Intranet leaps information barriers

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Morgan Stanley was one of the first firms to develop a company intranet, back in 1996. Morgan Stanley Today is available globally with regional variations in Asia, Europe and Japan. The company makes use of its internal television studios to relay presentations across the company intranet.

Euart Glendinning, head of corporate communications for Europe and Asia, explains that the intranet system evolved based on feedback from users. He says: 'The intranet has significantly enhanced our ability to conduct real-time communications. On its own it is not sufficient, but as a source of information and for updates on strategic direction it has become an invaluable tool.'

Internal communicators cannot work in a vacuum. Significant events such as changes in branding or corporate image warrant specific communication methods. Glendinning says: 'In times of change it then becomes a real team effort between management, corporate communications, corporate services, resources and business information.'

The intranet comes into its own for re-enforcing branding messages and issuing style guides globally. Loretta Murphy, head of corporate communications at Commerzbank Securities, makes regular use of webcasts on the company intranet. She says: 'Previously, when someone gave a presentation in one centre, the message was often diluted or misinterpreted by the time it reached everyone in the organisation. The use of webcasts overcomes this problem. The same message presented in the same style goes out across the organisation simultaneously. When results go out it is immediate staff have access to wire services and it is vital that they have had all the information internally first rather than risk hearing it from an external source.'

Colette Dorward, chief executive officer at Smythe Dorward Lambert, the UK consultancy credited with leading the charge for internal communications, agrees that intranets have been hugely influential. She says: 'The first generation of intranets were little more than information databases. Now they are being used as an enabling device, empowering employees to pull out the information they need. In many firms employees can tailor their intranets to prioritise how they receive their information.'

Vital as technological developments are in improving internal communications, just as significant is the widespread change in staff attitudes and company cultures. Creating an open culture where information is available to all is the key to improving internal communications whatever an organisation's size. Banks are creating working cultures in which staff communicate and where they can pull out whatever information they need rather than having it pushed on them from on high.

Dorward says: 'Staff no longer expect to be fed corporate messages as they may have been 20 years ago when information was packaged in a way that many would see as patronising today.' This change has been fuelled by the internet. People have got used to being able to tap into current information whenever it suits them. There is a stronger feeling that staff members have the right to know. Dorward believes that investment banks have a head start over many organisations, as they tend to employ particularly self-motivated individuals who take responsibility for extracting the information they need.

The aim is to make employees part of an information network that allows them to work better. Keeping people informed and allowing them to be heard go a long way to engendering support for management.

Commerzbank's Murphy also feels strongly that all information is for everybody, unless it is particularly price-sensitive, and that trust is engendered when information flows freely. However, although internet technology has greatly enhanced internal communications, it has not entirely superseded the traditional communication methods of meetings, newsletters and posters.

Murphy believes you cannot beat face-to-face meetings, and is an advocate of 'management by walkabout'. She says: 'People feel they own the message if they have seen the messenger. Our management team travels a great deal and talks directly to staff.'

Glendinning also believes in the power of face-to-face meetings: 'Each division holds quarterly update meetings on-site to present results, crucial transactions and developments. We also hold team-building off-site events that are specific to them or a business unit.'

So called 'town hall' meetings, where large numbers of staff are gathered together, have themselves changed in recent years.

Such meetings were previously used for company announcements and presentations, but this, too, is changing. In many banks these meetings now provide a forum for employees to ask questions and to raise issues as well.

There is a downside to internet technology. The same systems that can send presentation webcasts and real-time information can also spread rumours and misinformation far more quickly than the casual gossip by the coffee machine, and just as paper memos could get lost in in-trays, e-mails can be lost in overloaded in-boxes.

However, by creating an open culture where staff have access to all the information they need, misinformation should be largely eliminated. As Smythe's Dorward says: 'The technology is pretty incidental, but you have to get it right.'

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