To Pilot or Not to Pilot? What is the Best Way to Launch Your Intranet?

Intranet Pilot

You’ve been working on a high-profile intranet overhaul. You’ve made your laundry list of must-haves, nice-to-haves, and “never-in-a-million-years” kinds of features. You’ve done your homework and you’ve picked your winner. All you need now is signoff from management. What magic p-word will secure their stamp of approval?


If that doesn’t help, try pilot. Who can say “no” to a sensible one-foot-in-front-of-the-other baby-steps approach? A pilot may seem like the bullet-proof answer to just about any objection they can fire at you and your dream intranet:

Manager: “Is it safe and secure?”
You: “Let’s toss in a few documents and see what happens.”

Manager: “Will employees embrace the change?”
You: “Let’s start with a small number and see how they do.”

Manager: “Will the investment pay off?”
You: “Let’s spend a few bucks and wait for results.”

Corporate life is full of tough decisions. It can be hard enough to make up your own mind, let alone convince everyone up an across the chain. If the word “pilot” makes the bosses sleep better at night, let them have a pilot. At least it’s a step in the right direction.

Except when it isn’t.

Imagine you were about to hire an architect to design your company’s bold new headquarters. It will have natural sunlight, net-zero energy usage, workspaces for teams, and other outstanding features. Top executives gather in the boardroom to pore over the proposal, but they can’t make up their minds. “This is too much money to spend on something we don’t completely understand,” they say. “What if we start with a tiny building to house the reception desk, and, if that goes well, we’ll consider extending it to HR and IT?”

No management team has ever made this call because it would be a terrible waste of time and other valuable resources. Now, what about your intranet? Should you build a small pilot, before you commit to a company-wide system?

To answer this question, let’s think about what a pilot does.

A pilot or a limited launch serves to mitigate unknown risks. It does so by allowing the user to gather feedback and refine a new system or process before a full launch. The most common example of a pilot are clinical trials of new prescription drugs. Before the FDA can approve it for release to the general public, each drug must pass several pilot studies during which researchers collect detailed information about the clinical outcomes and side effects.

Many successful corporate initiatives also began with a pilot. In a recent post, “What the Hell is a Stay Interview?“, we saw Whirlpool use a pilot to launch a brand new critical-talent retention tool. The test run allowed the in-house development team to get feedback from managers and redesign the tool. It made perfect sense: Whirlpool had nothing to lose and everything to gain from a pilot. But this is not always the case.

Let’s think about your intranet. If you plan to put it through a pilot, ask yourself these questions:

Is the pilot scalable?

Unlike a pill or a stay-interview questionnaire, your Intranet serves the entire community of users, all at the same time. Since every business unit, department and employee has a unique set of needs and priorities, your job is to configure your platform to accommodate all for years to come. You wouldn’t want to build your pilot system only to tear it down and start from scratch again. Just like the physical building that houses your employees and their tools, your intranet must be laid out with the entire company in mind. Adding pages ad-hoc will quickly lead to duplicate content and confusing architecture, making information difficult to access and impossible to update. In the end, it will leave you with the kind of unruly system many employers are now replacing by going to a platform like Communifire.

What do I hope to learn from the pilot?

A pilot can help you navigate through previously unknown risks and surprises—but only if you set it up to collect specific feedback from specific individuals. Unfortunately, for most people, “trying out” an intranet represents such a massive effort that no response at all is the single biggest risk facing your pilot. Imagine doing all the work to design and configure your system, only to hear dead silence on the other end. This is exactly what happened when one of our customers, Movement Mortgage, piloted their intranet. (Read their story here.) Imagine how far back this kind of reception will set your full launch!

Is there a better way to gather the information I need?

While untested drugs are potentially deadly, as are some corporate moves, intranet platforms are hardly an uncharted territory. Communifire, for one, has been around for over 10 years. Hundreds of customers and millions of employees are using it today. Chances are we have a customer whose size, structure, and needs are similar to yours. We can save you a lot of trial and error by telling you what has and has not worked for those customers.

In fact, customers of all sizes and walks of life seem to agree on these hard-learned keys to a successful launch:

Step one: Build a team of enthusiastic moderators representing every user group in your company. These employees are passionate communicators completely sold on the new intranet from day one. They will take ownership of the new system and help you get the rest of the company on your side.

Step two: Lay out all of your intranet spaces at once. Let your moderators make a case for each group’s needs and priorities. Get it all on the table and design the simplest system that will give the employees the tools they need to do their work.

Step three: Put all your reference materials on the intranet. Manuals, forms, booklets, policies, procedures, training videos—anything your employees may ask for. Don’t hand it to them. Make them go and get it on the intranet. We will let you in on a little secret: your employees will not switch to the new system because it’s simple and fun. We always think the rest of the world is like us, but it isn’t. They won’t play with the intranet because they can, but they will use it because they have to.

Step four: Market the daylights out of your intranet. If there’s one thing intranet teams across the world have learned from their experience, it’s to never sit around and wait for employees to come. Using the intranet represents a shift in their work habits, and, even though it’s for their own good, it won’t happen without a massive push. Start promoting the new system months ahead of time. Once the intranet is ready, stage an epic launch. Train everyone: managers, corporate, field reps, remote employees. Have managers complete their profiles and get their staff to do it. Entice them with games and prizes. Post exclusive content. Use peer pressure to your highest advantage. Remember, people like to hold back until “everyone else is doing it.” Don’t let your launch go stale. Use every carrot and stick at your disposal to get as many employees on board as fast as you can.

