“Hey device! I need to book annual leave.” Resident tech pundit (and senior consultant) Matt Cassell peers into his crystal ball and waves goodbye to clunky juggernauts and hello to slick, seamless experiences.
Us geeks love a debate and the word ‘intranet’ has sparked its fair share. Just like the tech that drives them, intranet seems to have an ever-evolving meaning. Nuances aside, let’s just agree on it for now, as a catch-all for whatever system, or systems, you use to perform two broad functions: tools to help employees do their jobs and updates from the business.
It's an easy mistake to lavish lots of care and attention on the sexy end: all the news and content. You’ve sweated months of effort on this thing, so when you finally launch, it's only natural to want to share bright and impactful stories and updates. The senior leaders love them, everyone in the office is looking at them and you feel a bit like you’re at the helm of your own TV station.
But what does that mean for the user experience for those employee tools? Often, woeful neglect. Your CEO isn’t checking the shift patterns every day, so she won’t even notice if the whole process is a headache. Add things like booking holidays, claiming expenses, submitting requests or filing job reports to this long list, and it can end in exasperation.
The way we do our jobs will doubtless change over the next 10 years, but the hygiene of those jobs will remain largely the same. We'll still need to book holidays and send in the paperwork at the end of the day. Because these tasks have been around for years. We used to do them on paper, which evolved into PDF forms, which many people understood as being ‘digital’. Today, along with the changing definition of an intranet, our understanding of what digital is – and can be – has also changed.
From lifeless walls of text, powered by simple HTML pages, with minimal functionality, our internets have certainly grown richer. But the rate of change has been no match for the rocket-launcher pace of the mobile app revolution.
To refresh your memory, the iPhone App Store launched in July 2008 with 500 apps. By 2017 there were 2.2million apps, downloaded more than 130billion times. That ‘b’ is not a typo.
Apps can tap into data, information and sensors that computers and intranet pages can only dream of. And what do the most successful ones have in common? They do one primary function really well.
If you look at the older, multi-function apps, you’ll see the trend. Facebook split Messenger off as a separate app. iTunes was divided into Music, TV and Podcasts. Hiving off functionality into defined places is happening because it’s a great user experience.
And it’s a trend we’ll see in our intranets too. For me, the intranet of 2030 and beyond will be much more like the home screen of a phone. Users will jump in and out to access the tool or service they need. The mobile technology that has already reshaped our lives will be the driving force behind this workplace revolution.
It might mean we have a lot of specific apps, but they’ll be easy to navigate because search is a problem we've already solved. Unlike many database-driven intranets, search on a mobile device is instant. All we have to do is ask: “Hey ‘device’! Get me directions to ...”.
It's already possible to create custom commands for Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri, so using personal AI assistants in the workplace is a natural extension: “Hey ‘device’! I need to book annual leave.”
Task-oriented industries are already moving to larger app libraries, where each app allows you to perform a single task. I've seen businesses add standalone apps for holidays, sickness, room bookings, IT helpdesk and more.
It makes perfect sense because it loops into the experiences people know and understand with their personal devices. Most trips to the intranet are quick and simple. People want to do one thing: whether that’s to catch up on business news, submit their expenses or check their next shift. It's all well and good to have a robust expenses process but for the most part, employees just want to do something quickly and get out.
While we wait for the vision to become reality, just remember, whatever platform you’re using for your intranet, experience is everything. If it means more work in the background up front, to give your employees have a seamless and fast experience, do it. It’s worth the investment in the long run because it will save time, money and stress. Why produce and process PDFs and forms, when there are apps and systems that can do all that for you? There’ll still be a need to curate which apps each employee is given access to but that’s no different to how employees access work systems today.
The intranet of the future is all about an app-mentality. The good news? It’s already within our reach.
Tony Stewart and Daniel Lambie met virtually with Intranet Now co-founder Wedge to discuss the digital future of internal comms.