Thoughts on Intranets

In recent time it seems ‘mobile Intranets’ are becoming a ubiquitous addition to the traditional ‘Intranet portal’. What users mostly end up with is just a mobile access to the pages in their Intranet. In this article we are going to share a few thoughts about why this is not the best solution to leverage mobile devices – and how a holistic new school of thought can help us work more productively in the digital age.

First, let’s look at ‘shadow IT’. Shadow IT is a phenomenon that is regarded by many corporate IT departments as a plague they don’t know how to cure. If users request a mobile Intranet and the IT department has delivered its attempt at one, then they should stop shopping elsewhere for their mobile needs–so goes the thinking...
If you want to combat shadow IT, there is no way round but to admit that probably the apps you have given your users (if any) are not up to the same standard as other consumer apps they have come to like. Those are slick, single-purpose containers that do a few things really well – and not some huge mobilized behemoth of your current Intranet.

So are Intranets facing a mobile dead-end?

Yes and no. Today’s intranets are great in connecting employees across departments, and allowing them to collaborate on the same documents easily. However, when it comes to connecting data streams of different types and origins, Intranets just fall flat on their face. Intranet are not made to make sense of APIs... yet.

In the future however, employees will consume information and services through APIs that supply data from on-premise or the cloud to a central place. This new central place is basically just a ‘layer’ for all their data, and helps users make sense of it, sift through it intelligently and provide it in a format that is appropriate for their current context. So, say, while you’re on the go information should be condensed yet easily digestible, while on a desktop you expect a more feature-rich interface. You may think of this as a kind of ‘Intranet of the future’; it may or may not end up being called Intranet but that’s not the point.

The point is that business apps in the future will merely consume other, already existing, services. Take Google Now for instance, which shows you boarding passes, theater tickets or reminders based on the things it already knows about you like your email attachments, time and current location.

Let’s apply this to a business use case: Every business has customers. But speaking from a data storage point of view, what you know about the customer lives in very different ‘buckets’ or ‘silos’, for example invoices are in Quickbooks, support tickets in the Helpdesk, contracts in the Contract Management system, deals in CRM, meetings in the calendar, conversations in various inboxes, and the list goes and on.

The key to bring all of this together, in a central standardized view akin to Google Now, lies in the data access.

Imagine you have an upcoming meeting with a customer at 2pm but during your lunch break they push the meeting back one hour. A future Intranet would be able to alert you in time for this. It knows your schedule from your local or Office365 calendar. It knows your customer from the Salesforce API and can match their email address with your inbox. So it can look out for last-minute meeting updates, or scan for new emails with the subject ‘Delay’.
With a proactive Card that you receive fully automatically from the Intranet, almost like an attentive personal assistant, you can enjoy your lunch a bit longer and go over the meeting notes one more time. Sure this example would just save you 30 to 60 minutes, but if you add all of these magical notifications up, then you quickly start to see the prowess of such a potent and smarter Intranet.

Easily enough all this data can be simply consumed by the app through ‘service layers’ that act like a sandwich between the source and the client – desktop or smartphone. Consequently in the future there is no need for monolithic servers that hold terabytes of proprietary data; we’ll just consume service APIs in a transparent way that offer unlimited use cases.

Mobile applications have become a driving force in the way we browse the web, that means many times we don’t actually browse the web as much as we rely on apps to access the correct information from the web. Not only that but apps, and the huge industry that has grown behind and around them, have changed the way and times we consume information as we can all now read news on our commute, connect with friends before bedtime, and share videos with our loved ones.

Another benefit from apps ubiquity in the consumer market is how it has shaped people’s expectation of their simple and straight-forward navigation. Take just about any flight, hotel or rental car booking app, any shopping app or quirky apps to check your data usage, submit an electricity meter reading or even unlock your car: These are all successful examples how apps have simplified access to backend systems and increase their relevance by showing what’s relevant for the context of the app. While in theory this could have happened on the desktop years ago, in reality it didn’t.
Only the small screens of smartphones forced companies to prioritize convenience and simplicity over clutter and upsales. ‘There is an app for that’ has changed the way we as consumers tackle specific everyday situations – strangely enough these innovations are almost entirely absent from our workplace. It’s because somewhere in IT someone has decided to stick with the ill-conceived convention that Enterprise Mobility means bringing everything to mobile devices – that’s not what that means. Enterprise Mobility means tackling highly business-specific problems and providing a non-obscure, intuitive app that is great at solving just this specific problem it has set out to conquer.

As long as IT doesn’t get this memo, the ‘shadow IT’ phenomenon is guaranteed to persist. In many retail shops, hospitality and healthcare employees are resorting to WhatsApp groups to socialize, share knowledge and even arrange their shifts and leave requests. Surely the lack of access, visibility and accountability of these systems, which are outside of your company's control, will keep some managers up at night.

Another big barrier to Enterprise Mobility is the less than optimal situation around integration of existing IT backend systems on mobile devices. Apart from emails, calendar and contacts phones rarely provide any other integrations out-of-the-box. So everything else needs to be developed or licensed from the manufacturer of the system. This mostly translates to one dedicated app for each backend; all silos included.

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about security and how to strike the right balance between data safety and user experience. Basically security is the least of your user’s concern; if you make it obscure, they will avoid it and eventually that isn’t helping anyone. Companies have tried it all: From completely locked-down (no apps, no VPN) to completely open so employees can access unfiltered company data with their private smartphones. In the end, as Citrix has found out, most business will settle for best practices which are a healthy middle ground; that means PIN authentication for using an app and regulations on how much data can be transacted between backend systems and mobile devices in a certain timeframe.

