Employee engagement can't be forced and in most cases, the experts say, it just can't be expected. Here are a few lessons learned by the intranet managers of British Telecom, KPN and MARS. Each company is seeking to raise engagement levels of between 40,000 and 140,000 employees -- it's no simple task.

I spent the day today in charming and chilly Amsterdam at the Connected Meetings Advanced Intranet & Portals event, where intranet managers from organizations like BT, KPN, Nestle, Nokia and Phillips gathered to discuss burning Enterprise 2.0 topics. Front and center was the question of how to raise employee engagement levels using a mixture of social media tools, openness policies and what amounts to a significant shift in the culture of modern enterprises.

Start by Setting Realistic Expectations

Many of the projects discussed were young and many were the first of their kind in the given organization. Pitching ideas to senior management and/or boards of directors has been challenging, especially with little previous experience or internal success stories to draw upon.

To expect 100% employee participation is to fail before starting. Jerzy Karpel, the Intranet Program Manager for the candy and beverage producer MARS, reminded us that most employees are participation couch potatoes -- they are unlikely to contribute much and will mostly likely not even notice there's a conversation happening.

If you are going to sell your project up the chain, stakeholders need to understand this up front and hold appropriate expectations. Otherwise, they'll be little chance of project "success" and smaller chance of future budget approvals.

Intranets -- Stakeholders Must Appreciate the Participation Realities

The Business Case and Prioritizing Investments

Mark Morrell (see blog) of British Telecom is running a three year old project, increasing the engagement levels of BT's 140,000+ employees. According to Mark, "if you have to build a business case you're in trouble." Your strongest possible argument is a real success story. This is what you need to justify further experimentation and budget.

This recommendation of course presents a chicken-and-egg problem. It is therefore key to get strategic and light-weight projects off the ground as early as possible. You need to create an environment where you can quickly experiment -- build, test, tear down, re-build -- creating the opportunity for serendipitous successes.

Intranets -- Selecting Strategic Engagement Projects

Jerzy Karpel of MARS used the image above (sourced from Hutch Carpenter) when talking about success and experimentation. Hutch's original revelation was:

You don't need a high level of adoption to get value from some Enterprise 2.0 apps. Others require broad participation.

The point here: Understand how much participation is required for each tool/application/process to be deemed a success. Choose your projects wisely. Early on, the low hanging fruit is probably a smarter option. Once you have some success stories, the projects requiring larger amounts of participation are going to be easier to sell to the purse-holders and more likely to succeed.

Choosing Technologies

I was surprised to hear so many very large scale intranet managers so excited about open source technologies. But when you put this next to the "be agile, experiment broadly" mantra, it makes perfect sense.

Mark Morrell shared some of his strategies for over-coming internal resistance. These included:

  • Start small
  • Start cheap
  • Build for tear down

Open source software often, but not always, fits in well here. You can pick things up for next to nothing and run quick trials. Then if things are not working out, toss them away -- all with no contracts to sign and no budget approvals. If projects go well, you can build on the platform, acquiring additional support services or moving to the "enterprise" version of the product, etc. Or, you have the freedom to experiment with other products in the same space.

SharePoint was everywhere. But mostly it was in place as just one component of the overall participation and collaboration picture. The phrase I heard repeated over and over again in reference to SharePoint was "document collaboration".

SharePoint 2007 was definitely not the broader enterprise platform -- in fact, from my casual survey of the speakers, there wasn't one. From what the various intranet managers said, it's clear that SharePoint 2010 is changing this picture.

Nobody wants to manage more platforms than they absolutely must. And nobody wants to create the inevitable information silos that comes from having multiple platforms. So SharePoint 2010 is garnering a huge amount of attention in this crowd. This is also bringing plenty of interest in vendors like AvePoint, Metalogix, Quest and Tzunami who are capable of migrating data into or between versions of SharePoint.

Nevertheless, the people I spoke with all agreed -- in the early stages of intranet or Enterprise 2.0 projects, you have to start small and proceed with an agile and iterative approach. Glue technologies like NetVibes (news, site) can then be used to bind the pieces together. And RSS for everything cannot be overstated -- it gives you the flexibility to provide self-serviced, personalized and dynamic information views.

