Microsoft shared a lot about the future as Redmond sees it at last month's Ignite conference. It’s a future that looks, by turns, both inspiring and somewhat confusing. When Microsoft peeks ahead into the space-time continuum, it sees the future of communication as Skype for Business, and the future of information discovery looking a good deal like Delve and other search-based applications.
The future of teamwork through this lens looks distinctly like Office 365 Groups. Except when it resembles Yammer… or maybe SharePoint. All three together in some sort of mashup? “Where the roadmap is heading,” we were told.
Confusing? Absolutely — unless you find some good counsel to help make sense of how this can benefit your organization (call it the “Wise Man” approach to technology strategy).
Sign of Things to Come
Even more muddled post-Ignite, if you choose to look deeper, is the Microsoft platform’s answer for intranets — but it was easily one of the most important trends bubbling up at Ignite, if you got out on the conference floor and spoke with the various vendors setting up camp. Intranets are a much bigger question than just the Video Portal hardened Microsoft watchers were raving about, but that’s a part of it.
Let’s be clear: Microsoft has never claimed to offer an intranet solution. And it still isn’t. Sure, a whopping proportion of the world’s intranets are built on SharePoint every year — but Microsoft has always stopped short of calling SharePoint an intranet solution. That’s because it isn’t. SharePoint is a platform, not a packaged solution. We’ve been hearing that for years, because it’s true. But will it remain that way?
The times are definitely changing, and between Microsoft and its partners, Ignite showed us that more and more packaged solutions, using SharePoint as their baseline, are available to take some of the pain and cost out of intranet design and delivery. None of these solutions alone — these “Intranets in a box,” if you will — are being marketed as truly viable monolithic corporate intranet candidates, but they each address a specific business case that used to require moderate-to-heavy customization.
Can a truly self-contained intranet product be all that far behind? Or will one even truly be necessary in an increasingly mobile-first world?
Let’s take a look at some of Microsoft's entries into this area. Tomorrow we'll look at some of the third party contenders in this suddenly burgeoning corner of the SharePoint ecosystem, and then take a crack at answering those questions.
Word To Your Mothership: Microsoft’s 'Next Gen' Portals
Microsoft is getting into the game, and make no mistake, it is setting the agenda. There are some very good partner products here, and we will discuss them tomorrow, but in many ways they continue to represent either or both a reaction to and an extension of Microsoft’s own strategy for SharePoint Online.
Traditionally, SharePoint has been (and continues to be) a platform with a set of tools and features that make it possible for a good team — given the right approach to and knowledge of design, content, collaboration, information architecture and yes (finally), technology — to build and support an intranet portal or set of connected portals.
Ignite said loudly that things are changing on that count. Not clearly — it’s still early days yet — but definitely. For the first time, Microsoft is offering what it calls “solutions” in Office 365 that begin to address the workloads often associated with intranet functionality. Three of those solutions have a direct bearing on productivity and collaboration within the enterprise — things that often get caught up under the umbrella of the modern corporate intranet. (We’ll leave the whole Groups versus Yammer issue for another post — it’s worth a study of its own.)
Obviously, there’s the darling of last year’s SharePoint Conference, Delve — which is currently available to O365 customers and of which much has already been written. If by some chance you don’t already know about it, Delve is basically a dynamic, search-driven view of key documents and conversations found within your Exchange Online inbox and other areas of Office 365. Delve is useful on its own as one way to cut through the spam of everyday living in enterprise environments.
The real takeaway of this product’s release, however, is that it’s the first of what will likely be many more “smart” search-based applications. These products will leverage machine learning to provide a dynamic view of content that is tailored (i.e., personalized) to specific users — a common ask for intranet home pages in this day and age.
Office 365 Video Portal
Equally popular among SharePoint enthusiasts is the Office 365 Video Portal, also currently available to paying O365 customers. Built on an Azure Media Services back end — my own team constructed similar solutions on that infrastructure for several customers last year — it provides a convenient solution to the question of video sharing / streaming in the enterprise by moving the whole workload up to the cloud. We’re already seeing a number of valuable and powerful ways that customers are making use of this solution for knowledge capture and knowledge management, crowdsourcing and corporate communications.
Lastly, and still in development, is a knowledge management portal called Infopedia (based on Microsoft’s internal, SharePoint-based wiki of the same name). I’ve never understood why more organizations haven’t already built similar internal knowledge bases on their own SharePoint platforms, but I’ve found that use case for SharePoint to be less common in large enterprises than logic would suggest. In any event, this offering is purported to include more streamlined use of taxonomy and search to connect people to the information they need.
Of course, even the smartest knowledge management solution still needs people to make it work. The need for a human curator to make the call on trimming and pruning “content” into “knowledge” will remain paramount no matter how savvy machine-learning becomes. You just can’t judge the value of content by nothing but a timestamp and the number of page views it receives. A document might lie dormant for three years until the knowledge it contains saves hundreds of hours of value in the development of a new product, for instance. Infopedia will help address the knowledge management question, but it won’t be an all-in-one answer.
With each release and announcement coming from Redmond, we get another hint of where the future lies for Microsoft. Does this future contain a dedicated intranet solution? I'm not making any guesses there, but if the current releases are an indication, it's getting easier for companies to build a fairly sophisticated intranet with components provided by Microsoft — and some manner of UI and branding customization to provide a consistent user experience.
Tomorrow, some products from the third party ecosystem and a look at what this might mean for your organization.
Title image by kamshots
Title image by kamshots