Internal communiqué | A novel intranet approach helps solve information overload without breaking the bank

E-mail is an effective means of corporate communication — until it's not. Worldwide, e-mails are expected to reach 507 billion per day by 2013, according to research firm Radicati Group. Such an onslaught threatens information overload and companies are finding that employees are missing important information in their inboxes. And sending a corporate-wide memo to address the problem is no longer the solution.

Instead, companies are looking for alternative ways to communicate with and engage their employees. Norway

Savings Bank spent several years looking for an intranet solution to enhance its communications. "Any business that really believes employee communication is the key to productivity and having informed and empowered employees — an intranet can help meet those needs," says Karen Hakala, senior vice president of marketing for Norway Savings Bank. "As an organization, we've grown over the years and communication is a challenge when you have 20-plus branches and 280 employees."

About five years ago, the bank formed a subcommittee to explore an intranet solution. But it wasn't until last December that the bank finally had a system in place. An intranet, a private computer network that allows a company to securely share information within the organization, is nothing new to the corporate world. Large organizations have been taking advantage of such platforms since the late 1990s; however, it's the small- and medium-size enterprises that often aren't able to take advantage of such information-sharing platforms.

For Norway Savings Bank, the primary obstacle was cost. "The options we looked at, the initial investment was so great," says Hakala. "We looked at major intranet platforms [like Microsoft's SharePoint] and it was so amazing, but it was over-the-top robust and it was expensive."

It wasn't until the bank was approached by Portland-based startup company iKNO Intranet that things fell into place. IKNO Intranet LLC is the brainchild of entrepreneurs Becky McKinnell, president of iBec Creative, a company specializing in website and online marketing design, and Mark Girr, president of GirrCorp Consulting, a firm providing communication services to companies. Norway Savings Bank was the first company to pilot and deploy the iKNO platform.

Finding a solution that fits

Norway Savings Bank is far from alone in its challenge to find an intranet platform that fit its company size and budget, says Girr. As co-leader of the design for TD Banknorth's (now TD Bank) intranet platform in 2000, Girr was familiar with the challenges. After leaving TD, Girr started GirrCorp and kept encountering the same client issues. He found small-to-medium businesses were either resorting to custom-built solutions that were expensive and required in-house expertise, or they were turning to overly complicated platforms like Microsoft SharePoint, which has many functionalities small businesses don't need. "SharePoint is great if you're a big company and have a robust IT department and access to technology resources," he says. "But that really isn't the optimal solution for everyone and particularly for a business with 1,000 employees or fewer."

As he did more investigating, he found few platforms out there specifically built for small businesses. Most intranet platforms were focused on transactional and tactical tool applications, he said, that force employees into buckets by creating separate work teams. "They put people in areas where they work away from each other," he says. "But for small businesses, these systems need to be open and collaborative, from an information and knowledge-sharing point of view."

Girr started brainstorming how the ideal platform would perform and that's when he met McKinnell. "During a meeting, I did an entire brain dump on her and three weeks later she presented an interface that was exactly what I had in mind," he says.

The two wanted to develop a product that didn't overload the user with information. "Employees are feeling overwhelmed with information and they feel assaulted by information, opposed to feeling like they have access to information," he says. So Girr and McKinnell designed a system that identifies items of high priority and restricts things that aren't pertinent to their job functions.

In designing the look of the platform, it was critical to make it intuitive and easy to use. "The platform was designed to be very familiar to people. If you've used Facebook or LinkedIn, you'll know how to set up your employee profile," he says.

The other version is a hosted platform, called iKNO Cloud. Users don't have to be logged onto the internal network to gain access to the intranet. Information is stored in the cloud, on iKNO's hosted server. Using this version of the platform means small businesses don't have to rely on in-house IT support.The company offers two versions of its platform. Costs start at $5 per employee, after installation. The one Norway Savings Bank uses is iKNO Enterprise, which sits behind a firewall and syncs with the company's active directory systems. The platform resides on the company's own servers and is part of its internal network. This set-up increases security and aligns with the company's IT structure, says McKinnell.

The design and implementation process wasn't easy, says Hakala. As the first client for iKNO, there were kinks to work out, especially since the bank had strict security measures. But the end result was well worth the effort. "It was a great opportunity for our size bank to have something of this scale and a model that appears to be something we can wrap our arms around and work with them to build," Hakala says.

Making an intranet work

Content is the foundation of an intranet and also one of the greatest initial challenges. Norway Savings Bank worked to ensure the content on its site was accessible and relevant. Each department head is charged with updating information and employees are encouraged to comment and participate. "Some departments share personal news about their employees and the projects they're working on," says Stephanie Healey, marketing and communications specialist for Norway Savings Bank, who is charged with managing and overseeing the system. "There's a little bit of everything on the site."

The site has a customized navigation bar that includes tabs for each area of the bank such as personal banking, business banking, asset management and shared services. The employee directory is structured like a social networking site and includes photographs of employees, their contact information along with personal information about family, work or education history, or even favorite activities or hobbies.

The main page also has a news feed and blog feed. The news feed includes important corporate information for employees from the executive team. Employees can also subscribe to news feeds from specific departments to ensure they see all posts from their department. The blog function has more activity and is specific to each business unit. This is where departments will post information directed toward certain groups of employees.

In addition, users can subscribe to external web feeds such as newspapers and financial sites. The bank also has customized a HOTS (heard on the street) feed that is unique to the banking industry and provides information on changes in the financial market.

There is also a corporate calendar, where company events and meetings are posted, which allows employees to stay on top of corporate happenings. A "pulse poll" section queries employees for feedback on certain topics.

Making sure employees know how to use these features was the first order of business for Norway Savings Bank. "We have a written user guide that is very comprehensive," Healey says. The guide includes screenshots along with very clear directions about how to set up a profile and navigate the site. The bank held training presentations for department executives as well as online sessions to familiarize employees with the site. And for the first two months, Healey sent out weekly activities — ranging from scavenger hunts to online crossword puzzles — to get employees comfortable with regularly using the site.

One of the greatest values of having an intranet is that information posted there stays there, says Hakala. "Now employees have a portal to go to and check in and read up on the most recent news to learn what is being communicated within the bank," she says. There's no danger of information disappearing into the depths of an inbox.

But it's not just about making sure employees receive important information, it's about engaging them in company activity and improving overall corporate culture. iKNO has provided employees with a better sense of what's going on in the company. "I've learned about different departments and how they operate that I wouldn't have known about before because communications were only within those certain groups," Healey says. "I feel so much more engaged with the company than I did before."

Besides enhanced communication and awareness, another benefit was a slimmer inbox. "Our e-mail decreased, so instead of pushing information to our employees, it's now posted on the site and it's centralized and organized and it's easier to get information," says Hakala. Also, the bank stopped distributing its bimonthly internal newsletter, which saved time and printing costs, not to mention a few trees. Now all that information lives online.

Communication at the bank is much less of a one-way street. Instead of corporate executives pushing out memos, the company strives to engage its employees. "This is a better way to keep employees informed about changes and get their input," Hakala says. "If we're looking for employee feedback, we can poll them and they can tell us what they think. That's something you can't get from e-mail or paper."



Mainebiz contributing writer

Leischen Stelter, a writer based in Portland, can be reached at


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