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Introduction to an Award-Winning SharePoint Intranet

SharePoint has come a long way in the almost 15 years since 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 comprehensive, 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 an intranet 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 SharePoint Intranets 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 SharePoint Intranet 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 SharePoint Intranet your users will love not loath, an Intranet 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 intranet 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 should follow the same “rules” for definition and structure. The vision will set the tone for your project when establishing the intranet. It will also serve as a guiding statement for the intranet 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 intranet where anyone, at any time and on any device can access what they need to do their job.”

This 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 align with the vision.

Hopefully, the difference between the two statements above is noticeable. While both can set a course for your intranet, only one is grand enough in a way that it will be the start of an award-winning intranet. 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 intranet vision statement affect every design and implementation decision you make.

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

Step Two – Do Your Homework

Often, the initial approach to an intranet 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 intranet.” Moving too quickly from idea to implementation will often result in skipping critical planning activities. The pitfalls of such an approach won’t become evident until some potentially painful point in the future. Usually, this point becomes obvious as users are complaining about find-ability and resorting to old habits as part of an intranet 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 with 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 identifying how 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. You are planning for a searchable intranet. 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 intranet. 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. Mapping this is an excellent exercise to identify gaps in either the platform’s capabilities or potentially your knowledge of the capabilities of the platform. If the hole 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 a document in real time directly in the browser or in Office desktop applications. Additionally, we can use version history on a 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 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 intranet project whether it’s an entirely new intranet, or an intranet migrated from a previous one. If you are coming from an earlier intranet, you may already have a list started based on pains and lessons learned from your current intranet. 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 intranet. Terms like “the intranet,” “the intranet” 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 confusion is especially true if you have multiple intranet technologies or are moving from an old intranet to a new one.

The act of establishing a brand should build upon the vision for your intranet and often is a task 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 a meeting place for sharing ideas and content.

Even in the absolute simplest intranets 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 money companies like Coca-Cola and Nike invest in their brand recognition and awareness versus the budget a local small business might spend. 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.

Your Intranet Budget

Consider some of these items, which can factor significantly on your spending, when thinking about your intranet’s brand:

Do you want to design and create a logo for your brand that is used on your intranet?

    • Consider that it could be carried through to various pieces of swag like mousepads, shirts, posters, or other physical items that might help reinforce and remind users of your intranet.
    • I have lots of such swag from intranets going on ten years old that I still reflect on fondly.

Do you want your intranet 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 intranet brand through user engagement like contests, rewards, and other mechanisms to engage users?

  • 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 regarding 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 intranet.

Step Four – Keep It Clean and Simple

One of the things everyone, and I do mean everyone, struggles with when it comes to establishing an intranet is striking a balance between two very high-level roles in an intranet – consumers and producers. At the most basic level, users are either consuming or producing content on your intranet. Much like the chicken and egg problem, you will find yourself trying to decide whose needs are most important and whose needs should be satisfied first. There is no right answer, and it is a delicate dance that will require attention and tuning over time.

By keeping it clean, I’m suggesting constant attention to reducing the clutter and glut of information so you can keep your consumers happy. You will have the desire to present all sorts of information in your intranet. And you are likely going to want it all on the home page of either the intranet or on the home page of a specific area of your intranet, like the HR site or the IT site. It makes obvious sense to want to put everything where you know the eyes are going to be.

However, nothing can overwhelm and scare off your users like information overload. Landing on the home page with 12 distinct pieces of content presented, all with competing goals can result in a user never consuming any of it. Think of your intranet like an iceberg. At any time, a user is only seeing the part that is above the waterline. Even though there is a mountain of content that is floating just beneath the surface, they are never overwhelmed at the enormity of it all. A fundamental tenet to making the iceberg approach possible will stem from how much time you invest upfront in defining your site structure and pages. If your site structure is set properly, it will allow you to quickly decide which portion of the information iceberg a user can see at any given time based on their location. This sort of browser-based context for content presentment is a crucial aspect in the usability of an intranet.

In addition to keeping it clean, I always favor simplicity in everything that involves your end users- whether they are adding content or just consuming it. With all the features that SharePoint offers, you can easily find yourself getting wound up and establishing rules that can stifle contribution and, in turn, lose consumers due to lack of content. I’ve often found myself referencing the phrasing Bill Gates used in 1996 “Content is King.” My real take away from it is a drive to empower users to contribute and reduce the friction to that contribution in any way possible. Without content, there is no intranet!