Once the hard lessons have been learned and the concepts and processes refined, then you can move towards a broader, more integrated technology solution.

Educating and Culture Shifting

Lesson one: Culture shifting is essential. Lesson two: To get there you must be patient. Large organizations may be dealing with three different generations of users. Appealing to all three at the same time is difficult and will take time. From some of the world's largest intranet managers here is the secret sauce:

Relentlessly focus on providing stuff that is relevant to your employees.

Don't ignore senior management. Er, tell them you're not ignoring them, but do what you see the employees demanding you do. Stand up for the employees at all costs. Be very careful about deleting the blog post a board member finds offensive or embarrassing. That's old culture thinking. See if there's a new culture way of handling the situation. That blog post might just have huge relevance to more people than you'd like to admit.

BT's Mark Morrell shared a few stories about disgruntled upper management encouraging him to remove or modify internal blog posts or comments. Pressure gets exerted and you have to make a call, says Mark. But he strongly emphasized that in most cases, it's a bad decision to touch the content. "Sometimes I get angry phone calls, but not every day," he says with a smile.

Blinking red content is sassy, viral and engaging. It also challenges management to demonstrate their commitment to openness and honesty. This is part of the culture shift and those can be transformational moments. A sense of humor may be essential.

And speaking of, one entertaining lesson was about a 4 second average visit time. A certain large organization forced all employees to visit the intranet homepage every time they launched their browser. The average intranet visit duration dropped to 4 seconds, or roughly the amount of time it took for the browser to fire up and the employee to hit the stop button.

If you have to force engagement, you're failing. If you focus on relevance and accessibility (among a few other things) engagement will occur in a more natural manner.

Guiding Principles from MARS

Jerzy Karpel, who had supervised the development of an impressive set of enterprise collaboration and communication tools, outlined some of the company's guiding principles. These include:

  • A philosophy of open access
  • Emphasize folksonomy over taxonomy
  • Enable employees via self-service (no IT bottlenecks)
  • Deliver great search results (thanks to Google, the expectations are set)
  • Support simple subscriptions and/or friending -- facilitates self-service and personalization of employees' information flow
  • Participation should be possible for any object
  • Strong push for RSS and/or Web Services -- more self service, personalization and inter-system integration
  • Emphasize and encourage new ways of working -- embracing openness and culture change (e.g., responsive executives, lots of internal video production, reduction in the number of passwords and security systems, etc.)

Jerzy and others demonstrated a much increased reliance on the use of video for communications and training. MARS had created their own video platform using a hybrid set of technologies that their internal engineers wove together.

For every Enterprise 2.0 application they deployed, there was an accompanying library of concise and entertaining videos designed to facilitate the culture shift. The company now has a library of over 5000 internal videos. At least a handful had gone viral internally.

Lessons from KPN

Hans Koeleman from KPN Royal Dutch Telecom shared some of the challenges and lessons he had learned. Managing culture change with patience and creativity was strong among them. In KPN's case, all senior management was trained in story telling, emphasizing Wording, Anchoring and Telling techniques.

He emphasized that many managers will have a hard time changing, but that it is most important that they do -- they strongly influence your org's culture. They might have 20 years of speaking to groups of hundreds of people using 45 slide presentations, almost never encountering raw, blunt questions. Enterprise social media presents a radical shift.

To retrain these people you've got to focus on Enterprise 2.0 success stories and the incremental development of confidence in the new systems and communication styles.

Continuing the Journey

Reading between the lines, the strongest theme I saw today was a focus on strategic agility. None of the speakers claimed to have any secrets science. KPN's Hans Koeleman's statement was that "you have to see this as a journey." The mantra repeated by all was: You can't force participation. You have to focus on relevancy. You have to refine via experimentation.

So accept and love your couch potatoes, enable your contributors and never stop experimenting early, quickly and often. When your employees have themselves chosen the intranet as their default start page, then you're on the right track.