Is your intranet a Grand Design success or nightmare?

We’ve all seen Grand Designs or its ilk: a happy and often naive team set about building their grand vision of a home, armed with a rudimentary architect sketch, a woefully small budget and some enthusiasm. Six months down the line, they realise they don’t have enough money, don’t know nearly enough about house building, have all their priorities wrong and that, ultimately, their new home will take significantly longer than planned and they’ll have to live in the condemned caravan for the winter. All the while, Kevin McCloud questions the  integrity of the build, the suitability of the design and points out in cutting commentary where the hapless two are going wrong. In the end, it all comes together, but we all feel that this house is not perfect for us and that we would likely have done a better job.

Settle back, let’s take a deeper look.

It all starts with governance

When you’re living in your cold condemned caravan overlooking your vacant plot, any new house seems wondrous. You start dreaming about the life you’ll live in this new home, what colours will be painted on the walls, the cushions you’ll have on the window seat overlooking the garden, you dreamy romantic you. You won’t give a seconds thought to the foundations.

This is a common mistake for intranet projects. Folks start getting overly dreamy eyed about the new platform and about the difference it will make to employees and the business as a whole. Conversations quickly start about the design, without thinking about the foundational governance needed to make this all come together properly. It doesn’t matter how pretty your intranet looks: if your foundational governance is weak, it’ll quickly show as you try to make your intranet work harder. Get your priorities right; build from the base, work on the governance that will support the finished product first.

You got planning permission for that carbuncle? 

No sooner have the neighbours finished their new house, than a bulldozer turns up to pull it all down. Paperwork eh? No planning permission! Amateurs! This won’t happen to you though will it because you’ve submitted all the plans to the council and they love it. LOVE IT. Oh this is awkward, you do have  permission right?

Getting the mandate to build your intranet is critical and it’ll likely come through your governance routines. Having an employee need, identifying a solution and a budget isn’t quite enough: you need explicit sponsorship and aligned permission to get building your intranet.

Structure, dear fella, structure

Foundations poured and set, your house is finally out of the ground as walls start appearing in block work. Rapid progress is made and — woo! — it looks like you’ll be in before Christmas, stockings hanging by the blessed log burner in the lounge whilst the dog dries himself against the Aga in the kitchen. But wait, what about adding a window there to over-look the garden? And — dammit — where’s the kitchen, we need a kitchen for the Aga, for the dog!

Before you build, scope your intranet fully and in explicit detail and make sure those details are all employee-approved. Your intranet needs to be practical working space for your colleagues so understanding what it needs to do and how it needs to be structured it vital before you build. Scope it, architect it, plan it, check it. You can plan on the hop if you like, but it’ll cost you fortunes as you put in (or take out) these structures.

The Art of Magnolia

The raw colour of the plasterwork looks nice, but these new walls need dressing properly so out comes the Farrow and Ball colour charts and you set about choosing the precise shade of magnolia that suits. It’s probably called Fox Blush or something equally enigmatic. 

You will need to dress your intranet somehow as the out-of-the-box CMS style is far from an engaging space. Many commentators have already played out the ‘form v. function’ conversation and our summary is this: both are important but we’d prefer a functional ugly intranet over a beautiful pointless intranet any day.

Your intranet is a digital workspace for your company and needs to reflect the company visually too. Choose designs wisely but subtly: it doesn’t need to be yellow and green just to remind your employees they work for the Big Yellow and Green company. They know that already.

Bringing it to life

Roof on, windows in, first and second fix done, your house is water-tight and you can start living in this space. Get the furniture in yea! Table here, sofa there, bath there, vase, bookshelves, stereo, TVs, mugs, limes, spoons, hoovers, cushions, sellotape roll and OH MY WORD, this room is a mess and wait, what is this room even? It was all looking so lovely before we moved this all in.

Have nothing on your intranet that doesn’t serve a purpose. Everything must add value somehow: quality information to inform employees, brilliant online applications that provide efficiencies, collaborative spaces that are fun and useful. It must all serve a purpose of some kind so be harsh with requests for intranet real estate. It’s too valuable to just give away and there’s no space for ego publishing. Audit hard, kick out anything that looks extraneous.

Make sure your intranet has shape and definition. It should be obvious what sections are for an how users will use it so don’t clutter it up with unnecessary, disparate content or features. If users can’t figure out what it’s for, chances are they just won’t bother using it.

More Space Needed

Your mother-in-law decides that she can’t live alone any more and under duress, you agree that she can move in. But hang on, how’s this going to work? You only have one kitchen, one bathroom … and there’s no way she’s going to sit and moan through your TV viewing each and every evening. No, this won’t do: you need an extension for Granny. Knock the whole Grand Design down – start again!

Every so often in your intranet’s life, a big bang build is needed but once that solid foundation is created, it’s better to seek to improve it through minor improvements rather than throw it all away and start afresh. This long wow approach demonstrates you’re acting on feedback and changing employee needs and will likely necessitate an agile project methodology.


Ok, this post focusses on a playful analogy of  a popular home improvement show, but one that we find will be quite useful to help teams focus on what’s important. You may have been nodding along and thinking, ‘I know this!’.  While we hope that this isn’t the first time you have heard the advice, maybe this analogy will help you explain why its so important. It is our job to help our teams and wider project teams to understand this. Intranets are like houses: start with a solid foundation, create clear unambiguous plans from well researched  needs, test regularly. Once built, evolve – don’t be tempted to rebuild too often.

There are 6 comments

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  1. Peter Richards

    Nice read Mr Phillips.

    I especially like the way you explained the unforseen need for more space by perpetuating the difficult mother-in-law stereotype.

    Can I assume that you own mother-in-law is not an Intranetizen reader?

  2. Pieter Walraven

    Great post, would love to see a future post with more thoughts on how to ‘Bring it to life’. Can be a huge challenge both in terms of smart product design and the human element.

    Keep it up!

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