Fighting Intranet User Apathy

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (11-Nov-2008)

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Trying to get users excited about their intranet can sometimes be as challenging as trying to get children excited about doing their homework.

Other corporate systems have very clear and definable goals, but an intranet's purpose can sometimes be overly broad and general in scope. A real-time collaboration solution—equipped with fully integrated webcam, IM, VOIP, and shared whiteboards—captures users' imaginations. Excitement is generated with the thought of tying all satellite offices together in real-time. But the idea of an intranet—especially if it's not associated with a real world problem that users can easily relate to—will generate as much hoopla as a piece of Melba toast.

Although there are many ways to market and promote your intranet, what if, despite all your efforts, you're unable to elicit anything more than an apathetic "so what?"

Understand users' apathy

There's no blanket solution to overcoming user apathy. It all begins with understanding the collective mindset and culture of your user community. The reason, and remedy, for apathy is very specific to your organizational culture. It will be unwise to borrow another company's solution to apply to your own users without fully understanding what's at the root of the problem.

Unless there are serious technology- or process-related deficiencies with your system, intranet apathy is more an issue of attitude and perception. Users might simply view intranet use as one of those burdensome chores like washing dishes or doing laundry. Or users might think that the company intranet wasn't built for them and has no practical use in their day to day work. Lack of system knowledge or training plays a big role in users' perception of the system. A formal intranet mission statement can help put some focus into the system, but it must be established carefully.

Intranets have many applications within an organization. As a result, companies must avoid the mistake of only targeting specific groups by giving their intranet too narrow a purpose, or trying to cater to everyone by giving their intranet too broad a purpose. Ironically, both approaches can potentially push users away for the same reason: Users think their intranet has nothing to offer to warrant their attention.

Intranet teams must also be aware that user apathy can be carried over from past IT failures. Even if an intranet is efficient, streamlined, and user-friendly, images of unkept promises and buggy software can mar a perfectly good system—especially if it originated from the same people associated with those past failures. Steps should be taken to distance past failures from current successes.

Aim for peer-based promotion

Getting users to use their intranet on a regular basis is a good first step. The goal, however, is getting them to want to use their intranet. You might be tempted to think that as long as users are using the system, it doesn't matter why. But this is the wrong attitude to take. Long-term intranet user satisfaction goes beyond mere necessity.

You must actively gauge your user community's reaction to the intranet and adjust your marketing approach accordingly. Don't aggressively promote the system whenever you notice a dip in use. You need to know why there's a dip in use. Brute force marketing is a poor substitute for understanding users' attitudes and positions.

Ideally, you want to reach the point where you no longer need to constantly sell the intranet to users, and the system can continue to flourish on its own through word-of-mouth publicity within the user community. Peer-based marketing from fellow users is far more effective than top-down marketing from the intranet team because users can better relate with other users. Besides, users are probably already weary of hearing the same in-your-face, "better living through technology" spiel from IT.

Concentrate on process, not technology

There's always been a disconnect between an organization's IT systems and its users—especially in non-technology environments. Many users view technology-based systems as something they have to use rather than something they want to use.

Regardless of how well an intranet is designed and how much more efficient it makes their old processes, some users just can't relate with a technology-based system. Don't try to sell an intranet to an average user the same way you would to a techie. You're fighting a lifetime's worth of habit. If technology doesn't play a big role in users' world view, you might be trying to appeal to a nonexistent facet of a user's professional personality.

The only people impressed by technology are techies, so dial down the tech talk. Boasting about an AJAX-enabled intranet isn't likely to impress non-techies who know nothing about AJAX apart from the cleaning agent. This will create an even wider gap in the user-technology divide. Instead, show users real world examples of what the intranet can do for them. Tell users what their intranet can do for them, not how it does it for them.

Get users actively involved

It's one thing to be a passenger; it's another thing to be a driver. Users, who might be tired of being driven around by IT, will be far more likely to use an intranet if they have a personal stake in the system. There's a reason Web 2.0 tools such as blogs, wikis, and social networking sites are so popular on the Internet. These tools personalize something that's seemingly infinite and gives users a small piece of it to call their own. Implementing similar tools on an intranet can have the same effect. They can turn a passive audience into active users and contributors, allowing them to be more involved. This makes an intranet less of a foreign object to be gawked at.

Closing thoughts...

Before you can combat the problem of user apathy, you need to recognize and understand the problem. Intranet apathy is a human-based problem that must be addressed before more technology is thrown into the mix, possibly compounding the problem.

Users, and all their complexities, are subjective. They can't be debugged like software. You need to take the time to see things through users' eyes. If you don't care enough about what users want, why should you expect them to care about what you want?

Copyright © 2008 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.