What’s next for the modern Intranet?

Published Tue 30 Oct 2018

What the modern Intranet actually means has gone through endless debate over the past few years. Some say that intranets should be primarily social, for collaboration between teams and departments. For others, the modern Intranet is more of a revitalized enterprise portal providing instant access to enterprise apps. The one thing people seem to agree on is that the modern Intranet is a 'mobile Intranet', with mobile support for the intranet being a ubiquitous promise.

What most users end up, however, with is more like mobile access to the pages in their Intranet which feels less like a modern Intranet and more like the IT department has squeezed your entire Intranet into a mobile phone.

Here we’re are going to share a few thoughts about why this is not the best way to leverage mobile devices – and how a new, holistic, school of thought can help you work more productively in the digital age.

First, let’s look at ‘shadow IT’. Shadow IT is a phenomenon that is seen 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 an attempt at one, then the thinking goes that they should stop shopping elsewhere for their mobile needs...

If you want to combat shadow IT, however, you have to admit that the apps you have given your users (if any) are not up to the same standard as other consumer apps they enjoy. Those are slick, single-purpose containers that do a few things really well – and not some huge mobilized version of your current Intranet.

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 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 cloud applications to one central place. This new central place is basically 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. While you’re on the go information should be condensed yet easily digestible, whereas 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 Assistant 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’. You might have invoices are in Quickbooks, support tickets in the Freshdesk, contracts in the Contract Management system, deals in Salesforce, meetings in the calendar, conversations in various inboxes, and the list goes and on.

The key to bring all of this together lies in data access

Imagine you have an upcoming meeting with a customer at 2pm, but during your lunch break they push the meeting back an hour. A true Intranet of the future would be able to tell you this in time.

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. With this access it can look out for last-minute meeting updates, or scan for new emails with the subject ‘Delay’.

It can send you a proactive, automatic, alert to tell you that the meeting has been delayed, almost like an attentive personal assistant. You can enjoy your lunch a bit longer and go over the meeting notes one more time. This example might only save you an hour, but if you add all of these magical notifications up, then you can see how much time you can save.

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 will be no need monolithic servers that hold terabytes of proprietary data; instead we’ll consume service APIs in a transparent way that offer unlimited use cases.

Why we need to rethink Enterprise Apps

Mobile applications have become a driving force in the way we browse the web. Most of the time we don’t browse the web, instead relying on apps to access the information we need from the internet. Apps have changed the way we consume information - 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. The small screens of smartphones forced companies to prioritize convenience and simplicity over clutter. ‘There is an app for that’ has changed the way we as consumers tackle specific everyday situations.

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, but that isn’t what that means. Enterprise Mobility means tackling highly business-specific problems and providing an intuitive app that is great at solving just this specific problem it has set out to conquer.

If IT doesn’t get this memo, then ‘shadow IT’ phenomenon is guaranteed to persist. Employees resort to WhatsApp groups to socialize, share knowledge and even arrange their shifts and leave requests. The lack of access, visibility and accountability of these systems, which are outside of your company's control, must keep some managers up at night.

The mobile security dilemma

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. Everything else needs to be developed or licensed from the manufacturer of the system, usually translating to one dedicated app for each backend.

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about security and how to strike the right balance between data safety and user experience. Companies have tried it all: From completely locked-down (no apps, no VPN) to completely open so that 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 have a head-start at Enterprise Mobility if it’s extensively using cloud-based architecture. 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 centers they can’t entirely control, not to mention integrating their backends with a third-party SaaS application.

What’s missing to make data security easy to implement for everyone is a lack of standards. There are so many ways and tools to enroll 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's Enterprise Mobility Trends):

  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 Slack.
  2. Mobile Enterprise Apps: Think of how desktop applications and information portals can be realized on mobile devices in a way that meaningful and fulfills specific user needs.
  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 Slack 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 support mobile.”

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, and 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 suggests hotels near to a customer's recorded address, already pre-approved to conform to your company's travel policy, offering a one-click reservation. It could even scan travel receipts which you can send without hassle straight to SAP Concur. 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 Assistant for your organization. Just hook up 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 anything else you can possibly think of. All voice-activated through a voice recognition and AI API and searchable at crazy speeds.

The future of the intranet today, with Digital Assistant

Wouldn’t that be an awesome Intranet of the future? This is an actual app you can buy from adenin, called Digital Assistant. But you can go beyond simplifying day-to-day business activities. 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 could even use such apps to ad hoc identify unused resources within or outside of the company, streamlining their supply chain management.

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