If you are new to SharePoint or content management systems, I suspect that my reducing friction mantra is one that may have you scratching your head. Reducing friction comes from careful thought about what you are asking contributors to do or provide to make content consumable by others. In SharePoint when users upload documents, you can require them to tell you as much or as little about what they are uploading in the form of metadata. For example, you can ask for the department that “owns” a document or the type of document some pre-determined taxonomy. Many times, the knee jerk reaction is to force a user to tell 5, 10 or maybe even more unique things about a document. Such a barrier (or friction) can deter contribution. Every required thing you ask about a document should be considered with an eye toward what downstream value it will provide. Search, process automation and other downstream impacts are just some to consider. However, if your answer is only because it seems like it’s nice to know about the document, you are probably better off not asking for it.

SharePoint has an often overlooked and valuable option that can help reduce the friction for your contributors yet still add value for things like search. It is called automatic metadata, and its value comes from being able to automatically tag documents with metadata based merely on location of the document. Again, I would refer to the importance of a well-defined site structure which becomes an enabler for this automatic metadata. Take my requirement for the department that “owns” the document for example. This could be automatically set just by uploading it to a specific department site. Consumers get much-desired findability when searching and contributors aren’t slowed down to provide a department.

Step Five – Plan for Mobile

For today’s corporate users, mobile support is a must. I’m sure just reading the title conjures a “well duh” sort of response for most reading this. Stick with me, though, and I’ll guide you through your options, decisions, and considerations each with varying degrees or efforts and costs. Just as mobile devices come in so many shapes and sizes, so are the approaches for dealing with them.

To begin with, SharePoint in its current version is not entirely mobile responsive compared to many public websites. That is, the web page you look at on your desktop does not automatically have the smarts to resize and re-render the same content differently when viewed on say an iPad or maybe an iPhone. When you look at how dynamic the user-generated content is you can get an appreciation for how challenging it would be to support such a feat where users author content and the system must dynamically size it based on a device.

Through many iterations, the experience is getting better for sure, and there are some features available today that can help. For example, standard SharePoint team sites have a mobile feature that presents a different page with most page content trimmed out but showing the site’s navigation so you can navigate to things like document libraries and documents. If you are using publishing sites, there is support of device channels where you can target alternate rendering based on different devices. In my experience, however, this gives you all the pain, effort, and cost of full mobile responsive but with the added challenges of dealing with many channels for devices.

As of the writing of this guide, SharePoint within Microsoft 365 and the shipping on-premises version were not fully mobile responsive. However, new features are implemented all the time including modern document libraries and lists, modern site contents and eventually modern pages which are mobile responsive. All these features are coming to the cloud first and will eventually trickle into the on-premises versions. As part of your planning, you should consider how using these features as they are available can impact and your overall mobile plans.

If you want to make your SharePoint intranet completely mobile responsive, it likely means that you are going all in on an intranet brand with a desire to have it not look like SharePoint and reflect very custom UX goals. A fully branded, mobile responsive intranet is going to be the most expensive approach regarding time and budget due to the amount of time spent to replace, override and rework some of the SharePoint UI. It’s also something that may make the most sense in an on-premises environment where you control everything. Consider that within Microsoft 365 you are part of a hosted service where the guidance is to try to stay closer to the UX provided as part of that service. Microsoft has specific guidelines and best practices that partners are in tune with to ensure that sites built in Microsoft 365 are aligned and continue to benefit from new features as released to the cloud.

If your budget needs are more constrained or you just prefer to invest more in features and functionality than a user experience overhaul, there are still many mobile options available to you. There are free packages available for on-premises and online that can bring some mobile responsive behaviors to the SharePoint UI. These are “one size fits all” packages so they may not get you to 100% of your vision but are sometimes a good start. There are also many free and paid mobile apps available for iOS and Android from third parties, as well as Microsoft. One of the most exciting from Microsoft right now (available only on iOS and Android) is the SharePoint Mobile App marketed as your intranet in your pocket. You can find many apps including Beezy, Colligio, and Infragistics as well that allow you to connect and use SharePoint on a mobile device. Be sure to do some trial tests with several of the apps to determine which suits your needs and goals best.

Regardless of a fully mobile responsive approach or one augmented by apps, you should also consider your user’s engagement patterns with each and try to tailor their experience accordingly. By this, I mean users tend to be more content consumers on mobile simply due to the form factor and sometimes difficulty authoring content on a small device. Therefore, if you are going full mobile responsive, you can embrace a clean and straightforward approach and hide things like forms, buttons or other content targeted more at authors. With apps, you probably don’t have as much control, but consider the user scenarios when evaluating apps so you can align the best experience for your users to consume while on the go.

