How the National Trust created their intranet

“How do you keep a secret in the organisation? Put it on the intranet.”

Sound familiar? It doesn’t have to be that way. If your intranet is the place PDFs go to die, there is hope.

Today I’ve got a guest post for you by Sue Palfrey, Head of Internal Communications at the National Trust here in the UK.

She’s written for the All Things IC blog to share how the Trust has transformed their intranet and the process they went through to rollout SharePoint and Office 365. She’s also revealed some top tips to help if you are in a similar situation.

Grab a cuppa get ready to take notes, it’s a long read and I know you’ll enjoy it.

I’ll hand you over to Sue, you can find her on Twitter @Suepacomms

How can a mighty oak grow from an acorn?

On my first day at the Trust I was introduced to ‘The Intranet’. (It had no name, which always made me sad.)

I sat in front of the legacy .net platform for the first time and spent a couple of hours trying to find my way around. I was hit with page after page of hyperlinks.

Each hyperlink led to more hyperlinks, document after document, text pages after text pages, policy after policy. It was a static site with no opportunity for communication, collaboration or warmth.

My internal comms brain started to feel anxious. How was this platform helping our audiences?

Why were we making life difficult for our people to find the information they needed to do their jobs? Why were we locking up knowledge and making it so unappealing?

Gathering the evidence

From that first experience I knew I needed to build a case to create a replacement that would be much more than a static repository of stuff. But I needed to get the evidence. And I needed to gather it quickly.

As part of my first 90 days I established some focus groups across the Trust.

This was a useful chance to hear from mixed groups of people about what was working and what wasn’t. Not surprisingly ‘the intranet’ was given a bit of a bashing. I won’t go in to details but it’s summed up in the joke that was repeatedly told:

Q: “How do you keep a secret in the Trust?”
A: “Put it on the intranet.”

Having the evidence to back up my perceptions was absolute gold dust.

Grabbing the opportunity

Serendipitously, I discovered IT were about to embark a SharePoint and Office 365 rollout. Whatever your views on SharePoint, (I’m a BIG fan) I knew this was the opportunity to grab with both hands.

The National Trust is a charity, so SharePoint is part of a Microsoft package. There was little sense in wasting valuable time and resource looking at other platform options if we already had one in our gift.

Last week we launched our new SharePoint intranet. And it has a name – Acorn. It’s an absolute beauty of a site and I’m incredibly proud of everything that the Trust, the IC team and the IT team have achieved over the last two years.

I’m under no illusion that the launch of Acorn is only the first major milestone. But in the last two years my team and I have learnt a lot about launching a new intranet.

Further reading on the All Things IC blog: What to call an intranet

Below are my biggest lessons:

1) IT, Internal Comms and HR are the golden triangle

I often read articles about how Internal Comms can’t get on with IT or HR. This is absolute nonsense. Invest in making that collaboration work and you will reap huge benefits.

They are your closest allies. You’re all working for the same organisation, with similar goals – and we’re all enablers of the strategy.

Often our objectives overlap, so identifying those early on will help you align your project to joint goals.

In our case, the overlaps were:

  1. IT had a ten-year roadmap and SharePoint is a critical part of that. Demonstrating how the new intranet platform could link and support that work helped get IT onside early on. Invite IT to be part of the Governance and Project team, not just people who make the techy stuff happen.
  2. We offered to do most of the heavy-lifting. One day the old intranet was going to be a big headache for IT to migrate. We brought that in to our project scope and saved them from having to worry about it. This bought us favours that were helpful for meatier challenges in the project.
  3. HR have a strategy focusing on four objectives: Increasing confidence & capability; Becoming more sustainable & efficient; Becoming flexible and agile and Increasing Collaboration. We could easily demonstrate how a new SharePoint intranet would support all of these and got their support very early on. We kept them close from inception to delivery and treated the People Leadership team as a critical stakeholder.

2) Governance is not a dirty word

Getting your governance framework crystal clear from the get-go is an incredible safety net. Some people shudder at the G-word, but taking the additional time to navigate good governance saves time in the long run.

Instead of only appearing at the Board if there was an issue, we made an early decision to make the additional effort to share progress with our Board every month.

This did mean there were additional papers, budgets and presentations to perfect, but the plus side was that we took the Board on our journey and there were no communication voids or surprises.

We made sure we had a senior sponsor (in our case the HR Exec and a secondary sponsor was our Chief Operating Officer), we held regular and formal Steering Group meetings, we clearly defined roles and responsibilities early on and we also had an Operational Sponsor and Operations Assurance Group.

This may seem like a lot of policing, but it’s only policing if you perceive it that way. For us these different stakeholder groups became important allies on our journey.

3) Listen and involve at every step of the way

At every step we built in time to listen to our people. The project started with focus groups and we delved deeper once the project started. Over 30 senior stakeholder interviews were carried out. We held focus groups in every region and locality.

We shared the themes back to the participants and gave them early visibility of the technical specs and designs, showing how their feedback translated to reality. We had an open invitation for testers and champions. Oh and our senior leaders even came up with a shortlist of names at the annual conference.

This opened out to a vote for everyone and Acorn came out the strong winner. If you look at our Trust logo you’ll see why this was just perfect and fitting.

(Further reading: I’m going to be blogging about intranet naming this week. Thank you to everyone who has answered my queries on Twitter @AllthingsIC this weekend – Rachel).

4) Be open to feedback – but balance it with trusting your gut

To make sure the solution was created in an objective way, we engaged some consultants to carry out the focus groups and analyse the feedback.

There will always be a delicate dance between future ambition and current reality.

