Inspired by the movement towards distributed work, the Department of Water Resources’ (DWR) leadership made a forward-thinking decision to build an intranet that will streamline organizational communication, provide quick access to technology solutions and tools, and establish an online platform where people from different field locations — or their home offices — can connect and acknowledge their colleagues’ great work.

In this talk, originally prepared for the Sitecore Symposium 2020, Bianca Sievers, Kevin See, and Bhavik Patel share their experience and anecdotes about the project requirements, organizational support, executing on the vision, and project outcomes.

This project execution and outcomes are a prime example of how technology can help organizations propel their employee experience, and connect a distributed workforce, especially in the times of a pandemic.

Enjoy this insightful and inspiring presentation, and if you are thinking about implementing an intranet solution at your organization, we would be happy to start the conversation.


The transcript was edited for clarity and brevity from the original audio recording. References to the slides were removed from the transcript.

Bianca: Thank you for joining our session today on building an engaging intranet with Sitecore. Today we will be introducing our team and then diving into business opportunities, what we did, and our business outcomes. 

I want to begin by highlighting Karla Nemeth, the DWR director. She was our greatest supporter in this effort, and she’s the leader that truly understands our greatest asset is our people. Recognizing this problem as multifaceted, she assembled this team. My name is Bianca Sievers, and I am the policy advisor to the director at the Department of Water Resources.

Kevin: Thank you, Bianca. My name is Kevin See, and I’m DWR’s Deputy Chief Information Officer.

Bhavik: My name is Bhvik Patel, and I’m the CEO of SymSoft Solutions, partner on this project. The project was called Blue, and we won an Honorable Mention this year [2020] at the Sitecore Experience Awards.

Bianca: Thank you, Bhavik. 

Now let’s orient ourselves to the challenge at hand. DWR is responsible for securing water responsibly, ensuring public safety, and saving water for future generations. Our scope is huge. We supply water to 27 million Californians and 750,000 acres of agricultural land. We also provide oversight for over 12 dams in the state of California. DWR is comprised of approximately 3,500 employees across 14 offices in various urban and rural locations. The work of DWR employees is extremely diverse, ranging from the scientist taking water samples in the San Joaquin Delta to the executive at headquarters to the mechanic in state government. It is not commonplace or even expected that as an employee, you understand the strategic direction of an organization, let alone are invited and welcome to participate. 

DWR was not immune to this problem. Its previous intranet did not serve the needs of our employees. All that being said, we needed a platform that was flexible enough to accommodate the unique needs of each employee, as well as a unified connection and understanding across all of our work.

It was important that we started with the consumer, our employees. In the summer of 2019, we brought together over a hundred and twenty employees to participate in focus groups for the intranet redesign. These participants were specifically selected to better understand the diverse needs within our workforce based on their skills, geography, and position within the network. Employees were asked to provide feedback on knowledge search information operation and networking. Our team listened and learned from our employees. And then, we prioritized those needs moving forward. Kevin will be talking about where we went from here.

Kevin: Thank you, Bianca. 

Now here comes the fun part. How did we do it? We had to form partnerships — the partnership with the business, the partnership with technology, and of course, our vendor partnership. The first really big piece is — our director was in full support of this initiative, but we also had executive sponsorship from our deputy director of business operations, which runs the horizontal business. So everything from HR to IT is run under business operations.

The next part is the partnership between the director’s office, where Bianca is at, and the technology office [Kevin’s office]. Bianca represents the policy, the content, and the features people want. I represent the technology in terms of how we did it.

The last very important piece is that partner engagement. We had to find a partner that met the speed we wanted to go with, that also shared the same values, vision, and goals that we wanted to share. And have the flexibility to dynamically shift where we needed to, to get the job done. And that was really [the case] with our SymSoft partner and working with Bhavik.

The how-part is the agile delivery model. We had 90 days to get it done. Why 90 days? We had to get it done by Christmas time. That was our goal. Our time and our resources were tightly controlled. Our scope was to build an awesome and engaging intranet that employees love. It is a very broad scope, in terms of what it’s going to be delivered. 

Our time, as I mentioned, 90 days, got to get it done by Christmas time. Our resources? Well, that was our team. We had the resources that we had, and that was it. So we had to do all that within this very short and tight scope and build the intranet that people would use.

Decision- and policy-makers were a part of the product team. It wasn’t where we had a decision- and policy-makers that met once a month to talk about where the challenges are. The typical process in terms of how it goes is a steering committee. [But] they were actually a part of the team on a day-to-day basis. Bianca and I met literally every day or every other day. Between Bianca, Bhavik, and myself, we saw each other more than we saw our families within this 90-day timeframe. We shared a single vision, the vision of building the intranet that employees love, the vision of building the intranet within 90 days. And to get it done.