Your organization will be having a head start at Enterprise Mobility if it’s extensively using cloud-based architecture. Such, mostly SaaS, has set the benchmark for Out of the Box enterprise apps. The problem is: Almost no company is using cloud to a high enough degree to become useful. They are hesitant to put their sensitive data in data centres they can’t entirely control, not to mention integrating their backends with a third-party SaaS application. Who knows where they might sell that data to, or what evil hacking group will blackmail me to buy back my own data…

Furthermore the whole hodgepodge of business data and personal privacy is not becoming any easier on smartphones, especially if you’re toying with the idea of BYOD. Just a few years ago a whole raft of lawsuits around personal communication over work email, data retention policies, or even at what times of the day employees are expected respond to emails, has shown companies how limited the use of technology is, if it isn’t administered responsibly.

What’s missing to make data security easy to implement for small and medium businesses is a lack of standards. There are so many ways and tools to enrol devices, transact data from the cloud, encrypt stuff, build container apps for business apps. With more device categories, platforms and standards coming on the market every year, it is hard to see when this fragmentation subsides. For now managing native apps is a costly affair that you might want to abandon for more suitable approaches.

In recap, these are three biggest challenges companies need to address for a successful Enterprise Mobility strategy (as identified by Citrix Enterprise Mobility Trends 2014):

  1. BYOD policies: It goes without saying that more and more employees have and want to use their devices to get their work done – and not just emails or Lync/Skype.

  2. Mobile Enterprise Apps: Think of how desktop applications and information portals can be realized on mobile devices in a way that’s meaningful to the user and solving actual, specific use cases.

  3. Mobile Security: Allowing continuous data access in ways that enable productivity from outside your network, while not leaving you vulnerable to data leaks.

All this should be part of a holistic mobile strategy. If you’re shuddering at the sound of that, you’re not alone. Apart from E-mail, Yammer or Lync most companies don’t have any mobile apps for their users. When asked what to mobilize the answer is either “We don’t know” or “Everything should be supported mobile.” That is telling of how little companies are aware of the potential strengths of mobility and how it can help them achieve their business goals, if leveraged properly.

The solution: Intranet Service Layers (ISL).

Granted, the acronym ISL doesn’t sounds exhilarating, but you should get excited nonetheless. We’ve established that today’s Intranets will not be essential to the mobile revolution. We also know that in the future users may not perceive an Intranet to be an Intranet any longer, it may even lose the label altogether. An Intranet will just be a common ground between wildly different applications, where they can share their information and consume those of other sources also tapping into it.

If we think of different data sources (cloud, on-premise, databases, CRM’s, ERP’s, etc.) as languages – then the ILS will be the interpreter that unifies them all inside a single new language, which in turn you will use to easily create new business apps.

Which use cases could you create with this new omni-informed ILS architecture? Here are some examples:

  • You could create a Helpdesk app that automatically checks a customer's payment status as they request support. Then the agent could single-handedly re-send them the last invoice if need be, without going through the Accounting department.

  • Create a meeting schedule app that proposes meeting times based on your attendee’s availabilities, and the availability of meetings rooms and automatically orders refreshments, or suggests to request a beamer if it finds an attachment called “Presentation.pptx” in your attachments.

  • A business trip app that suggest you hotels near to a customer's recorded address, already pre-approved to conform to the company's travel policy, offering a one-click reservation. It could also comprise a feature to scan travel receipts which you can send without hassle straight to Accounting for reimbursement. After the stay another app could use the information about the trip to reach out to the customer and ask if they were satisfied with the service they received. If so, yet a third app could record a positive feedback to suggest the employee for a bonus.

  • Or let’s get crazy: You could create a Siri or Google Now for your organization. Just hook up literally dozens of sources without a single line of code and let the app figure out itself when to notify the employee about news, upcoming events, new tasks, alerts, due deadlines, approaching reservations, cancelled meetings, due customer invoices, or whatever else you can possibly think of. All being voice-activated through a voice recognition and AI API. And all crazy-fast searchable like a Google for your organization. Wouldn’t that be an awesome Intranet of the future? Forget “future”, it’s on sale: This is an actual app you can buy from adenin, called Now Workplace.

But not just day-to-day business activities can be simplified with apps. An Intranet Service Layer combines business-critical data with processes, even outside the company. You could not just integrate your own, but also your customers, suppliers and business partners ISL’s. This allows even grander apps where your own data is just one part of a bigger cross-company app, while increasing transparency for everyone. Project managers for example could use such innovative new apps to ad hoc identify unused resources within or outside of the company, streamlining their supply chain management.

Up until today enterprise applications are delivered as monolithic server-installed backends that are packed with functionality. Employees are regularly confused by all those bells and whistles, but that has never stopped the vendors from touting that their software covers ‘everything’ and can ‘do it all’. The truth is, in all likelihood the software never covers precisely what you envisioned, or what you envisioned is buried deep deep in the code or requires costly customizations. Enterprise applications also regularly are caught flat-footed when you ask for mobile support. Even if the software can show some of its data as a kind of ‘baby version’ on mobile, that’s hardly a convincing proposition. And especially integrating data from other servers, or even the cloud, is next to impossible to realize. Stop dreaming…

Wrong! Stop settling.

An Intranet Service Layer can literally break up these old monolithic structures by creating a single standardized interface that internal and external data sources can connect to easily. Basically an ISL is to your data, what USB is to your phone (or hard drive, mouse, camera, etc.). It allows you to connect to any source in a standardized way.

Admittedly there are many variables to consider and it’s not going to be a walk in the park, but the high user demand and differentiation opportunities are incentives to taking the lead early. Having read this article hopefully has helped you widen your horizon to the possibilities a mobile future opens up. Data and APIs now comes from many sources and can go many ways. Discuss with your team today, how you can make your organization a mobility frontrunner.