SharePoint hub sites: How in-a-box intranet vendors are reacting
As Office 365 eats the world, more organisations are getting their metaphorical hands on SharePoint Online as part of the deal. In the past few years, something like 71* ‘in-a-box’ intranet products have been created by agencies that saw how organisations needed to reshape SharePoint and Office 365 into a recognisable intranet.
But Microsoft continues to improve SharePoint, especially the cloud version as part of Office 365. In 2017, communication sites became available in Office 365, offering an improved way to publish news and articles with a pleasant, modern reading and editing experience. The big question was whether a communication site alone could be an intranet home page. For organisations with straightforward requirements, maybe.
Now that Microsoft has released hub sites for SharePoint Online / Office 365, it looks eminently easier to create a news-focused home page. Hub sites ‘pull in’ and ‘roll up’ news published from team sites and communication sites, and provide a consistent navigation menu across all associated sites. It seems feasible to create an intranet by hand with vanilla (‘out of the box’) SharePoint Online, using a hub site and a dozen communication sites and team sites. But there are limitations that organisations will hit up against pretty hard. Will internal communication teams accept the limitations, or look for additional solutions that provide a better intranet experience?
Knowing so many intranet ‘in-a-box’ vendors, we asked five how their product strategy might respond to Microsoft’s hub sites.
Hub sites are good news for intranets
Most vendors feel positive about adding hub sites to their product, and are working on extending functionality and delivering a harmonious end experience.
“It is easy to imagine hub sites built for projects around the organisation, providing one place to go to start browsing or searching for project-related news and procedures. Likewise, it would be easy to make use of hub sites for location-specific information, for multi-site or multinational organisations.”
“Think of hub sites as a modern way for surfacing team-based communication and a simple method for organizing your ecosystem of collaboration sites. For small organizations with fewer than 250 employees, we’d expect hub sites could most likely meet basic intranet needs and we certainly like where Microsoft is going in general.
“What’s not to love about the simplified content authoring experience?”
“Hub sites are going to be an important building block for any modern intranet. They can’t replace all aspects of an intranet, but certainly enhance the way sites are organized. We foresee use cases like sites created for various initiatives residing under the department’s hub site so that news and activities will be consolidated and presented in one place.”
Sareen Madupu, Product Owner – Mesh, Acuvate
“Overall, I think the concept of hub and communication sites is great, especially as they bring a more seamless integration between Office 365 Groups / Teams and SharePoint. This is core to the digital workplace vision of being able to work from a single user experience supported by a common platform – Office 365. Since most of our value is in the portal structure under the home page, we look forward to late 2018 when we believe hub sites will be ready for production use.”
Hub site limitations
But once you get past the much-needed consistent navigation and the wonder that is content roll-up, hub sites don’t quite deliver the usual requirements that larger organisations or busy, established internal communications teams tend to have. Established teams know what they want and need when it comes to publishing workflows and home page design – around where headlines are placed and how long articles stay on the home page (before getting ‘bumped off’).
Compromising on expectations to accept the way hub sites work may not be attractive. As ever when you invest in SharePoint, you end up working the way Microsoft thinks is best…
“Hub sites fall short in terms of binding the entire organization together. Using a hub site as an intranet home page will not provide a truly personalised portal to everything – the news will not be personalised to the individual user, so hub sites risk information overload and a lack of relevancy. Further, the navigation is lacking usability, and it is still difficult to move across sites.”
“As hub sites require a separate SharePoint site collection, the set up and administrative burden is considerable. News roll up, as nice as it seems, offers no easy way to manage content without going into the back-end of SharePoint. The Modern UI is nice but designed like WordPress, meaning content must be managed at the page level, rather than offering real content management through lists and libraries. Unfortunately, much of it is window dressing until Microsoft can work out the operational aspects.
“I am confident Microsoft will work it out, but unfortunately they release these products, set expectations, and then disappoint customers. By the time they get it right, they have lost the momentum and customers have gone on to other things. It usually takes at least a year for Microsoft’s new offerings to reach usable maturity.”
