My company has been researching and evaluating the ‘in-a-box intranet’ space since 2016. We’ve just released a new report that compares 31 SharePoint and non-SharePoint options against the same criteria, and it is striking to see how quickly the market is evolving. As you may expect, the pandemic has moved digital workplace solutions considerably up the agenda of many organisations, but we’re also seeing impacts from trends in related spaces. In particular there’s a renewed focus on frontline workers, and companies are working on employee experience transformations to improve transactions with tools such as ServiceNow and Workday.
SharePoint: On top, alongside or arm’s reach?
For some years now, SharePoint has been the mammoth in the intranet marketplace. The addition of Viva Connections to tie it more closely to Teams has pushed this even further. It has certainly spurred other vendors into upping their game, but it has also created more open-mindedness toward different approaches.
We used to see many companies debating whether they should use take standard SharePoint and customise it or buy an in-a-box product that sits on top, What we now see is a dichotomy of companies either planning to use SharePoint as-is, or to buy something that plays nicely with their Microsoft 365 investment but which doesn’t have to sit directly on top of the SharePoint tenant.
I think this openness is fuelled partly by Teams: once you get your head around the concept that even with Teams the data stays in SharePoint but the presentation layer is different, then is seems reasonable to ask “what other presentation layers are out there?”. This can lead to many alternatives to the SharePoint ‘look’, such as a mobile-first approach.
We also shouldn’t forget that there has always been a strong array of independent intranet products. These have their own content management systems, but many of them still make us of Microsoft 365 APIs to surface documents, integrate Yammer and even allow users to directly share news stories into a Teams channel (something Microsoft itself doesn’t support).
A better experience for users and publishers
There’s no denying that intranets used to look ruthlessly functional, often very dated compared to consumer-facing equivalents. If websites were luxury jets, intrants were military transport planes. But the last five years has seen huge improvements to the user experience and all the products we evaluated are capable of attractive, highly usable designs.
I consider then that the next arena for competition is the back-end experience. Unlike websites where just a few expert people will have access to the CMS admin panels, a good intranet will have potentially hundreds of contributors, most of whom lack the time or inclination to undergo extensive training. The leading-edge intrant platforms recognise this and have invested heavily in making the admin tasks much easier and more integrated. Some for example, show instant previews of a page for mobile and desktop renderings; many others have drag-a-drop tiles to re-arrange widgets or step-by-step guides to configuration.
It’s a huge advantage if non-technical people can adapt an intranet page to their needs without relying on IT support, and one area where looking beyond the SharePoint world can pay dividends.
More integrated comms
The whole interpretation of ‘what is an intranet’ has been evolving too. I sometimes talk about ‘big intranets’ which are driven by a “one stop shop” vision and try to cover many bases in one hub, and ‘little intranets’ which recognise that many roles that used to fall to intranets – particularly collaboration – have moved over to other tools. Instead they focus on filling the gaps that remain, and often this is a focus on doing internal communications well.
To that end, internal communicators will be pleased to hear that some platforms are mirroring content marketing platforms such as HubSpot and taking a more holistic approach to internal communication channels. For example, some adopt a campaign-based model which will co-ordinate publishing across web, mobile, email newsletter and digital signage channels.
Mobile and frontline engagement
Frontline workers are getting more attention from vendors too. We’re seeing a rise in mobile-first dedicated apps, but also some suppliers that started out in the mobile space expanding rapidly onto desktop too. In response, many of the traditional intranet vendors have doubled down on their efforts for non-desk employees, producing much slicker mobile apps and tackling the challenge of how to enrol workers that don’t have a corporate email account.
We still need better basics
Despite all this encouraging news, there are some areas that are not getting the attention they deserve. Analytics and reporting dashboards are generally a weak point across the board, but especially in the SharePoint world. Even where analytics are provided, they are often fragmented and focus on anonymous web-like reporting rather than the known audiences of an employee base. For some, the fallback is Google Analytics, but this was never adequate, and rising GDPR concerns are making it look even more unsatisfactory.
In the haste to release new features, we also see some legacy features getting left behind. ‘Voice of the customer’ feedback we gathered really highlights how frustrating it can be for an intranet manager who reports critical bugs but never sees them addressed; the releases are always about the new shiny features.
Finally, I’d love to see a stronger emphasis on improving accessibility. In most countries this is a legal requirement for employers to ensure that people with disabilities are not disadvantaged. There’s much more that vendors could do to actually promote and educate companies about compliance, complementing the softer initiatives in many companies around diversity and inclusion.
Outlook for 2022
There’s a great deal of venture capital investment interest in this space right now. Cash injections are likely to be good news for customers of intranet platforms and I’m optimistic that customers will have many strong options to choose from. The more performant these platforms, the more intranet launches can focus on good quality content and strong adoption rather than technical barriers.
However, I also anticipate further waves of mergers and acquisitions, particularly around companies that relied on plugging SharePoint gaps that have now been closed by Microsoft. This may be disruptive for companies that roll out a product only to find it in the hands of another supplier soon after.
Lastly (and one for another article), the whole ‘Employee Experience’ territory is in a tug-of-love between vendors of HR Management Systems, Employee Services platforms and Digital Workplace specialists. ‘Big intranets’ are caught right in the middle of this, and companies will need to work hard to build cross-functional visions that deliver the best for their employees.
A version of this was originally publisher over at CMSWire.