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Why you might outgrow a SharePoint intranet

Comparing apples at the grocers.

Why you might outgrow a SharePoint intranet

It’s OK if you don’t ‘love’ SharePoint and just use it as the background technology for collaboration. However, you can also use the page-building side of SharePoint to create a corporate intranet with features such as communication sites, hub sites and mega menus. The building blocks are included in a Microsoft 365 subscription, but you may find you outgrow its capabilities. SharePoint intranet in-a-box products add an extra layer of functionality, and should be considered by larger or more complex organisations.

The default intranet for smaller organisations

Using SharePoint Online as your intranet has certainly become easier in the past few years. The UI is less baffling for content publishers. Page layouts can easily be enhanced with web parts (widgets) and several images in a fashion familiar to anyone proficient with WordPress or even Medium. There isn’t an ‘intranet’ app within the Office online app menu, but you can transform a site into a hub site or a home site and these newer, less well-known site types provide the richer functionality (like global menus) that intranet managers and internal communicators expect.

Microsoft improves the underlying functionality and interface regularly and, being in the cloud, improvements are deployed immediately and without fuss (usually). So beyond the collaboration and document management aspects, SharePoint Online has become a bit of a default option for intranets.

SharePoint Online makes a great first intranet, but Internal Comms managers will want more

A home page.

An intranet built with SharePoint Online ‘as is’, will pretty much look and behave just like any other SharePoint Online intranet. Your brand has to be shown by a small logo and colours. The best way to brand your home page is through your choice of images and how you write your headlines and news descriptions. In effect, your intranet needs continual art direction to stay on brand — not a bad thing, I’m just saying you can’t rely on the SharePoint look and feel to express your employee brand.

I’ll only mention Yammer in passing, as I know some organisations have struggled to see the value in it. Without Yammer, a SharePoint intranet offers only limited social features. I believe an intranet should be a place for people as well as content, but standalone SharePoint offers only basic ways to interact with content and colleagues.

There’s no central news management system, so comms teams will need to set up their own publishing processes, considering categorising news, targeting, and using the scheduling feature.

News targeting is limited and dependent on your technical prowess, considering audience segmenting, governance and information architecture. The global menu and branding offered by hub sites, while welcome, will strike intranet managers as limited because it restricts how site hierarchy can be set up.

When it comes to performance, the analytics charts offer basic details, and only cover a single site. If your home page shows news from several sites, you’ll need to visit each site’s usage analytics in turn to get a sense of popularity and use. Cumulative analytics for SharePoint is on the roadmap (to be released any day now) but only covers sites directly associated with hub sites, which may not be clear to every intranet manager. Besides, the stats still won’t show dwell time or user journey — things website managers take for granted.

During our consultation work, we’ve found comms people have been frustrated by always having to do things the SharePoint way, and having to compromise their expectations. Despite the simplification of the UI, how SharePoint works is still complicated.

The recent wave of SharePoint intranets

Office 365 became immensely popular, and so we’ve seen a lot of organisations turn to vanilla SharePoint for their first major intranet overhaul in years. We have helped clients plan and launch some smashing intranets with pleasant, useful home pages. But when I reflect upon their requirements and ambitions, I can imagine them wanting a lot more from their intranet in the years ahead.

I think we’ve seen a wave of ‘good’ vanilla SharePoint intranets over the last couple of years and I think there will be a second wave of augmented intranets in the years ahead. As comms managers get to grips with their new intranet, I think they’ll find business requirements and communication problems they’ll want to address. I think those orgs with budgets plug the gaps with other channels, like employee apps and strict email governance along with great newsletters. While standalone SharePoint serves smaller orgs well, I think it leaves a lot of organisations wanting.

SharePoint as the platform for your in-a-box intranet

SharePoint Online is the underlying platform powering many of the Office apps we use every day. As it comes as part of your existing Microsoft 365 licence, it makes sense to make use of it — if it offers the right experience for your culture. If business requirements and colleagues’ expectations (sooner or later) suggest that something more is needed, you don’t have to start from scratch. Whether you’re considering launching a SharePoint intranet or have been using SharePoint as your intranet for a few years, you can quickly upgrade the experience with an add-on intranet product.

Yes, we often help clients consider their requirements and select a vendor and an intranet product, but no, I can’t tell you which in-a-box intranets to check out right now, but we can certainly help identify best-fit solutions once we’ve understood your goals. There’s a lot of choice. While you may want to stick to either international vendors or those based nearer to you, most vendors are proficient and enthusiastic about providing on-site and then digital consulting and ongoing support.

SharePoint intranets in-a-box report cover.

Just as you might work with a consultancy like ClearBox to design and plan your SharePoint intranet, working with a vendor to build your intranet ensures you get the intranet you need, quicker. We’ve invested hundreds of hours in reviewing the leading intranet products of SharePoint (on-premises and in the cloud) and our evaluations are fair and detailed. We’re an independent consultancy, and we show you the strengths and weaknesses of each intranet.

Take a look at the very latest release of our report to see which intranet products we cover in detail. Our reference tables, scenario-based scoring system, and frank commentary will help you build the best shortlist and make the best-fit decision for your organisation.

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 nearly fifteen years now.

2 Comments
  • Posted at 10:14 am, 11 September, 2020

    Great post, Wedge!

    When I read this I start to reflect about the situation for the external homepage.

    For that site, we would never use a CMS tool that could not generate the exact end-user experience we demand. Weak UI, ambiguous navigation etc is a big NO – because we need to look professional, retain customers and make the customer journey work. Or else they go to your competitor. We would of course never dream about using M365 for generating the external homepage, even if we need functionality as document handling, forum, blogs, chat, logged in-area for a customer etc.

    But for employees, we accept this. We are offering a complex tool suite with a rater bad UI – when we KNOW our users are digitally immature. http://bit.ly/intra16

    I know M365 has gotten better over the years. But in my opinion it is still like any other business system – it has baffling UI and mediocre UX. Maybe the data handling is good – but is there a tool that can use the platform but spare me from the Microsoft UI?

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