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From intranet to digital workspace

Powell Software is evolving intranets to meet the challenges of hybrid working. James Goulding reports

Intranet in a box provider Powell Software opened a UK office at the end of 2019 and then, in January 2020, received investment of $16 million to help build a worldwide partner network just as the pandemic went global.

Timing is everything, and while the pandemic might have made it more difficult for Philippe Gomes, Head of UK and Ireland at Powell Software, to get organisations to commit to non-emergency investment, it also led to a big increase in Teams usage and highlighted the need for better, more interactive engagement with employees not used to working remotely.

“Once lockdown eased and people started to look at more sustainable solutions to put in place for their remote workers, we started to receive a lot of requests,” said Gomes.

Formed in France in 2015 and with operations in 10 countries, Powell Software plays in the ‘intranet in a box’ market with a platform that lets customers build and implement a low code intranet. It also provides a Microsoft Teams app that adds security and governance features for IT and dashboard and collaboration templates for end users.

Gomes says Powell Software’s platform is less like an intranet in a box and more like a ‘framework’ sitting on top of Microsoft 365 that enables organisations to connect better with their employees through a complete Digital Workspace.

“I say framework because you can still add a level of customisation to what you want to do. It is not just a case of me saying ‘I’ve got this intranet that’s going to look the same across all customers in terms of layout and so on’,” he said.

For Gomes, the pandemic highlighted the shortcomings of existing intranets, just when they should have proved their value as a hub where people could meet and employers could convey the values of the company along with crisis communications.

“Because we are in the world of technology, we probably think that our customers have really good solutions, but that isn’t the reality. A lot of them have old legacy intranets sitting on SharePoint that take a lot of time and money to customise; there’s no content being created; there’s no adoption, because they’re not inviting from a design perspective; they’re not social – there’s no real interaction; and you can’t find information, which is the main purpose of an intranet. People go there to find any resource within their company, and to do it in a Google way. If it doesn’t work like that, the rate of adoption goes down,” he said.

Digital workspace
Powell Software’s platform, says Gomes, is very far from what an intranet used to be, from the control it gives employees over content to the Google-like search capabilities that are no longer limited to SharePoint but cover all applications in the Microsoft 365 stack.

“We call it a digital workspace because it encompasses much more than just static top-down communication. It is now a platform where you have to take into consideration collaboration – ‘How do I foster a culture of engagement, so I know my content is being read and people have access to information that matters to the work they do?’. It is not only about communication, but also about creating a space that integrates the tools people use every day – Word, Teams, OneDrive, any kind of application.”

Gomes concedes that a lot of what Powell Software does could be done through Microsoft 365 – communications, collaboration, information management – but points out that there is a high overhead in doing so.

“If you want to build on top of SharePoint, which is a fantastic content management solution, you can, but it is always a matter of having the resources and knowledge to create a specific design, a specific custom application, a custom integration with other applications, HR or ServiceNow for instance. You can do that out of the box, but it will take you more time; it is more labour-intensive; and it requires unique coding,” he said.

“More importantly, it is not evergreen; every time you need to update it and make it evolve with your business you will have to change it again; and it won’t update in real-time, as it won’t include Microsoft out-of-the-box updates.”

Gomes adds that users of Powell Software’s platform also benefit from continual innovation, which is another of the advantages of a multi-tenancy SaaS solution.

“We have 300 customers in the world. Some of them are huge – I am talking about Lacoste, big banks, SNCF with 200,000 users. During the pandemic, a few large customers came to us and said ‘It would be helpful to have something in the digital workspace that would allow us to book a desk, see who is in the office and set a quota for social distancing purposes’. So, we did it, and we did it in a month. We created an application called FlexDesk that allows you, within your intranet, to book a desk, book a meeting room, see who’s in the office and so on. Because we have built it on our own platform in the cloud, we can disseminate it to all existing customers, which we did, for free. When innovation comes from us or from our customers’ feedback, everyone benefits.

“So that is the added value. Yes, you can do it on Microsoft, but it is going to take more time, probably be more expensive and, more importantly, you are going to have to develop again any time you want to make changes. So, it is not necessarily cost-effective or the most evergreen solution. That’s why people use more agile solutions that have a much quicker time to value,” he explained.

