Intranätverk – an intranet conference in Gothenburg, Sweden

This week I was finally able to launch Intranätverk, an intranet conference, in my home town of Gothenburg. There are some great intranet and web conferences in Scandinavia, but sadly none on Gothenburg. So I simply decided to start an annual conference in my own back yard. Since I regularly attend most of the intranet and web conferences in neighbouring countries, I have noticed that not a lot of intranet people from west Sweden are present at these events. So I do hope you all will come to Intranätverk.

I will try to some new features at Intranätverk, in order to increase learning and networking opportunities.

To keep updated on the latest news on Intranätverk, please visit the Intranätverk website or Intranätverk on Facebook or Intranätverk on Google+.

Back in action

I will start posting on this blog again. Here I will post more personal stuff and most work related posts will be featured on my new consulting firm that focuses on intranets and the digital workplace, Norling & Company, norling.co (in swedish for now, will add section in english later).

The Introduction to Intranets wiki is launched!

Today the wiki for the “Introduction to Intranets” book project went live!

We already have a few great contributors on board, but it would be awesome if  more of you practitioners and experts wanted to contribute, so please join in.

Read more about the project, follow @IntraIntro, join the projects Pivotal Tracker place.

See you there!

Thoughts on a mobile phone enhanced intranet

I have been thinking about the concept of mobile and intranet since I got my first iPhone two years ago and I started to use it to access the internet. (My previous phones did have the capability for internet and web access, but it was not implemented well at all, due to bad browsers etc…) But what about the mobile phone and the intranet?

Note: The mobile phones I’m referring to here are phones that have the same capabilities as recent iPhones, Androids, WP7 etc. Desktop = a desktop computer with a web browser.

My dear colleague Kristoffer Olin pitched the idea of an “iPhone-like” intranet to me more than a year ago. And it’s a very good idea. But not in the way I first imagined it…

In December of 2010 James Robertson published a a very good post “What six things do staff want on their mobile devices?“. But I thought there was something missing…

2011 started and one of the first things that happened was the publishing of the annual Norman Nielsen Groups report “Intranet Design Annual 2011: Year’s 10 Best Intranets“. The report highlighted the fact that 60% of the winners had a mobile intranet. Of course users should be able to access and use the intranet with a mobile. Quite obvious, so there should be something more…

And RWW pointed out that one of the winners even had an iPhone app. Ahh, the app store experience a very good way to distribute intranet functionality to the users. Almost there, still something missing…

Then I started to realise. In order to really unleash the potential of accessing and using the intranet on a mobile phone, it really would have to be more than (just) a mobile version of the current (content based) intranet. That is just the first step and should be considered an absolute minimum in terms of user/business needs…

What’s really interesting is to use all that extra functionality available for those that use a mobile phone. Since a mobile phone has a lot more sensors than the desktop computer, why not use them? We now have an Internet of things. So what I’m thinking is an intranet of things… I’m thinking about stuff like location based services and information, push notifications, alerts, live video, augmented reality, etc.

Of course it could be a problem if the user interfaces (UI) between the desktop, mobile and tablet versions of the intranet are very different.

This is what I think a mobile enhanced intranet would be like:

User interface

A user interface for the intranet should be straight-to-the-point. No fuzz, just give me what I want and then I’ll go on with my work. The UI needs to feel familiar, so there should be many design elements shared between the desktop/mobile/tablet versions of the intranet. A version of the intranet only means that different stylesheets (or themes) are applied to enable access to an optimized version for each device type.

HTML5

Naturally a user interface for a mobile intranet should be built on HTML5. One day, when all archaic browsers like IE6. IE7 and IE8 etc. are extinct, then the desktop browser based intranet also can take advantage of all the useful stuff that comes with HTML5. It is possible to build practically every application in HTML5 instead of making apps. W3C has already published Mobile Web Applications Best Practice. If the intranet applications are built with HTML5, the users can use the intranet with any recent mobile phone with a good browser.

By starting to use HTML5 for the mobile intranet, It is possible to re-use applications built for the mobile on the desktop. It is important to learn how to best leverage the possibilities that come with HTML5. A big step towards the intranet as the way of working (aka the digital workplace)…

App-like

App stores seems to be successful because they are easy to use. So why not take it to the intranet, but in a much more simple way. Distribution of functions could be as easy as being able to save an app-like icon to your phone (that actually just is a bookmark). That makes it easy to re-access often used functionality. Maybe the desktop version of the intranet should be using the same app store metaphor?

