miniature figures working in a garden
PHOTO: Rijaluddin Abdur rozzaq

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

Wells Fargo Puts Microservices to Work

Wells Fargo, the multinational financial services company, has a leading-edge intranet, called Teamworks. The Wells Fargo team 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.

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

Microservices allow them 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, which shows status updates and where actions are required. 

As Pete Fields, a digital channels leader at Wells Fargo put it, “The bottom line is that we control the team member experience, rather than ceding that to a third party.”

Related Article: A Competency Framework for Intranet and Digital Workplace Teams

Microservices in the Digital Workplace

Microservices allows businesses to move away from monolithic applications by breaking them down into component parts. For example, rather than having an HR System to deal with everything from vacation booking to health insurance, you create each element as a separate microservice.

intranet hr
Traditional systems tend to be monolithic, such as all HR processes in one application

intranet health pension absence
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 once again to the pension 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 standardized as cards (as seen in the screenshot from Wells Fargo below).

a view of microservices in action in Wells Fargo's intranet
Wells Fargo’s intranet allows interactions with multiple employee services from a single, consistent interface

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

Related Article: Microservices Make Inroads: Replacing the CMS Monolith

Microservices Benefits

Microservices provide 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” said Wells Fargo’s Fields.

In principle, it's even possible to replace one backend 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, such as 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.

employee app
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 they are more robust and allow for upgrades of small components in isolation. Wells Fargo’s 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 added: “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.”

Related Article: Why the Digital Workplace Causes Confusion

Challenges and Limitations of a Microservices Approach

Microservices aren't for everyone. Most significantly, managing them can increase complexity. Integration can also pose challenges. 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 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.