Step Six – Consider Your Audience

If there is one thing the internet and its constant evolution has taught us, it is that you can’t assume any two users are going to approach your intranet in the same way. SharePoint often gets a bad rap for having many ways to achieve the same thing which may confuse some users, but at the same time, provide other users the flexibility to do something in a way that works for them. Let’s consider for a moment a purely content consumption scenario and all the possible ways in which different users might attempt to access the content.

When consuming content in an SharePoint intranet, first consider that users can easily experience information overload and this may bubble up in feedback such as, “I can’t find anything on the intranet” or some variant of that theme. Fight the urge to put everything for everyone “on the home page.” Instead, pursue a design through site structure, metadata, and other information management techniques that can support what amounts to two main types of users.

First You Have the Navigators

When creating an intranet, you need to define an apparent and concise mechanism for navigation. This navigation and its rules should understood by everyone from a relative newbie to someone who has been around the intranet for some time. If you implement a scheme that makes navigation consistent and uses terms in the structure that all users understand, it will encourage users to move from the home page and general topics down into more specific areas of the site where they can find useful content. Use information management techniques and security to trim away irrelevant navigation nodes for people based on their role and access. Everyone doesn’t have to see the same navigation, and the less navigation they must choose from, the easier they can get to what is most relevant to them.

Then You Have the Searchers

Equally as important as those who navigate your sites are those who start with a search. Google has taught this behavior in all of us, and its success is the ability to provide us with what is most relevant to our search from among millions of results. SharePoint is no different; you must use metadata, site structure, the relevance engine and careful planning and analysis of search scenarios to ensure your users are finding what they need. If the user abandones search queries, they are not finding what they need among the top results returned to them and you have work to do.

Don’t Forget Everyone Needs a Push

Users who search and those that navigate are not mutually exclusive. Depending on their familiarity with the content and its location, they will be in one or both roles all the time. In Microsoft 365, many new features combine search, navigation, and relevance based on the user and their activities. New features like Delve and SharePoint Sites begin to leverage this information to push up relevant content based on the user. This creates a personalized experience based on their activities much like you might see on Amazon based on your previous shopping habits. You should consider these sort of dynamic based results as part of your strategy to help users discover content they may not have otherwise. Pushing content to users is another way to increase their engagement with the intranet and its content.

Step Seven – Stay Patient and Persistent

With regards to your intranet, the idiom “Rome wasn’t built in a day” cannot be any more accurate. First, any proper intranet implementation is going to feel like you are building an empire. Your corpus of content will forever be expanding; your business processes should become increasingly powerful and complex and hopefully your allegiance of converts to SharePoint champions growing.

All the world domination talk aside, you need to begin any intranet implementation by establishing realistic expectations. A well-planned intranet will have many phases and milestones. It will likely include things like a Proof of Concepts (POC), a Pilot and potentially other phases that can be considered soft launches that are intended to solicit and learn from users through their feedback. Even with these checkpoints, you should set the expectation that on the day of the full launch to the company that the journey has just begun. You should still be early on because, after all, your users and their usage is the whole reason for having an intranet. Many companies will often want to be finished so they can move on to the next thing, but there should be a plan and resources that are always a part of your intranet. Day 1 in the user’s hands should merely be another opportunity for the feedback loop of listening to users and then incorporating improvements to the intranet.

Another risk with the mentality of being “done” with an intranet project is there is a tendency for the “higher-ups” to commit to “go-live” dates. Often, this commitment comes too early, before you have a sense for what it will take to deliver on those dates. The last thing you want is to go live with an intranet that users were expecting three months ago. As part of your vision and your empire building, set the expectation that the intranet is a living, organic thing and as such you can have milestones, but there is not a final, “we are done” delivery date.

You may find yourself locked into fixed dates for one reason or another and the pressure to launch on time is driving everything. Even under these circumstances, you can launch a successful intranet. After all, if your intranet isn’t growing it’s probably dying, so why not make growth part of the plan? Start by prioritizing your goals for your intranet and make sure you have a realistic estimation of effort for each. Use this to determine which features can be completed or supported by launch. When you are working on this plan, do not discount the effort to build out content in your intranet. A mistake so many companies often make is underestimating the time and effort involved with migrating or creating new content on an intranet. Remember, content is king, and no one wants to launch with a shell of an intranet. If your content is part of an automated or manual migration, you must build in a buffer so these activities can occur before launch, too.

Step Eight – Analyze Everything

Your approach to your users within a SharePoint intranet should be no different than how Amazon treats its customers when shopping their site. Every click trail is monitored and each abandoned search analyzed in the hopes of gaining more of your business. In the end, your intranet is selling content. And the easier it is for your users to find it and the more of it they are using, the more successful your intranet. I’m sure you are already saying to yourself this all feels a little too touchy-feely, and it also feels like it could be expensive. It doesn’t have to be costly. SharePoint is continually getting better at building this knowledge in from the start. Where you will find a challenge is deciding what to do with the knowledge once you have it.

