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Where next for SharePoint intranets?

ClearBox Consulting > Intranets  > Where next for SharePoint intranets?
Yet Another Sign Post.

Where next for SharePoint intranets?

Every year around this time I revisit the question for SharePoint intranets, which is basically: Build, Buy or Wait? The timing is driven by announcements at Microsoft’s Ignite Conference and my company’s regular review of the market for add-on intranet products, which we call ‘Intranets in-a-box’.

As each year goes by Microsoft delivers more of the basics that a corporate intranet needs, and this time it also announced some cutting-edge ideas, such as Project Cortex. Others have done a great job of summarising what was revealed at Ignite, so here I want to explore what intranet managers should know and what it means for the in-a-box vendor space.

Key developments for SharePoint intranets

Of course, Microsoft is keen to highlight all the new things coming for SharePoint and gloss over the things it can’t (yet) do. In the spirit of balance, I did an analysis of what basic to advanced intranets typically look for. I then compared how far SharePoint can take you at the moment, and capabilities on its roadmap into 2020. This is summarised in the chart below.

A visual diagram of SharePoint capabilities from basic through to advanced.

Current and planned SharePoint capabilities for a modern intranet.

There is no denying that the abilities of standard SharePoint are moving across the page like a lava flow (compare with last year’s chart). Most welcome this year are the mega-menus, audience targeting and home sites (rolling out by year end 2019).

The most significant Ignite reveal for intranets though, was the multi-lingual capability. I was expecting a basic ability to switch languages, an update on the deprecated ‘variations’ feature of classic SharePoint. But what was promised goes well beyond this to also track changes on a page. This makes it easy for translators to see where each language variant needs editing. If this feature follows Microsoft’s typical path, then the first release will have some rough edges, but we might expect a solid solution by early 2021.

Editing boxes in a SharePoint page showing multiple texts.

A preview of multi-language publishing in SharePoint (source: Microsoft).

Gaps that remain

Despite all the good news, medium and large organisations are still likely to hit some show-stoppers in practice that will require extensive configuration, compromises or even custom code.

The main one is that intranet-wide navigation is still challenging. SharePoint is built around a flat model where sites spring up readily, and then tools such as hub sites, search and SharePoint start (the thing you see when you click on ‘SharePoint’ in the Office365 waffle) stich them loosely together.

Many companies and their users prefer a more structured approach. As soon as you outgrow a single hub site this isn’t possible: the top-level menu will change from site-to-site and there will be no mega-menu that lets you teleport across the whole digital estate.

How soon will companies outgrow a single hub site? It’s hard to say, but as a rule of thumb, most organizations hit this point over 300-500 employees. Tantalisingly, Microsoft’s roadmap shows ‘hub site association’ and this may be the nested hub site ability we have on our Christmas list.

The social side of the modern SharePoint story remains too fragmented for my liking as well. There are new Yammer web parts and more on the way but social isn’t baked into SharePoint like it is for some of the stand-alone intranet products like LumApps, Interact or Embrace. For example, comments on news don’t tie in to community activity, and comments and likes on Stream videos are a separate system again.

Implications for the in-a-box market

Since 2015, my company ClearBox Consulting has been tracking the intranet in-a-box market. We’ve seen the number of products worldwide grow from around six to over eighty. I keep predicting that the market needs to shrink (not least for my own sanity), but it’s not quite happening yet.

Some welcome consolidation is happening. For example, LiveTiles acquired Wizdom earlier this year, and has just bought out Cycl, makers of MatchPoint. Powell 365 and Valo also continue to expand at a rapid rate, being well past the million-user mark.

These bigger products I feel are good for the market. They can keep pace with Microsoft and invest in genuine innovation. Smarter smaller players are seeing this and opting to become partners rather than product developers. Indeed, the whole shift to modern SharePoint has created a hurdle to in-a-box product makers that will weed out some of the also-rans.

Other vendors may re-assert themselves more as implementation partners again. For all the headline capabilities in the SharePoint Lookbook, the reality is that even a no-code SharePoint intranet takes considerable planning and skill. When I challenged one vendor that their demo was all using standard SharePoint, their retort was that whilst this was true, their product encapsulated hundreds of hours spent configuring the options and working out what was good practice to get to the point where they could create an intranet for a client in a matter of days.

Adding value not filling gaps

Vendors that have already moved to working well with Modern SharePoint are responding with innovations of their own. The good news about Microsoft taking care of the basics is that less energy is needed to get SharePoint to merely work. As one vendor put it to me “it’s no longer about plugging the gaps, it’s now about adding value”.

What we see then as the most exciting developments for in-a-box intranet are those that expand on the graph-driven and modern UX abilities of Office 365.

For example, Wizdom has introduced a ‘Power Panel’ that consolidates quick access to notifications, services and news in one always-available space. Other vendors are also working on this ‘always-on’ concept and developing desktop experiences, in the same way that web-based services like Trello are now building desktop apps again for the added speed and availability they give.

Another route into always-on is the idea of intranets within Teams. I’m not sure a whole intranet within Teams is much more than an alternative browser, but the ability to combine the flexibility of intranet experiences with the immediacy of Teams definitely appeals, and several vendors have launched capabilities for this. Valo, for example, makes it much easier for users to see options across Groups, Teams and team sites in its ‘Teamwork’ feature.

Finally, I’m sure Project Cortex will lead the way to many enhanced knowledge management experiences on intranets. Microsoft brings the AI power, but the in-a-box vendors bring the vision and nimble implementation to help companies fully get to grips with it.

Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

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