Life after the intranet

Providing apps and social networks for effective employee communication

The intranet, as most communications professionals know it, has existed for around 20 years.

In many organisations, little has changed.

There have been huge improvements in search, media hosting and document management, but in many ways the corporate intranet of today looks and feels like the intranet of the early 2000s.

At Virgin Trains, we listened to our people and made the decision to replace our intranet with a suite of “tailored” mobile apps, with an app-based enterprise social network as our primary employee communications channel.

Our decision-making was informed by several key factors within our business, which are not unique to our us and which may sound familiar to some readers of this article. We have:

  • a distributed and mobile employee audience without access to a desktop computing environment
  • a complex and fast-moving business operation, meaning that our employees have very little time to access company information
  • a wide variety of role types, from train drivers, to customer service assistants, to engineers
  • an increasing number of “millennial” employees who demand communications that are easy to access, targeted and participative

With such an audience, there is little requirement for a large, highly-structured intranet. Instead, our people want bite-size information, easily accessible on mobile devices, and tailored to their role and/or location. So we decided to build an App Store, with a mixture of third-party and bespoke apps that our people can pick from on their mobile device, according to what they want.

Some of these apps are integrated at the back-end, so that data is shared seamlessly, such as our employee recognition app and our HR self service portal. Others are standalone apps, for example an incident reporting app used to improve the safety of our people and customers.

The most significant of all these apps, from a communications and collaboration perspective, is Microsoft’s Yammer social network (enterprise version).

Organisations have mixed results when implementing networks such as Yammer. Often this is because the solution lacks a clear strategy, and is lost within a mix of communication channels.

We invested heavily in encouraging and developing the behaviours required to make Yammer truly valuable, rather than thinking of it as another technology implementation. As a result, within four months of launch, we had over 60% of our total employee audience registered on Yammer and with engagement levels >85% as indicated by the Measure of Active Engagement (published content, shares and likes). Perhaps the most impressive aspect is the amount of user-generated content published to Yammer without being prompted, and all intended to support other colleagues in delivering the best possible customer experience.

In our out-of-work lives, we demand solutions that we can tailor to our wants and needs. And we expect things to be simple, convenient and mobile.

Moving away from the traditional intranet, with mostly static content and a highly structured environment, mirrors a wider change in society towards mobile apps. It still seems like a bold move, and it certainly is not appropriate to every organisation, but here at Virgin Trains it has enabled a step-change in our efforts to be as open, communicative and collaborative as possible.

Image: Thinkstock

Drew McMillan

Drew McMillian is head of internal communication and innovation for Virgin Trains where he is responsible for leadership communication and communications-enabled organisational change. He was formerly internal communication and cultural director at Ladbrokes. He has worked in sectors as diverse as defence, energy, retail and government in the Middle and Far East, USA and Europe.