesenis is Your Nerdy Best Friend. As author of several books on technology including Nerd Know-How: The 27+ Best Apps for Work … & How to Use 'Em, Beth travels the country talking to organizations about free and bargain technology. Check out her blog at