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Don’t crowdsource everything (especially names).

When building your intranet, you will, understandably, become very concerned about “buy in”.  It’s crucial, of course. If people aren’t invested in what you’re trying to do, there’s every reason to fear that they just won’t use your shiny new intranet, and it will fail, utterly and completely, to achieve any of the institutional goals it was created to meet.

Unrelatedly, it is also incredibly hard to come up with a suitable name for your intranet. Someone will declare it needs an identity, a sort of brand, almost, and you will spend at least one meeting (and maybe quite a few) debating, discussing and discarding every possible name that your team can think of.  You will talk about concepts, and image, and acronyms, and get precisely nowhere.

There are only two hard things in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things.

— Phil Karlton

When you’re just about ready to give up on the whole thing, someone will suggest you “crowdsource” the new name for your system. It’s seems to solve both problems at once, and, critically, means you no longer have to sit in a meeting room with your esteemed colleagues, trying to work out what the eight letters of “Aperture” could be made to stand for. By this stage, that’s a very tempting idea. Don’t do it.

“We will get people engaged by having them think about the nature of the intranet, we will be seen to be taking on board what staff want and we will get a better name than we can think of.”

There are two main problems with this approach:

  1. You won’t get a good name from this process. No, you won’t.
  2. You will alienate more people than you engage.

You won’t get a good name.

You and your team have already spent longer trying – and failing – come up with a decent name than anyone else in the organisation has time to do. There are no creative geniuses hiding in your finance department. They are not better at this stuff than you are. They will not solve your problem for you. If there is a good name, you have already come across it, and as the naming of the polar research vessel has shown, you are much more likely to get silly responses*. Silly responses are fun, but unless your senior management team are running the place in the manner of  Google, they are very unlikely to pass a name that sounds silly. And even if they do, the funny, irreverent name you chose while the idea was fresh is going to become an annoying anachronism with which you are stuck, very quickly indeed.

You will alienate more people than you engage

This one is basic mathematics, I’m afraid: you might get 300 responses to your Name The Intranet poll, and that’s great – 300 people are now aware of your project, and are sufficiently interested to spend thirty seconds thinking about the name; of course, even with some inevitable duplication (the obvious names will be obvious to more than one person), you will be left with a fairly long list of possible names, and when you choose one of the better ones, you will successfully engage the one person who thought of it – but alienate the 299 people who tried to get involved, but had their contribution rejected. On the plus side, you will probably have career-long loyalty from the one person. The engagement of one person, however, will not make your intranet a success.

Worse, you may well end up deciding that the competition entries were, in fact, even worse than the ideas your own team came up with (after all, you’ve had three meetings on this, now, so frankly, you’d hope so). In the end, you decide to go with your previous favourite, and actually alienate all 300. Then you don’t even have the career-long loyalty of the one, and you’ve reinforced what they believed all along, which is that this is your project, and there is no space for people outside of your team within it. Fail.

All of this amounts to a pointless, and hugely distracting process. The only effective way to build an intranet that will succeed, is to spend time gathering information on actual user needs, and crowdsourcing how people really use the web. And don’t worry about the name. “Intranet” is probably fine.

*Just to be clear I think Boaty McBoat face is a great name and if the NERC have any sense they should use that name for the vessel.  When you are a small scientific research group embracing a naming competition can be a good thing (if you have a sense of humor) .