Step five: Make it your culture headquarters. When we ask customers what is the most important thing they got out of launching their social intranets, we get a similar set of answers. “We put the names with the faces.” “It gives us a small company feel.” “I feel connected to everyone in the company.” “I don’t feel alone anymore.” Even those customers who didn’t set out to unify the company or improve the culture, report this outcome. Imagine how much more you can do when the majority of your employees no longer see the company as a faceless machine, but as people they know and trust.

As you see, launching an intranet comes with its own protocol. Not only do you need to follow certain steps, but you need to take them in a specific order. Miss one, and the rest will fall through like dominos. All five steps are essential to a successful launch, and each one requires a strong upfront commitment. A wait-and-see attitude is a sure path to failure.

We do not recommend building a pilot for just one part of the company, unless it is an autonomous part you do not plan to integrate into the whole. Nor do we recommend a limited release to a small number of employees, since both of these tactics will strip the intranet of its key role: bringing the entire company together. Without that experience, the intranet is just another piece of software to clutter your workday. Go sell that to your employees!

How to launch an intranet

What if I’m not completely sold on the platform. How can I try it before I buy it?

Choosing the right platform that satisfies your employees’ current needs and leaves some room to grow is critical. If you are at this stage, check “How to Make Your Intranet Work for You” for detailed advice. Once you’ve narrowed down your field to one or two finalists, you’re ready for your test drive.

Most sellers offer some form of free trial. And most buyers waste it, because they come unprepared, not knowing what they expect to learn from it or how they will go about it. These companies let their free-trial periods expire while they sit on their hands and complain they didn’t get enough time.

When used correctly, a short free trial is an excellent tool for your technical experts and dedicated beta-users to validate your choice of a platform. Communifire gives you 30 days, more than enough to run through all setups and features. Don’t sign up until you’re ready. Get all your ducks in a row and start testing on day one.

To prepare for your free trial, ask your vendor these questions ahead of time:

  • Can I install the software if I’m hosting on-premise?
    Communifire allows you to put the test version of the software on your server. Our installs take 2-3 hours, max. We’ve done them hundreds of times.
  • Can I set up and configure single sign-on?
    With Communifire, you can. Eighty-five percent of our customers use single sign-on. We integrate with all major SSO providers.
  • Can I make minimal customizations to the user interface?
    Communifire gives you a choice of look and feel. No prior experience needed. We invite your non-technical folks to try it.
  • Can I create a few spaces and populate them with content?
    Creating a space in Communifire is a 2-step process. Posting content is even easier—if you can write an email, you can populate your intranet.
  • I have international employees. Can I install additional languages?
    Communifire has many languages built-in. If we don’t have yours, we’ll hire translators to add them.
  • Can I import my employee list and their profiles?
    Communifire allows you to do this by uploading a CSV file. Most SSO options import users too.

Armed with these questions, along with your management-approved list of other must-have features, your intranet team will test them live during the trial period. Here are some items to include in the trial:

  • Do a search
  • Post an article
  • Post a question to a discussion forum
  • Update your employee profile

By the end of the thirty days, management should have their answer: either sign the deal or move on to the next candidate.

What if the platform is great, but management worries about improper use? Is a pilot the best way to convince them?

Unfortunately, a pilot is useless for gauging what your employees will do when they get their hands on social features. Even if you get a few volunteers to log onto the pilot, the best you can hope for is some idle page views. There are all sorts of reasons why no one wants to be the first to break the silence. What is expected of me? What if I do something wrong? Your employees might not know what to do or how to do it.

Social activity kicks off when people see their coworkers—perhaps supervisors or other authority figures—set the tone. They will also get more comfortable as they find value in visiting the intranet. This doesn’t happen right away and can take up to a year to become routine.

If you’re worried about how your employees will use the intranet, there is another way to minimize the risk and phase in your launch: start with a limited set of features. In Communifire, any feature can be turned on or off on command. If you don’t trust employees to create content, turn off wall posts. If you don’t want them to have private conversations, turn off chat. Don’t know what to make of gamification features? Turn them off for the time being. You can start with giving your employees a choice to “like,” comment and share content, maybe a discussion board or two, and save more advanced social features for Phase Two.

Wait a minute, Tim! Can I get employees excited about a stripped-down version?

If you follow the process we recommend, you most certainly will! As long as the new system is much better—faster, friendlier, and more helpful than the old one—your employees will come to appreciate it. We have customers that launched their intranets over a year ago, and have still not turned on all of the features. They’re doing well with what they have and working on roadmaps to introduce more features.

Bottom line, when it comes to your intranet, a pilot takes as much work as the real thing. You cannot afford to fail it. Fortunately, you don’t need to. You can completely eliminate the risk of failure by choosing the right platform. Once you’ve made your choice, give it your full commitment. You have everything you need to make it work.

Ultimately, your intranet is not about the features. It’s about leadership. The best platform is only as good as your people skills and your vision for the future. Our most successful customers are always working to understand their workforce and use that knowledge to promote the company goals and values. That’s why we’re seeing behavioral scientists and user experience designers on intranet teams. These experts help companies get around the quirks of human nature to build relationships with and among employees. And the relationships are what makes an intranet worthwhile.


If you’d like to better understand your workforce, you might like my book, because it’ll help you get inside their minds.

8 surprising employee problems you can avoid with a modern intranet

Written by

Tim Eisenhauer is a co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.


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