Geo-positioning and location based information

In a recent jboye.com blog post Martin Risgaard talked about his view on location based services(LBS) after using Foursquare. Martin thinks that information based on location is a big thing, but not around the corner. Well, I agree with Martin, but I also do think that location based information (LBI) will happen very soon.

If the idea of checking-in is applied to the intranet [clarification: I actually mean both using geo-positioning and the authenticated check-in when using the term in the text below]; it could be used for getting important information related to current location. For example giving directions to meeting room, information about vacant parking lots nearby, the menu at the cafeteria, “the elevator is closed for maintenance , please take the stairs”, There is a lot of information that is based on location. We could also give the user information related to future locations. If for example calender booking has the information where the next meeting is located, then why not send push notification that gives directions if the user never has checked-in there before?

If the users check-in (LBS) then all sorts of tips by other users could be displayed. What’s nearby? Are there any copiers nearby? Where are the toilets? Is there an empty desk I could use nearby, before the next meeting? This is of course based on the fact that the people that ordinarily occupies the desk are somewhere else according to their calendars…

[Added 2011-01-13] Here’s an example of an implementation from EPFL (thanks to @ernstdecsey for the link) for what is described above. Very cool. There’s truth in the phrase: “…there’s an app for that”.

Of course the check-in could be used to look for colleagues nearby or even find expertise, via the corporate directory, that are nearby… There are endless possibilities for making working life a little bit easier with the help of location based information.

Push notifications and alerts

Important information at the right time and the right position. Imagine what happens if we combine time and location based information and push notifications? For example if leaving work later than usual, users could be reminded of the fact that; the alarm will automatically be set in 15 minutes, or that the back entrance is closed after 18.00 – use the main entrance when leaving the building. Or, today the water is shut off between 10.30 and 11.00 for maintenance.

Another scenario. IT could alert users that a certain system is down and when it is expected to be working again. Or that the Wi-fi or network is down (remember we are using a mobile here). In case of emergencies push notifications of course can be really useful.

Also, very important organisational news can be pushed to most users at the same time, even if not sitting at the desk or even at work. So everyone feels equally informed.

Images and scanning

Another very interesting thing is the use of the built in camera to identify objects via their barcode or their shape and size. Already used for shopping, this could also be very useful at work. All kinds of stuff have barcodes, if scanned via a mobile phone, the barcode can be used for looking up and comparing prices in a shop before deciding to make a purchase. But what if we attached QR Codes or barcodes to, for example, printers? Instead of looking up the price, why not link to a basic user manual? Or scan the QR Code for easier reporting, when telling the office support that a specific printer is broken? The QR Codes can also be used when ordering new office supplies.

Help people remember important information by adding QR Codes to all documents, so that they can scan the QR Code and “bookmark” it. This is good for remembering a URL, a document name and it’s contents or any other piece of information. Add it to business cards for easy import to the mobile phones address book.

When introducing new hires to the workplace, why not make them check-in at places, scan barcodes etc. just to make them do the stuff that is good to know when newly hired…

Live video

Many mobiles also have decent video cameras. Wouldn’t it be great if IT support could have a live stream, showing them what kind of problems the user wants them to help her with? Again, many help desks use remote desktoping, but that only works if the network is working properly… Live streams seems very useful for help desk issues. Why not get the immediate reactions of colleagues to a presentation made by someone, live? Or get the help of colleagues and they actually can see what the problem is through the live video stream.

Authentication and NFC

Mobile phones are also excellent for providing secure access to systems. The mobile could be used for providing two factor authentication. With Near Field Communication (NFC) technology starting to be added into mobiles, then it could easily be used for opening doors (if there is such a system in place). NFC could also be used for internal billing purposes.

Conclusion

Phew, that was some of the possibilities I see for a mobile phone enhanced intranet. Many of them might not be right for your intranet, or they have no business value, or they are too expensive to develop etc. Remember that these were my thoughts on the mobile phone enhanced intranet.

Nothing of what I have described in this post is something we have where I work. The foundation for it is there, a lot of the plumbing is in place. It’s just a matter of building it then…

As always I really, really appreciate your thoughts, feedback, comments, tweets. If you have done, or you know someone who has done, some of the things described in this post. I will be very happy to update the blog post with that information.