We’ve done a lot of things in terms of rapid prototyping, meaning: what we saw in the morning could be dramatically different by the evening time. It can be 180 degrees. “You know what? That feature worked. [Or] it didn’t work.” What was the benefit behind that? We might have lost a couple of hours. In a typical development timeframe, a feature might take weeks or months to get done, and you lost all that time. But we worked with a partner, with a business that really was aligned with what we were trying to do, and that is to get the job done, and course-correct and shift, as fast as we want to shift and course-correct.

I think this was pivotal in terms of getting the platform that can do that, finding a partner that’s willing to do that with you, and a business that is truly engaged and is a part of that process. “Yep, that didn’t work. Let’s move on. Yep, that worked. Let’s move on.” And I think this is key in how we got this thing done within this very tight and short timeframe of building the Department of Water Resources’ intranet.

Bhavik: Thank you, Kevin. Yes, this was definitely a fun project, and I remember exchanging a lot of texts in the wee hours of the morning to get things done, which I’m very proud of accomplishing at the end.

One of the things I want to talk about here was that in order for this to be successful, the Intranet needed to be a hub. And by that, we mean that all of these different disparate systems that existed within DWR needed to come together in a centralized place so that employees could accomplish their tasks from a one-stop-shop perspective. There were various Integrations — DocuSign, the Pixel photo library, Azure Active Directory, and even the security and badging system that exist in DWR. These systems all came together into Blue for that single unified experience and have employees find all of the information they needed in one place. One of the most important integrations was the one with Azure Active Directory which powers people search, and allows the folks in the organization to search for people by their name, by the division that they work in, or even the skills that they possess. Bringing that information from Azure Active Directory was very important.

Another system was the service desk system. Essentially, how can we enable employees to submit tickets to IT for tasks that they need to accomplish? Integrating that into search and into the system allowed employees to find that information in one place, get the support they need to accomplish their task, and, essentially, find that in one centralized location.

Okay, let’s see what Blue looks like.

Bianca [cue Blue demo]: Blue is designed for mobile and desktop use. Employees will be able to easily access Blue from your office or on-the-go. At the top right of your screen, you will see your personalization bar. You will be able to identify content and apps that are meaningful to you and link them to your profile for quick access. At the top of your screen, you will see your global navigation bar. This will remain consistent across every page within Blue. 

Blue was designed to provide the employee with a similar experience across forms, how-to documents, and platforms — that’s intuitive and consistent. Popular apps were simplified so they’re easy to understand. You can see things here like org charts, training, travel reservations. You no longer need to know the exact name of that program.

As you scroll to the bottom of the page, you’ll see our beautiful Pixel library which is managed by our photo team in the public affairs office. Feel free to use any of these photos in an upcoming presentation. You will also find — located along the bottom — top resources, shoutouts, and some of our social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and our YouTube channel. It’s important we recognize all the hard work we do at DWR. Our shout out feature allows you to give kudos to your colleagues for a job well done.

Bianca: Wow, that was pretty awesome to see again. Hopefully, you enjoyed it too. 

So, what are the business outcomes of this effort? From my perspective, I think we experienced a massive culture shift. DWR, we serve as a leader in climate change science, we invest in cutting-edge technology and data platforms, but this is really not reflected in how we communicated with our own employees. Previous internal messages were multiple page PDFs that were sent out via email, and most importantly, not accessible. How can we expect our employees to follow our policies when they aren’t even accessible to all of our employees? 

I think what’s also made Blue so valuable is the recent challenges that Covid-19 has brought on. We went from 12 employees that were teleworking to over 2,000 in a matter of 72 hours. Blue is essential for communicating important health and safety protocols. With about 30% of our staff without designated desk spaces, mobile access was also very crucial.  And I think, ultimately, people are looking for a connection. Something as simple as giving our employees a profile with a picture is powerful. As Bhavik recently mentioned connecting these systems to Blue is really crucial, and now people are able to physically see and learn about the organization in a way we were never able to do before. 

Our team also prioritized the needs and perspectives of our employees. We started with the name itself — Blue. You have probably been wondering this entire presentation what does that even mean. What we did was we asked the entire department to participate in the naming of this new intranet. To me, I think that really symbolizes the transition to a new way of thinking. If we engage our employees, they will respond. And we engaged them for every step in the process of this internet redesign. I think, ultimately, that creates ownership of this platform. And that is why we experienced such a positive outcome. 

And now I’ll kick it over to Kevin. He will go into further details.

Kevin: Thank you, Bianca. So here comes the fun part, the outcomes, the fruits of our labor. After 90 days of development, and building, talking to our customer, engagements, this where things boil down to, in terms of results of what we’ve done in the past 90 days.