“There’s still a long way to go with regards to the governance of Groups and permissions, especially around the sites that are ‘under’ the hub site. And of course, hub sites only support Modern pages, which look great but offer less functionality than the older SharePoint experience.”
Sareen Madupu, Product Owner – Mesh, Acuvate
“Hub sites promise to be the missing link to tie the SharePoint Online offering together. However, looking at them now, I’m overwhelming underwhelmed.
“The global navigation in hub sites does indeed join up site collections, but it does so in a flat and limited manner. The automatic news and search aggregation is welcome but presents nothing that you couldn’t achieve before. The control of the look and feel is simply not granular enough to keep any comms person happy. And that’s it, the headline features of hub sites are all just ‘okay’, nothing to get hot and bothered about.”
“We don’t expect medium to large organizations to leverage hub sites for their actual intranet as there are too many gaps around the usual requirements, such communication controls, targeting, personalization, and user experience flexibility.”
The case for an in-a-box product
Clearly, intranet product vendors are keen to make the case that an additional ‘in-a-box’ intranet product adds many much-needed capabilities and a lot of value. As an independent consultancy, ClearBox is tech agnostic. We help organisations design or improve their intranet based on principles and business scenarios, rather than only features.
Simple requirements can be met by simple solutions. But over the last few years, as we’ve worked with medium and large organisations, we’ve seen high expectations and have had to consider the investment cost of customisation versus buying in a ready-made intranet.
We’ve found that while very large organisations are likely to need additional customisation no matter what, medium and large organisations can meet the majority of their requirements with the right intranet product, once they start working closely with the vendor. We’ve carefully assessed 34 such products if you’re looking for a new intranet based on SharePoint or Office 365.
How in-a-box products will evolve
As hub sites become better known and used within organisations, intranet product vendors will need to include them in their designs. In past years, some vendors have ignored team sites as team sites in the cloud use the Modern UI and work just fine as they are – as standalone collaboration sites. As hinted at above, the challenge for vendors will be to add functionality, not just UI elements, to a site type that Microsoft has tight control over, being part of the Modern UI offering.
Content editing and management is done right on the page – which is easy and pleasant for the author, but reduces the control site admins, and intranet products, have over content. Still, product vendors seem confident that hub sites are just another type of site to add to their box.
“There has always been a navigation problem in SharePoint, and that problem is not fixed by hub sites. EasyShare provides a joined-up way of delivering a good intranet experience. We’ve been impressed with the changes Microsoft has wrought in the last few years through modern team sites and communication sites, and welcome hub sites.
“But the fact remains that, at the moment unless your requirements can be answered with a small number of sites and a very flat hierarchy, hub sites cannot provide the complete answer.
“We built capabilities in the Go Intranet Accelerator to support big enterprise communication and collaboration challenges. We expect to continue to meet these challenges, and expect hub sites to be used as the first logical place to curate internal communications. We love the ability to easily link associated sites together through consistent navigation, and the way hub sites offer a more focused search experience.
“We can see room for improvement around the presentation of the navigation bar, theme control, and content publishing controls.
“We expect hub sites to support previously untapped use cases alongside a Go Intranet solution, most notably in areas such as project / project management office hubs, department hubs, and regional hubs. We’ve outlined a few common use cases for hub sites.
“We’ve already built a Go Intranet feature that rolls-up hub site news on the intranet home page. This will help organisations use hub sites straight away in an integrated manner.”
“Intranet vendors that invested all their development resources into designing templates and a pretty face for on top of SharePoint will be hurting badly. They jumped the gun, as they didn’t believe Microsoft would finally deliver a nice, modern user interface. Our SP Intranet Portal, on the other hand, is focused on functionality beyond the home page, and we’re really excited about hub sites and communication sites, even if it will take a while to get full value from them.”
*At least 71 intranet in-a-box products exist, globally, as of May 2018 according to my count, although some are rather lightweight.