Originally published in Intranet Journal (21-Aug-2009)
I do a little, you do a little, and together we do a lot. This is a concept that's deeply embedded in the business model for IKEA, the global home furnishing giant with over 270 stores in 36 countries. The strong sense of teamwork, community, and collaboration expressed in this simple principle forms the basis of IKEA's organizational and operational culture. It means as much to those working in HR, Sales, and Marketing as it does to consumers who buy the company's flat packed furniture that they assemble themselves.
A strong corporate culture, however, doesn't always translate into effective information systems. In fact, when done poorly, the latter can be a detriment to the former. There's always been an unfortunate disconnect between technology-based systems and the people they're meant to support. But IKEA's humanistic, people-focused approach to its business naturally carried over to the development of its intranet.
Rather than forcing its corporate culture to bend to accommodate a technology-based system, IKEA used its firmly established culture as the foundation for its IT solutions. It's an approach that garnered IKEA North America's intranet, IKEA Inside, much praise when it was recognized as one of the world's ten best intranets of 2008 by the user-experience research firm Nielsen Norman Group (NNG). It's an approach that enables IKEA to keep all its employees up-to-date with everything going on within the company. And it's an approach that defines the true purpose and spirit of an intranet: To bring people and information together.
Since their inception, intranets have been used to manage large repositories of content and to share this centralized information with a company-wide user community. This goal hasn't changed much since intranets first came onto the corporate scene, but an intranet is worth more than the sum of the bits and bytes that make up the system. Although the technology has gotten much more elaborate, a clear shift in focus has emerged.
The results of NNG's eighth annual intranet design competition highlights a development shift in today's top intranets, emphasizing access to people rather than data. It's a trend that corresponds with IKEA's business model: A perfect marriage of corporate culture, business imperatives, and the technology that supports the two. For IKEA, the implementation of technology-based tools was a natural progression of its already strong sense of corporate community and teamwork.
"In the past decade, I believe we have seen our American workers adopt technology at an amazing rate in their personal lives," says Beth Gleba, Internal Information Manager for IKEA North America. "Of course this has an impact on how people come to expect similar tools in their workplace."
But IKEA's adoption and integration of technology wasn't done at the expense of the human experience. All too often information systems fail within organizations when technology itself becomes the sole focus and reason for development. This type of technology-driven development perpetuates and widens the gap between the tool and the user. It's an unnecessary gap that prevents users from accepting a technology-based solution as a true business tool.
"We are a people-based company," explains Gleba. "Face-to-face time is very important. We've built our intranet to complement this. We don't want people to feel technology replaces but enhances our connection to one another. Working with our culture, not against it, has been key."
IKEA Inside, IKEA North America's intranet
The importance of using technology to strengthen and support an established corporate culture was not lost at IKEA. The company understood that information systems are meant to support people not technology. IKEA realized that it can't allow technology to define, or redefine, its culture. A technology-based tool should never negatively impact an already strong organizational culture, or force users to make concessions to tools that aren't elaborate enough to support the finer nuances of the human experience.
"Before, during, and after [intranet implementation], our culture is our culture," says Gleba. "We like our culture and don't want to change it. Instead, we recognize the power of what we can do together when we use our culture to guide how we act, make decisions, and work with one another. Our culture gives us a framework as we implement new things like technology."
A strong culture alone, however, doesn't guarantee success. Digital solutions can sometimes become a hindrance to activities people are accustomed to doing in an analog world—especially to those who aren't very tech savvy.
"Simplicity is part of our philosophy," says Gleba. "Technology can feel complicated, or at its worst, it can be implemented in a complicated way. For our success, it's important to keep governance and structure simple."
The primary goal of IKEA's information systems, explains Gleba, is to provide employees with the tools they need to do their job, when they need them, and wherever they need them. The company's intranet is a key component in delivering that goal. Over the past decade, the company replaced much of its manual- and paper-based business processes with automated and digital equivalents, allowing the company to accomplish more in less time while keeping its operational costs low.
IKEA Inside, the company's intranet, is used to fulfill a wide range of needs—from applications such as Web-based email, discussion forums, online surveys, online training, and filing of expense claims to housing detailed information about IKEA products, warranties, company news, supply and inventory management, marketing material, schedules, customer feedback, and the organization's strategic goals. The company's intranet also bolsters its sense of community by sharing "IKEA Stories", a video collection of employee interviews.
But IKEA didn't stop at its physical work facilities. The company believes that a lot of its valuable information should also be accessible by off-site IKEA employees. In May of 2008, IKEA launched a secured external-facing system, called icoworker, that's exclusive to US employees (although it's completely separate from its intranet, with no crossover in content or applications, icoworker is referred to as an "extranet" even though it doesn't technically fit the description).
icoworker focuses on "the people side of IKEA" and houses information on employee benefits, IKEA's culture and values, and its humanitarian initiatives with partners such as UNICEF, Save the Children, the World Wildlife Fund, and American Forests. The system also acts as a virtual self-service human resources center. It contains applications that allow employees to access their online paychecks, request time off, and manage their retirement plan (401k).
"Within the last year, we've had over a million page views on this extranet and estimate we've saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars because we're helping co-workers find what they need on their own instead of calling our HR Call Center," says Gleba.
icoworker, IKEA North America's extranet
Combining culture, business processes, and technology into a unified whole doesn't happen overnight. "You can't just wish for an intranet that delivers respect from top leadership," explains Gleba. "Instead you have to build something that makes an impact, test it, grow it, make mistakes, and try again. And we've found you need to help people as they develop their own understanding. This takes time, commitment, and patience."
Every IKEA employee, regardless of technical skill level, is given basic orientation and training on intranet and extranet use. Computer kiosks were also strategically set up throughout IKEA work areas to provide equal access to employees who don't have their own computer at work. All of these steps to get everyone in the "IKEA family" involved have paid off. IKEA North America's intranet saw monthly hits jump from 800 in 2001 to 1.4 million today.
"We have made the move from an intranet that was not aligned or regarded as a business tool to one where our business leaders recognize its strategic importance in connecting co-workers to information they need to do their job," says Gleba. "The cultural challenges that we faced as we evolved our intranet were connected to the very things that make us a great company. Where we've had success in evolving is when we've leveraged our own organization's strength and worked with the culture."
Copyright © 2009 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
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