Jeff Teper on stage at SharePoint Conference 2019

Microsoft held its annual SharePoint conference this May in Las Vegas. Traditionally this is when the company reveals new roadmaps, and releases the features promised at the previous September Ignite event. I was intrigued to attend and wanted to share a sense of not just what was announced, but also what seemed to capture people’s attention from a digital workplace perspective.

Intelligent Intranet and Search

Every year Microsoft seems to have a theme for what SharePoint "is," and this year it is the "intelligent intranet." Personally, I didn’t get a strong sense of where the intelligence was supposed to be. There were some broad statements about personalized experiences, but the main change seems to be the introduction of Microsoft Search.

Microsoft Search is replacing SharePoint search, and the new search is intelligent in that it tries to make smart suggestions as you type. This announcement wasn’t new for the conference, but the demonstration made it clearer what it means, and it is good news. 

One of the frustrations to date has been that if you search Office 365 in different places such as SharePoint, OneDrive or the Office 365 home page, you get considerably different results, each presented in a different way. Microsoft Search standardizes that, placing the search bar top and center across the Office 365 experience.

Microsoft Search main search bar

Microsoft Search Across Applications
New central search bar will appear across Office 365 PHOTO: Microsoft

The level of integration is long overdue. Results are still segregated into blocks, which isn’t ideal, but finally Yammer and Teams conversations will appear alongside SharePoint results, for example.

Going further, your Office applications will have the same search built-in. A really handy scenario is when you are inside PowerPoint and search for another presentation, you’ll see individual slides within the results and be able to drop them into your own deck.

Microsoft’s Jeff Teper used the phrase "answers not links" (an expression I’ve used for many years about how enterprise search needs to improve). It still has a long way to go, but the first encouraging step is that search results can be blocks of text. The demonstration showed someone typing “paternity leave” and seeing an answer from a found HR page.

The answer blocks may come from automated analysis of content such as policies, though this sounds risky to me. Most intranet managers are likely to prefer the second route, which is that an admin can also add a ready-made answer as a best bet, and different answers can be given based on the user’s profile such as the country they work in.

Related Article: Is Microsoft Search the Solution to Finding Information in Office 365?

Home Sites and the SharePoint Roadmap

SharePoint home sites
SharePoint home sites PHOTO: Microsoft

Jed Cawthorne has done a great job of summarizing what SharePoint home sites do. The home site takes on the "portal" role for your organization's intranet. When you click on your company logo in the Office 365 top bar, you will be taken to this home site.

Although this was a headline announcement at the conference, audience reaction was mixed. Some viewed the home site as just a communication or hub site with some suitable configurations to the search scope and news metadata. However, the more enthusiastic saw it as the missing link in SharePoint offering a full intranet solution out of the box.

I see it as a modest but welcome step forward. People are struggling to navigate across Office 365, and home sites give a sensible starting point for orientation. However, what Microsoft didn’t say is the mega-menu of a home site will persist. This is the kind of behavior common in corporate intranets that feel like one cohesive site. I take this to mean that the menu will only persist across other sites if the home site is a hub site, and all other sites are connected to it (see my earlier article Hub Sites Raise SharePoint's Intranet Potential).

The expert consensus seemed to be that organizations of more than a few hundred employees should still look to intranet in-a-box products. Microsoft tacitly acknowledged this by revealing 15 official home site partners such as Wizdom and Debble whose intranet products will build on the basic functionality and extend it.

More exciting to me was the news that multi-lingual intranets have moved from "top of mind" to on the roadmap for 2019. While few details were offered about how this would work, it will likely be the creation of extra pages that have the same content in another language and the ability to toggle between these alternatives. It doesn’t sound like machine translation will be formally built in.

Related Article: SharePoint's Creep Into the Enterprise: What Comes Next?

Kaizala

I enjoyed a session on Kaizala, a corporate WhatsApp-like tool that’s now been made available worldwide, having grown well in Asia.

I’d had reservations about the prospect of yet another messaging tool in the Office 365 line-up, but the compelling use-case for me was as a way to engage a seasonal workforce. You wouldn’t give an email account to people who were picking fruit for a few months, for example, but with Kaizala you can on-board them just with a cell phone number. Kaizala can then be used to share shift information, give news updates and run surveys.

A really useful feature is that you can invite people based on location using GPS (e.g. anyone within 100 meters for the next 10 minutes), perfect for a quick ‘town hall’ gathering using Kaizala for polls and Q&A.

Related Article: What Is Microsoft Kaizala?

Yammer

Yammer too got several mentions, though attendance on the official roadmap session was sparse.

A new ‘conversations’ web part for modern SharePoint means that users can now fully interact with topics, replying within SharePoint rather than having to go into Yammer to do more than read messages. Soon, users will also be able to flag a post as a "question" and then flag a response as a "best answer," a feature often seen in consumer product support discussion boards.

As always with Office 365, there is much to improve, but Microsoft deserves credit for focusing on continued integration and ease of use, rather than just adding tools.