Voted as one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices, Sharon O’Dea is a digital communication, innovation and strategy consultant specializing in intranets and digital workplace technologies. Her impressive accomplishments include developing one of the first ever mobile intranets for the UK’s Houses of Parliament, winning her the Intranet Innovation Award, and acting as advisor to the Iraqi government (flak jacket included).


Chuck Gose: So this past summer, I finally got to shake hands with Alan Oram, crossing off another Brit in IC that I’ve wanted to meet face to face. So how have we not met yet in person?

Sharon O'Dea:  I’m notoriously hard to pin down! For most of 2014-15 I was living in Asia. I’m missing Intranet Now for the third year in a row because I’m in Asia again. Every group shot we have of the Intranetizen team, you’ll notice I’m missing :)

CG: It’s funny you mention that. I was just thinking that I’m pretty sure I’ve met most of your Intranetizen colleagues in years’ past. Can you explain how the Intranetizen began?

SO: Intranetizen began with Jonathan Phillips and Luke Mepham in 2010.

Jon had been blogging a bit on his own, and he met Luke, and they bought a domain. So if you can’t pronounce it, it’s their fault.

After a year or so of not finishing many posts, they decided they should expand the team. I’d ‘spoken’ to them on Twitter, but we met for the first time at Interact 2011. It was shortly afterwards that they asked me and Dana to join the team.

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And for those who aren’t familiar, what’s the focus of Intranetizen?

SO: Intranetizen is a home for intranet-related blogging from four practitioners. We cover all aspects of intranets and digital workplace tech - from governance to design, to content, to managing stakeholders. I guess we have a slightly sarcastic, irreverent take on intranets. It’s kind of therapy for us, but we hope other people enjoy reading it too.

"Communicators are often very focused on delivering the message that we fail to communicate about communicating."

CG: I enjoy reading your therapy. It seems like lately intranets are getting a bit of a bad reputation. Why do you think that is?

SO: It depends on how you define intranets; in other respects, enterprise comms systems are a Silicon Valley golden child all of a sudden. But yeah, people are down on traditional publishing intranets.

I’d argue that’s overly simplistic, and that most organisations will need a balance of both. Just as companies haven’t thrown away their websites now they have a Facebook page, we still need published content for internal audiences.

CG: That’s an interesting comparison you made between intranets and traditional company websites. So reading between the lines, I’m sensing you’re still a fan of the traditional intranet?

SO: Someone has to be, right?

In my view they play a similar role, for a different audience (or even for the same audience - the distinction between internal and external audiences isn’t always clear-cut - but perhaps that’s overcomplicating things).

A company website will generally play host to published content, and perhaps transactional services. Social channels are how that content is discovered, discussed and shared.

The same is true for internal audiences; organisations want (and users need) to find content and have confidence in that content. ESNs are a means through which it can be found, discussed, shared, etc.

"IC is becoming more social, mobile and two-way, there’s a lot we can (and should) learn from our friends across the hall in Marketing."

CG: When you were in-house, you had a nice variety of experiences. From what I saw on your LinkedIn profile, it ranged from government, to non-profit, to financial. Of the three, which one did you enjoy the most?

SO: That’s  like asking someone to pick their favourite child :) I’ve been really lucky to have worked across a range of sectors. More recently I’ve added energy and defence to the mix.

My weirdest experience has been advising the Iraqi Parliament - I had to do hostile environment training and get a flak jacket with my blood type on it, in case of emergencies.

Sharon O'Dea Flack Jacket.jpg

I like a meaty challenge, which is why large and complex, and particularly global organisations appeal to me.

CG: You’ve written on LinkedIn about the value of ‘working out loud’. Is this something you encourage other communicators to do?

SO: I gain a lot from sharing what I do with others, so I encourage others to do the same.

Selfishly, I love to hear what others are doing. By sharing what I know, I encourage others to share with me. It builds trust with peers and establishes credibility.

CG: You’re one of the few speakers who shares her slides on Slideshare after speaking at an event. I think that’s great.

SO: I’m not sure they make much sense without the notes, but if they’re useful to others then I’m happy to share.

CG: At PRSA Connect last year, I politely called out internal communicators, calling them hypocrites, saying that internal communicators love to hear what others are doing but rarely share what they are doing. Often claiming “legal won’t let us.”

SO: Do you have this phrase in the US? The cobbler’s children have no shoes.

CG: That’s one we do have. We don’t have “teach your grandmother to suck eggs.”

SO: Whoa! You don’t? Mind. Blown.

Anyway, communicators are often very focused on delivering the message that we fail to communicate about communicating. We explain what leadership is doing but not what we do ourselves. Or we spend so much time promoting the virtues of using ESN that we don’t actually get around to using it ourselves.

Or perhaps we have such a sharp appreciation of the challenges of legal and compliance that we become quite cautious when it comes to sharing our own work.

"Your brain can process images in a fraction of the time it takes to read words. They impact us both cognitively and emotionally, increasing recall and deepening engagement with the message."

CG: I think you’re too kind. I think a lot of communicators are risk averse and fear outside criticism. But that’s just me.

SO: Risk averse is a good way of putting it.

One of the talks I do regularly is on managing risk and compliance on ESNs.

There’s a balance to be struck between not managing risk effectively and creating problems, and focusing too much on risk and closing down opportunities to generate value. Large organisations, and in-house communicators in particular, are often too far down the control end of the spectrum. This means they fail to realise value from investment in social - but also that we miss opportunities for serendipity.

CG: Also, a great John Cusack movie.

SO: Ironically, the head of compliance in my last proper job was called John Cusack.

