Intranet Manager Blind Spots

Something I began to notice over the years in my role as Head of Interaction at the Intranet Benchmarking Forum were the “blind spots” among many intranet managers.

A lot of intranet managers have progressed into their roles via technical routes. Promoted into managerial and leadership roles, often through the successful delivery into the organisation of an intranet, the intranet manager arrives in the role not entirely prepared, or even temperamentally suited, to the greater role of delivering an “intranet plus”, often labelled a “digital work place”. From a successful document presentation and storage platform, with a front page and a gateway to various kinds of news and information, to a virtual collaboration platform, or even a business critical virtual space for working, the intranet manager applies their older, previously successful more “techy” mindset to the new paradigm and, not surprisingly, stumbles.

I found many of these managers and leaders to by shy, even introverted, uncomfortable in group discussion and sharing of emotional insights. Many would score low on emotional intelligence, even as their intellect borders on genius. In the theatre world, they’d be referred to as “shoulders up” actors, trapped mostly in the head, able to share thoughts and ideas, but less development in their E.Q (Emotional quotient). For them, challenges such as “collaboration” are seen as technical challenges of information sharing and finding the right platform. It becomes more about Sharepoint than true sharing.

Of course, this wasn’t the case with all intranet managers. However, over the years, I must have met over three of them, from different parts of the world and there are a number of blind spots that emerge from being underdeveloped in the fields of human behaviour, motivational understanding, emotional intelligence, empathy, and intuitive leadership.

Often the careers for shy people, for introverts, are reported as being computer programmer and network administrator. For example, Amy Winter highlights both of these in a recent article. She recommends that shyer, introverts are better suited to work “in the head”!

Many introverts in network administration have gone on, often due to the success in administering implementations of Sharepoint, to become intranet managers, just as the field has changed and intranets have become more than just networks, and much more about places of digital working and collaborating. These environments require more extroverted behaviours. Interesting, some introverts are able and happy to project a more extrovert and sociable avatar into these spaces. However, once back in the physical meeting room or on a voice conference call where most real decisions get made, they revert to a more minimal, shy personality and behaviour set.

There is a prevalent view also that “heads down” work is more productive, “real” work. Collaboration spaces are often viewed, even as intranet managers implement them, as less productive spaces of “hot air”, at best a PR exercise. Real work gets done through the screen alone. Sarah Chauncey provides some evidence for this here.

And “a 1987 study of computer programmers found that the most productive coders generated 10 times more work than their least productive colleagues. The study found no correlation between productivity on one hand, and age, training, experience, or company on the other. Rather, the single biggest factor in their productivity was lack of interruptions. Makes sense, right? Computer programming attracts many introverts who like a quiet place to think.” (Reference here)

Very few intranet managers I spoke to and met had pursued any formal training in leadership skills (though some had) and, in many cases, “communication” had resolved into “comms”, a once again more technophilic bias towards communication as a set of technical prospects and functional challenges. It still amazes me how much effort has been put into “People finding” and “employee directories”. I’ve yet to find more than ten people who, a a genuinely confidential and open conversation, actually give two hots about the people finder. The reason it is often trumpeted as a vital tool and a “victory” for intranet managers, is that it resolves communication into a process of information finding, and over over-valuing the technical potential of a people finder. Truly useful intranets are always about interaction not information. Yet many intranet managers see social interaction as a “soft” skill, and by that they mean less important; even where it is recognised as vital it is avoided.

So, the first blind spot is the inability to see interaction in its fullest sense. Intranets become more about information, finding things and names, searching for “artefacts”. Even where collaboration has been implemeted the “conversations” become so much information sharing on a linear basis (like elongated email chains) or faked up, hyped up, praising and role played conversation. Few if any real decisions are made, and most of these are confirmed physically and offline anyway, duplicating resource use. How do I know this? Because over ten years, countless intranet managers have told me.

The second blind spot is emotion. I find it ironic writing this because the intranet managers I am referring to will read this and simply not get it. The emotional landscape, being far harder to technologise, has been omitted largely from training; human behaviour is unpredictable and creativity is a wonderfully unpredictable aspect of human behaviour, often resulting in huge value for organisations. But, by being unpredictable, the blind intranet managers replaces creativity and unpredictability with “governance”> Intranets become about policing and control. Many collaboration platforms have only “Like” buttons and no “dislike” buttons and criticism is normed out of existence. It still amazes me how many intranet managers confuse dissatisfaction and criticism with depression or dysfunctional behaviour. Intranets become happy clappy clubs and intranet managers genuinely believe they are offering freedom of expression by allowing everyone to be “only as positive as they like”. Human emotion gives birth to all kinds of positive and negative behaviours. Without the dark there can be no understanding of light. Without critique there can be no authentic learning. If we dilute and distort how that emotion can express itself, in the name of governance, our intranets become collusions of niceness (and mediocrity) and an “undernet” quickly evolves, more real, more reliable, more immediate and more used – a bit like the old grapevine – where people start to share via SMS, face to face, and using less secure microblogging platforms. The response of intranet managers? To try to further control and police all of that as well!

