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PHOTO: Bruno Wolff

Every year around this time I revisit a question for SharePoint intranets, which is basically: Build, Buy or Wait? The timing is driven by announcements at Microsoft's Ignite conference and my company’s regular review of the market for add-on intranet products, which we call "intranet in-a-box."

With every passing year, Microsoft delivers more of the basics that a corporate intranet needs, and this year it also announced some cutting-edge ideas, such as Project Cortex. Other CMSWire writers have done a great job of summarizing what was revealed at Ignite, so here I want to explore what intranet managers should know and what it means for the in-a-box vendor space.

SharePoint Intranets: Key Developments

Of course, Microsoft is keen to highlight all the new things coming for SharePoint and gloss over the things it can’t (yet) do. In the spirit of balance, I did an analysis of what basic to advanced intranets typically look for. I then compared how far SharePoint can currently take you, and capabilities on its roadmap into 2020. This is summarized in the chart below.

sharepoint capabilities
Current and planned SharePoint capabilities for a modern intranet
Without a doubt, the standard SharePoint abilities are moving across the page like a lava flow (compare with last year’s chart). Most welcome this year are the mega-menus, audience targeting and home sites (rolling out by year end 2019).

The most significant Ignite reveal for intranets though was the multi-lingual capability. I was expecting a basic ability to switch languages, an update on the deprecated ‘variations’ feature of classic SharePoint. But what was promised goes well beyond this to also track changes on a page. This makes it easy for translators to see where each language variant needs editing. If this feature follows Microsoft’s typical path, the first release will have some rough edges, but we might expect a solid solution by early 2021.

A preview of multi-language publishing in SharePoint
A preview of multi-language publishing in SharePointPHOTO: Microsoft

Related Article: SharePoint Conference 2019 Reveals Home Sites, Sensitivity Labels

Remaining SharePoint Intranet Gaps

Despite all the good news, medium and large organizations are still likely to hit some show-stoppers in practice that will require extensive configuration, compromises or even custom code.

The main one is intranet-wide navigation is still challenging. SharePoint is built around a flat model where sites spring up readily, and then tools such as hub sites, search and SharePoint Start (the first page you see when you click on "SharePoint" in the Office365 waffle) loosely stitch them together.

Many companies and their users prefer a more structured approach. As soon as you outgrow a single hub site this isn’t possible: the top-level menu will change from site-to-site and no mega-menu will let you teleport across the whole digital estate.

How soon will companies outgrow a single hub site? It’s hard to say, but as a rule of thumb, most organizations hit this point over 300 to 500 employees. Tantalizingly, Microsoft’s roadmap shows "hub site association" — this may be the nested hub site ability intranet managers are hoping for.

The social side of the modern SharePoint story remains too fragmented for my liking as well. There are new Yammer web parts and more on the way but social isn’t baked into SharePoint like it is for some of the stand alone intranet products like LumApps, Interact or Embrace. For example, comments on news don’t tie in to community activity, and comments and likes on Stream videos are a separate system again.

Related Article: SharePoint Intranet Alternatives? You've Got Options

Implications for the SharePoint In-a-Box Market

Since 2015, my company ClearBox Consulting has been tracking the intranet in-a-box market. We’ve seen the number of products worldwide grow from around six to over 80. I keep predicting the market needs to shrink (not least for my own sanity), but it’s not quite happening yet.

Some welcome consolidation is happening. For example, LiveTiles acquired Wizdom earlier this year, and has just bought out Cycl, makers of MatchPoint. Powell 365 and Valo also continue to expand at a rapid rate, being well past the million-user mark.

These bigger products I feel are good for the market. They can keep pace with Microsoft and invest in genuine innovation. Smarter smaller players are seeing this and opting to become partners rather than product developers. Indeed, the whole shift to modern SharePoint has created a hurdle to in-a-box product makers that will weed out some of the also-rans.

Other vendors may re-assert themselves more as implementation partners again. For all the headline capabilities in the SharePoint look book, the reality is even a no-code SharePoint intranet takes considerable planning and skill. When I challenged one vendor that their demo was all using standard SharePoint, their retort was while this was true, their product encapsulated hundreds of hours spent configuring the options and working out what was good practice to get to the point where they could create an intranet for a client in a matter of days.

Related Article: SharePoint Intranets Then vs. Now: A UX Perspective

Adding Value, Not Filling Gaps

Vendors that already work well with Modern SharePoint are responding with innovations of their own. The good news about Microsoft taking care of the basics is less energy is needed to get SharePoint to merely work. As one vendor put it to me, “it’s no longer about plugging the gaps, it’s now about adding value.”

What we see then as the most exciting developments for in-a-box intranets are those that expand on the graph-driven and modern UX abilities of Office 365.

For example, Wizdom has introduced a Power Panel that consolidates quick access to notifications, services and news in one always-available space. Other vendors are also working on this "always-on" concept and developing desktop experiences, in the same way that web-based services like Trello are now building desktop apps again for the added speed and availability they give.

Another route into always-on is the idea of intranets within Teams. I’m not sure a whole intranet within Teams is much more than an alternative browser, but the ability to combine the flexibility of intranet experiences with the immediacy of Teams definitely appeals, and several vendors have launched capabilities for this. Valo, for example, makes it much easier for users to see options across Groups, Teams and team sites in its Teamwork feature.

Finally I’m sure Project Cortex will lead the way to many enhanced knowledge management experiences on intranets. Microsoft brings the AI power, but the in-a-box vendors bring the vision and nimble implementation to help companies fully get to grips with it.