'This kind of system is organic and evolves. It develops a culture of its own'
It is a truism that communication with staff is one of the keys to good management. But developing tools that can make it happen is not straightforward.
Over the past three years we have put a number of communication vehicles in place at our teaching primary care trust, including one where the whole organisation discusses the same topic at the same time. This approach ensures that the organisation gets feedback in a consistent and comparable form but the process takes months to work through.
We wanted a communication vehicle that was interactive and real time. That need was answered by the third generation of our intranet.
Designed by the head of communications, the intranet is a virtual street. In the post office, notices can be placed advertising forthcoming activities. At the community hall people can sell unwanted items, or they can drop in to the religion, politics and football sections for a frequently robust chat. At Paul's Diner they can raise any topic with the chief executive. All of it is designed to encourage contribution, dialogue and debate.
There need to be rules to make it work. While any member of staff can visit the intranet, they can only contribute or post after registering. The administrator is the only person who can track the registered name back to an individual contributor and address any misbehaviour or breach of rules, but there have been very few occasions when this has been necessary.
Each topic area needs a moderator and we have spread this load through willing volunteers. Some have to work harder than others: the moderator of the comedy store is a busy man.
Some staff become frequent if not addicted contributors. This causes vigorous debate with managers who want me to justify the time staff are spending in the system.
You can tell if the system is working by monitoring the activity, which must feel familiar to most readers. In 18 months we have had 6,000 posts and more than 900 of our 1,500 staff are registered users, with around 1,200 in total having visited. A popular news topic will pick up 1,200 read notices in a few days.
This kind of system is organic and evolves. It develops a culture of its own and any chief executive will have to work hard and contribute to the system if he or she wants to influence and shape that culture.
This is the electronic equivalent of 'my door's always open', except everybody who goes on the intranet site can see for themselves whether it actually is — by whether and how you are responding to posts. You can and will be challenged and criticised. If you are not prepared to deal with this in public and sometimes lose the debate, do not do this at all. It is not for you.