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The three-level model of SharePoint intranets

Three tiered wedding cake in yellow and green with a cascade of roses.

The three-level model of SharePoint intranets

 “Few intranet managers design their intranet to have floating sites and yet I promise you they exist as islands in the SharePoint ocean.”

It’s perfectly possible to build an intranet by hand out of two or three types of SharePoint site. If your focus is on content (reference material and internal comms) you might even be quite pleased with the build process and result.

When building any kind of intranet in SharePoint Online, I reckon you’ll end up with something that fits into my three levels model. Your focus might only be level 1, the core intranet, but I encourage you to plan ahead for deeper levels so you can avoid governance and information management nightmares, and design a successful user experience overall.

One of the main implications of your design decision is the different search scopes.

Intranet search is limited to the core intranet, the sites that are specifically associated to the hub site.

SharePoint search (or ‘Microsoft Search’) is not limited, and covers the whole of Office 365. It’s personalised, and so the individual only sees results they are permitted to see. SharePoint search can include the intranet, communication sites, team sites, and OneDrive (and more).

Level 1: The all-employee intranet

Level 1: The core intranet, the all-employee intranet
Shared menu. Hub site =  ‘Intranet search’ or home site = ‘SharePoint search’ scope.

Key qualities:

  • Intranet-wide menu
  • Intranet scoped search (or SharePoint search).

At this level, the intranet looks pretty simple and likely as you expect for an all-employee corporate intranet.

The key matter is that all these communication sites are associated to the home site / hub site. Association is the hub site’s superpower. Association rolls out an ‘intranet wide’ shared menu, and allows content from comm sites to easily appear on the home page, if designed to.

In this design, the hub site has been promoted to become what Microsoft calls a ‘home site’. You can just use a hub site, but Microsoft encourages the use of a unique home site.

Note that your choice of hub site or home site affects the default search scope: using a home site enables full SharePoint search, while using a hub site limits the search scope to just the core intranet. (These defaults can be changed with PowerShell commands, but that’s another matter.)

The secondary hub site on the right-side of my design, might serve a specific purpose, like supporting Customer Services, or as some kind of knowledge management section. Such a hub site has its own navigation menu (not the intranet-wide menu), but will likely link back to the main intranet.

Level 2: The organic intranet – the depths

Level 2: The organic, extended intranet
Can include hub sites, independent comms sites, and even badly permissioned / open team sites.
No shared menu. ‘SharePoint search’ scope.

Key qualities:

  • Generally, site-specific menus only
  • Can’t be found via intranet search, can be found via SharePoint search.

These sites are not associated to the home hub site, and so they are islands in the SharePoint ocean.

While the intranet-wide menu can link to them (as shown for one site), in general they are not linked to, and are independent of the corporate intranet.

Few intranet managers design their intranet to have these floating sites and yet I promise you they exist.

Who creates them? Hard to say; mostly people who had permission to create sites before you began your intranet design project. Sometimes it’s influential project managers who go straight to IT to request a ‘business critical’ comm site, or it’s a project or team that use a team site as if it’s a comms site – they open up the access to what is normally a pretty private team site, making it an ersatz intranet site. Hardly best practice… but it happens.

In some organisations, the ability to create a new comm site or team site is not locked down at all, and people create lots of test sites or ‘used for a week’ sites (never really knowing the difference between a comm and a team site).

The key matter here is that these sites are excluded from the ‘intranet search scope’ but included in ‘SharePoint search’, meaning every employee could possibly find these sites, but not easily.

Level 3: The SharePoint / Microsoft 365 estate

Level 3: SharePoint and Microsoft Teams and team sites and OneDrive
‘SharePoint search’ scope.

Key qualities:

  • Private, for designated members only
  • Can’t be found via intranet search, can be found via SharePoint search (if you’re a member).

This is the collaboration level of Office 365. Every Microsoft Team team you belong to is down here, and remember, every MS Team team and every Yammer Community automatically comes with a SharePoint team site. And you can have team sites without MS Teams or Yammer.  OneDrive is here too. In my opinion, OneDrive is your personal space, but I see people use it as a shared space too, when really they should use MS Teams or SharePoint.

The key matter at this level is that ‘SharePoint search’ still reaches down here. But Microsoft search is always personalised – a person never sees that they should not see or cannot access.

Strangely, some people feel that Microsoft search brings them information and documents that they should not have access to (such as customer details) but this is not a search fault, it’s a sharing error on the part of the information owner. The person has likely placed sensitive information in an open shared space (like a comm site instead of a controlled team site) or they’ve defaulted to using their OneDrive and then opened the sharing too wide (because that felt easy to them). When people choose easy solutions, like sharing from OneDrive, instead of choosing more robust solutions, like team sites, we get problems. Digital dexterity is always lower than we might hope, and people do get frustrated with security restrictions and look for easy work arounds.

All within the digital workplace

The intranet isn’t the digital workplace, it’s just part of it, and maybe not even a big part.

The digital workplace includes everything, (including the finance system, payroll, the HR system, external websites and apps, just everything including Microsoft systems and other systems)

So what?

SharePoint is a bit messy and nobody knows what’s going on beyond level 1, so what?

Well, it’s a good idea to be aware of the user experience when it comes to designing and managing your (likely growing) intranet. When the intranet-wide menu links to a site outside of the core intranet, you want to think about the return journey – how might a person leave that site and return to the level 1 intranet? Will that journey be obvious or will they end up just closing their browser tab? What about when the search engine brings up an independent site? It might offer just what the person needs, but how will they find it again next month?

You and your IT contact can use the SharePoint Admin Center to look for new sites or assess mystery sites – review their purpose and usage and contact the owner to discuss bringing the site in line with your governance / good practice, or shutting it down, moving the content to more appropriate places.

You can review your site creation process, or site request process, and work out what people are trying to achieve. Sometimes, it’s great that people are moving off email and trying to communicate and manage content and colleagues in a more modern way, but maybe what they really need is just another channel in MS Teams, or a Yammer community for a six-month period.

One thing to help your senior colleagues understand is that the intranet (and any intranet relaunch project) isn’t independent of SharePoint and Office 365. There’s usually no such thing as a clean, fresh start. People will likely have been using O365 and SharePoint without guidance for ages, and while you and I might want a tightly defined intranet with obvious boundaries, end users, your colleagues, won’t really see much difference between an official corporate intranet site and the comms site they’ve been using with the Procurement department and Facilities department for the last three years.

Use the three-level model to guide your discussions with key influencers and to help you consider the navigation, user journey, and your search scope choices.

Wedge Black

I support ClearBox in everything we do online, and I assist clients that are considering redeveloping or replacing their intranet platform. I worked in global and regional organisations as the intranet manager as part of the comms team, before becoming an intranet consultant. I'm the founder of the Intranet Now annual conference. I’ve tweeted about intranets and comms for fifteen years now.

  • Markus Brombacher
    Posted at 1:05 pm, 23 September, 2022

    …very valuable article – in this connection it should be mentioned that Microsoft announced a multiple home site experience. beginning from Q3/2023. Connected to this article, you have some more options on Level 1.


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