People will ask for the world in a focus group situation, but you need to balance that with your knowledge and insight of your organisation.

You’re the internal experts and that’s just as powerful and important as external expertise.

An example to bring this point to life is this:

A big issue with the old intranet was the search facility. It was terrible. In the focus groups a common quote was “make it more like Google”.

If you take that literally, with no organisation context, making an intranet more like Google means taking away all navigation and menu options. But our guts told us that what people really meant was they wanted a better search.

(They wanted the same but different!) The external recommendation was a search only intranet. Perhaps we’ll get to that point in the future, but taking people through change means easing them through it.

So we’ve created a hybrid.

Everything is available through search. But we’ve created simpler menus for the information people access all the time. They have to trust the new search before ditching all other methods completely. And that’s absolutely fine. 

5) Be visible and open

We launched last week and we made sure people knew we were available to support them through floorwalking, queries, questions, training, webexes… You name it, we were there.

Yes we wore T-shirts. But being present and backing up a system launch is vital. Standing up for and standing behind something you’re expecting people to embrace is crucial.

We created a visible helpdesk, online drop-in sessions, our amazing internal comms network did the same locally, heaps of help guides, the main homepage stories were dedicated to helping people ‘find their stuff’ and we set up a telephone query helpline.

Each day we’ve created a new news story that shares the themes, feedback and helpful tips from that day.

6) Your project team are everything

To create a platform that people will care about, you need to work with people who care about it!

It’s easy for an intranet launch to be treated as a systems launch. But that quickly drains the personality from it.

It’s not a system. It’s a communication, collaboration and content tool that will connect your people to the strategy and purpose of your organisation.

Having a team that understands that will help you create something much more compelling than a ‘system’.

The end to end process from conception to planning to delivery is a huge investment in emotional energy.

You need:

  • A team that you can trust and rely on. It’s inevitable that projects will have crises and that tensions can run high. But you need to recognise those and not be afraid to reset the project.
  • People that share your vision and your passion.
  • To be surrounded by people that want the right result for your audiences, not for their CVs.
  • To have a team that are loyal and want to do the right thing. I was extremely lucky to have that, particularly in the final six months. I would say that loyalty, trust and strong honest relationships are worth so much more than technical expertise.

7) It will never belong to Internal Communications

The intranet doesn’t belong to Internal Communications or IT or HR. It’s never yours. It will always belong to your audiences. You invest in it long before it’s even a project and long, long before it’s a reality.

You may own the content and usage strategy, but ultimately it’s not yours.

How people use it is out of your control. You have to do the best you can and then step back and watch what happens. That’s where the team and I are right now.

It’s been just over a week since launch and we’re watching and listening and embracing everything.

The early results are more than we could have hoped for and the early stats (thank you Google analytics!) are incredible. But we’re going to watch and wait until the initial flurry of excitement and curiosity has settled.

For the moment we’re not telling people how to use it. Instead we’re taking huge delight from observing it taking a life of its own – and we know that launch is only the start of a journey.

Post author: Sue Palfrey

Thank you Sue, there are so many parts of your article that made me cheer when I read them! I applaud your approach and congratulate you and the whole team for a job well done.

Do keep us posted with how you get on.

What do you think of Sue’s story? As ever, you’re welcome to comment below or Tweet me @AllthingsIC.

Thank you to everyone who answered my question about intranet names over the weekend via Twitter.

I’ve collated your comments and will be blogging this week.

Find out more

Want to know more about SharePoint and Office 365? My IT Consultant husband Jon @JonMillerUK and I keep teaming up with our respective clients to help them think through how to transform the way they work.

Jon specialises in Office 365 and Enterprise Mobility (aka the tech and then making it work) and together we help our clients think through their whole approach.

I’m thinking of writing a blog post together to share our respective views and experience. Is that something you’d be interested in reading? Do let me know.

Further reading about intranets via the All Things IC blog

Inside story of the first open Council intranet
Tactical vs strategic intranet managers – which one are you?
How to structure your intranet
Inspiring intranets are go!
How to simplify your intranet
Three ways to use your intranet to improve IC
Discover the secret of effective intranets
Internal communication glossary

Thank you for stopping by, have a great week.


Rachel Miller.

First published on the All Things IC blog 2 July 2017.


  1. Hannah Leach says:

    This a great blog – really engaging and genuinely helpful in breaking down what seems like a very daunting task

  2. Steve Doswell says:

    Fab story, Sue. So much of what you did – Exec sponsorship, Board presence, governance – serves as a case study in delivering ANY IC related project effectively. The IC-HR-IT relationship is the lodestone, your prize asset. Congratulations on recognising that and nurturing it to such good effect. Good luck with Acorn!

  3. Thank you for your comment Steve.

  4. Glad you enjoyed Sue’s story Hannah.

  5. Marc Wright says:

    Well done Sue! Great to see the site come to life so successfully. We are glad to have played a part in researching and scoping your important project.

  6. Thanks for your comment Marc, well done to you and the Simply team.

  7. Geoff Talbot says:

    I love the statement… “It will never belong to the Internal Communications Team.” The Intranet is definitely “for the people”, it should probably be “by the people” also 😉

  8. Me too, thanks Geoff.

  9. Matt Harding says:

    I was the developer who created much of this Intranet. It was a fun project and really good to see the end product being used and enjoyed!

  10. Well done Matt, thank you for your comment.

  11. Sarah Gibbs says:

    Such a great read and I wish I’d had access to Sue’s honest insight and experience when faced with a similar task of building a new SharePoint intranet!

  12. Thank you for your comment Sarah, I’m glad you enjoyed Sue’s article.

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