Case study<br> Give people something to talk about

The team that put together the intranet at the Region of Peel knew that to be truly successful, employees would have to enjoy using it.

People aren’t really interested in a site where all they will find are pages of documents and forms, says Mike Goldrup, director of communication services for the Region of Peel — the second largest municipality in Ontario, located just west of Toronto.

“People want to see their workplace reflected. They don’t want a bunch of text. They want a vibrant and very visual intranet.”

They want to see the people they work with and what they do both at work and at home. They want to put faces to names and share their experiences and challenges. To do that, the team responsible for creating Pathways, as the Peel intranet is known, essentially created a daily newspaper and enlisted employees from around the organization to act as its publishers to post new content whenever possible.

“We wanted each of those business units to have their own presence. We wanted every unit to have a place to go, a place of pride,” Goldrup says.
“We envisioned employees from around the company generating content. If we tried to create content corporately, top-down, it wouldn’t work.”

A pool of about 80 “publishers” from across the organization’s 30 business units are responsible for making sure their units have unique material on the site. New material can be added at any time and most unit sites are refreshed every week.

At first there was reluctance as some managers worried about the time it would require. The contributors too, for that matter, were originally leery.

At first they needed support and encouragement. They aren’t writers, says Goldrup, but they’ve really enjoyed taking ownership of their site and “now they are going gangbusters.”

Today visitors to the site will still find all of the basic HR and corporate information typical of an intranet, but they also find the same sorts of fair they might find in their community newspaper. When employees arrive at the Pathways homepage they get region-wide news. Departmental achievements are celebrated and polls cover everything from employee events to whether or not the region should do something about drivers and cell phones.

Also on the homepage is the very popular “Images of Peel.” It is simply a photo gallery of employees spending time away from work. Recently they ran a series on volunteers, posting pictures of people coaching baseball or hockey or leading a cub scout meeting.

There are also tips and quotes of the day, and something called “Cool Peel Facts.” Recent visitors to the homepage would have learned that the region consumed about 160 billion litres of drinking water in 1998, roughly the amount that flows over Niagara Falls in nine hours. “It just gives them something to talk about over the back fence so to speak,” says Goldrup.

And in the “Life Events” section, employees can share big events about their lives away from work. “People love the chatty stuff and anyone can put something up,” says Goldrup. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, that’s what company newsletters were. “It was more of a gossip thing. But then companies made them corporate and began to bang them (employees) over the head.”

The popularity of the intranet is paying off for the organization.

Peel benchmarked its communication practices in 1997, and the improvement after launching Pathways is off the charts, says Goldrup. Employees also feel they have better access to information to help them do their jobs, as well as a more clear picture of what other departments are doing. Employees also increasingly feel like they have a responsibility to seek out information to do their jobs.
Paul Vivian, director of HR with the region, describes the intranet as the biggest change agent they have. The objective is to put HR services online in order to free time for his HR staff to focus on other value-added activities, while at the same time developing a culture of openness and communication. Being able to go online and get information on salary levels or job evaluations, for example, has reduced the number of grievances the organization has faced. The more access to information employees have the more they begin to trust in the organization.

Employees who were in the habit of calling the HR department for information still phoned, but the HR department continues to steer them to the Web site first.

Not every employee has access to a personal computer so kiosks were brought in and they are being used more and more. And programs are offered to help employees feel more comfortable using a personal computer or kiosk to access HR information.

“This is a journey,” says Vivian. “You still have employees call in and ask about certain treatment and if a drug is covered by insurance. But there are fewer and fewer all of the time.”

Whenever employees phone in they are told to check Pathways and if it is still unclear then call back later, says Vivian. “Over time the education process takes place and you have fewer and fewer calls.”

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