Let’s first consider what you can do out of the box with SharePoint with the usage reports that are available. You can see popularity trends across a site collection, a site or even a specific library, list or item. You can see the most popular items in a list or library. Depending on your version of SharePoint, these may be available as reports that you accessed as a site administrator and viewed in Excel. However, SharePoint is now exposing more and more of this information to help everyone find what’s popular and trending. As part of their recent modern UI experience enhancements, users can see things like site visits and trending and popular content right within site contents used to access all lists and libraries in a site.

In addition to usage reports, there are also reports that should be used by search administrators to tune the search experience. If you want an award-winning SharePoint intranet and one that your users embrace, then search must be considered from the start. I’ve already mentioned the work necessary on metadata, taxonomy and site structure previously and all those things impact search. For example, how far down in a site structure an item is can directly affect how vital (relevant) it might be considered by search. Through search usage reports, you can find out how many queries your users are doing and which ones are most popular. You can analyze queries where there were no results returned or those where the user abandoned (didn’t click on anything). With this knowledge, you can tune search to highlight content (think of how Google ads appear first in results) or bump up the ranking of content you want to ensure your users see without going to other pages of the results. If you wish to make search work, you need to make sure that you don’t treat it as a configure and forget service. It requires an admin to analyze and tune so that it’s always delivering the best results.

Suppose that after some research, vetting, and maybe even proof of concept work, you feel like what you get for free with SharePoint analytics is not good enough. Fortunately, it is relatively easy to plug in third-party tooling like Google Analytics or Web Trends and use their reporting tools to measure your usage. As with the out-of-the-box reporting, search reporting and any reporting on usage, the real value will be in your team analyzing the data and making necessary tweaks to your intranet to drive your usage lines up.

So far, I’ve talked about technology-based approaches to analytics, and there is no doubt these are considerable assets in making a successful SharePoint intranet. However, I do now need to dive a little into that touchy-feely area you may have worried about earlier. One of the things that tooling doesn’t readily provide you are user sentiment. How do your users feel about the intranet? Do they feel like it enables them or hinders them? How do they think it can be improved? Depending on your specific rollout plans and organization, I would suggest that you consider ways to solicit end-user feedback. On one end of the spectrum, you can use anonymous surveys with specific questions to measure response as well as open-ended questions. On another end of the spectrum, you can have focus groups or feedback sessions where users can talk openly about their experience. Which direction you choose is as much a factor of your corporate culture, budget, and goals as anything else I’ve discussed when implementing an intranet. The main thing to consider is that you want to analyze the feedback and at some future point solicit again to determine if you are getting better.

Conclusion and Next Steps

By now you should have a sense that creating a successful intranet isn’t a simple task that you can approach as a purely technical solution. You should feel that the approach should be the exact opposite, beginning with the business and users. Consider some of the following action items as you start to undertake a new SharePoint intranet project.

  1. Establish an inspired vision – begin looking at what you ultimately want your intranet to be and start creating ideas for vision statements with key stakeholders in your future intranet.
  2. Do your homework – start documenting your goals and requirements for an intranet. Try to use a spreadsheet so you can have a matrix to map, score and evaluate features.
  3. Choose your brand – start considering how vital your intranet brand is and how much you are willing to invest in both time and money on a marketing push for it.
  4. Keep it clean and simple – look around at different sites on the internet that you use in your personal life. Consider what you like as a user shopping online, completing forms, searching for information and socializing with others. Focus on what makes those experiences simple, usable and friendly and apply those points to your intranet.
  5. Plan for mobile – consider what you and others do on mobile today and what you wait until you are at a computer to do. Research options available for SharePoint and begin determining how much you want to invest in mobile beyond what the platform provides.
  6. Know your audience – every business is different and their employees and culture reflect this. Begin creating personas of people who will use your intranet and what you would like them to do and get out of the intranet. Use this to evaluate implementation ideas for how feasible they are and how they might be received.
  7. Stay patient and persistent – Define your milestones, not end dates. When you define your plan, avoid setting an expectation on any dates especially “done” dates. Instead, consider using milestones for sets of functionality or rolling out to different groups of users. An intranet should be a living thing. If it is done, it’s dead.  So, build in a growth plan.
  8. Analyze everything– Carrying on the fact that your intranet is a living thing means you should build in a plan for the necessary resources and tools to understand how your users are engaging with your intranet. Use this information to create on what works and eliminate what doesn’t.

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