A third blind spot (referred to earlier) is avatar projection. Here an intranet manager believes herself to be outgoing and sociable. This comes from the creation and projection of an avatar that really is social. The avatar has a funky profile head shot, and there’s plenty of thumbs up liking, challenge and dialogue. The online personum of of the intranet managers is upbeat and outgoing, as well as interactive and energetic. However, back in physical space, in important meetings and social interactions, a more default real personality shows itself as minimum and introverted, shy and far less forthcoming. The intranet manager is more or less aware of this, and is usually less aware of the impact of this shyness in needed energised face to face or voice call interaction. They come across as more cautious and, compared to their online fizziness, this can be seen relatively as being negative or unsupportive. The impact of this personality divergence can be confusion, and also demotivation among colleagues. Mistrust can also arise as the intranet manager is seen as a bit “two faced” and shifty. It can also create mistrust in the integrity of the behaviour and content that is shared online via the more buzzy avatar. It can appear as being more hype than authentic.

This behaviour happens a lot and I’ve seen a lot of examples of it, where the “new frontier digital workplace” is full of fake positive avatars, bigging up the interaction and buzzing on Yammer, but where, in backstage physical reality, energy and engagement is lower and lower key.

A further blind spot involves not seeing past the intranet. This intranet-centric view blinds the intranet manager to the emerging realm of digital working that is not only beyond the intranet, but also can even be beyond full human participation – an “ab-human” state. There are many digital process that aren’t part of the intranet that are becoming business critical. App-based working often lies outside the intranet, and many business processes engage with information systems and platforms that lie beyond the firewall. Many intranet-focused managers try to resolve this by bringing all of this functionality and activity behind the firewall. Yammer goes behind the firewall and, without skilful design, cuts off vital engagement and input from external players and stakeholders. Some organisations allow staff to bring their own device yet governance becomes all about retaining intranet-obsessed control.

The realm of digital working contains the intranet, but also embodies much more. And much processing now lies beyond even human direct participation where app communicates with app, and processing moves between internal and external location and functionality. The intranet blind spot sees this not as an opportunity for evolution but as a technical challenge of control and governance. This blind spot could be the breaking of some corporations as traditional definitions of trading, buying, selling, employing, monitoring and decision making change radically.

This article is not an attack on intranet managers. They have delivered the core of many organisation’s communication systems. But the realm of digital working is a social place, lying beyond technical control of information. It is not all good either. The Digital realm can become a nightmare of technocratic control and dehumanisation; it can also become a liberating place of virtual working. In all cases, the intranet manager needs to see with clearer vision.

This might involve engaging in some personal and professional development. Socially focused methods of learning such as action learning may help. Training in presentation and team leading skills may help. Development of socialising and facilitating skills may help. Training and experience of emotional intelligence work may help. But if the introversion or shyness is deep rooted in the temperament of the intranet manager, then such training is pointless and could be stressful.

It might also involve a recognition of the gap between the manager’s personality and the more social oriented needs of the role. Mentoring can help here, and access to a peer group. His or her team can also be enhanced by more socially at ease team members.

However, as they realm of digital working evolves, the above mentioned blind spots could prove commercially fatal. Many intranet managers I’ve met have intelligence at genius level, and an ability to realise systems carefully, diligently and innovatively. But sometimes they “soft” stuff becomes critical and, can be hardest.

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on July 14, 2013, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hi Paul,

    As a former intranet manager at BT for some years I can relate to a lot of your comments. While my background was not technical – HR, Training, Internal Communications – it is the case that very little investment was made in how I developed as an intranet manager rather than any manager or not the technical stuff with intranets.

    I always felt the human relationships with stakeholders, partners, publishers and users was more difficult, important, and rewarding than knowing which widget did a particaulr activity.

    An intranet manager needs to work with senior people on strategic matters and know how to interact. Good post! I wish my manager and me had seen this post 10 years ago.

    Mark

  2. Thank you for a valuable perspective, even if I found myself wavering between agreeing and disagreeing throughout.

    I feel there are many more blind spots affecting the success of an intranet than the introversion level of the manager.

    Often, the “organisation” around the intranet can be very introverted. Perhaps it’s the IT influence, but it could equally be seen as the comm’s team’s poor cousin, the HR team’s distraction, or compliance director’s only chance to say how things should be.

    It may be the technology. The manager may have inherited SharePoint, but can only think of it as a CMS. Directors might think it below them to talk about the intranet, or they may have booted it to another director to keep them quiet. Developers, copywriters and designers might theoretically be allocated to the intranet but priorities keep them elsewhere. Each knockback will tend to reinforce any innate introverted tendencies.

    What is critical, for me, is to keep looking outwards, to the products or services, the users and clients, and this needs to become part of the personality of the intranet. As Paul says, looking beyond the intranet.

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