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Interview with Wedge Black, founder of the Intranet Now conference

Wedge Black at Intranet Now

We spoke with Wedge Black to find out more about the upcoming intranet conference he is organising in London this October.

You’re the founder and a director of Intranet Now, so can you tell me how it came about?

Back in 2014, I was drinking with the usual intranet crowd, perhaps after the SMILE conference in London, chatting about the upcoming IntraTeam Event Copenhagen. We remarked how the UK didn’t really have a proper vendor-neutral intranet event. Someone, probably Luke Mepham, said I should put one on, seeing as I was a work-shy freelancer at the time.

The next day, without any understanding of the enormity of the undertaking, I put out some tweets asking for help to launch a new conference in the autumn. This was around May, so I didn’t exactly give myself much time!

Brian Lamb tweeted back. We’d never met or spoken at length, but we quickly got things going. We had no idea about venues or budgets so I put out more tweets, asking for financial help from vendors.

Nine or so vendors replied; “How much do you need?”, they asked.  I had no idea, so I just asked for whatever they could give. Vendors who couldn’t even attend supported us. It felt like we had momentum.

Of course I had no idea how much money we really needed, and I found out that London is extremely expensive! I’m based in the Midlands and originally from up north, and I’ve never even hired a back-room in a pub before.

We got a great venue, but I may have set expectations high for future years. We got a good discount but only because a wedding was cancelled at short notice. Our first conference was a little rough and ready, and definitely our least expensive event. But we’ve kept the friendly and ‘no attitude’ atmosphere ever since.

We’ve been able to do Intranet Now every year because of our long-term, productive relationships with sponsor-partners.  The technology does matter, when it comes to digital comms and intranets, and there are some superb software vendors around.

As I say, it’s a friendly affair, and while our venues are swish, we’ve created a mid-level event for practitioners. Intranet Now is for people who are entering or deep into digital work. Yes, strategy is important, but we’re more about getting things done.

There was a real need for this style of conference, certainly five years ago. These days, better conversations are happening about the digital workplace. I like to think that Brian and I provided the right forum for intranet and comms people to discuss what’s really going on inside organisations.

What’s the vision for the next five years?

We’ve grown so much, as a conference and as a business, in the last four years, and we’re happy with the success we’ve achieved. We want Intranet Now to be ever-relevant to digital workplace professionals.

I take each year as it comes; last year, for instance, I noticed a drop-off in spending – maybe companies are ‘sweating their assets’ a bit more.

We’re focused on the quality of our conferences – the peer-to-peer learning, the conversations, the freedom of thought, and the chance to connect with people with similar-but-different experiences.

How is this year’s conference shaping up?

We’re delighted with our new venue which is a dedicated conference centre and they are looking after us very well. The venue is intimate and we’re confident we’ll hit our maximum capacity of 155 people.

We’re up to 18 speakers – there’s only one stage, we don’t split the audience into streams; Intranet Now is mostly a shared experience. Eighteen sounds a lot but we always host people on stage for short, sharp lightning talks. Most talks are just nine minutes which is just enough time to tell a story, express challenges, and investigate a solution. Feedback has always shown that people love the dynamism and speed of our talks.

We also have a couple of Ted-style keynote talks which are 18 minutes, such as Invotra’s.

After the afternoon break everything changes, that’s the end of the presentations, and the start of the workshops and table discussions – time for genuine, multi-way conversation.  No one is an attendee, everyone is a participant.  Plus, I think everyone should leave with at least one new friend.

Our slogan has always been ‘the conference for comms and intranet people’. I believe there’s a Venn diagram of digital comms people and intranet people, not to mention everyone who does employee stuff including enabling engagement, collaboration, and productivity within the digital workplace.

Is there one thing this year which is working well?

A change this year is having Lisa Riemers join me as a director. I’ve really glad to work with Lisa and it’s been so much better to collaborate. We both have day jobs, so Intranet Now is a personal commitment of ours.

I’m very much looking forward to meeting our speakers on the day. I know half of them already perhaps, and others are in-house practitioners that I’ve never met but admired from afar. The agenda, our theme (the employee experience throughout the digital workplace) shapes the ‘feel’ of the event, and I’m always impressed by what happens on stage – often surprised too.

And because of our new venue, I’m looking forward to the exhibition space – our breaks are generous and there will be lots of people to talk with. The regular participants are welcoming to newcomers, so the breaks are very important. As is the after party, and the after-after party!

What helps shape your outlook?

I made my first website by hand in the late nineties. I was entranced by the code, but it was the publishing, the content, the power of communication, that I fell in love with.

I didn’t have to ask for permission, I just got on with it. I published, and I made connections with people. I’m not great face-to-face but I love, what we used to call, computer-mediated communication.

Fast forward to my nascent career, and I switched from document control to intranet management within a global company. I only got the job because I showed all my personal and charity website work  and the content I’d produced as side-projects.

I have always had a DIY attitude, and I’m not used to being told it can’t be done. I’m only qualified for my work by experience, not by qualifications. Nobody should feel limited by their qualifications or lack thereof. If you need experience, don’t wait for an internship, just do the thing you want to learn about. Create, produce, make it.

That’s what made me do Intranet Now, despite being initially ignorant of how events work, nothing was going to stop me – I have developed a ‘must do’ approach. I listen to feedback each year and know there are always improvements that can be made – but what’s important is getting it done rather than making it perfect.

What are your thoughts about the future of digital comms?

When you come to Intranet Now, you’ll see experts talks about technological developments, and experienced practitioners talking about using tech to reach people, and enhance their work life.

Someone is bound to say that “it’s not about the technology, it’s about people” and of course that is true but it is also about the tech! Now, and in the future, the way we communicate, cooperate and collaborate will be shaped by our tools. Of course, the tools are shaped by needs and behaviour, at least at the moment. Who’s to say how machine learning will develop in the years ahead? I mean, I’m glad to have our platforms recommend people, content, and relevant documents to me – that’s fantastic analysis of my network and habits.

Sometimes, as a consultant, people tell me they want a single tool to serve all purposes – one tool for comms, collaboration, content. They’re aware people can feel overwhelmed around ‘what tool to use for what’.

But that’s not going to happen; yes, we have solid platforms for much of our comms and collaboration, but there will always be apps for video calls, messaging, recording, creation, etc. In practice, people tend to like single-use apps, so long as the purpose and benefits are clear.

As always with comms, you have to match the message to the channel to the audience, and in general, you need to go to where the audience already is. This won’t change, so communicators should keep an eye on people’s behaviour no matter what tech is used. Comms strategies don’t have to flex to match tech developments at all, but communication tactics must.

Follow @Wedge and @Invotra on Twitter, and check out Intranet Now. We hope to see you there.