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Intranet Design After a Merger or Acquisition

Why Mergers Bring About Great Intranets

When a merger or acquisition occurs, it’s not uncommon for management and employees to become frantic, unsettled, and disorganized. So, it might seem puzzling that truly great intranets may arise after a merger. But they do. In fact, each year, our Intranet Design Annual Award includes remarkable designs that were catalyzed by a merger or acquisition.

There are logical explanations for this. Mainly, intranet teams combat the tidal waves of change and uncertainty with an armada of positive elements, some of which include:

  • Experienced team members. A post merger intranet team often includes multiple people who have experience with intranets and who have studied how their employees work. This merged team brings forth wide-ranging knowledge about intranets and capitalizes on the strengths of each component subteam. For example, one subteam’s specialty may be corporate communications, while the other’s is IT. These teams don’t view each other as adversaries; rather they recognize each other’s skills and assets and complement one another as they work toward the common goals.
  • Two or more intranet designs to learn and poach ideas from. Multiple organizations bring multiple intranets. Each of these will have successful, and unsuccessful designs that the team can study, learn from, and draw from — adopting only the best features and ideas on the “merged” intranet.
  • Clear direction from management. The highest-level managers establish goals for the new organization and the intranet. For example, a “be one company” directive would encompass working toward a single corporate culture and encouraging and enabling all employees to understand and be productive in reaching goals. This type of executive plan provides the intranet team with something to aim for as it attempts to create a new, positive employee experience which incorporates management’s defined identity and policies.
  • Realistic goals. Teams also know that they need specific, achievable goals for the redesign. In a post-merger environment, good goals such as “unify the organization, facilitate collaboration, support productivity, and improve search” are not easy to achieve in a short time. Thus, teams often derive a 2-stage strategy that explicitly recognizes these difficulties:

1) “Day-one intranet solution” is an interim offering which focuses on only the most urgent needs to meet the goals and gives teams time for long-term planning, research, and UX design for a new intranet.

2) Final intranet solution builds on the findings gathered in the first stage.

  • More freedom for the intranet team. High-level managers often have pressing decisions to make after a merger, and thus, they may step away from the day-to-day, detailed intranet-design decisions. This lack of management attention allows the intranet team to dig and work, eliminates (albeit temporarily) some of the politics associated with designing intranets, and minimizes the chance that  high-level managers with no UX design skills attempt to design the intranet UI.

4 Things Not to Do on a Post-Merger Intranet

Companies approach intranet designs after mergers in various ways: some thoughtfully set long- and short-term goals, while others dive in headfirst without thorough consideration of the repercussions. Intranet teams are not necessarily involved in defining the directions for post-merger organizations or even for their intranets. Rather, these are decided at the executive level, by human-resources professionals, corporate-communications specialists, or a combination of these groups. The intranet team does, however, decide how to execute and package the information and features on the intranet.

Here are 4 approaches that the intranet team should avoid post merger.

#1 Strategy to Avoid: Clear All Evidence and Hide the Reason Why

One of the most salient points I carried away from business school is that it can be difficult to motivate employees, but it’s enormously easy to demotivate them. Everyone who designs an intranet or produces a piece of content on an intranet has the power to demotivate employees. An innocent removal of a feature, a link name that can be perceived as inclusive of one team but not another, or a news article about a location but not another can all result in misunderstanding and even alarm. Before you call employees overly sensitive, imagine how you’d feel if you were already worried about your job security and then your access to an app you use every day was suddenly denied with no explanation.

Some organizations decide to hide pages, sections, or entire intranets with no clarification to employees. They are basically clearing all evidence of the old company, features, terminology, brands, programs, policies, work, and people.

Do not just take things away without explaining why. Employees will be confused and will not know where to go. Not to mention that your actions could be construed as highhanded or insolent, and will probably make people feel a sense of loss.

#2 Strategy to Avoid: Leave Everything as Is

Organizations that have no corporate-communications group sometimes leave the communication responsibility to the intranet team, who may or may not be skilled in this job. Some teams simply do nothing and follow the “business as usual” mantra. When the work and the organization are completely changing but the intranet doesn’t acknowledge it, people feel as though there is some covert conspiracy rather than simple negligence or communication paralysis.

Keeping multiple intranets up implicitly tells employees that either one is valid and leads to duplication of processes, applications, policies, and other types of content. If people followed the wrong process or act on the wrong information, the consequences could be catastrophic. Instead, do a full content inventory and audit as soon as possible. It’s likely that each intranet has some overlapping features and types of content that can be edited and combined. Also, determine a combined information architecture through team discussions and user research.

Note that, in the long term, it may be okay to have multiple intranets, if the content is written and maintained in one place, and then crosslinked in the other. But the decision to have multiple intranets should be well analyzed, and not just an act of omission. (Some organizations get past the issue of knowing which intranet to go to by creating one main portal page for everyone at the company. From there, people can access deeper links stored on any intranet or in any app. But, more often, organizations find it most efficient and effective to design and maintain one main intranet.)

