Strategies for a Mobile Intranet

5 minute read
Sam Marshall avatar

It’s taking a long time for many intranets to make the shift to mobile devices, despite the tidal shift to mobile in consumer behavior. There are signs of steady growth, for example Jane McConnell’s excellent Digital Workplace 2014 reported significant investments being made in enterprise mobile by 42 percent of the leading group, but this drops to only 10 percent across other respondents (see slide 21 of McConnell’s summary).

In spite of slow growth, organizations need to ensure that mobile thinking is part of their intranet and digital workplace strategy. Let’s have a look at some of the factors to consider.

Extending Your Intranet into Mobile

If you’re planning a wholesale intranet redesign, then it should (operative word should) go without saying that the mobile experience should be an integral part. A case could even be made for planning the mobile version first and desktop version later if most of your employees are not desk-based. But in practice, enabling intranet functionality on mobile devices will be a roadmap of developments that happen over time.

Does Your Entire Intranet Need to be Optimized for Mobile?

The standard advice was to identify the top tier of mobile tasks and only provide those: directions, phonebook, schedules and customer information being common use cases. This makes sense if working with a limited budget, but doesn't make sense when thinking about an integrated digital workplace. Why limit what people can do to a small subset of tasks when in principle they could be working on anything? If your intranet is a valuable business asset, its value will only increase the more pervasive it is.

Should You Move to a Responsive Web Design?


Responsive designs take a single content source and adapt the presentation to the screen size. It reformats content dynamically, rather than simply rescaling. The RSPB supports staff who primarily work in wildlife reserves and meeting the public, not in an office. Its intranet-wide template therefore works responsively across any smartphone (as seen at right) ortablet.

This approach makes all the reference information, policies, advice and updates available, much of which may have a relevant lifespan of several years. Making changes at the template level also means that most staticcontent can be adapted wholesale. The downside is that responsive web designs work best within a more traditional publishing model, and where those publishing understand the design constraints. Interactive elements, even simple forms to fill in, become harder when idiosyncrasies in different browsers lead to hidden input fields and a poor user experience.


The RSPB's responsive intranet (full screen mode)  

Do We Need an Internal App?

Apps hold the potential to deliver the optimal user experience: buttons, menus and so on, all work according to the design conventions of their operating system. They also tend to use less data and can be designed to work offline. If you need fast performance in front of a customer then the additional cost may be justified.

Don’t forget that many vendors have already created far better apps for their software than in-house budgets are likely to permit, for example Yammer, Salesforce1 and Concur expense tracker.

Learning Opportunities

Another compelling reason for apps is to make use of all the sensors that mobile devices can offer. There's untapped potential here:

  • Using location as metadata so that someone visiting a customer sees a filtered CRM list of “Customers nearby”
  • Augmented reality -- for example BMW’s pilot engine diagnostics
  • Even integration with built-in cameras can be useful. GE, for example, found that engineers were much more likely to share images of factory equipment with an iPad rather than a digital camera.

How Many Apps Do We Need?

One reason people like smartphone apps is that they tend to have a simple association of one app equals one task, making them simple to pick up and use. Conversely, organizations mainly design gateway approaches, where the menu screen appears as a set of apps-within-an-app (see the example from Liverpool John Moores University to the right).

This makes the app easy to manage, but loses clarity of purpose and puts everything at least two clicks away from being useful. Moreover, if some services are delivered by native third-party apps, then the "Company app" isn’t even an integrated offering.

Companies should consider a suite of separate apps where users to pick the ones they need (finally fulfilling the user-driven personalization ideal that never quite seemed to take off on desktop intranets). I suspect that this mode works best when the device is company issued -- with a BYOD policy, users may well object to company "clutter" on their home screens.

Experimentation and Fragmentation

Portals and consolidation were seen as a solution to the confusion of multiple intranets which many organizations faced 10 years ago. Apps risk repeating this kind of fragmentation all over again. Departments are commissioning apps from agencies directly and bypassing intranet governance; software vendors create app interface for their services only; even some intranet teams have tired of trying to fix their legacy systems and see mobile as a clean sheet on which to make progress.

Intranets on mobile are stimulating some much-needed innovation. We shouldn’t try to immediately lock it down with intranet governance. But we should have an overall strategy for how they fit into our digital workplace and avoid damaging employees productivity with disconnects and inconsistency. Perhaps we should be grateful that the mobile revolution is not progressing quite as quickly as we might have expected.

About the author

Sam Marshall

Sam Marshall is the owner of ClearBox Consulting and has specialized in intranets and the digital workplace for over 20 years, providing consultancy to companies such as AstraZeneca, Diageo, Sony, GSK and Unilever.