Microsoft SharePoint has conquered the enterprise intranet. Although the conquest is never as bloody nor expensive as more invasive wars, such as those by the Mongols under Genghis Khan, intranet users are not always thrilled by the structure and usability of SharePoint under Gates Khan. Though not used for conquering, SharePoint is used by many communicators as the main intranet or digital workplace technology platform.
SharePoint is present in 80% of the Fortune 100; and plays a prominent intranet role in about 70% of knowledge worker intranets (either powering the main intranet portal, or delivering associated collaboration sites and/or document repositories). This in spite of its history.
Older versions of SharePoint left little to be desired, but Microsoft heard the feedback and invested millions in improving the leading intranet and digital workplace solution. SharePoint 2013 represented a leap forward, and became more user-friendly, particularly for communicators who produce and manage internal news. SharePoint 2016 and Office 365 represented considerable improvement in terms of content management, social and search. Office 365, the online, cloud-based version of Microsoft Office, includes SharePoint Online, plus many other solutions and tools, and resembles a true, complex digital workplace solution.
SharePoint 2019 has become a truly mobile-friendly solution (when using the “modern UX”), with a number of improvements to collaboration (particularly Teams) and hybrid-cloud computing and hosting.
There are a lot of reasons to buy into or upgrade to SharePoint 2016 or 2019: the latest iteration of Microsoft’s portal-web development platform represents a massive, multi-million -dollar upgrade on previous versions of SharePoint (which were typically oversold given its underwhelming if not frustrating performance and lack of execution). SharePoint 2019 is a massive upgrade from 2013: noticeable improvements to social computing (social networking via Delve and Teams), mobile computing (responsive design with “modern” pages and a dedicated mobile app), better Office integration, cloud and hybrid integration, search and more.
Delve profile site in Office 365 captures SharePoint activity
THE LATEST IN SHAREPOINT
SharePoint Online in Office 365, which is not only feature and function parity with SharePoint 2019, in some cases, it’s more rich. Though some problems persist, the bugs and challenges are not as persistent as 2010 and 2013. The obvious improvements are particularly helpful to business owners and communicators:
- Content management – enhanced publishing and management interface (employing the ‘ribbon’ from Office).
- Social – enhanced social networking (nearly completely lacking in 2010), the evolution of My Sites into Delve, and the introduction of Microsoft Teams, with integration and upgrades to Skype for Business, and Yammer.
- Search – search is much improved with the full integration with the FAST search engine, but requires some configuration work.
- Cloud – applications and software, data, and computing needs are accessed, stored, and occur over the Internet or the cloud, or a hybrid of cloud and on-premises.
- Mobile – enhanced mobile access experience (of course, this was promised for SP2010 and 2013 and it fell embarrassingly short) with a true responsive experience using ‘modern’ pages, and a dedicated mobile app for employees; not mobile-friendly using the “classic UX”
- Branding – the new “modern pages” are slick and responsive; it can be more challenging to implement new custom designs the original “classic UX”, and MS has openly cautioned against customizing the home page when using the modern experience.
There are far more pros than cons, but there should be at the price MS charges. These are all very good for corporate communicators, and internal communications who typically own the ‘front-end’ or the intranet user experience (UX). It’s easy to publish news and corporate content, and easy to update. Creating a truly custom user experience is more tricky and expensive, but easily executed with an experienced .NET development team.
MODERN VS CLASSIC
The new ‘modern’ experience in SharePoint perhaps represents the most visible improvement to SharePoint, from the corporate communicator’s perspective.
“SharePoint 2019 catches up the modern experience that’s been available in Office 365 so that organizations that are running internal infrastructure can take advantage of the new modern pages,” says Robert Bogue, founder of Thor Projects. “It makes designing responsive sites easier than ever before.”
Most of the SharePoint intranet portals that are available today are based on the Classic UX. Office 365 (SharePoint Online) and SharePoint 2019 both offer classic and modern UX.
The standard way of deploying a classic SharePoint is by developing the custom master page and the page layouts. The modern UX is an out-of-the-box approach where you can choose different templates and color schemes. It deploys fast, and the solution is fully mobile responsive. And it has a dedicated mobile app. Modern cannot be truly, fully customized (without problems). Classic can be customized, but is not fully responsive.
Depicting Modern vs Classic, by Content Formula
Speaking of conquest, the Chinese learned a few tough lessons from their Mongol invaders the hard way, and built the Great Wall. That didn’t work out so well for the Chinese, who were conquered and ruled by the Mongols for nearly a couple of centuries. Nor do walls work well for communicators in collaborative environments. Although a firewall is a requisite with any intranet, not just a SharePoint intranet, walls kill collaboration and employee collaboration, knowledge management (knowledge sharing) and content management.
