Choosing a ready-made intranet for SharePoint or Office 365
When considering replacing the intranet, the comms team will likely want something that looks fresh and is easy to use, while the IT department will say ‘we already have SharePoint in IT so we can just roll that out’.
It can become a debate about the user experience vs the technical maintenance (with costs and cost savings thrown in). The comms team might well look at intranets like Interact, Thoughtfarmer, Oak, Igloo or IntranetDashboard, but IT might already have a ‘Microsoft first’ policy.
Fortunately, it no longer needs to be a ‘SharePoint’ or ‘not SharePoint’ debate; you can transform SharePoint into a useful and usable intranet that’s as nice to use as those independent off-the-shelf intranet products, while retaining the close integration with the other parts of the Microsoft world. We spoke to four intranet managers about their move to SharePoint Online and using an intranet product. Take a look at their quotes throughout.
The marketplace for ‘in-a-box’ intranets for SharePoint is maturing and still growing (you can find out more in our extensive SharePoint Intranets in-a-box report). There are scores of products that work to improve the usability, user experience, and capabilities of your intranet and collaboration environment. New entrants may simply offer templates and a unified experience for a modest price. Mature products tend to offer more productivity features – like drag and drop design, mini ‘apps’, and a well-thought-out content publishing interface and process – for a subscription fee.
``While a move to SharePoint isn't to be taken lightly, an out-the-box intranet option can solve a number of the key concerns from an intranet manager's point of view. A more user-friendly front-end provides an attractive and tailorable experience for employees, but equally important is that the administrative interface will make publishing far easier than with standard SharePoint tools.``
Many organisations are getting Office 365; they need Word and Excel, but they end up getting so much more. To get the full value from Office 365, ways of working need to change, and not everybody is ready for the changes. Without a decent change programme, people can be confused or annoyed around where to save documents – on the old intranet? In the old network drive? In your OneDrive? In your manager’s OneDrive? What the heck is a Team Site?
``SharePoint Online is a real game changer especially given the fact that now Microsoft introduces updates on a 90-day sprint basis, as opposed to a 2-year 'pack update'. These frequent updates have a major impact on custom code, making it risky to over customise your intranet as it might break with the next update.``
SharePoint Online comes with Office 365; it’s an online only, cloud only, lighter and brighter SharePoint than the old on-premises SharePoint 2010 or SharePoint 2013 that you might have used.
Office 365 isn’t just about the ol’ Office Suite apps, it’s about SharePoint, collaboration, and productivity. So proper information management, intranet, and collaboration strategies are needed.
``In using SharePoint, we have a modern, effective, and easy to use solution, which enables everyone to use the wider range of Office 365 tools that are at the heart of modern business. This has allowed us to create a single 'front door' to our digital campus.``
Ross Tarbard, Senior Internal Communications Officer, University of Leicester
It may be possible to build your own intranet in Office 365 / SharePoint Online with the new communications sites and forthcoming hub sites. They look good, but lack publishing processes (e.g. review, scheduling, and the main images on the ‘home page’ have to be changed by hand regularly – which is easy enough). Not ideal for busy comms teams or medium to large organisations.
An intranet product for SharePoint will do a lot of the heavy lifting for you, but you’ll pay for the ease-of-use. It’s a balance between getting the functionality you need and not paying for extras you don’t.
``To help alleviate the panic, glean as much as you can about your company's Office 365 / SharePoint environment, expertise, and direction.
``Hopefully what you learn can help set more realistic expectations around what you can deliver. SharePoint boasts lots of features, but in practice you may need extra time and resource just to get the simple stuff setup and working as expected - even before you start shopping around for a product with additional capabilities.``
Creating your intranet product shortlist
How do you survey the intranet product marketplace and choose a product that works well, and a vendor that will work well with you?
Whether you’re using SharePoint on-premises or Office 365 and SharePoint Online, you should start your search with our massive in-depth reviews of 34 major SharePoint intranet products. The 430-page report is brand new and offers expert assessments and pointed reviews of each product, showing you the strengths that match your priorities.
Our report is completely independent, with no marketing blurb. Our assessments and scores give a fair and balanced indication of capabilities, considering the maturing market.
Gathering requirements used to be about going to stakeholders and maybe ‘end users’ and asking them what they wanted. Then IT would help by adding all the usual requirements that any intranet should cope with (security, version control, etc.).
Talking with true stakeholders (those who will be accountable for the success / failure of your intranet) is still very useful, as is user research; the requirements check list is probably going to be used for the foreseeable future, but there are other ways to define your needs and assess a product’s capabilities.
Remember, SharePoint itself will fulfil many of your basic requirements, so product vendors will often be able to tick all your boxes. So how will you choose between one in-a-box solution for SharePoint and another?
``Understanding the other parts Office 365 and their unique relationship with SharePoint has been helpful (e.g. Yammer, Stream, Delve). They all have part to play for our intranet, but have their own quirks and challenges too. It's been six months since launching our new SharePoint intranet, and we're still on that learning curve!``
We want to move past features and into capabilities and use-cases. Think about your working practices (in the field, on the shop floor, in the call centre) and find an intranet product that can support known and needed business scenarios. (Our report scores each intranet product against seven / eight common scenarios.)
``In the past, SharePoint intranets were judged on how complicated and all-encompassing they were (the bigger the better!), but now it feels like 'keep it simple' is the preferred strategy. The route to success is to present SharePoint's often clunky functionality in clever, user-friendly ways. This is where using a set of simplified and beautified templates and widgets could help, but be careful not to get stuck with a product that is too difficult to modify.``
Look into what the intranet product will enable people to do that they couldn’t do before – or that is currently clunky and hard to achieve with existing systems. What additional capabilities will the intranet product bring? What productivity boosts do you need?
You are not looking for the most expensive, ‘best’ intranet product for SharePoint (does ‘best of breed’ still exist, as a concept, in IT?), you’re looking for the product thats strengths match your business priorities. Are your priorities around comms and engagement? Or collaboration? Or tasks and productivity?
You need an intranet that meets user needs and business needs, and also provides a decent user experience so that people like using the intranet. SharePoint only goes so far; an intranet product atop SharePoint can transform the user experience and deliver a productivity environment in a matter of weeks and months.
``I'd suggest exploring where the boundaries of an out-the-box product are, to understand where you need to work within SharePoint itself. You also need to consider the likelihood of both users and publishers seeking bespoke changes to the tool, and whether the product provides that flexibility. But if I was to start over with a SharePoint intranet, I would definitely look at an out-the-box product to provide the key elements, rather than having them built from scratch.``