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Watch, Read, or Listen to: ThreeWill and ClearBox Consulting discuss the ClearBox Independent Intranets Report

In this podcast, we discuss: The ClearBox Consulting Independent Intranets Report.

1:31Why the Independent Intranet Report?
17:34 10 Business scenarios used for the Independent Intranets Report
30:36Final Thoughts



Pete Skelly:Hello and welcome back to the ThreeWill Podcast. This episode we’re talking again with Suzie Robinson from ClearBox, and this time we’re going to be talking about Independent Intranets Report, which was recently published in January and I believe updated. And we’ll let you kind of give a little bit of detail about that. But quick intros. My name’s Pete Skelly, VP of Technology at ThreeWill. I’ll let Tommy Ryan introduce himself.
Tommy Ryan:Hi, Tommy Ryan, the President of ThreeWill and excited to talk about intranets
Pete Skelly:And we’re excited to welcome back Suzie Robinson of ClearBox. Suzie, you want to give a little bit of info about yourself?
Suzie Robinson:Sure. Hello again. I’m Suzie Robinson. I work for ClearBox Consulting. I am a consultant, and I also look after a suite of reports that we publish on different intranet products and employee mobile apps as well. And I talked so much last time I’ve been invited back, so thank you very much.
Pete Skelly:It’s called a good interview. And awesome topics. So, we wanted to come back to, you know, you guys have had the SharePoint intranet-in-a-box report for, I think, six going on seven years. And so these are relatively new reports. This report, the Independent Intranets Report came out in January. This is a new report. What went into why the Independent Intranet Report?
Suzie Robinson:So, it was mostly because it was an obvious omission. The independent intranet market has been around for longer in fact than the SharePoint intranet market has been. There are products that have been around since the mid to late 90s that are still going strong. And it was always something that we at ClearBox wanted to do. And it was just one of those things that we never quite got round to doing. And that was one of the things I was tasked with when I joined about 18 months ago now at the time of recording, was to introduce these two new reports to the Independent Intranets and the Employee Mobile Apps.


And it was mostly because there are obvious omissions in the SharePoint intranet reports. When you think of intranets, there are products that go beyond those that we were featuring. So, the obvious ones are things like Unily or Interact or Google Maps that were really big products that people often asked about and are very popular in the marketplace. And we just hadn’t reflected them so we needed to make sure we addressed to that balance.

Pete Skelly:Well, it kind of begs the question, what is an independent intranet?
Suzie Robinson:So, we baffled with the name of these for a while. This is the term that we’ve coined, but an independent intranet is an intranet product that doesn’t need to have a Microsoft license in the background in order to run. So it has that independence from a core system. It has its own CMS. They are developed separately from everything else. And so they really are that kind of independent state, that kind of individual separate product from anything that’s tied up in a Microsoft roadmap, for example.
Pete Skelly:Okay. And are there primary reasons for customers trying to move to these platforms versus in our space that’s typically SharePoint and I think you mentioned in one of your blog posts, a lot of times, well, we already have SharePoint, let’s use it as an intranet. So what are the differences or primary reasons for moving to kind of an independent intranet versus sticking with SharePoint?
Suzie Robinson:So, if you look at independence versus SharePoint in a way although it’s not really versus that sounds a bit harsh. But the main thing to remember actually is that you can use SharePoint with either of them. So obviously a SharePoint intranet-in-a-box product is that layer on top of SharePoint. It fills in some of those cracks. It adds in additional features. But, that doesn’t mean that an independent intranet can’t also work with it. And so that’s something that a lot of people don’t realize. And when they go out in the market, they are looking for a SharePoint intranet, and don’t necessarily realize that actually there’s a whole suite of products that are out there that will work and will surface SharePoint somehow within its functionality.


Something else is one is that there is a belief that the implementation of a SharePoint product will be easier or quicker, but actually, the implementation is pretty much the same between them. Especially if you end up using a cloud version of an independent intranet product, it’s exactly the same process. It’s just as quick or quicker in some respects as well than having to configure SharePoint and get everything set up in the background.

And that concept that SharePoint is free is also a little bit questionable. So if you have Microsoft licenses, then obviously you do have SharePoint. But, if I revisit the topic of our previous podcast when I spoke around frontline workers, do you really want to set up a Microsoft license for your frontline worker who will end up with all of the other stuff that’s automatically set up off the back of it, even just an email address. Does a nurse really need a company email address? Is there a way that you communicate with them that’s different? Or, a barista or someone who works in a shop, they don’t necessarily need that level of technology that goes with getting one of these licenses.