For global organizations, like those featured at this year’s Digital Workplace & Intranet Global Forum, the key to a communicator’s success is breaking down walls and geographic and cultural silos. Content management and social tools cannot work in isolation; the digital workplace must continually breakdown walls and seek connections between disparate employee groups.
“Decentralized content management isn’t just a no-brainer, it is a must have for enterprises looking to drive an immersive and connected employee experience,” says David Maffei, President and CRO at Akumina. “The key is to enable an organization to spread content management responsibilities across a wider swath of leaders, contributors and thought leaders.”
Breaking down walls, and spreading the responsibilities and accountabilities across all areas of the enterprise — a key requirement to ensuring value from SharePoint.
“By managing content through an abstracted system, organizations avoid the hassle of duplicating and recreating content on different pages, templates and sites,” adds Maffei.
“This approach helps to increase the volume and quality of content by having subject matter experts directly involved in content creation rather than funneling it through a communications team. Combine this with content-author accountability around creating content that is useful, sticky and consumable and you start to develop a 360-degree view of what content is needed, what content is required and what content is overflow.”
Content management, regardless of the solution (SharePoint or other), works best when it is decentralized, and spread across the organization. When content management is consolidated, with a single team, like corporate or internal communications, then great value is lost in the process. Content needs to be created and shared across the organization, regardless of how they access the digital workplace.
“The reach of a communicator changes when you’re using Office 365 with modern pages and the new approach to news,” adds Bogue. “Now we can get news to employees even in their mobile SharePoint application. In a world of mobile application experiences, we can now reach in and deliver news where users are.”
The same is true of social collaboration tools. Social works best not when the tools work in isolated silos, but are integrated into the home page and other digital tools.
Yammer is still a stand-alone tool that is not easily integrated into other parts of the intranet. There’s not even a natural link to it from SharePoint out-of-the-box. Microsoft though is slowly learning this lesson the hard way: finally, years after purchasing the floundering microblogging platform, Yammer has now been integrated into Microsoft Teams. And Teams, with integration into SharePoint, Outlook, Skype, and other Office tools, is becoming the ultimate social collaboration tool on the intranet because it’s breaking down these walls.
Microsoft Teams is an interesting addition to Office 365; many liken Teams as Redmond’s answer to Slack. It’s a little more involved than Slack, but hardly as cool. It does, however, integrate with SharePoint Online, and Skype, and is definitely worth a look if you’re already a Microsoft customer. Despite some pundit reports, Microsoft Teams is not a replacement for Yammer, but a completely different tool.
Yammer integration into Teams
The threaded discussions and file sharing reminds the user of Slack, but it also comes with traditional SharePoint libraries, and wikis. Additionally, within Teams a user can initiate chat or video calls. There are tons of integration points and additions with other third-party tools (we’ve integrated in Asana for project management) in addition to Yammer.
And now, Microsoft has just announced the integration of voice mail into Teams. Now you can leave voice mail messages with your Teams connections.
Select a voicemail in your list and use the playback controls to listen to the recording or read a transcript (if it’s available).
Walls and social tools aside, there are a few more salient, key lessons that should be emphasized when implementing and working with SharePoint, that all communicators need to understand:
- Licensing represents a fraction of the cost
- Planning and governance are mission critical – mission critical
- Social collaboration doesn’t just happen, it’s earned
- Content management needs to be decentralized with responsibility spread widely
- Change management is the key to success; employees and content creators need a lot of education and marketing
SharePoint is very good for a small to medium-size intranet in a .NET environment that requires a web development platform focused on enterprise content management and search. It can work for a large enterprise, but it is not cheap, typically requires a lot of work and customization of the “classic” experience, and doesn’t always work as promised. SharePoint cannot be everything to everyone, though Microsoft is working hard to make it happen.
How can a communicator get the most out of SharePoint? Watch the video replay of the webinar SharePoint for Communicators: Content Management & Empowering Content Creation
Toby Ward is long-time writer and speaker, and the founder of intranet and digital workplace consulting firm Prescient Digital Media. His annual conference, the Digital Workplace & Intranet Global Forum is North America’s premier intranet conference for digital workplace best practices. The 2019 Digital Workplace & Intranet Global Forum features speakers from British Airways, Coca-Cola, IBM, Google, Liberty Mutual, and many others.