Much has been made of the ‘death of the intranet’ in today’s businesses, but in reality, it hasn’t faded away, it’s evolved. Today’s employee engagement apps (employee apps) are the new company intranet; more accessible, more engaging, more affordable. Yet at their heart they still encompass what every intranet creator wanted back in the day; a central, consistent point for employee engagement encompassing communications, resources, references and opportunities.

Enter the intranet

The roots of company intranets lie with the creator of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berner-Lee. Once his idea of connecting various sources of information across a network was proposed, an intranet turned from concept to technical possibility.

As author Tomasz Sobczak wrote in an article for Findwise.com:

“The goal of intranet invention was to increase employees productivity through easier access to documents, their faster circulation and more effective communication. Although access to information was always a crucial matter, in fact, intranet offered lots more functionalities, i.e.: e-mail, group work support, audio-video communication, texts or personal data searching.”

The early intranet in reality

Intranets were initially built as a company library, packed with useful information within a hierarchy all of its own. Unfortunately, many companies didn’t invest in the one thing that makes most physical libraries operate efficiently – librarians.

Many intranets were un-curated, so information quickly became duplicated, out of date, or altered such that multiple versions would co-exist. With the additional issues of poor connectivity when outside the office, and intranets left the information door wide open for employees to find a different way of finding the information they needed.

Enter the search engines

With the rise of fast, efficient search engines came the realisation amongst employees that often, the answers to their information and communication needs lay outside the company’s intranet resources. Why spend hours trawling through a complex and slow company intranet when you could Ask Jeeves, consult Alta Vista, or try that new kid on the block, the clutter-free Google. Or indeed, just email someone.

This gave rise to a whole new problem for businesses; incorrect or inappropriate information being used within the company. Despite the correct information being on the intranet (somewhere), employees preferred to search and find information online because it was easier, faster, and more efficient. Intranets needed to catch up – and fast.

The intranet 2.0

Company intranets developed rapidly in terms of function, format and accessibility, but one issue still loomed large (and still does) – security. As an article at MyHub explains:

“Often there’s an assumption that because it’s an internal network, the intranet site is somehow magically secure from viruses and hacking. But the issue of intranet security goes beyond external threats. Ensuring that the right staff are accessing the right information is also an important part of intranet security.”

The main external threats to intranet security can be overcome with software solutions such as firewalls and virus protection. However, often the internal threats are ignored, such as weak passwords, unlimited access, poor encryption and issues of remote access from insecure personal devices such as laptops and phones.

The employee app, saviour of the intranet?

With so many issues, plus financial and technical demands on a business to provide a secure, accessible and well-designed intranet, smart businesses looked for another way to provide the tools their employees needed. Given that the original intent of most intranets was to improve communication, it seemed logical to start with that feature.

The rocket fuel for the rise of the resulting employee communication apps was the popularity of smartphones. In 2007, worldwide sales of smartphones to end users totalled 122million. In 2017, that had risen to a staggering 1.5 billion.

By the year 2020, it is estimated that 37% of the world’s population will own a smartphone. According to Statista, 81 percent of survey respondents in the UK already owned or had easy access to a smartphone.

Add in better, faster connectivity to the internet (who remembers dial-up these days?), and employee engagement apps can now take on the roles that the intranets of old struggled with – and improve on them.

Apps = new and improved intranets

Well, almost. At their heart, employee apps are just portals to a cloud-based solution that combines multiple tasks to help employees do their job better. The real grunt work is done by the platform, whilst the phone, mobile device or desktop offers a convenient, connected way to view, access and share information.

That’s why, as a small to medium business owner looking for a 21st century intranet replacement, you need to first assess the reliability and integrity of any employee app solution you are considering. Ignore the features for now and look at the back story:

  • Who has developed it?
  • Is the company based in the UK or abroad?
  • What is the support like?
  • Are their charges sustainable and realistic (i.e. is it free or incredibly cheap?)

These are the same questions you probably asked when scoping out the intranet all those years ago.

Then, assess the app’s capability to integrate and grow with your business. Can you expand its functionality, extend it to new employees on multiple sites and geographic zones? Can you customise and tailor it to your specific requirements, define user groups, and keep it secure on multiple devices? Can you add media and content in a logical and systematic way, and enable reporting on all aspects of usage?

And, finally, does it work on the most fundamental of levels, as an enjoyable and simple way for employees to communicate with each other – and you with them? To succeed, any employee engagement method needs to become embedded in every employee’s work routine. When they need anything for work, their first move should be your app.

App acquisition and retention

Installing an app is one thing; using it continually is another. According to an article at Localytics.com, 24% of users abandon an app after just one use. Not sure that applies to your employees? Take out your own smartphone and count the number of apps you have installed. (Our blog author has 59 apps.) Now count the number you have used in the last month. (19 apps, in our case.) How many of the rest have you not used at all in the last year?

In 2016, Leanplum revealed that app retention rates drop dramatically over time. The average commercial app starts with a retention rate of 21% on day 1, which drops to 7.5% by day 30 and a dismal 1.89% by day 30.

The importance of onboarding

According to the Localytics article, the secret of app retention is proper onboarding, including welcome screens, dashboards and tutorials.

“For apps with a true onboarding experience, only 9% of users abandoned the app after one use and 61% of users will visit the app 11 or more times.”

The same will apply to your business employee app. Employees need to be shown the benefits, the features, and how it embeds into their working day. Onboarding is a process that your business needs to take seriously and allow time for if your app is to be seen as the ‘go to’ tool in the business.

The power of personalisation

Personalisation can play a key role too. This is where the old intranet faceless log-in page could never compete with an app’s welcoming screen and user-defined dashboard. The best employee engagement solutions have always included high levels of customisation that allow users to personalise the app to their requirements, yet still allow the business to have overall control of content and delivery.

In the world of commercial apps, push notifications can improve app retention rates by as much as 70%. By personalising notifications timings, you can increase retention rates by as much as 7 times. The same would also apply to messages and alerts sent through your employee app. Making them relevant, personalised and timely is key.

The future of employee apps

Even as the ‘relative’ new kids on the apps block, employee apps are constantly evolving to meet the varying demands of businesses. At TalkFreely, for example, we invest considerable time and effort into keeping both our interface and our modules in line with business expectations and requirements.

However, as app developers or users, none of us should rest on our laurels either. The world of IT is littered with the app equivalents of Betamax and Sinclair C5s, great, headline-grabbing ideas that never got the market share or take-up required to survive their competitors.

As a business owner, you need to ensure your employee app solution has the background, the legacy, and the skillbase to ensure it’s still here years into the future, long after the word ‘intranet’ has gone the way of MySpace, Lycos and the Marathon chocolate bar…