forked path in the woods
PHOTO: Caleb Jones

I have a love–hate relationship with SharePoint. To some, this may sound surprising coming from someone who’s been implementing SharePoint intranets for 15 years. Others may be nodding their heads in understanding.

Despite it being featured as a market leader with 190 million users, users have expressed frustration with how unintuitive and difficult to work with SharePoint can be. Although SharePoint has shown a great deal of progress in Office 365, alternative solutions can address the issues that SharePoint users have been dealing with for years.

With this article, I look at a few SharePoint alternatives. Many vendors seek to challenge SharePoint in this space, but most appear to be better suited for smaller organizations with lower budgets that are solving only a few, specific problems. IT departments in larger organizations value having a single comprehensive platform that can serve multiple user needs. At the same time, employees value a one-stop-shop for most of their work with a single login so they can get on with their jobs.

With that, the SharePoint alternatives reviewed below are based on inclusion of the following capabilities:

  • News publishing and communication.
  • Employee services and social.
  • Knowledge management and document management.
  • Search.
  • User experience and branding.
  • Integration with other systems.

Pros and Cons of a Sitecore Intranet

Pros

  • Great user experience and branding.
  • Rich news publishing and communication.
  • Personalized content based on employee audiences.

Cons

  • Document management relies on SharePoint.
  • Employee services and social supplied by add-ons.
  • Search best delivered with add-ons.
  • Harder to implement.

Sitecore is a leader in web content management. Its robust user experience attracts many organizations to use this platform for their public websites, but it's also often used as an intranet. With features like content personalization and analytics pages, Sitecore can adapt to users based on their location, department or even interest. It also includes a wide range of integrations with other systems.

While content management features are abundant in Sitecore, many businesses I’ve worked with use SharePoint to supplement Sitecore’s document management capabilities.

Sitecore is known to rely on tools like Telligent to deliver employee services, social and chat. For a robust search, Sitecore relies on Coveo. It is therefore unsurprising that with these add ons, several Sitecore customers report higher-than-expected total cost of ownership because of unforeseen complexity in implementation, as Gartner reported in its 2018 Digital Experience review.

Just as with many larger SharePoint deployments, Sitecore implementation relies on partners, which can result in inconsistent results depending on the skill of the partner. Sitecore’s cloud capability is still in active development and refinement, which makes server deployment to be the primary option.

In essence, Sitecore appears to excel in user experience and news publishing and communication, but requires additional tools to supplement document management, social and search.

Related Article: Don't Judge Modern Intranets By Their Predecessors

Pros and Cons of a Confluence Intranet

Pros

  • Solid knowledge management capabilities.
  • Integrations with project management tools.
  • Search is contextual and predictive.
  • Integration with other systems (mostly with Atlassian suite of products).

Cons

  • User experience appears relatively basic.
  • News publishing and communication seems hard to scale.
  • Employee services and social appear rudimentary.

Confluence contains powerful knowledge management capabilities and robust news publishing and communication tools. It shows strong search, wiki and knowledge base capabilities.

It includes basic social features such as commenting and likes, although more options are available through integrations with a few different apps within the Atlassian marketplace, including tools for project collaboration.

The tool appears to lack the rich document editing capabilities many expect from an intranet.

User experience is clean and supports simple page publishing based on pre-built page templates. Despite the clean look, pages may appear plain to companies seeking the traditional richness of formatting typically seen on intranets built with Sitecore and SharePoint.

Integration capabilities are available through the company app store, but no built-in workflow authoring tool seems to be available. This lack of feature might be a problem for companies seeking to implement simple HR or finance workflows and the various approvals common for intranets.

Confluence, in my experience, is most popular with technical teams using it for knowledge management. As an intranet, Confluence seems to be best suited for smaller organizations.

Related Article: Why Intranet Sites Fail Despite Ever-Increasing Functionality

Pros and Cons of a Liferay Intranet

Pros

  • Personalized content based on employee segment (department, location etc.).
  • Employee engagement tools are strong.
  • Integration and development appears easier; app marketplace available.

Cons

  • Content management capabilities are less sophisticated.
  • User experience for some organizations may seem basic.
  • Online document editing capabilities rely on third party.

Liferay excels in allowing companies to customize their intranets. Open API in Liferay makes it easier for companies to build custom integrations between their intranet and corporate systems such as HR, CRM and other line-of-business apps.

Liferay also makes it very easy for companies to target their communication with employees in a particular department, location, division or any other segment. More targeted content means more employees will find it useful. It includes many employee engagement features — such as polls, message boards, wikis and blogs — without the need for third-party products.

Despite Liferay’s array of publishing capabilities, content management doesn’t appear to be as easy as with other competitors, including SharePoint Online. When building pages, authors may find it harder to pick a layout they need for their pages. Adding apps to pages may not appear as intuitive, and some users may find it too technical to configure the functionality they need on the page.

With some user experience limitations for content authors, Liferay seems to be more suited for companies with centralized content authoring. With centralized content authoring, one team, usually your communications team, is the gatekeeper for intranet content publishing. If anyone else needs to contribute, they will likely require more advanced training or go through the centralized team.

In essence, Liferay appears to excel in employee engagement tools and news publishing and communications. Development might be the way to go for companies requiring a more modern look and user experience.

Related Article: Don't Call Your New Intranet 'The Digital Workplace'

Pre-built SharePoint Intranet

Pros

  • Information findability.
  • Employee services and social.
  • User experience and branding.
  • Knowledge management.

Cons

  • Requires a reliable vendor to implement.

Another alternative to plain old SharePoint is a pre-built intranet that can supplement the areas where SharePoint often lacks: intuitiveness, user experience and employee engagement tools. With the right tool, you can get six out of six on the list of the most common intranet capabilities.

Here’s what most people don’t realize about intranets:

  • Intuitiveness comes from a well-built site structure. We hear a lot about intranets being unintuitive, and when analyzed, many have poorly configured information structure. Despite great designs, people struggle to find things. If you’re doing a redesign of your intranet, start with a tree test. Learn what’s difficult for users to find. This process can take as little as one workshop but helps tremendously with your intranet adoption. Remember, installing a beautiful template can make pages pretty, but that's only one of six criteria in our scorecard. What you need is intranet adoption.
  • A reliable platform is critical. Features and trends change often. What you need is a robust and consistently evolving platform. You can’t just rip out a platform from underneath your employees with everything they stored on it. Be sure your platform scores well on all of the criteria necessary for your organization.
  • Think beyond launch. I wish installing intranet software alone produced viral adoption, but it doesn’t. There are change management, launch, training and engagement activities. It doesn’t matter if your intranet implementation is on time and budget if it doesn’t produce the business outcomes you’re seeking. What you want to avoid is a promise that you can launch your intranet in a few days and never worry again — this is indicative of an oversimplified understanding of dynamics in a larger organization. Select a partner that understands that and offers guidance beyond just providing the software.

Related Article: Ready-Made SharePoint Intranets in 2018

You've Got Options

To Microsoft’s credit, SharePoint Online has vastly improved in terms of how it’s delivering overall value to customers. Pre-built intranet solutions supplement weaker areas of Office 365 SharePoint. No matter which solution you choose, to make your intranet is genuinely successful you'll need a reliable implementation partner who understands your goals and can help you get there using the software solution best suited for your needs.