A mobile evolution: How one utility widened its internal network

Georgia Power expanded—securely—from management-only BlackBerries to include employee-owned smartphones and tablets.

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A little more than five years ago, Georgia Power Intranet Editor Kirk Martin’s manager came to his office with a new company-issued BlackBerry to show it to him, ask him to get one and start checking into how to use one for e-mail and Web browsing.

“In 2005, almost nobody was developing for mobile, and, internally, we certainly were not,” Martin says.

Martin soon pieced together a working mobile version of the company’s internal news portal, Citizen Online, which he called Citizen Wireless, for use on the BlackBerry devices that executives and managers were getting from the company.

That basic framework stayed in place until last summer, when Georgia Power and its parent, Southern Company, revamped Citizen Wireless so every employee companywide could view it on his or her own mobile device, be it a BlackBerry, iPhone, Android or any other.

“There was sort of an unrecognized tipping point” that was reached, Martin says. With the change, the number of devices that can access Citizen Wireless has more than doubled.

Early development

Initially, Martin created the mobile site in the likeness of Citizen Online. “I picked up that code by the roots, plunked it down on a page I had prepared for it and made a few minor adjustments,” he says. “It worked, mainly because these BlackBerries worked inside our firewall.”

The first version of Citizen Wireless was very basic, he says, with small graphics and pictures, and with no links to videos. The site included news articles, a company directory and a clipping service. The width of each article page was about one-fifth of the size of an average computer screen, Martin says.

“The average article page would be the width of three fingers and as long as your arm,” he says.

Development for the BlackBerry devices plateaued around the end of 2006, Martin says, in part because execs tended to keep their phones for a long time, which meant Martin had to keep the site viewable on the oldest BlackBerry in the company.

“Our early tinkering and early success, to some degree, limited us for how we developed it beyond then,” he says.

At its peak, about 4,000 of Southern Company’s 25,000-plus employees had access to Citizen Wireless through company-issued BlackBerries, Martin says.

The tipping point

By mid-2010, the number of BlackBerries on Southern Company’s network had scaled back to about 3,000. But employees had plenty of mobile devices of their own: 1,600 iPhones, 1,500 Android phones, and 150 iPads.

“That’s what really drove management to say, ‘Hey, let’s look at this,'” Martin says.

Georgia Power began a formal study of mobile possibilities for internal and external communication. The corporate communication department’s development team worked with IT to get things going.

The idea for an external mobile product was shelved for security and cost reasons, Martin says, but the internal mobile project moved ahead, focusing on research into the audience, devices and authentication methods for employees, as these employee-owned devices were now outside the company firewall.

“There was much debate about home-grown apps for the most popular platforms versus mobile Web content, and even vendor-managed app schemes,” Martin says. “We went with mobile Web content—no app for that—for its speed of development, ease of management and maintenance, and better-understood security provisions.”

Security was the main concern for Georgia Power’s developers, because going outside the firewall required Citizen Mobile users, who previously could just turn on their phones and go to the site, to log in. The team decided to use Microsoft Internet Security and Acceleration 2006, which Martin called “a ready authentication solution to handle that log-in.”

The site itself

The content of Citizens Wireless remains mostly the same, though it’s needed some remodeling so that it can be displayed on different devices, Martin says. In addition to the news feed, clippings and the employee directory, the site includes access to an online document database.

Links to documents in that database, Martin says, lead to HTML versions that can be read easily on mobile devices, rather than to Word documents or PDFs. Martin says the database is popular, with employee “squawks” every now and again if it goes a day or two without an update.

The site also includes CEO Paul Bowers’ notes on the Monday meeting, a menu of links and a travel page. The travel page includes contact information for the company’s internal travel agents, as well as links to flight and weather trackers. “Those things are almost not worth including, given where smartphones have come to,” Martin says.

In the coming weeks, Martin says, the travel page will include a link the company’s application for booking travel arrangements. “It seems to be more mobile-friendly than it was,” he says.

Martin says he’s hoping to make a few more tweaks soon. For example, he says he’s not entirely satisfied that users should have to log in a second time to access the company directory. He says he also wants to play around with how images are displayed on Citizen Wireless: “A mugshot of a face is probably the best use of it” as it stands now.


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