boy standing in the midst of electronic parts, building something
PHOTO: Kevin Jarrett

Over the last few years Microsoft has started talking about SharePoint much more in terms of intranets rather than it being a more general "platform." At Ignite 2018 in September for example, presenters used the phrase "build your modern intranet with SharePoint" at several points, and announced a range of valuable intranet-related features.

Some organizations I speak to are therefore asking if they can build an intranet in SharePoint without any kind of add-on product or custom development. Having just finished evaluating over 50 in-a-box intranet products for an annual buyer’s guide, I too have been asking myself, “what’s the value-add of these products if you already have modern SharePoint?”

Related Article: Why It's Time to Update Your Legacy SharePoint Intranet

The Short Answer? ‘It Depends’

Most organizations will still need to augment SharePoint somehow unless they are prepared to keep things very simple.

In the diagram below, I compare the capabilities of SharePoint with those added by most in-a-box products and those only common in high-end products. The diagram also shows things that have been announced on the SharePoint roadmap but not yet released (approach some of these with caution as Microsoft has only shown brief demos publicly).

comparison of SharePoint intranets

The comparison is based on SharePoint Online with Office 365 using the modern features. If you’re using SharePoint classic (e.g. publishing sites), then the starting point is much more basic and it's pretty much a given you'll need to do custom development. The same applies to SharePoint 2013 and 2016 on-premises. For SharePoint 2019, things are better with communication sites and the modern UX, but remember the omission of hub sites imposes significant limitations.

SharePoint Intranet Ambitions

The diagram also considers levels of ambition for an intranet from ‘Basic’ through to ‘Advanced.’ I'm not aiming to define some kind of maturity model for intranets, but as there’s no simple answer to "can I just use SharePoint," we need a yardstick for understanding levels of complexity, because not all intranets are the same.

‘Basic’ and ‘modest’ will most likely apply to organizations that operate in a small number or areas and have a single focus, such as one product or service. Typically, everyone will use the same home page and the navigation will go one layer deep to each department or topic area.

As we move towards the ’mature’ end of the scale, people typically want a more targeted intranet, for example by language, role or division. The intranet purpose also becomes more sophisticated, being more a hub of activity than a place for news and reference information.

Related Article: How to Personalize Your Intranet

How Far Can Hub Sites Go?

Hub sites pull together communication and team sites under one collection, and automatically aggregate changes such as news from the associated sites. Think for example, of a hub site for a national sales department and seven regional sales team sites associated with it. Currently though hub sites have some frustrating limitations. Microsoft has said nested hub sites — one of the most frequent requests — are "top of mind" but the company has not yet put this on its formal roadmap. Many in-a-box products therefore act as a fully functional hub site alternative.

Microsoft has also said it plans to release a mega-menu ability for hub sites. This makes them more viable as an intranet home page, but note that other sites can only be associated with one hub, so the model won’t scale very far.

Related Article: Hub Sites Raises SharePoint's Intranet Potential

Finding the Audience Target

Also on Microsoft's roadmap is audience targeting as a form of personalization. This lets you configure news so it only appears for certain groups in your active directory. It is valuable when you only want segments of your employees to see something, for example, if you have a different expenses policy in each country, you can lock it to only appear to members of the country group. It’s not as helpful if you only want to highlight news to one group without making it invisible to other groups.

What’s missing for communicators is a tool for creating a news center. Many in-a-box products add this: a single place to create news and then syndicate it across multiple delivery points based on user profiles. News centers make it much easier to schedule and manage corporate communications. Microsoft has mentioned plans for "personalization" as well as targeting, but it will likely still be a decentralized "publish anywhere and collate" model, so more similar in feel to Yammer.

Multinational organizations are also missing a way to manage content across languages. You can create sites in different languages, but there’s no sense that “Announcement ABC” in English is the same as “Anuncio ABC” in Spanish. The better in-a-box tools will take the English version, create a machine-translated draft, let you polish and approve it, then also alert you if the English version changes again.

Related Article: Is Microsoft Teams the 'Portal' We've Been Looking For?

SharePoint Intranets: To Build, Buy or Wait?

I asked this question back in March 2017. At the time the trade-off focus was firmly between build versus buy. If you are about to upgrade an intranet, I would only rely on "wait" for things publicly on Microsoft’s roadmap with a clear release date.

Some buyers worry that in-a-box products will mean they end up paying twice for functionality, but many products are now aligned with the ‘Modern SharePoint’ approach and already have the future roadmap releases factored into their designs. 

Of course every organization is different, but I believe good intranets have so much value to add to an organization, it is better to get a strong head-start and choose a route that allows you to grow. And in most cases that still means buying an add-on product.

Acknowledgements:  My thanks to Flemming Goldbach, Laurent Elmaleh, Frédéric Le Pors and Knut Relbe-Moe for helping to sense-check the diagram.