Here's a paradox for you: although the majority of enterprise intranets are built on SharePoint, SharePoint historically has had few built-in features that perform basic intranet functions. Stand-alone intranet products such as Igloo, Intranet Connections, Thought Farmer and Interact all offer ready-made widgets that every intranet user would recognize, such as news, lunch menu, room booking, job openings etc. SharePoint has only recently added news.

For a long time SharePoint operated under the maxim that it was a "platform," on top of which such things could be conjured up using secret incantations such as "custom list" and "server-side solutions." It was a little like the way a can of peas has an appealing serving suggestion printed on it so that it looks like a full meal, but all the tin holds are the peas.

This left the market wide open for the intranet in-a-box products I explored in my last column. But this month Microsoft will start rolling out "hub sites." Hub sites, coupled with last year’s communication sites, give many features that bring you much closer to a ready-to-go intranet.

SharePoint Communication Sites

Communication sites were launched in 2017 for Office 365 customers. They are much easier to work with than SharePoint sites of old, with a modern editing experience similar to Medium blogs or LinkedIn Pulse posts. Communication sites work best for simple news and visually-rich content presentation (think "digital brochures").

However, communication sites also have significant limitations, making them most suitable for micro-sites around a single topic.

SharePoint communication sites make it easy to create attractive layouts.
SharePoint communication sites make it easy to create attractive layouts.

Adding content is very easy in communication sites, with the ability to select the type of content you want to add (a web part) and then when adding the content itself.  The list of suitable web parts is growing, with video, forms, charts and even Kindle books now supported. Note however, you can’t use the older style web parts from previous SharePoint versions.

The range of content formats that can be added in SharePoint is growing steadily.
The range of content formats that can be added is growing steadily.

Communication sites offer some layout flexibility, such as multiple columns and presentation styles for images. The building-block approach allows the pages to stay mobile-friendly, because the blocks move around as the page resizes. Just don’t expect the kind of precise control over layout that you’d get with a web package.

Text editing tools are fairly limited in SharePoint's Hub sites, but keeps sites looking relatively clean and uniform.
Text editing tools are fairly limited, but keeps sites looking relatively clean and uniform.

Related Article Series: Tackling SharePoint Intranet Requirements

SharePoint Hub Sites

Microsoft is pitching hub sites as a way to pull multiple communication and team sites together. Imagine you have five regional sales teams, each with a team site for collaboration, and two communication sites with news and updates. You can connect these to an overarching hub site as a gateway, without having to create the sites as a single hierarchical collection.

Once selected, the hub site will aggregate news from all the connected sites. If you use the SharePoint mobile app you’ll have seen something similar because it already aggregates news from all the sites you follow. The difference is the hub site will be a curated, rather than individual experience.

Hub sites do some other useful things:

Learning Opportunities

  1. They add a consistent branding across all sites (overriding the original branding, which may upset some people).
  2. They add a persistent menu, making it easier to move between the linked sites.
  3. If you search within the hub site, it will also search all linked sites.
  4. A handy news digest option lets you collate selected news stories to go out as an email summary, with images and links.

Related Article: Ready-Made SharePoint Intranets in 2018

Welcome to Intranets Lite

So in principle, you could have a hub site as your intranet home page, pull in corporate news from a communication site, and also give each department a team site for additional news items.

Does this spell the end of intranet ready-made products for SharePoint? I think for relatively small companies of 100 employees or fewer it will be attractive. This is a huge market for Office 365 and will be a valuable addition to communicating and collaborating in a more structured way.

The introduction of hub sites will put pressure on in-a-box vendors that focus on this end of the market. The pressure is probably a little unfair — their products are much richer — but it’s a harder sell when the intranet superficially looks much more attractive than SharePoint of old.

Related Article: A Look at Nielsen Norman Group's Top Intranets of 2018

Hub Site Limitations

Medium to large companies will probably soon feel themselves bumping against the limitations of hub and communication sites. Governance of communication sites is lacking, and in particular there’s no workflow around the publishing process. Anyone who has edit permissions for a site can change any element of that site. 

Similarly, it will be hard to ensure someone sees an important announcement on a hub site, because any new story will push older ones down the stack.

The way sites link into a hub site mean they can only be associated with one hub site. Hubs can’t be nested, limiting their potential for a corporate portal.

To be fair to Microsoft, it sees businesses using multiple hub sites as an additional organizing tool, not as an intranet homepage. We can expect these products to mature, and eventually be updated with workflow and personalization features. 

For now, most organizations will still need publishing sites for a top-level intranet. If you want to deal with multiple languages, publishing workflow or content targeting, you could be in for a long wait. For on premises users, there is no firm news yet about whether hub or communication sites will be included in SharePoint 2019.

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