The River Wild: The Influence of Corporate Culture on Intranets

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (15-Jan-2004)

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Anyone who has ever tried to paddle a canoe, kayak, or raft understands that it's the water that dictates the general direction of the boat. And while logic suggests that it's easier to paddle with the current than against it, there's nothing stopping paddlers from trying to power their way up the stream. However, it will be very slow going and, in the end, they'll be completely exhausted and possibly left with a damaged boat.

Experienced river rats know how to read the water and its rhythm. They have a firm knowledge of how water moves and, consequently, how objects move within it. And despite the unpredictability of the currents, experienced paddlers manage to pick a path of least resistance—even through the toughest whitewater—without getting thrown against a jagged rock or pulled into a whirlpool.

But there are two important lesson to be learned here: Firstly, regardless of experience and planning, we never truly know what will happen until the boat is actually placed in the water. And secondly, there are times when we pick the direction of the boat, and there are times when the current picks the direction for us.

The Effects of Corporate Culture

One of the fundamental rules of intranet design is to develop a system to fit the needs of the audience, but we rarely consider how the audience itself shapes the outcome of the intranet. And when you ignore the influence—positive or negative—of corporate culture, the end result may look very different from your original specs.

Corporate culture is a subjective issue and its influence on project goals can often be unpredictable. In spite of all your efforts during initial project planning, you're never quite sure—without a bit of crystal-ball gazing—how an intranet will turn out until it's absorbed into the user community. This is because "paper planning" only accounts for about 75 percent of the final product—and things don't always go as you planned.

However, this is not to suggest that intranet developers should be relegated to mere spectators after system roll out. Your job, as developers and content owners, is to understand the mentality of your corporate culture and to determine whether this culture is able, or even willing, to support an intranet. Failing to do so will not only yield unexpected results, but will also place a premature expiration date on your intranet.

Understanding Your Culture

Determining how corporate culture will influence the design and outcome of your intranet should never be left up to fate. That would be like jumping into a boat with a blindfold on, pointing it downstream, and hoping you end up at a desirable destination. A more likely outcome, however, would be your family and friends staring woefully at the newspaper headline, "Boater Takes Header Over Falls, Kidnapped by Pygmies."

Before you even set off, you need to understand the mentality of your corporate culture and how it will affect the outcome of your project. It's these influencing factors that will determine how much user involvement—and the quality of this involvement—there will be during development and, subsequently, the management and support of the system.

For example, companies that foster a collaborative team atmosphere will produce a much higher level of developmental participation and content contribution than one that's based on a clock-in/clock-out, "just let me do my work and don't bother me" mentality.

Since intranets require an ongoing commitment beyond initial implementation, your user community needs to be able to maintain the integrity of the system throughout its entire lifecycle and not allow it to fall into disrepair. The ultimate success of your intranet will depend on it.

With this in mind, the most important decision you'll then need to make is whether to design your intranet to match the habits of your corporate culture or to design the system to best support the information and trust that the culture will be flexible enough to adapt to a new system.

So, should the system yield or should the culture yield? Or perhaps a little bit of both? The answer to this question will depend on your particular culture. Is it open to change or stubborn and stuck in its ways? Will you sail gently down the stream singing, "Merrily, merrily, merrily..." or struggle your way against the raging currents? Don't forget that the tougher the current, the tougher the struggle!

To help you gain a better understanding of the intricate subtleties of corporate culture and their influence on your intranet's outcome, we can dissect all of these influencing factors into two main categories: those we can control and those we can't control.

Controllable Factors

You have a paddle for a reason: To steer your boat through the rapids. It's there, not to battle the currents like two butting heads, but to allow you and the boat to maneuver within it.

You have the ability to guide your intranet to a desirable destination by gaining an understanding of your corporate culture and the users within it. And in order to minimize any negative influences of culture on your intranet, you need to be aware of your user community's requirements, professional background, and work habits. Otherwise, you'll be paddling your boat with a pool cue.

Among some of the foreseeable and controllable impacts of corporate culture on an intranet, none are so obvious as:

It may sound elementary, but avoid including features that go against the grain of the culture. An all-business culture may not appreciate, or have any need for, some of the "water cooler" features that are sometimes included in an intranet to lighten up the day.

Uncontrollable Factors

Unfortunately, there are times when, regardless of how hard you paddle, the current just refuses to allow you to pass. It fights you every inch of the way and you'll find yourself horribly off course.

Corporate culture is, and will always be, an X-factor. Like the ebb and flow of the tides, it can push away just as easily as it can draw in. You can interview core groups of prospective users and shadow workgroups to gain an understanding of how they operate, and carefully plan out every stage of development and implementation, but there are uncontrollable forces at work that can doom your intranet despite all this preparation:

Open Resistance to Change

Habits are always difficult to break. Trying to change the way someone has worked for years has little to do with the efficiency of the new method. You can tell users that an intranet will cut their old process time in half but if they're resistant to change, all the statistics in the world won't convince them. They will spend that extra time doing it the old way because that's what they know and they don't want to bother with what they believe will be a far greater effort in learning a new system.

There's an inherent risk in introducing a new system into a culture that has shown open resistance to change in the past. And you need to make sure that your intranet doesn't suffer the same fate as previous failed attempts by figuring out a different approach. Remember: It's pure folly to do the same thing twice and expect different results.

Lack of Team Atmosphere

So much of an intranet's success relies on the cooperation of all those involved in development and maintenance. This is because an intranet is more than just an application, it's a knowledge community. And if there's chaos in the community, there's chaos in the system.

A culture that's conducive to a cooperative team atmosphere will be more likely to produce a higher level of developmental participation and content contribution than one that's based on the self-imposed isolation of corporate cliques.

Information Hoarding

Intranets allow corporate knowledge communities to manage and access large stores of information from a unified source. But in order for this to work properly, all the knowledge sources must be willing to share and manage their information—and we know that this is not always the case.

There are those who hoard information and guard it like a squirrel guards its nuts for the winter. They do this for various reasons: self-promotion, job security or advancement, or to elevate their status as someone "in the know." An intranet will never survive in a culture that's rife with information hoarders simply because no one is willing to share what they know or have.


Simply knowing that there's a need for an intranet in your company is no guarantee that it will succeed. Regardless of how well-planned your intranet is, it won't stand a chance in a culture that's unwilling or unable to sustain it.

You need to understand that planning and development take place in a controlled environment and is not a real indicator of success. It's going to be a whole different world once an intranet is introduced into the community and all the unpredictability that comes with it.

And while it's easier to change an intranet than a culture, resist the temptation to allow negative cultural habits to redirect the path of your original plans. There's a difference between going with the flow and conceding to the will of the current.

But corporate culture should not be viewed as some kind of unstoppable force because you do have options. By gaining an understanding of the flow of your culture, you can adjust your intranet approach and reinforce positive cultural habits—to work with, rather than against, the current.

This knowledge of culture falls within the responsibility of the developers and content owners and needs to be actively sought out. You should never sit idly by, watching an unmanned vessel being tossed into oblivion because while it's the current that propels a boat forward, it's the paddler who directs it to its proper destination.

Copyright © 2004 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.