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Your three and half intranet options when you have Office 365

A cross-roads in a gravel path set in green grass with logs.

Your three and half intranet options when you have Office 365

“As we already have Office 365, IT says we get a SharePoint intranet for free, so we have to use SharePoint, right?”

Sure, SharePoint is the backbone of Microsoft 365 / Office 365; every team you have in Microsoft Teams manages the documents via a SharePoint team site. So you certainly can use SharePoint communication sites to build your intranet. But having SharePoint doesn’t automatically mean you have to use it ‘as is’ for your intranet.

Here are your only intranet system choices to discuss with your team.

1. Hand-build your intranet using SharePoint ‘as is’ (vanilla ‘out-of-the-box’)

Your intranet in SharePoint Online will likely be made up of around 25 (or more) individual sites.

To build a cohesive intranet, you’ll want a central hub site as the main entry point for everyone. This hub site or home site provides the intranet-wide navigation menu for all associated sites.

You need to understand access permissions, and how such permissions sync across all associated sites (and no others). And you’ll want to consider search scopes for ‘the intranet’ and ‘the whole of SharePoint’.

Yes, you can enjoy laying out a nice home page with news and web parts (widgets) but you’ll want to be clear on how news articles get published – seeing as (for example) HR could potentially publish news only on their site.

To be clear, aside from changing a few colours, every SharePoint intranet basically looks the same. Your colleagues won’t be particularly impressed with the look and feel if they’re expecting something totally ‘on brand’.

And of course, SharePoint may not do everything you need. While Microsoft frequently improves it and releases new functionality across the Microsoft / Office 365 suite, when you find something SharePoint cannot do you’ll either need to accept that limit or build your own solutions with Microsoft Power Apps and workflows. Perfectly possible, but who will maintain such bespoke solutions over the years ahead?

1.1  Enhance your SharePoint intranet with add-on widgets

Considering the limits of SharePoint, and the maintenance risks of managing your own Power Apps solutions, a simple way to improve your SharePoint intranet is with add-one web parts from the official Microsoft store, App Source. Your IT colleague may also recommend solutions from Github.

There are hundreds of tiny apps you can add – many don’t do much! – so you’ll want to have a very good idea of what you’re looking for (your requirements, your objectives) before you browse or search the store.

Apps or web parts can be plugged into your SharePoint environment by your SharePoint administrator, so talk with your IT contact before going shopping.

You’ll note that apps and web parts are developed by third-party companies, so do a little due diligence to ensure you’re not buying an app that’s been abandoned. Prices vary from free to hundreds of dollars.

Top tip – think about the systems and software you organisation already uses and look for their app or web part.

As a further thought, you could have your own bespoke apps or web parts developed. Perhaps by your in-house software team or an external agency.

2. Transform SharePoint with an in-a-box intranet product

When fiddling with individual widgets and web parts isn’t enough to create a decent digital experience, consider totally transforming SharePoint with an ‘in-a-box’ intranet add on.

These intranet solutions rely on SharePoint, but enhance the end user and admin experience, adding UI improvements and new functionality. We’ve reviewed near a dozen in-a-box intranet solutions for SharePoint – download our report for free and start considering your options.

Once deployed, many of your colleagues won’t even notice that SharePoint is ‘underneath’ your intranet!

Remember that while SharePoint may feel free, it isn’t; you’re paying Microsoft for licences and investing a good deal of time to plan, design, and build your own intranet. So you want to get your money’s worth. If SharePoint seems clunky and people avoid it, spending more to enhance the overall experience can make sense for larger orgs. Compare the costs of some in-a-box solutions with SharePoint + Viva.

3. Complement or ignore SharePoint with an off-the-shelf standalone intranet product

Shockingly, it’s not illegal to dump your SharePoint intranet and start a brand-new intranet without it. There are loads of brilliant standalone intranet systems that don’t need SharePoint.

So, strategically, you could decide to rely on Microsoft 365 for collaboration and productivity, while using something else for comms and engagement. If an intranet’s success is based on adoption and use, then you may just find it’s worth running a separate system if it helps you achieve your objectives. Really, your choice is between using or transforming SharePoint, as above, or moving off SharePoint for your employee communications, leaving SharePoint for documents and collaboration. Many standalone intranet vendors understand that most organisations have Microsoft Office 365, and so their intranet systems can integrate with Microsoft tech.

We’ve reviewed over a dozen standalone intranet systems, some of which offer very advanced capabilities across multiple channels. Compare the scores with the ‘in-a-box’ products for SharePoint and consider your priorities.

Your IT colleagues will likely point out that you already have SharePoint. You’ll want to consider your organisation’s objectives around employee engagement, empowerment, and communications, based on the shape of your workforce. When you consider your audience segments and your channel mix, you will or won’t be able to justify spending more on your employee systems. We don’t ignore budget when advising clients on software selection, but whatever solutions you consider, we do believe that investing in employee systems is about investing in employees.

Remember mobile and the frontline

As a penultimate thought; as you build your requirements and consider the additional or enhanced capabilities you need within your digital workplace, remember mobile users and frontline workers.

While an intranet may serve desk-based knowledge workers very well, think about those people who only open their laptop once a week, or those who are customer facing (either virtually or in-person) for 95% of their day. Consider the percentage of such frontline workers in your organisation, and how important it is to reach them. What about using an employee app?

Some intranet platforms are more than intranets – they’re evolving into omni-channel communication management platforms. Don’t let your stakeholders think that an intranet is just an ‘internal website’.

The choice is yours

I say these are your only choices, but of course you could continue to use 1990-style network drives and just email out things to people every 22 minutes. Like, what size organisation really needs an intranet?

We occasionally help organisations plan their very first intranet, but most organisations with 100+ people already have an intranet of some kind – just an ageing one.

Maybe your focus is just on broadcast communications and so you use your intranet like an internal news website. Or maybe it’s mostly about providing access to HR documents, with no daily use to speak of. But more mature intranets support self-service; they’re about reference pages (‘how to’ guidance) rather than PDF and Word docs and they help people manage their work and careers without having to ask HR and IT for help all the time. Add in some employee channels (for feedback, and peer-to-peer support) and you’ve got yourself a digitally empowered culture!

And then there’s operations – your ops teams know how to work even without technology!

Central service teams, like Finance and HR, could learn a lot from ops teams. Imagine how streamlined those hard-working ops teams could be if getting odd things done (the rare tasks) could be achieved via good tech and without asking the longest-serving member for help.

The choice is yours, or it should be. A corporate technology strategy should not foist a SharePoint intranet upon an organisation that needs more – digitally developed or culture-reliant organisations (like charities and younger companies) need more than document control and badly organised pages – they need spaces and places for expression, ideation, open conversation and direct contact with leadership.

An in-a-box intranet product or a wholly separate standalone intranet platform might well provide just what your people need. Budget for it – this is about employee engagement, not merely a tech platform. Share the budget-burden between departments and create a truly org-wide phenomenon.

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.

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