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Why your digital workplace needs microservices

Tiny model workers.

Why your digital workplace needs microservices

The idea of microservices has been around for over a decade, but it is only recently that it has started to have an impact on digital workplace design. My hope is that this non-technical introduction will help intranet and digital workplace managers understand why it can be helpful in their objectives and improve the digital employee experience.

For example Wells Fargo, the multinational financial services company, has a leading-edge  intranet, called Teamworks. They have used microservices extensively as a design principle, creating a solution that genuinely integrates their digital workplace in a way that few other intranets have achieved.

Microservices allow the Wells Fargo team to integrate multiple employee applications into a single page, not just as links but as actionable cards. Instead of having to track multiple locations for alerts (or receive multiple emails), employees also have access to a single ‘Notifications’ sidebar, that shows status updates and where actions are required. As Pete Fields, a digital channels leader at Wells Fargo puts it “The bottom line is that we control the team member experience, rather than ceding that to a third party.”

Wells Fargo employees see a single pane of notifications across their internal services

Microservices in the digital workplace

The idea of microservices is that you move away from monolithic applications and break them down into component parts. For example, rather than having an HR System that might deal with everything from vacation booking to health insurance, you create each element as a separate microservice.

Traditional systems tend to be monolithic, such as all HR processes in one application
A microservices approach breaks each process down into a separate service

When everything lives in one application, it can be hard to integrate a specific element with an intranet or employee application. In the worst case, an employee might click on “Pension” in an intranet, and end up on a generic login page for the whole HR system, and then have to navigate again to the pensions section.

But micro-applications go much further than simply deep linking. They allow other systems to show real data and facilitate interactions without going to another interface. Often these are standardised as cards (see, for example, the second screenshot from Wells Fargo below).

Wells Fargo’s intranet allows interactions with multiple employee services from a single, consistent interface

If you’re thinking “this just sounds like APIs”, then you’re partly right: microservices are a way of doing APIs that work over web protocols, but what’s also different is the move away from a monolithic application providing the API.

Microservices benefits

There are benefits both at a technical level, and for employees.

1.     A consistent employee experience

Jumping between applications is both time-consuming and potentially confusing for employees, as each interface needs to be learned individually. Microservices make it much easier to do everything in one place.

“It was difficult for us to integrate with, for example, our IBM Connections enterprise social network. Now, with a microservices framework, we’re agnostic. That vision of abstracting data and capability from other systems and pulling it in to one, consistent user experience is within reach” commented Wells Fargo’s Pete Fields.

In principle, it is even possible to replace one back-end system with another and not have employees even notice, because the interface stays unchanged.

2.    Access the same processes from multiple interfaces

As we saw in the Wells Fargo example, microservices allow transactions to be surfaced in an intranet. But the same principle means they can also appear elsewhere. For example in a dedicated employee app, or via a chatbot interface.

Liberty Mutual, another pioneer of the microservice approach in the digital workplace, exploit this to good effect by having both an app and a chatbot that can aggregate approvals.

The same service can be accessed from multiple interfaces, such as an employee app, digital room display or calendar

3.     Resilience

One of the reasons why companies like Netflix and Amazon have embraced microservices is that it they are more robust and allow small components to be upgraded in isolation. Wells Fargo’s Pete Fields put it like this:

“It used to be that we were either up, or we were down. And if any part of the portal was down, we were down. Today, with lightly coupled microservices, our Market Data app can be down, but the rest of the portal loads and performs independently. Architecturally, this is just more resilient, and we’ve already experienced the benefits of that.”

And on the upgrade front, he adds:

“In a microservices world, we don’t necessarily have to take the entire platform down for a release. We can release just to the World Clock service, or to the Search service, or to the header or footer service. And since we can do that, we don’t necessarily need to do the releases over a weekend.”

Challenges and limitations

Microservices are not for everyone. Most significantly, managing them can increase complexity. Integration can also be difficult. Many current intranet examples are really a kind of microservices mid-layer on top of more traditional systems. This requires substantial up-front effort to create integrations.

As the concept takes off, I’m sure that more vendors will start to take on this workload. The spin-off of the Workgrid product by Liberty Mutual, and the acquisition of Sapho by Citrix are early indications of what may be a significant new trend in the digital workplace industry

Acknowledgements: I’m very grateful to Christy Punch and Pete Fields of Wells Fargo for their generous help in providing case study information and permission to use screenshots.

This article was originally published over at CMSWire.

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.

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