Should B2B employees break from the shackles of intranet tools like SharePoint?

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Private corporate networks (i.e., intranets) and their applications, such as SharePoint, Microsoft’s enterprise collaboration software, do not optimally serve mobile users, or so the premise goes.

This keeps businesses from addressing the needs of an increasingly on-the-go workforce, which can lead to employee disengagement. According to a Gallup poll, employee disengagement can cost B2B companies and others up to $550 billion per year in lost productivity.

How can B2B companies adapt their intranets for the wireless workforce to keep them engaged and productive?

A recent study conducted by theEMPLOYEEapp, a native app platform for internal organization apps and employee communications, found that easy access to information directly impacts productivity, efficiency and overall job satisfaction. Such engagement is particularly important for Millennials who now make up the largest generation in the labor force.

“Communicating with them via mobile is critical in keeping them engaged and connected,” says Jeff Corbin, CEO and founder of theEMPLOYEEapp.

For example, Caesars Entertainment, one of the world’s largest B2B convention hosts, hoteliers and casino operators, keeps its on-the-go employees like valets and housekeepers engaged with a custom mobile app called CaesarsToday. The app apprises them of important information that changes daily and targets their specific functions. And because most of these employees do not have a corporate intranet logon or company email, it is the only viable method for quick communication outside of old fashioned bulletin boards.

Not so fast: maybe SharePoint can go mobile!

While some in the B2B space say that SharePoint cannot easily migrate for worker mobility, others will not write off the 800 lb. gorilla of intranet applications so quickly.

“SharePoint apps can be configured for mobile usage in two ways,” says Randy Rempel, senior product manager, Dell Software Migration Solutions. “Each way has pros and cons, though. In the end, you generally have an app that is squeezed into a mobile app, not really an app that gives the user a better experience.”

The issue, as Rempel sees it, is that users must work their PC or laptop to use legacy intranet applications. “This may be a requirement for complex applications that require multiple open screens,” Rempel says. “However, many legacy intranet applications (only) require one screen and a friendly user interface.”

In fact, Rempel does not exist alone in this estimation. “SharePoint evolved beyond being a ‘legacy intranet app’ quite some time ago,” says Mike Fitzmaurice, Nintex vice president of workflow technology. “It’s one of the foundational technologies behind Office 365, which is very much a cloud-first, mobile-first, massively scalable service.”

And with the openness prevalent in cloud software, Microsoft cannot play favorites toward its own solutions. For example, Infragistics and Colligo offer great mobile clients for SharePoint content and services—not just documents— according to Fitzmaurice. “And they can reach it wherever the user or wherever SharePoint Server might be.”

Mission critical intranet applications

In some environments, intranet accessibility and durability can be problematic under best of circumstances. And for mobile employees who work at the network edge, SharePoint does not adequately support their connectivity.

“At the network edge, inability to access key regulations, mission plans or operational information can have a material impact on (their) success,” says Vicki Kirk, head of marketing at iOra, a provider of information replication solutions for non-cloud environments. “The general assumption that adequate connectivity is always available is broken. Intranet applications need to be rearchitected to ensure information delivery.”

For example, SharePoint might not be optimized for mobile use but iOra is, according to the company.

“The mobile worker is often defined as a travelling salesman, where the job and work is mobile,” Kirk says. “Therefore, she needs to work away from the office network using whatever is available to transmit data. However, our customers’ mobile workers are those working on oil and gas rigs, drilling in the desert or sailors on commercial fleets ferrying goods globally.”

With iOra, these mobile workers can share files knowing the data will retain its integrity during transfer even when there is poor or intermittent network coverage to transmit essential documents, according to the company.

Make it appealing and they will use it!

While some workers will be happy to just have a mobilized SharePoint application that works, say as per responsive web design, others need more motivation, either inherent or externalized.

“Make the design aesthetically pleasing,” says George Muriuki, co-founder of IT-Point Consulting, an IT training company that offers SharePoint training. “It’s important that your mobile intranet is aesthetically pleasing. Additionally, it should be easy to use and navigate from a mobile perspective.” Function can trump form, after all.

If elegant user experience and sleek performance are not enough, B2B companies may need to resort to “bribing” personnel to use a mobile SharePoint app. Incentivize employees to use the mobile intranet, Muriuki recommends. “Employers should find ways to reward early adopters of the app to increase and maintain interest.”

BYOD and seamless design

As the bring your own device (BYOD) craze boils over into every corner of the B2B enterprise, internal business communicators need to consider a panoply of look-and-feel interfaces in their mobile intranet tactics.

“When you migrate an app from desktop to mobile, there are new factors you need to take into account,” says Tal Barmeir, CEO, Experitest, a maker of mobile application testing tools. “Different devices have different sizes, different devices have different operating systems, mobile devices move from network to network with varying levels of connectivity.”

Seamless design will be required to make this happen. And that only happens with adequate testing of the anticipated devices used and levels of connectedness, according to Barmeir. “That means every function of the mobile application has to work,” he says. “And it has to work whether the employee is using it in the local office, 6000 miles away on a business trip or in another office.”

Engagement payoff: flex time productivity

In the final analysis, B2B firms should move away from legacy intranet applications for the simple reason that it makes good business sense. Unleashing employees from their corporate cubicle shackles, which using an old fashioned intranet was, will enable them work added hours wherever they are.

“Mobile access gives an opportunity to visit the virtual workplace more often,” says Victoria Kartunova, marketing manager,Bitrix24, an online collaboration suite. “For example, 60 percent of Bitrix24 users access the corporate portal on weekends at least once.”

Flickr photo via Creative Commons license

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Derek Handova

Derek Handova

Derek Handova is a veteran journalist writing on various B2B vertical beats. He started out as associate editor of Micro Publishing News, a pioneer in coverage of the desktop publishing space and more recently as a freelance writer for Digital Journal, Economy Lead (finance and IR beats) and Intelligent Utility (electrical transmission and distribution beats).