CG: I always thought John Cusack and I could be good friends. But maybe I was focused on the wrong Cusack. But let’s get back on track. You are very active on LinkedIn and Twitter. You said you get from it as much as you give. So why do you think a lot of internal communicators aren’t active on those two networks?

SO: Maybe they’re too internally-focused. Which is a mistake in my view. The line between internal and external audiences isn’t always clear cut. As IC is becoming more social, mobile and two-way, there’s a lot we can (and should) learn from our friends across the hall in Marketing.

CG: Going back through all of the Chuck Chats guests and people I’ve interviewed on ICology, I’m not sure there’s a single person that I would have known had we not connected on social media. And even if we had met in person, social deepened the connection.

SO: Same. Social doesn’t just give me a source of ideas, but it creates connections between people at distance. Yet the IC and intranet scene is pretty niche on Twitter and LinkedIn. Maybe it’s that sharp appreciation of risk that discourages others from talking about their work publicly.

Or maybe it’s an example of the 90/9/1 rule in action. We - the loudmouths - are the 1%. There’s a bunch of people responding and liking, and 90% who are just reading. I’d love for them to join the conversation too. I’m sure there’s plenty we can learn from this silent majority.

CG: Card-carrying loudmouth right here. And you do make a good point about the 90/9/1 rule.

SO: Same. What I lack in height I make up for in volume and words per minute.

CG: Random question, who’s taller - you or Rachel Miller?

SO: I think we’re the same height. 5’0”

CG: After once taking a picture with Rachel standing up (Dana Leeson was there too), all future pics will be of us sitting down. (I’m nearly 6’5”).

Chuck Gose & Rachel Miller.jpg

You commented on an article recently that was quick to criticize emoji use. But unlike most headline skimmers, you actually read the article and found that the hot takes were misleading. So share with the readers where you stand on the use of emojis in internal comms?

SO: The newspaper headline reported that an academic study said using emojis make people think you’re stupid. But that’s not what the study found. It found that using emoji in a work email can - just as using over-familiar or unprofessional language might. It didn’t make any claims about using emojis on other channels. In channels like Slack where they’re de rigueur, they can add a level of emotion that makes your communication more impactful.

CG: And do you feel the same way about GIFs?

SO: Absolutely. There’s science behind this. Your brain can process images in a fraction of the time it takes to read words. They impact us both cognitively and emotionally, increasing recall and deepening engagement with the message.

CG: I love GIFs more than most. But I’m curious. Do you pronounce it correctly with a hard G, like gifts, or incorrectly with a soft G, like giraffe?

SO: The former. Jif is a kitchen cleaner here in the UK. I just googled and would appear there is a peanut butter of the same name. This is ALL WRONG.

CG: thinkgif.gif


SO:  That is one of my most used gifs. That and the one of Arnie weightlifting with cats.


What’s the next event you’re speaking at?

SO: The next big one is the J Boye conference in Aarhus. I’m talking about chatbots and conversational user interfaces. Breaking my own rule, this is the fourth time I’ve spoken about chatbots this year - but it’s such as fast-moving space at the moment and there’s always something new to say.

CG: You’re clearly a fan of chatbots. Do you think communicators truly understand their potential? 

SO: I think bots have a lot of potential to improve the user experience. The hype is focused on the consumer space, but in my view the enterprise is where it’s at.

First, it’s a safer space to play in. There isn’t the same reputation risk attached to staff as customer communications, so it’s a great way for organisations to explore this space.

Second, there is such huge potential to improve the employee experience. If you work for a big organisation like a bank, chances are your HR is delivered through a combination of a terrible self-service system that everyone hates, and an outsourced shared service centre which you email and get cut-and-paste queries back. The experience is already pretty terrible, but with the added disadvantage that employees have to switch between two or more systems to get even basic tasks done.

Chatbots can do the hard work for you behind the scenes and allow employees to interact with systems in more human ways - improving the experience and allowing people to get on with things they’d rather be doing. It’s a really exciting space.

"Bots create a means by which we can bring communication and content into the ways people are already choosing to interact, engage and communicate."

CG: I agree that chatbots can create an improved experience but I compare it to 20 years ago when people had to consciously decide “I’m going on the information superhighway” compared to how we use the internet now. Chatbots will just be part of a seamless experience that we don’t even think about.

SO: I agree. What makes them particularly interesting is that messenger apps are simply  *where people are*. People spend 80% of the time that they are on their phone in just three apps - one of which is their messenger app of choice. So bots create a means by which we can bring communication and content into the ways people are already choosing to interact, engage and communicate. Rather than expecting people to log on to a work app or an intranet.

CG: And quickly, what are your top 3 thoughts on Workplace by Facebook?

SO: First, it is a great product. It’s designed mobile-first, it’s highly usable, it has some brilliant features and it’s at a great price point.

But it’s not without its challenges. It doesn’t offer the kind of flexibility and customisation that are essential in complex or regulated industries.

Facebook entering the enterprise space has really shaken the industry up. That’s not a bad thing since it’s forcing other players to up their game when it comes to usability and features.

But as I say to all my clients, you have to take the time to fully understand your users’ needs and base your tech choices on the jobs your people need to do, rather than choosing a set of features that sound like they might be good.

CG: Let’s wrap this up the way we do all of them. And this won’t be hard for you since you’re a fan of emojis. Use an emoji to describe your thoughts toward internal communication.

SO: Maybe this one?  🤔

The IC community always inspire me to think and reflect on the work I do and my professional practice. I also have a lot of love for internal comms folk, so how about a 😍  too?

CG: Thanks for being on Chuck Chats Sharon. And though I won’t chase you around the world, I do hope we get to meet face to face one day.

SO: Me too! Let me know if you’re ever heading across the pond.