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  • Intranet Book: Minimum Requirements for Chat Software
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In my view, the following are essential requirements for a chat solution: 

Mobile Application for iOS and Android

Chat software can only really function properly and well today if people can use it when they are on the go. Using Skype for Business or another messenger in a company in no way means that the topic of chat has been settled – even if they function reliably and well.

The purpose of group chats is to bring together lots of different people quickly and spontaneously so that they can exchange information informally. However, the truth is that not all of these people will be at their place of work when you are. Sometimes they will be out of the office, and others may even be at home. Maybe they’re just putting the kids to bed or are out on the town with friends. If organizations need to disturb their employees in situations like this, then they also need to make it as easy as possible for them to enter and leave the group chat. Or to exaggerate a little: no one is going to leave the playground to rush to the office to respond to a chat message when their son is happily playing on the swings. And if the message has to wait until I’m back in the office, then the message will be old news by the time I get around to it.

But don’t get me wrong here. I don’t want to push an always-on mentality, where you’re not allowed to enjoy your time on the playground or give your son your full attention. I want all of our employees to be able to rest and relax. But let’s talk about the disadvantages of messengers later. 

In any case, the big advantage of being easy to reach came first with mobile apps. It started with this software being directly available on normal smartphones. Which brings us to a gripping question which is very topical in lots of large organizations at the moment: are employees allowed to install and use these apps at all? A number of companies are still standing in their own way here.

Every employee has their own smartphone today. It’s the same in the US and almost every other country in the world. However, lots of organizations still do not have email addresses for all of their employees. This is particularly true of corporations. The reason for this is usually trivial: email addresses have additional costs associated with them. To have an email address, a user needs an account in Microsoft Active Directory. This automatically gives them access to Office 365 and lots of other applications. The estimated total cost for this lies between 40 and 350 euros per person per year, and varies greatly. 

It is understandable that companies with thousands or hundreds of thousands of employees do not want to pay license fees like this if some of their employees don’t even have computers on which they can receive emails. They don’t have email addresses and, often, don’t have a business smartphone either. I have a lot more to say about this topic, so we should talk more about mobile apps later.

Super-Fast and Stable with Reliable Push Notifications 

As I see it, push notifications represent another fundamental and important aspect. These are notifications that are displayed actively (often with a sound) on your smartphone screen, even when it is locked, and call for your attention. We’ll talk about their disadvantages later. The advantage of push notifications is that they facilitate instant availability and reconciliation. 

They are so effective that while I’m writing these lines on the train on the way back from Berlin, they are allowing me to chat with my colleague Inga, who is sitting at the opposite table in the same compartment less than two meters away. It means we can chat with each other without disturbing anyone. We could probably chat with each other directly, but things are so tranquil in the compartment, and the chat also involves our colleague Sebastian, who is in a completely different location. To outsiders, scenarios like this may seem absurd, and stand-up comedians have been known to spoof them live on stage. But they are also efficient for communicating across different and distant locations. For this to work, however, the notifications in a chat solution have to function properly.

Server Located on the Open Internet

Legitimate discussions take place in lots of organizations about whether their own (and often secret) data should be stored in the public cloud on foreign servers owned by American companies. However, the solutions from Microsoft, Google, or Salesforce leave you with no other choice. These solutions offer only cloud subscriptions these days. Operating your systems in a proprietary IT infrastructure was never or is no longer possible. Only smaller providers or open source solutions offer installations in a proprietary environment behind your own firewall. 

I think it is pretty smart to store important information behind a firewall, as long as it’s practical and straightforward. This doesn’t present a problem with our Linchpin intranet. The overwhelming majority of our customers either host their data in their own data center or in a private cloud that they can control and encrypt themselves. We often run their systems as well, sometimes in our private cloud in Germany. With a chat server, however, that’s not possible. 

Or more precisely: it is possible. But the chat server has to be accessible over the open internet. Without a firewall. Without any special security measures in place. That is because if you have to connect to a VPN on your smartphone first to reply to a chat message, soon you’ll no longer be using the messenger on your smartphone. The barriers have to be as low as possible. This means that the chat server has to be available both quickly and directly. I don’t see any alternative to this anywhere. And if you want the employees in your organization to benefit from this form of communication, you have to accept it as a requirement.

Usability At Least at WhatsApp Level

When it comes to an intranet, or a chat solution in our case here, in the context of a digital workplace, an intranet team will always be quick to talk about their desire for good usability: that goes without saying! Usability is important! But when it comes to really putting software through its paces, we often come across the Excel checklists that project teams put together instead of real tests that check what using the system actually feels like. 