#3 Strategy to Avoid: Haphazardly Choose One Intranet as the Sanctioned One

Just because a large company buys a smaller company, it doesn’t mean its intranet is better. Asking employees from an acquisition to switch to a new intranet may result in lost productivity and frustration. And forcing them to use a less good intranet will make them feel they stepped back in the dark ages — an unpromising start for a new employer–employee relationship .

For example, maybe the intranet at an acquired organization was highly collaborative, with social features and lively usage, but the intranet of the parent company has no social features. Making employees switch to the parent intranet takes away the possibility to collaborate, share, learn, and have a voice of their own at the company. Think hard before lopping off features like this. Instead, pivot and embrace those features for everyone.

Also keep in mind that a hastily put together new post-merger intranet can be as bad or worse than one of the current intranets.

People should not be forced to switch to an intranet that is worse than their original one. If there is no way to accommodate the better intranet (or its features), then, at the very least:

  • Communicate that it is just a temporary solution
  • Open the help desks to accept more calls
  • Provide written assistance on the intranet to avert some of the help calls
#4 Strategy to Avoid: Impose the Same Rules for Intranet and for the Public-Facing Website

Brand and change management can and should differ on internal and external websites. The press, publicity, and content on a public-facing website can be completely different from those on the intranet.

Personnel-related features and content, and terminology and brand-related content are most sensitive post merger. For example, the brand team may dictate that the acquired company’s  brand names not be mentioned at all on the external website. However, that need not be the case on the intranet. For example, assume that the acquired brand Acme is replaced with Roadrunner. On the intranet, writers should be free to still mention the deprecated brand’s name, referring to it as “what used to be Acme” or as “Roadrunner (formerly known as Acme).”  Some intranets find success using the latter phrasing, and, over time, weaning off the parentheses altogether. It’s a good idea to retain the old name for some time since it’s the way many employees recognize the brand.

Challenges Facing a Post-Merger Intranet

Left unchecked, these common issues that employees faces can cause demotivation and turnover:

  • Not understanding the new business or the organization’s new mission
  • Not knowing what has changed since the merger
  • Feeling neglected
  • Not seeing or knowing their new colleagues
  • Speculations about layoffs and job changes
  • Uncertainty about new systems, processes, and people
  • Not knowing where to go for information (or which intranet is the “right” one)

Principles and Features of Successful Post-Merger Intranets

Whether the organization’s executive team is a bright shining beacon of communication or a tight-lipped vault, the intranet team should aim to do the best job possible with the post-merger intranet. Work with your management, plan resources and infrastructure, and finally home in on features that are based in these general principles:

  • Show respect for employees by being transparent about any changes. Ease their mind and make them feel as safe and secure as possible.
  • Communicate how the company does business now. Has the mission statement changed? Have the business objectives changed? Will the organization venture into new markets or segments? What’s the culture? How will the sales teams sell now? Explain what the plan for the company is ( e.g., to reinvigorate our mobile communications strategy in order to capitalize on our newly acquired Acme assets).
  • Explain how to use the intranet(s) in the short term (e.g., “Use the Transition Page to find all updated policies, HR information, and sales kits”).
  • Unite organizations and people by encouraging communication between them.
  • Introduce people and teams to one another.
  • Enable finding the right information via the homepage, global navigation, search, and people directory.

Recommended Features Post Merger

There is no one set of features that will be helpful on every post-merger intranet. However, the following items can help organizations and employees through the shift as the organizations homogenize:

  • Address book. The employee address book is a killer app on most intranets, and is of dire importance post merger, so employees can contact the right colleagues. Include employee profile documents with information about a person’s skills and knowledge. Additionally, organization charts that show where each person fits in the overall organization hierarchy are especially helpful at larger organizations.
  • Corporate news. Sharing news at the corporate level, from the top-most managers and centralized teams, can help all employees feel like they are part of the same organization. It also keeps employees abreast of what’s important and conveys respect.
  • Video messages from management. Video adds a personal touch that the written word is missing. One can’t look into the eyes of a memo. As teams from around the organization get to know their leaders and the new direction in which the organization is steering, personal video messages from mangers can be inspiring. And, unlike announcements in live meetings, videos can be watched at any time and more than once, if needed.  Video messages can demonstrate that managers care enough about their subordinates to take time and communicate with them.
  • News from all parts of the organization. Ensuring that even small teams and efforts are mentioned in the news makes people feel included and teaches employees about all aspects of the organization. This kind of news can also excite people about projects in the works and can incite collaboration.
  • Article suggestions. Ask employees to offer suggestions for news articles and items. A simple “suggest an article topic” form (that asks for the topic, why it might be interesting, and whom to contact to interview) can generate diverse ideas from around the organization and help employees feel involved. Plus, it can be a good opportunity to learn and address issues that are truly relevant to people.
  • Social features. Social sharing in the form of online communities, walls, comment fields, likes, or team spaces enables teams to communicate and learn informally, thus promoting a collaborative culture. (However, before you get carried away by social features, ensure that user-generated content is findable and searchable through the intranet’s main-navigation menus.)
  • Monitored forum or anonymous emails. If radical changes (such as layoffs, moves, combining teams) occur, human beings need to have an outlet to discuss them. The benefit of encouraging discussions in a public forum on the intranet means that all questions can be asked and answered once, in one place. People who staff this forum can be trained about how to best answer questions and quell concerns. Additionally, a forum establishes that the organization cares about employees and wants them to be informed. But, remember, without the proper responses and coaching, or without staff to aptly respond to comments, a forum like this can be devastating to morale and to the credibility of the executive team. Not to mention that it could expose the organization to legal issues if responses regarding benefits, policies, and layoffs were incorrect. Finally, some employees are fearful of asking a charged question in public. In those situations, an alternative solution can involve an anonymous form privately routed to a team of trained staff or an email address that employees can send private questions to.
  • Search. A site-wide search that crawls every nook and cranny of the intranet(s) can empower employees, and pick up the slack where the global navigation may fail. Research the jargon and common terms used in the intranet and application UI. Then add synonym rings for these in metadata so people will be successful even if they search for a retired term or product. To refine the terms, consider tree-testing your labels and structure.
  • Acronym dictionary. Every company has its own set of acronyms. Offering a wiki that anyone can search, browse, and contribute to helps all employees learn the subtle language of those initials.

