Share and Enjoy !

Excerpt from “Creating an Award-Winning SharePoint Intranet” white paper – download here.


SharePoint has come a long way in the almost 15 years since it was introduced. There have been many experiments along the way, many a lesson learned and with each successive release, it has gotten better. Sure, it’s also gotten bigger, more complex and has kept everyone working with SharePoint on their A-game. However, one thing that has never changed is that first and foremost SharePoint is a portal enabling technology – one designed to be the bedrock of intranets large and small used by companies in any vertical for a multitude of goals.

I’ve had the good fortune of being part of portals with 20 users to those with tens of thousands of users and the successes or failures are all rooted in the same key tenets. The success of your portal will not begin or end with the technology. Your success or failure will depend upon establishing a clear vision, having a well thought out plan and following a methodical approach to execution. If you want to build a portal your users will love not loath, a portal that could dare to be award winning, then read on to understand how through establishing a vision and doing your homework you can create a branded and mobile-friendly portal that is engaging and useful.

Step One – Establish an Inspired Vision

From the very beginning of the project, you should establish a vision statement. A vision statement is most often associated with the objectives or an organization. The approach to defining one for your intranet portal should follow the same “rules” for definition and structure. The vision will set the tone for your project when establishing the portal. It will also serve as a guiding statement for the portal once implemented.

Let’s take two examples and compare what their relative impacts might be:

“A place to store all your documents.”

Certainly, a well-meaning and concise statement, but it doesn’t provide much in the way of inspiration. It doesn’t offer up much that is going to challenge the organization in a way that can create change and add value.

“We seek to organize all of our corporate content into a single unified portal where anyone, at any time and on any device can access what they need to do their job.”

The latter example is more aspirational and certainly offers up a challenge. Depending on the organization, it might even feel impossible. It’s forward looking, yet still abstract enough to allow the more detailed strategic work to be aligned with the vision.

Hopefully, the difference between the two statements above is obvious. While both can set a course for your portal, only one is grand enough in a way that it will be the start of a truly award-winning portal. Much like how Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s desire to make the world more open and connected affects every advertising, security feature and feature decision, so too can your portal vision statement affect every design and implementation decision you make.

Hopefully, the difference between the two statements above is obvious. While both can set a course for your portal, only one is grand enough in a way that it will be the start of a truly award-winning portal. Much like how Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s desire to make the world more open and connected affects every advertising, security feature and feature decision, so too can your portal vision statement affect every design and implementation decision you make.

As the term portal implies, an intranet portal is a door or a gateway to an elaborate accumulation of content. This content is stored in your portal much of the time, but it can also be stored elsewhere and exposed via your portal. Portals should be broken down into many areas and components each with a distinct purpose. Some of this may be planned from the start and some may evolve over time. This is more reason to have a grand all-encompassing vision from the start.

Step Two – Do Your Homework

Often, the initial approach to a portal is very tactical and based on little or no strategic planning. With a platform like SharePoint, it is easy to get started once the infrastructure is in place. With Microsoft 365, it’s even easier since the service is available with no installation or setup. Having the tools available and at the ready can make it almost too easy to move from “we have some documents” to “throw them in the portal.” Moving too quickly from idea to implementation will often result in skipping critical planning activities. The pitfalls of such an approach won’t become obvious until some potentially painful point in the future. Often this point becomes obvious as users are complaining about findability and resorting to old habits as part of a portal avoidance strategy.

Imagine, for example, if city planners didn’t categorize highways and roads, name streets, or number addresses. We would have houses sprouting up where ever a homeowner decided with no meaningful address system. Good luck, FedEx! In SharePoint, your site structure including site collections, sites, and document libraries is how you define your highways and roads. Everyone needs to understand these and more importantly their relationship to each other. Think of this structure as your map and how your users will drive (browse) to content. In this metaphor, the document is the house they are trying to find.

Site structure is just one of the many things you should plan from the start. Another crucial topic to research and plan is your taxonomy. Defining your taxonomy is one of the most challenging items you will undertake as it requires consensus and careful thought. Carrying on our metaphor, this would be defining all the ways in which you might describe a house. Floors, number of bedrooms/baths, square footage, and address are all metadata about the house. Your taxonomy would be the possible choices for the metadata values. In effect, how are you going to limit and allow the ways users can describe content. This, in effect, is planning for a searchable portal. For example, on Zillow you can search for a 3-bedroom home in your area. That’s only possible because of the metadata about houses.

