ugly duckling staring at reflection
The SharePoint Virtual Summit can be summed up by two moments: one visionary and one utilitarian PHOTO: SVERRIR THOROLFSSON

Two moments summarized Microsoft's May 17 SharePoint Virtual Summit for me:

One was a quote from SharePoint VP Jeff Teper, "Intranets aren't just a project for some people, it's a career." This was followed by a discussion about how people felt they could make a positive impact in their company by driving the digital workplace

The second was during a demonstration by Naomi Moneypenny, senior product manager at Microsoft, where she copied a table in Word and pasted it into SharePoint without the layout fouling up. This received whoops and applause like it was a glimpse into Utopia.

On the one hand, we have Teper and colleagues showing an impressive vision and roadmap that strongly aligns with a digital workplace agenda, moving at considerable pace and advancing on a wide range of fronts — not just intranets, but the team collaboration, business data, search and workflow fronts too.

On the other hand, we have a demo of a simple cut and paste that should have been easy a decade ago. But it's only now we see a user experience that is simple, direct and reliable. The cheers honored those who have suffered the ire of non-technical users for years, users indignant that they can't just get on with the job (and rightly so).

A Boost for Communications

Microsoft has only really woken up to the role of SharePoint as an intranet in the last few years. For internal communicators, the most interesting unveil was a new "Communication site."

SharePoint Communication site
SharePoint Communication site, web browser and mobile app, side by sidePHOTO: Microsoft

The Communication site features hero images, news and options to add calendars, videos and reference documents onto the page. Within-page playback of videos is a nice touch. Everything is responsive, news works well on the SharePoint app, and Microsoft even demonstrated page creation from a mobile device.

The result certainly looks a leap forward from SharePoint 2013, not just for users but also for intranet editors. Adding web parts is far more intuitive than before, as is selecting multi-column layouts and drag-and-drop of images straight onto the page. Pages have likes, views and comments, which adds useful feedback. Simple analytics show the most popular stories, and more features are planned.

Adding features to a page and changing the layout is much more intuitive in SharePoint mobile app
Adding features to a page and changing the layout is much more intuitivePHOTO: Microsoft

What Wasn’t Said

What I didn’t see is something that looks like a fully-fledged news center for internal communicators. By this, I mean a way to create news articles that can then be cross-published to sites either manually or with metadata to automatically target audiences. 

Also apparently absent is scheduled publishing, approval workflow or the ability to move news from a ‘hero feature’ to a ‘thumbnail’ item. Being SharePoint, these things can always be added, but given how often they are needed it would have been welcome to see them built-in. 

Pages can now have comments, but it's unclear where those comments live. They really should have been integrated with Yammer, but they seem to be a separate system — not even integrated with the old Newsfeed. 

Speaking of Yammer, it got a healthy number of mentions, but the integration demonstrated was the same old embed method. After all these years, Yammer still feels out on a limb and Microsoft is still saying “a new web part is coming.”

What ‘Intranet’ Means to Microsoft

There’s a tacit mental model at play with the Office 365 team about what an intranet means. Over the years, Microsoft's use of the term has most strongly aligned with large team and business-unit collaboration and communication rather than company-wide. The intranet Microsoft employees use falls in this mold: thousands of loosely aggregated sites.

This view isn’t right or wrong. Arguably it leads to more collaborative and locally useful sites. However, many companies also want corporate and divisional news with a formal element driven by internal communications. 

SharePoint still won’t deliver this in 2017. Even things like global navigation management will take some roll-up-your sleeves work. 

Still Room for Intranet-in-a-Box Products

I’ve written several times about the growing market for products that add an intranet on top of SharePoint. Many of these deliver the kind of news center features missing above, and several handle global navigation management very well. The best also work hard to plug other continuity gaps in the product, gaps that still look unplugged.

However, I expect the sales challenge for some of the vendors just got a little bit harder. Companies want a good-looking intranet, and SharePoint just got much closer to fulfilling that need on its own. Mobile responsiveness was also a driver for these products, and with the addition of Modern Team sites and Modern Lists, the mobile experience from SharePoint is now fine as it is. 

Don’t Mention the ‘G’ Word

The new tools are undoubtedly powerful. To some they might be a little too powerful. For example, when I create a news story, it acts like any other page that I can put web parts on. If I wanted I could build something that looks like a whole sub-site within that page. 

Other elements of Office 365 also open cans of super-worms. In Teams I can add a connector to a SharePoint page — and in that page add all the documents from the site. When I create a Group for email purposes, I also create a SharePoint site and document library, even if I don’t want them. If you're not careful, the SharePoint Sites directory soon gets very cluttered with zombie sites. 

All of the above are consistent with how I think Microsoft's free-form and collaborative view of intranets. However, the number of “Teams or Groups or Yammer?” questions coming up during the event reflect widespread confusion. Maybe Delve will eventually make it all navigable again, but not every company wants to work this way. 

If your working culture isn’t a match for a low-governance approach, deploying Office 365 will continue to feel like herding jelly.

A Beautiful Swan?

So has Microsoft managed to close the gap between its vision and its execution? 

Not quite. 

It is quickly moving in the right direction, and nearly everything announced will be welcome, especially by smaller organizations. However, many of the companies I talk to would prefer a little more integration and a little less haste.