Gomes added: “If you are a 50-user enterprise, I would say your level of maturity and complexity might warrant looking at SharePoint out of the box and tailoring your intranet yourself. But not if you have a lot of sites and a lot of users and you need to update all the sites at once because you have changed the layout. This is something we can completely industrialise with the management tool underpinning our digital workplace. We can do that at once on 500 sites. This is an incredible added value in terms of cost and time to implement.”

UK partners
As Microsoft’s number 1 market in Europe for Office 365, the UK is an important market for Powell Software, which last October was accredited on the G-Cloud 12 framework as an approved supplier for digital projects in the public sector. In order to maximise opportunities, Gomes is in the process of building a UK network of partners specialising in Microsoft, Office 365 and process automation.

“We have several really active partners, including Doherty Associates, TSG, Synergi. We tend to go with partners that are more boutique from a size perspective, up to 100 employees usually, where we see this incredible opportunity to offer next gen cloud solutions. We are still recruiting, but the strategy is not to go wide but, rather, to find the right partners and develop much deeper relationships with them. Spreading yourself thin just doesn’t work – we can’t give partners the support they need and if they see there are too many partners proposing Powell Software, there is no differentiator for them,” he said.

So far, Powell Software has nine customers in the UK, notably United International Pictures (UIP), which needed a way to engage with and reassure 500 employees spread across the UK who, with cinemas shut, had an uncertain future.

“This is when crisis communication is a must-have. How do I get my people to talk together; how do we reassure them; how do we give them an inviting hub where they can go, where they can feel that the company is still here and still strong. UIP were on SharePoint, they were on Office 365, so it made sense from a financial perspective to leverage their existing platform. We delivered the project really fast, within a month and a half, and it looks absolutely amazing. That is a typical use case.”

Growth drivers
The pandemic is a clear growth driver for implementing and/or modernising an intranet. Another trend that Gomes says is becoming more important is the employee experience and employee wellbeing.

“It’s huge, and we hear more and more about it not only from partners but also from customers. For many of them, the third lockdown has been going on for too long and is exposing aspects of hybrid working they weren’t expecting,” he said.

In addition to the problem of Zoom/Teams fatigue, employees miss casual interactions with colleagues, especially unplanned meetings in corridors or at coffee machines and photocopiers.

“What we hear a lot is people saying ‘We have Teams; we can be on calls all the time; through social features, we can comment on articles and open a discussion board and it’s fantastic. All of that we can do, but it doesn’t solve the problem of bringing human interactions into the workplace. How how can I bring that back?’.

“One of our latest innovations is a Virtual Coffee Machine app, a piece of software that sits on Teams and automatically looks at your calendar, finds free periods and then books you and a maximum of 5 or 6 people for a 15-minute chat. This does two things; it reminds people working from home to stop work for a coffee and it encourages them to take time to chat with colleagues. Some they will know, some they might not, some they will know but never have taken the time to connect with before. This is not a panacea, but it gives an idea of the things that Powell is constantly thinking about for customers who miss those human interactions,” he said.

“The other major trend we see is the digital divide – blue collar/white collar – people in factories and people in offices. There has always been a divide, but now that we are all working remotely that divide is getting bigger. How do we make sure we create a digital workspace that is inclusive? How can I deploy an app for the guys in the factory, who won’t necessarily have Office 365, so they receive the same news as everyone else and have a platform where they can voice things about the business? We are doing that as well.”

The pandemic has already transformed the way businesses communicate. The next challenge is to improve how they support and engage employees in an era of hybrid working.

Business advocates

In another innovation, Powell Software is using gamification technology and collaboration in Teams to encourage employees to share company content and collateral through their personal social media channels – and earn rewards for doing so.

Its new Employee Advocacy Templates module, built on Microsoft 365, centralises information from internal and external communications so that employees can access and share content and become brand ambassadors. A virtual leaderboard displays ‘points’ and ‘badges’ awarded to individuals who do so (e.g. a Superman badge for 40 Tweets), as well as prizes.

Other features include smart bridging technology between the company intranet and Teams so that employees can write or share their own content through a dedicated Powell Teams channel; and the ability for HR to use the Templates to alert employees of jobs vacant within their organisation for sharing on their social channels.

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