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Apps for Intranets

collage of iPhone Apps

Photo by Christiano Betta

Since Apple launched its App Store, over 1bn applications have been downloaded. This year, it expanded the idea to cover its Mac computers and sold 1 million apps on its day of launch. Given such unequivocal success, are there things that we might learn for the intranet world? The idea could be translated several ways. Perhaps intranet interfaces should look more like a collection of apps than a web site? Or could it be a way for employees to create a personalised experience? Both of these have merit, but what I feel has most potential in the near term is a third version: an app store for intranet site owners.

The Intranet as a Collection of Apps

Around 10 years ago when everyone was talking ‘portals’ the vision for intranets was not dissimilar to an app-based interface created from a collection of portlets. Portal home pages were going to be a ‘one stop shop’ to meet all your needs, not just for information but transactions too. However, integration proved costly and the business case for replacing the native software interface was often unclear.  As a consequence, portals and intranets have often lapsed back into doing the basics of information dissemination, and transaction needs are poorly met by links to native applications. This in turn has hampered usability, with each application having its own interface and learning curve.

Apple’s App Store demonstrates that software companies will adapt their interfaces when the demand is clear, but it would probably require the critical mass of a single platform like SharePoint to make it a tempting proposition. Microsoft has been talking about this for quite some time and there appears to be plenty of interest from the SharePoint community. However the makers of larger enterprise transaction systems have been slower to show the same enthusiasm.

The App Store for Employees

The second way we might think of an intranet App Store is as a service for employees: a place where they select the applications that most meet their needs from those available internally. This sounds promising as people clearly embrace the idea as a way to add services to their phones and Facebook accounts. Again, many portals included this feature with users able to configure portlet collections to personalise their home page, much like iGoogle or Netvibes.  In practice though, tailoring in the intranet world only rarely seems to take off. When companies do offer it, the uptake is usually less than 10% and most people leave their pages exactly as they were set up on day one.

When you ask employees why, they often say that they are too busy, or they expect someone to do it for them. This isn’t unreasonable; if an intranet team knows there’s an app that would be of use to a segment of their workforce, why wait for them to find it rather than pushing it out there?  The App Store can’t do this because it doesn’t know what you do and it is a competitive marketplace where there are multiple solutions for the same problem. An intranet can because it knows its users and no rational business would develop more than one solution for a given need.

The App Store for Site Owners

This brings me to the final interpretation: that an intranet app store is a place where site owners go to select content and features. For small intranets this may be redundant, but for larger sites, where there are multiple communities with different needs, it makes more sense. Here the role of the site owner is someone who knows a community intimately and can build a site to meet their specific needs. In that sense, the whole intranet can be viewed as a marketplace. Just as an iPhone user will select apps and customise their pages to meet their needs, so the site owner should select content and functionality from across the intranet and assemble an experience that is tailored to their community.

Sadly, few intranet tools at the moment offer such an internal app store equivalent, but there is no reason why central intranet teams can’t build such an experience aimed at site owners rather than everybody.  This combines the versatility of an apps approach, without the shortcomings of expecting employees or third parties to make the first move.

[This post originally appeared as a column in Intranets Magazine, March 2011]

Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

  • Posted at 1:56 pm, 18 August, 2011

    Very interesting discussion.

    I think the app-powered intranet is almost upon us. Some companies provided widgetized, personalisable intranet experiences where employees get to choose their preferred layout and webparts from a prescribed library (Credit Suisse do this I believe) Whilst this is not a fully fledged app-store model you describe above, it’s really not that far from it. I know of another company that is developing a genuine app store experience for their employees.

    Given the prevalence of iPhones, Android and BB Touch devices, the desire for an app UI is understandable and I expect one that will grow.

  • Posted at 11:23 pm, 18 August, 2011

    It’s an interesting one this one!

    Our goal is obviously to provide staff with the tools and information they need to do their jobs … and different staff need different things.

    As you highlight, we tried “portals”, and they weren’t great. They’ve become popular again, but will they work any better? The 5-10% adoption rate hurdle remains the one to get over …

    The fundamental difficulty is that there’s aren’t sufficient resources devoted to supporting key staff groups. Instead, most corporate and IT resources are spent on one-size-fits-all technology platforms that don’t do much for operational and frontline staff.

    The idea of an app store for site owners is an interesting one, and there are a few CMS products that offer this in various forms.

    Whether this will lead to better sites, or a return to Frontpage-like crappy widgets everywhere, time will tell.

  • Posted at 6:46 pm, 19 August, 2011

    “Intranet app stores” is one of the 4 future scenarios proposed in this year’s Digital Workplace Trends survey, so will have some data early September re the uptake and interest by organizations around the world.

    (Still time to join the survey and get a free copy of Digital Workplace Trends 2012 report, published end of October: http://www.digital-workplace-trends.com/sign-up-for-the-2011-12-intranet-trends-survey).

    Sam, I think a lot of your readers will be interested in participating if they haven’t already.

  • Posted at 7:25 pm, 22 August, 2011

    Apps for Intranets…

    This article has been submitted to IntranetLounge, a website with a collection of links to the best articles about intranets…

  • Posted at 10:02 am, 23 May, 2012

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