Links to other good posts on mobile intranets:

Intranets: time to think differently and Develop your intranet in a week by Jonathan Phillips

What features should an intranet WCM have?

Lately (actually the last few years) I have been thinking about what features a new “next generation” Web Content Management (WCM) system should have. What should it be like in order to work well on the intranet, so that we can take the information creation/updating to the next level. A few things that I think would be important:

  • Open source, with a vital community, wide selection of plugins/add-ons and a good ecosystem of system integrators and developers.
  • An excellent editor (or even better – a choice of editors)
  • Themes (so consistent branding can be achieved)
  • Out-of-the box accessibility
  • 100% open standards support
  • HTML5 (esp. important for mobile access)
  • Dublin Core metadata, with custom extensibility
  • Atom built-in (publishing and subscription)
  • PubSubHubbub (for distribution) [added 17th of december]
  • Semantic web support (RDF, RDFa, Microformats) built-in or via plug-ins
  • Easy to integrate with Lucene/Solr search
  • Ability to create instances (new sites) with a different theme and set of plug-ins
  • CMIS for integration with existing file/image repositories (e.g. Alfresco)
  • All changes to an article/post should be logged (for traceability)

I have intentionally not mentioned anything directly (or only) related to system administration. The focus on this is list is on the information lifecycle (creation, updating, deletion), distribution, findability, presentation and traceability.

What features would you like to have? What is missing?

I would really appreciate your feedback, comments and ideas!

Information flow part 5: Real-time information syndication and search on our intranet

The lack of real-time publishing and distribution (syndication), has been and still is, a problem on our intranet. In order to ensure that the users on our intranet has the right information on the right time, we have to be sure that the information is instantly available and constantly flowing. To make that possible we have decided to use Atom and PubSubHubbub!

Note: I use the concept of real-time as perceived by users, even though there is a latency under one second e.g. between publishing and indexing.

Why Atom?

We have decided to use Atom as the distribution format because it is readable, extensible, and widely available. We already use Atom for our feeds. It also helps that important future standards that we are about to start using, for example Activity streams, are based on Atom. The Open Search standard which we have implemented in our search also uses Atom.

The problem is polling

The problem with information distribution has been the delay between publishing in one system and the re-publishing (syndication) of the information to other places and systems. Traditionally we have done this via RSS/Atom feeds. The problem with feeds are that the other system has to do repeated polling of the feed just to check if there is new information. This puts a strain on many systems, since a lot of RSS/Atom implementations for feeds I have experienced are crap.

For example building a RSS-feed using the standard template for RSS in our current Web Content Management (WCM) solution. The whole tree-structure is traversed each time the RSS-feed is polled to check if there is any new items to add to the RSS-feed.  This is problematic if a landing page/start page for a sub site on our intranet displays a couple of RSS-feeds from other sub sites, let’s say 5 feeds. So every time a user lands on the page, it gets the 5 RSS-feeds. Each one of the 5 RSS-feeds is “constructed” by traversing the tree structure (which equals the navigation structure), checking the database for new items. Lets assume that we have a new visitor every 10 seconds for the particular landing page. That means 30 RSS-polls per minute. Multiply this by the number of sub-sites we have with RSS-feeds (≈100) and you might understand the problem.

Ok, I’m fully aware that this solution is neither well programmed, implemented or elegant. The template should not traverse the tree for each RSS poll. We should also use a cache. But remember we do not want any delay between publishing and re-publishing (distribution/syndication). So a cache does not work very well.

The solution is Push

This is a great video made by the PubSubHubbub (PuSH) team explaining the problems with polling and the promise of push through PubSubHubbub.

We can now distribute information in real-time between producer and consumer. Also the syndication of information is made easier since the PuSH-server can join several feeds together and distribute them as one feed to the subscriber.

Real-time publishing and search with Atom and PubSubHubbub

Real-time publishing and search with Atom and PubSubHubbub

Another rather nice thing is that we make the search system listen to the information flowing through the PuSH-server, the information is subsequently indexed. So any information that is distributed through the PuSH server is also immediately searchable as well! So the PuSH server can send all sorts of signals to other systems for them to take action on. But the most important thing is that we publish and distribute information to all users in real-time.

Also the Open Search standard is used to track “keywords” for any new or updated information that is added to the index containing the “keywords”. The result is an Atom feed that we distribute through the PuSH-server. So we do not have to poll the search index…

As always I appreciate any feedback, comments or RTs.