Now let’s talk about our efficiency. What happened before and after Blue? Our operational efficiency was up by 50%. What does that mean, fifty percent? Before Blue, I had a team of staff, they had to ingest content, edit content, post content, and the technology folks did all this. Now, after Blue, because we built it on the Sitecore platform on an enterprise web content management system, that’s now being federated down to the user level, where now they have the ability to actually post content, run through a workflow, get the approvals necessary, and get content automatically pushed out without the intervention of IT. 

Not only did we save in terms of our resources, but we are also able to repurpose the resources that we have for other things in our enterprise. So, just the gain of that was huge. And how about how fast can we move content? As we all know, the faster you move it, the more it gets out and becomes more relevant in terms of what we do. So the ability to have this fully automated process in place to actually move content from conception to reality is just a significant amount in terms of our resource savings.

Another key factor is the connection — the connection between our employees and our executive leadership. In any given month, we have over 30 folks sending questions directly to our director. It’s building that connection between our employee engagement and executive leadership. That is huge. That is one of the core values that we have in the department. It’s building these connections that Bianca talked about earlier to rebrand our culture in terms of connecting people with our leadership and vice-versa. It is a true way in a sense of connecting people, processes, and technology.

Mobile, that’s huge, because of our workforce. We are spread out across the state. We have 3,500 employees, as you know. A lot of our workforce is in the field; they are not in the 8–5; they are not in the office. We have to get information out to a lot of mobile users. Sometimes really, all they have is a cell-phone, or maybe a tablet, maybe a laptop, as they’re working in the field. How to disseminate information out to our end-user in a quick and most efficient way possible? [The answer is] building on a platform, building the intranet that supports responsive design. It was no longer dependent that they had to be at their desk or that they had to be chained to their desk in terms of just getting the information. We are able to send information to them on the device they chose. The employees chose how they want to consume the content, when they want to consume the content and where they want to consume the content. So that was huge. Our usage in terms of the use of the intranet went up by 50% because we were now delivering content that our employees responded to. We have a lot of field staff, and really the only thing they have is a cell-phone to connect back to the organization. That’s why we see this huge increase in mobile users coming to our site.

Employee reach, another cornerstone of what we did. How do we get content out as quickly as possible, but how about the receiving end? You can get content out as fast as possible, but if it’s not received by the employees, you really miss the mark. It’s a two-way street of employee reach, us delivering content, and employees actually consuming it. Because there is so much automation in the intranet, as soon as we publish content, within hours, thousands of people have read the content. As soon as we publish content, it automatically sends an email out to every employee saying this is an important piece of content you should read. They get it on a mobile device, they click on it and the content gets delivered to them. So thinking about it for a second, and comparing it to how it used to be and how’s it now. We are in a digital world, we are becoming a digital enterprise, and we become dependent on always being connected at almost every hour of the day, that we have to change and evolve what our people are asking for. With Covid-19 it really put a spotlight on how connected we need to be, how dispersed our employees are because they are no longer in the office. They are in their home, at their remote site, so how can we push content to them as fast and as efficiently as possible? I think this really illustrates the reach and what we’ve done in terms of not only technology rebranding, but also a cultural rebranding of how we communicate. Ultimately, DWR itself is undergoing a journey of digital transformation. Doing this was a part of that journey.

By far, shout-outs are one of the most fun features we developed in Blue. We used that feature hundreds of times in a month. The employee can give recognition to their peer for a job well done. We made it easy, and we made it simple. Any employee can pick up the phone, go to shout-outs and send a shout-out. It’s that easy. This is really a cornerstone of why we’ve built this. It’s something employees wanted, something we deliver in a way that is easy to use.

We leveraged what we had. Sitecore is our enterprise web content management system in the department. When we looked at building the intranet, it naturally fell right in place. We were able to reuse a lot of things we had done on the intranet site and now import over to the intranet site. Content is in one place. If content needs to go over multiple sites, we could do that. It is very easy to do. 

Bhavik: All right, with that, we want to thank you very much for listening to our presentation. Our contact information is listed on the screen, as you can see here. Feel free to reach out to us for any questions or any feedback that you have. I also wanted to mention that Sitecore has a survey that you can take, so please take the survey. You should get a prompt somewhere on your screen to do that, and once again thank you very much!

About SymSoft

SymSoft Solutions is a Web Design, Development, and System Integration firm, based in Sacramento, CA. Our practice areas include User Interface and User Experience Design, Accessibility, Web Content Management System Implementations, Business Intelligence Solutions, Data Analytics, and Visualizations, as well as custom Web/Mobile Application Development.

Contact us