young girl, patiently waiting
Whatever path you take with your SharePoint intranet, know this: you've got options PHOTO: Li Wubin

Over the last two years, organizations have dramatically changed how they approach creating new intranets on SharePoint. 

Instead of partnering with a development agency, they are looking for ready-made, easily adaptable and quickly deployable solutions.

Products such as Interchange, LiveTiles, Powell 365, Unily and Wizdom offer businesses a fast-track start. In my recent review of 26 of these solutions, the proposition's appeal became clear, even for relatively large organizations.

Consider All of the SharePoint Intranet Players

Microsoft is also making strides in this area. 

The formerly terrible user interface is getting a whole lot better with the advent of SharePoint 2016 and Office 365. Indeed, anything sprinkled with the magical "modern" prefix (Modern Team Sites, Modern Lists) is both simple and responsive across mobile to desktop devices. 

Given that many of the out-of-the-box products used the poor UI as their entry-point, you might wonder if it would be simpler just to wait for Microsoft to finish its refurbishments.

Unfortunately, Microsoft has a track record of prioritizing new features rather than refining the old ones. 

Consider its long-overdue Yammer integration, the neglect of metadata and its current team collaboration mess with Teams, Team Sites and Groups. The response from some vendors is to try to tidy things up. 

Others take a more arms-length approach and provide a whole new application that "talks" to SharePoint rather than working within it. Given nobody deploys an intranet without doing some kind of work, it is worth considering some ready-made options before in-house development.

Ready-Made = A Quicker Start

The main advantage of buying a ready-made solution is that many vendors can do a basic installation in a day or two, and configure a workable intranet in a matter of weeks (for example, Attollo and Powell 365). This reduces risks, but more importantly, it gives much more time to focus on the other aspects of an intranet that we know matter most: great content, collaboration features, proper resourcing and a real focus on supporting adoption

We're also now seeing some vendors offer more targeted solutions, for example, aimed at smaller companies, such as SP Intranet or PortalGo.

The positives of ready-made

Across the products we saw, the emphasis tends to be on intranets with an internal communications focus. The major gains are:

  • Management and publishing of news will be much closer to a dedicated communications CMS feature set, with things like targeting and multi-channel publishing (consider, for example Wizdom or Kira)
  • An attractive user experience, including a responsive design that works on mobile devices (Unily and Bonzai come to mind)
  • Better integration of social features (such as commenting on news) than Microsoft offer (Akumina Interchange or EasyShare are good examples)
  • In some cases, enhanced governance for site creation and usage statistics (e.g. FLEX or Attini)
  • Vendors take on much of the burden of updates to keep in step with Microsoft releases

The negatives of ready-made

As you may expect with a ready-made approach, these products require some compromise in flexibility and costs:

  • The basic styling is part of what you're buying, so make sure you like it. You can change company branding and colors, but most products have a fundamental 'look' that is hard to change. The good news is most of the interfaces are attractive
  • Fewer solutions cover the collaboration side of SharePoint. Your Team Sites are likely to remain largely untouched if you buy at the cheaper end
  • There are often ongoing license costs that you'd have avoided if you had paid for the customization. Buyers will need to consider carefully the total cost of ownership between a one-off build (with maintenance) and ongoing licensing commitment
  • Few products are strong on analytics or workflow, meaning you should factor further budget in for additional products such as Nintex and CardioLog
  • Many of these products are pretty new as branded offerings. This lack of maturity means a heightened risk of product issues, gaps in capability or issues with vendor stability
  • An out-of-the-box solution complicates the support model. Problems therefore face more steps in the resolution process, and increase the risk of buck-passing between you, the vendor and Microsoft

My overall impression is that the positives will outweigh the negatives in the great majority of cases, especially when you factor in lower risk and speed of deployment.

What to Expect From Microsoft

Microsoft still seems to have something of a blind spot when it comes to corporate intranets. 

Much of what is offered still focuses on small group collaboration, such as Teams and Office 365 Groups, but falls short when it comes to publishing and web content management. Given the prevalence of SharePoint in the intranet space and the dominance of internal communications functions as intranet owners within organizations, this situation is mildly baffling.

The new Team Site News, for example, would not scale readily to be a corporate news publishing platform. In turn, the mobile experience for published content and site-wide navigation continues to fall short, and it is things like this that cause many SharePoint customers to turn to third parties to plug the gap. 

A further reason is that not every company wishes to move to the cloud, and the on-premises feature set of SharePoint 2016 is falling behind. For example, social features for on-premises users are unchanged since 2013.

Some of the leading vendors we looked at are anticipating the next wave by making it easier to run hybrid intranets. This allows companies to keep sensitive data on-premises, whilst exploiting the cost benefits of a cloud-based approach for things like published news and employee directories.

Finally, there’s a shift to products branded as "digital workplace." Typically these offer more apps or third party integrations, although the integrations may well require custom set-up from the vendor. 

Harout Katerjian, product manager at Emgage, noted Microsoft appears to be breaking up elements in Office 365 that were cohesive in SharePoint. Some products are therefore looking to put them back together in a more coherent way.

You've Got Choices

My first look at this space a year ago covered six readily-available products. There are now over 40 on the market. 

Such a range of options means you have a good chance to find a vendor that matches your location and requirements. This is a good thing, as for all the benefits an out-of-the-box product brings, you also sacrifice flexibility. 

Let this serve as your reminder: it is more important than ever that you know your intranet needs first, and then find the product that closely matches your needs.