The fatal thing about this is that good usability today is no longer optional. This is especially true for systems that require communication because they really have to be used. If that’s not the case, introduction of the software will likely fail – simply due to a lack of use. The spread of shadow IT – in the form of WhatsApp groups, for example – for coordination in an organization takes place precisely because it is so easy and quick: nobody has to give a formal go ahead, everyone has immediate access, everyone knows how to use the app and you can get started immediately.

If you suddenly arrive on the scene with a hacky and cumbersome messenger solution, your project is doomed from the start. The messenger software’s usability in the organization must at least be as good as that of WhatsApp. Otherwise it simply won’t be used and the switch from shadow IT (WhatsApp) to an official solution (e.g. Google Chat, Microsoft Teams or Slack) will fail. Incidentally, the three tools mentioned above are sufficiently good in terms of usability to foster such a transition. However, open source alternatives like Mattermost, Rocket.Chat and Matrix.org should still also be considered.

Chat Rooms for All Users 

Ah, how I love Telegram! In my view, every innovation in the area of chat in recent years has come from Telegram. Despite my fundamental belief that Telegram is by far the best messenger in the world, however, I still know it’s not suitable as a corporate solution. 

You can’t use WhatsApp and Telegram in your own organization because they don’t offer a closed container. There is no inside and outside. There are no room lists that your employees can view. There is no central control function. And there are no security mechanisms that, for instance, allow certain users to be deactivated centrally so that they cannot access all the rooms. And with WhatsApp and Telegram, the whole topic of data protection and GDPR is impossible to resolve.

Oh yes, your next question is entirely justified! I know I said before that we use Telegram for business communications with partners and customers. Then why, for heaven’s sake? Because there is no better solution.

We use Google Chat at the company. It’s a good solution, which is also very cheap, because it doesn’t cost any extra as part of Goggle Workspace. Currently, it doesn’t offer a way of sharing rooms with external parties, however. (Slack offers this facility, but it still has restrictions by limiting the number of external users. A license also has to be purchased on a quota basis above a certain number of users.) 

We use Telegram in situations where customers or partners still don’t use a specific messenger. It works well because Telegram is really strong when it comes to usability and functionality. And we share a Slack channel with those partners who already use Slack. Our Partner Team has a Slack account set up for this purpose. Any other messengers? Yes, because we want to communicate in a way that focuses on the recipient and want to go where our customers or, in this case, our partners are.

The fact that we use three messengers in our company alone shows how hopeless the search is for a single, comprehensive, all-powerful and all-encompassing intranet solution. Which makes for a nice transition to the next point. 

Standalone App, Not an Add-on

The group chat application you use needs to be a standalone mobile app. I know customers who have opted for a solution that offers intranet, ERP connection, document storage, chat, and other system functions in an all-in-one mobile app. That sounds too good to be true – like the promise by SAP to map all your company requirements in a single software application. Okay, they probably never really made a specific promise about this. But many customers project this desire onto the brand. 

In conversation, I occasionally hear arguments such as the following: “We don’t want our employees installing ten apps on their smartphones. That’s far too complicated. We need something simple.”

Did you notice how Facebook split Facebook Messenger off from the actual app? And how users were up in arms about it?! They didn’t like that. They wanted to keep their messages in a familiar environment. What do you think? Why did Facebook create this mess? My opinion is that they wanted to improve usability and simplify its use. The idea was to reduce complexity. Today, nobody is shouting from the rooftops about there being a separate app for Facebook and another separate one for Facebook Messenger. And that’s not all: there’s also another app for managing pages and another one for managing ads. And a fifth one for analytics as well. And the Workplace offering from Facebook also comes with its own app – and, of course, a separate one for Workplace chat as well! 

Now, of course, I don’t want to make Facebook the benchmark for all things. But the idea that several apps will overwhelm your employees is simply wrong, and empirical developments in the smartphone market exist to substantiate it. In fact, the opposite is true. Completed use cases are packaged in the form of separate apps. That’s just reality at Google, as well as Microsoft, Salesforce and SAP, and also at all other highly relevant solutions I looked at during my research. 

There are software producers, of course, who put everything into a single app. The main reason customers choose these apps in my opinion is that it’s cheaper to introduce a solution like this. They just have to pay once for everything: messages, intranet, exchange, chat, SAP interface and so on are all-inclusive. This sounds good at first. But some of our customers employ 300,000 people. And the majority of them have no email address, so they can’t simply use Google Chat or Microsoft Teams. If you want to add a cheap chat solution, you should go for a separate app – like one that is open source, for instance. This could be the basis for a chat server like matrix.org, for example. This then provides access to Riot.im as a smartphone-based chat app and a web interface. And then it can be integrated into an intranet solution. 

But beware of deciding on an important function like group chat as an add-on in an intranet app. In most cases, it won’t work. In my view, a group chat solution has to be a separate product.


Link to this page: https://seibert.biz/intranetbookchatsoftware


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