I realize that both activities above can feel overwhelming. Where do I start? How do I know I’m done? And so on. One place to start is by defining a set of goals or even problem statements you intend to solve with your portal. These don’t have to be detailed requirements, at least not early in the process. Use this list to research the platform and its capabilities; begin to establish a map and maybe even a definition of how the capabilities can address the goal or solve the problem. This is a good exercise to identify gaps in either the platform’s capabilities or potentially your knowledge of the platforms capabilities. If the gap is the latter, it may be one of the initial signals that you might need outside help or that you have more homework to do. Engaging an outside firm that specializes in a platform like SharePoint can have additional benefits for you beyond just their knowledge of the capabilities. For example, their experience applying and even customizing SharePoint features for other customers can help you understand the costs and effort of different implementation approaches.

Example of Mapping a Goal

Problem statement: We want to eliminate email attachments for documents when collaborating as a team. Concerns include: a) what is the latest version of a document b) who made the last change and c) having to merge changes when two people at the same time edit a document.

SharePoint Platform capabilities: Document Libraries, Office Web Apps, Co-Editing, Version History, Check-Ins and Content Approval

Details on How: SharePoint allows users to upload a document and then share it with a team when collaborating. The capabilities within Office Web Apps allow for co-editing of the document in real time directly in the browser or in Office desktop applications. Additionally, we can use version history on the document for auditing, check-in policies for controls and even approvals so only the final document is available to others.

Example of Mapping a Problem Statement

Problem statement: We can never find documents on our network drives or current intranet. The name of the document doesn’t help and everyone has their own approach to storing documents in “who knows what” folder.

SharePoint Platform capabilities: Search, Sites and Site Collections, Document Libraries, Content Types, Document Routing, Information Management Policies and Metadata

Details on How: If we define a meaningful site structure with sites, site collections and document libraries we can have everyone approach storing documents in the same structure and follow the same rules. Additionally, we can use content types and metadata to enforce consistent descriptions and tagging of content that will enable users to find documents through search regardless of their location. We can use document routing to make the lives of contributors easier by giving them a single upload location and then routing documents based on the metadata and tags.

Defining your goals and problem statements should be one of your first steps in any portal project whether it’s a completely new portal, or a portal being migrated from a previous one. In fact, if you are coming from a previous portal, you may already have a list started based on pains and lessons learned from your current portal. Now is the time to plan your solutions to them.

Step Three – Choose Your Brand

Many of the most exciting, most used and most successful intranets have established a brand that became how everyone in the company referred to the portal. Terms like “the intranet,” “the portal” and even “SharePoint” honestly don’t evoke much excitement for end users. Often they can even be confusing because they are so general that they could potentially mean different things to different users. This is especially true if you have multiple portal technologies or are moving from an old portal to a new one.

The act of establishing a brand should build upon the vision for your portal and often is a task that is crowdsourced to your end users. What better way to get them engaged early than to have them take part in naming it?

Consider some of the following names and the feelings they might evoke:

  • “The Workplace” evokes a feeling of a place to get work done.
  • “The Hub” feels like it a centralized place bringing together people and content.
  • “The Café” is meeting place for sharing ideas and content.

Even in the absolute simplest intranet portals can benefit from having a name (a brand). It can give it a personality and establish it in the lexicon of everyone within your organization. How far you carry on the brand beyond the name is something that often varies from one company to another significantly. Think of this as the marketing push behind the brand.

Consider the amount of money companies like Coca-Cola and Nike invest into their brand recognition and awareness versus the budget a local small business might spend. Obviously, the range between the two is significant. It is driven by how many eyes and ears they want to reach and how quickly they want to do so.

When thinking about your budget for your intranet portal’s brand, consider some of these items that can factor significantly on your spending.

  • Do you want to design and create a logo for your brand that can be used in your portal?
    • Consider that it could be carried through to various pieces of swag like mouse pads, shirts, posters or other physical items that might help reinforce and remind users of your portal.
      • I have lots of such swag from portals going on 10 years old that I still reflect on fondly.
  • Do you want your portal to carry through corporate or custom logo colors or fonts into all aspects of SharePoint?
    • Leveraging assets that are part of your public internet face is sometimes a great way to jump start this. It can even create a cohesive feel between your public brand and your internal sub-branding.
  • Do you want to “make it not look like SharePoint”?
    • This is a frequent request, especially when building an on-premises SharePoint farm, but one that you should consider much more carefully within SharePoint Online as a part of Microsoft 365.
  • Do you want to create buzz around your portal brand through user engagement like contests, rewards and other mechanisms to pull people in?
    • Think of these as a groundswell jumpstarts. It seems to work for public companies like Starbucks, pulling us in going after gold stars.

Each of the above items needs careful consideration, both in terms of your budget and the return on investment within your organization. Just as how each company uses SharePoint differs, so do the techniques for reaching your audience and getting them engaged in your portal.

Share and Enjoy !

Related Content: