As discussed in my last article, “Employee Communications Applications: The Most Utilized but Unknown Tech Market to Exist — And Now it’s Even More Critical to Business Success,” Gartner, the leading technology analyst group, coined the burgeoning industry of employee communications applications (ECA) as a new technology market in 2019. And, in doing so, they included in this market pretty much every type of solution that connects companies with their employees. Helpful for the internal communications or IT professional looking to make a decision on the right solution for their company? I’m not so sure.

Are all Employee Communications Applications created equal?

Try typing “employee communications applications” into Google and see what comes up. You will find solutions that have been around for decades, like email, intranets, SMS, digital signage and video conferencing. You will also find newer categories of technologies that have been created to take advantage of not just desktop computers, but the mobile device — solutions like employee apps, messaging apps, employee recognition/reward apps and task/project management apps. When you look at each of their websites, regardless of their core offering, you will find that, for the most part, they all appear to say the same thing and many claim to solve the entire employee communications problem. But this is not so. One ECA size does not fit all.

Having studied the entire landscape of ECA (and, in full transparency, I recently sold a software company that is included in this market to a private equity firm – so now I can speak my peace), there are many tech solutions out there that address the challenge communications professionals have in getting information to, communicating and engaging with their employees. While solutions like employee apps, intranets and new ways of approaching email are part of the ECA market as Gartner has defined it, each can serve a distinct purpose and address a particular problem to be solved, not every problem.

Employee Apps – the fastest growing vertical of the ECA market.

To clarify and break down the ECA market (so you are prepared to make the right buying decision), let’s start by taking a look at employee apps. I have chosen employees apps for two reasons: first, this was the vertical category in the ECA market that I helped to pioneer back in 2014 and that has since exploded; second, because recently, independent consulting firm, ClearBox Consulting, issued an extremely comprehensive 430 page research report — yes, 430 pages — just on employee apps.

Employee apps solve a very important problem in the workplace. They allow organizations to finally be able to reach those employees who are “deskless” – the 3 billion individuals comprising the global workforce who don’t sit behind desks with access to desktop computers, corporate intranets, and in many cases, do not have corporate email addresses. They include people like manufacturing line employees, first-responders, waiters, waitresses and baristas, as well as nurses and miners.

The reason I say finally is because until the proliferation of mobile technology, it was not easy (and, in many cases impossible) for communications professionals to reach these individuals. Of course employee apps can be used by those who sit in front of desks since they too have mobile devices and can benefit from being able to access information conveniently regardless of where they are at a particular moment (and since most intranets, especially those created in Sharepoint, are not easily accessible through mobile). However, to the extent a company has a significant deskless workforce, employee apps solve the internal communicators problem of communicating with these non-desk constituents. As a result, employee apps are quickly becoming a need-to-have, rather than just a nice-to-have.

In its report, Clearbox Consulting does an excellent job in identifying and providing a comprehensive review of almost 20 vendors including some of the tech behemoths like Workplace by Facebook, Microsoft Teams and Yammer, some of the newer solutions who have really focused on addressing the problem of the non-desk worker like Staffbase and Blink, as well as companies like Social Chorus who have had to change their business model along the way to try to take advantage of the larger “employee communications” market opportunity.

In an easy to read and understandable format, full of charts and tables, Clearbox allows those looking to compare vendors to be able to do so and to easily understand what differentiates them, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. It clearly addresses the key values that an employee app provides like (i) news and information sharing, (ii) peer-to-peer communications/chat, (iii) community creation and (iv) the ability to “simplify working practices, provide new ways of doing things, or allow firstline staff to access information that may have previously been closed off to them.”

Bringing business strategy to life!

But the most important aspect of the report, in my opinion, is the context in which Clearbox explains the importance of an employee app not just to digital workplace, communications, HR and operations strategies, but to the strategic direction of a business as a whole. As they say and use the chart below to depict, “Employee apps can meet the needs of different business strategies, the best of which align together.”

I could continue to quote from the Clearbox report since it does such a fine job of studying employee apps. But my purpose here is to make the point that employee apps are just one type of ECA. There are other ECA verticals like intranets, collaboration, project management, surveys and employee recognition. And there are technology vendors and solutions who specialize in these verticals, but rather than claim their niche and what is core to their business and what they really do, are positioning themselves more generally as being able to address all employee communications challenges.

Depending on an organization, the demographic(s) of its workforce and current employee communications technology stack, understanding the full landscape of ECA is necessary to ensure that a particular solution addresses (and potentially solves) the internal communications challenges that an organization faces. In future articles (stay tuned . . .) I will continue to explore the purpose of the different ECA verticals and the relevance of them to solving particular internal communications problems and challenges, albeit different from employee apps.