Intranet Design After a Merger or Acquisition
One of our 2018 Intranet Design Annual Winners, the UN World Food Programme (WFP), offers an acronym search, a key feature for new and seasoned employees alike.

  • Employee, project, and team spotlights. Introduce employees and teams by offering  short, written (or video) pieces about them. For example, once a week show an employee photo with a short description (e.g., “Meet Maria Borelli, Telecom Manager, 3 years at Acme”). The picture and title already tell a little story. Then clicking the link might open a page that describes her job and team, location, and a few quotes. Or describe a team  — its members, projects, role. Be sure to sample from all around the organization, so nobody feels overlooked.
  • Management section. Create a section of the intranet for managers only. Once authenticated via login, give the managers information they need to best navigate through the merger’s changeover phases.
  • Short-term “transition” intranets or pages. “Bridge” pages, dashboards, and portals can be great transitional tools to direct employees to the right places, even as the intranet team is designing a new intranet. Especially when the most relevant information comes from different sources, a bridge page can eliminate unnecessary searching and aggravation, and can increase user confidence. Also, when new content doesn’t have a home yet (because a new intranet is being designed) it may be housed on a transition site temporarily. Use a transition area to promote the correct, most updated content. Set a time limit for when this temporary site will be phased out (so it doesn’t become the main intranet due to the design team’s sedentariness).
  • Global navigation. Make it easy to find important information via the global-navigation menu. Avoid using branded terms for everyday tasks. For example, trade “JT learning center” for “Training”, and “Meetings your way” for “Conference-room schedule”. Organize and choose terms in the menu by task or topic, not by organizational structure.
  • Easy to use. People in a post-merger organization may feel anxiety. And the constant intranet that used to greet them every morning may now be gone. The change and the sense of loss will add stress to employees. Circumvent some of that strain by making the new intranet easy to use.

Employee Personas Post Merger

Equating employees with «human capital” may be acceptable on financial statements but is not on intranets. The organization should project that it considers its employees to be human beings, not just financial assets or robots. After a merger, the intranet’s design and content should take steps to empathize with these employees who are losing their friends, are going through a great change, and may be excited about the future and grateful for the opportunities the new company promises.

One way to help the design team remember and consider employee unease is to update personas to include these 3 different elements:

  • Anxiety about the possibility of losing a job, changing jobs, losing coworkers
  • Confusion about where to find information on the intranet(s) and what is current and correct
  • Excitement about the merger and what it promises

If you don’t have personas or don’t have time to update them, consider at least communicating the 3 states of mind that post-merger employees may vacillate between. And whenever you create a new design, ask yourself how the design would help or hurt employees under each of these states of mind.

Conclusion: Checklist of Strategies for a Post-Merger Intranet

Use the checklist below to guide you through an intranet design post merger.

  • Understand the strengths and weaknesses of each intranet.
  • Research how employees use their current intranet.
  • Discover (from the executive team, HR, corporate communications, and IT) the guidelines and rules surrounding:
  • Messaging (e.g. how to deal when something has not yet been decided)
  • Tone (e.g. “clear and respectful” and “not light and joking”)
  • How to refer to deprecated elements, such as products which have been or are in the process of being retired
  • Brand guidelines that are new or changed
  • Tools, such as where the current employee directories are stored, how they will change in the future, and how employees can use (for example) MS Outlook contacts in the interim
  • Establish concise goals for the redesign.
  • Define the roles and members of the intranet team(s) now, and at launch.
  • Create a short-term plan; quickly produce a temporary solution.
  • Plan a long-term solution for:
  • New intranet design that encompasses all relevant content for each merged organization
  • New intranet brand that supports the organization’s goals and culture
  • Phasing out of transitional pages and features (in place just to bridge the organizations upon the merger)
  • Scalability, such as future mergers, or teams being absorbed into one another
  • Technology
  • Governance
  • Team roles and members of the intranet team post launch

For stories and lessons learned from excellent intranet designers who won our Intranet Design Annual and who were involved in some way with a merger or acquisition, see our “Mergers and Acquisitions, and the Resulting Intranets” report.