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Author: neville@nevillehobson.com (Neville Hobson)

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Sometimes, the workplace of the late 1990s seems to me a little like today rather than over 16-18 years ago when I think of disruption and change driven largely by developments in technology. I say ‘largely’ as shifts in people’s behaviours also play a huge role in workplace disruption and change, as do corporate and national cultures, attitudes and leadership.

Disruption and change are not only about technology.

Such thoughts came to front of mind this weekend when a major sort out in the home office turned up a pile of business and tech journals from the latter part of the 1990s including a copy of Conspectus magazine from January 1998 that contains a feature article I had written in the autumn of 1997 about the roles, impact and potential of intranets in the corporate workplace, with a focus on self-service employee benefits management.

The late 1990s was a time when an intranet was still, relatively, an embryonic communication and functional tool in most organizations, never mind the notion of employee self-service. Those that were developing intranets tended to be large organizations with budgets and the willingness to travel new roads. While many intranets of that era were a great deal about employee communication – and more often than not, owned and run by the IT department – quite a few organizations were investing in the development of functional intranets that offered self-service opportunities for employees in things like employee benefits enrolment and management.

A little like what we see all around us today with social media, internal social networks and of course highly-evolved intranets (take a look at today’s intranet from companies like Igloo Software, for instance – utterly unlike what you’d have seen in 1998).

At that time, I worked for William M. Mercer in the UK and part of my job was to help multinational and large-national clients see what tech was coming to the workplace and how we could help them prepare for it. (Even then, as a consultant I always looked on the bright side.) And so I wrote my piece for Conspectus with a predictive short story as the scene-setting introduction to a topic that many people were writing about at that time.

I figured as everyone else was writing pretty dry stuff about intranets focused on the technology in the here and now (then), let’s look at what is very likely in the near future where the forthcoming new millennium was capturing many imaginations (mainly worries about the potential imagined effects of Y2K), and write a story.

While it does seem a bit Space: 1999-ish even to me reading it today – I may well have been influenced by that 1970s sci-fi TV series – it does contain some realistic predictions of what we have today: ubiquitous workplace video-calling and touch screens, for instance, as well as attitude.

Here is that short story; see what you think:

Monday December 6th, 1999. Time: 8:10am. Elliott Green, human resources manager, arrives at his desk and puts his laptop down. It rings. Cursing mildly, he opens it up and fumbles in his pocket for his ID card.

The laptop rings again as Elliott slips the card into it and watches the screen light up to display a request to confirm his password. The computer rings once more as he keys in the password. A dialogue appears saying “Incoming Call from Marie Page.”

He touches the “Accept Call” button on the screen; up comes a live video picture of Paige, the human resources director. Her name and the legend “Encrypted – Secure Call” appear beneath the image.

“Hi Elliott, good to see you. Hope I’ve not caught you at a bad time?”

“Good morning, Marie. No, not at all,” replies Elliott. “Go ahead.”

“Ok, I just wanted to remind you that the new secure employee-access module of the interactive flexible benefits system goes online today. I’ll be at the consultants’ till early afternoon, so would you make sure that the announcement to everyone goes out at 11 as we agree?”

Smiling, Elliott says, “No problem, I’ve taken care of it.”

“That’s great, thanks,” says Marie.

“By the way, the results from the final pilot test are excellent. I’ve put the video-doc report in our private message area on the server. If you want, you can listen to a quick overview on the audio-call system. Just dial star-789 and follow the voice prompts.”

“Ok, thanks, see you later,” says Elliott, and disconnects.

Elliott touches the “Access System” button in one corner of his screen. It expands into a display of icons, buttons and message listings. Scanning the screen, he quickly sees the button he wants: “The Employee Source.”

As he touches it, he recalls the meeting, two years before, when the idea of fully automating the company’s HR information structure throughout the whole global organization had first been mooted.

No-one believed we’d do it by the new millennium, he reflects: all of it, linking HR databases in 20 countries that employees can access as well, from wherever they are.

That set the scene for the case I made in the overall article for building an intranet and the role it plays in employee communication, engagement and employee self-service in benefits management (the latter a pretty new concept at that time).

A sidebar in the article outlines important considerations from the point of view of a communicator. Written in 1997, I think they’re still valid today, whether for an employee benefits website as the article discusses or for almost any other employee resource where access to and content from is via a digital network:

Six Steps to an Employee Benefits Website

  • Build your sound business case. No matter how good your idea seems, it must show clear financial advantages and demonstrate how it will help achieve your company’s overall business objectives.
  • Involve the IT department (1). Your IT colleagues can be the most valuable ally within your organization if you discuss your ideas with them at the outset of your planning.
  • Involve the IT department (2). The planning and operation of an employee benefits website is very much an IT issue; the design and content is broadly your issue. Recognise that your website will likely be successful when developed as a joint project.
  • Get people’s opinions. Ask employees what they’d like to see on the website. Ask a few rungs above and below you on the management ladder. Consider all the views. Identify the stakeholders. Keep everyone informed of what you;re doing.
  • Be clear about design and content. Above all, your website is a communication channel – it must attract, interest and stimulate visitors into the desired action. Don’t short-change on the “look and feel.”
  • Talk to your external consultants. Find out what other organizations are doing – what tips and tricks you can learn, and how to avoid the pitfalls.

You can see the complete article as it appeared in Conspectus in January 1998 in a scan from the journal as a Scribd document, embedded below. Look out for two screenshots showing an HR intranet via Internet Explorer 4 and the Netscape Navigator browser (remember that?) in Netscape Communicator 4, the versions in use in late 1997.

Much has changed. Yet not much has changed.

Key to the Virtual Door by Neville Hobson

First published as Story-telling the intranet on NevilleHobson.com