And also even though yes, using SharePoint by itself, you may choose to develop it. There are costs there. So you either have to get an expert in-house or maybe work with an agency externally. And so there’s time and there’s development therein actually just wrangling with SharePoint in its pure naked form as it were. And so there are hidden costs there. And there are cost savings and benefits you get from having a vendor and even a SharePoint intranet-in-a-box product. The vendors are very knowledgeable. They have a huge amount of experience in case studies and examples that they bring with them and can help with that strategic journey. So actually by not going with a vendor, you may actually lose out on all of that wealth of knowledge that you can just draw on as an intranet manager.

And the last point really that’s the key one is the document repository isn’t the only requirement that you need to think about. So, that’s what SharePoint does do well. And it’s what a lot of businesses use, even if they don’t use hub sites or communication sites or anything like that. The document repository and storage and knowledge retrieval side of things is what’s used. But there are loads of other requirements that your business will have. And so only thinking about that and making that the primary reason why you choose a SharePoint intranet, whether it be by itself or with a product, is just something you need to question and actually think about the rest of your needs and the rest of what your business needs overall to make sure you’re choosing the right thing.

Tommy Ryan:Yeah, I think that’s some really… That was really packed with information there. The thing that came to the surface to me and what I’ve experienced in conversations with our clients is it’s the balance between simplicity and capability. And if you look at SharePoint yeah it ticks all the boxes, but it’s not in all cases, an out-of-the-box solution. It’s a platform. And so these intranet in the boxes from onboarding of your organization administration, and just wrapping your arms around what it is, I think that’s some of the attraction of more of a single purpose. This is for an intranet and it’s honed in on an intranet versus it can be a lot of different things.


So, I see that in some of our interactions of some that desire of, I wish I didn’t have to know so many parts and pieces to manage my communication and collaboration. And the interesting on the frontline worker where we have seen people move in that direction of say a Unily, it can come down to costs of the frontline worker that you don’t want to bloat the licensing and go beyond what you really need in licensing so you can have that communication channel and that’s what you’re trying to get versus all these other things being tacked on.

And then you have to make decisions of what you turn on, turn off, what you enable because now you have that extra responsibility managing these assets with a broader community of people. Maybe they don’t need that asset. So I think you bring on very important points. And I think the vision of what a company has of what the intranet needs to be is important. And that’s what journey do I want to take and where am I going because you don’t want to get to a dead end with that intranet either where you’ve… Yeah, it’s easy in the beginning stages, but when we get to the more challenging needs that an intranet provides or needs to have from an integration standpoint, that’s where it could… You might see the other side of the benefit where now this is a challenge when I’m at this part of the journey.

Suzie Robinson:Absolutely. And just touching back on the frontline worker side of things, most independent and SharePoint intranet products have an app or have a mobile approach. And I’m not saying that that’s not the right way to go. It may very well be. It depends on the needs of the business. But an intranet in an app or mobile format still tends to be quite large and quite very comprehensive, I think is the best way to put it. There’s so much in that because intranets do so many things. Especially now, there are so many capabilities that they will have. And so sometimes that isn’t the right approach for your time-strapped frontline worker who doesn’t want to have to find what it is they’re looking for. They just want to get it. And so that’s kind of the difference that I see, but I won’t talk about that too much because we’ve already talked about it and it’s about intranet today.
Pete Skelly:We typically would have a conversation with customers about what are their… what are the outcomes they’re trying to achieve in communications, kind of that one too many collaboration, the group interactions, content management from a group perspective and then coordination, which are kind of policies and procedures around the content and business outcomes. This seems to fit just squarely in that communications area and kind of focus on publishing information or kind of a one-to-many focus that’s going to enable. It’s not your typical reproduce the org chart in an intranet so that people trying to find their way in an org chart. It seems to be much more community or team or purpose-driven. Is that fair to say for most of these products?
Suzie Robinson:Yeah. There’s some interesting things that a lot of them have in common or some really nice features that you don’t always see in a SharePoint product. For example, news publishing is one of those things. That seems to be a really consistent area of strength. Some of them obviously do it better than others, but generally across the board, it is something they have really thought carefully about. And because it does have that separation from SharePoint, it’s all contained within the system and you can upload videos and you can upload photos, or you can have a central store within the system itself. It can be quite flexible and vary quite a lot with the type of news you want to publish and the way that it’s targeted. And maybe even just down to templates and things as well, to get that consistency across things. But something that we quite liked and were surprised by in a way, was the structure of these intranets is challenging what we think of as a proper or correct intranet structure.


So, the traditional approach of it being like a tree where things spread out and mega menus and that sort of approach, there are some products that don’t do that. A lot of them do, but there are some that don’t and they embrace a Teams or communities or a groups kind of structure. And it curates the content based on who it is that’s within them and what it is they’re doing. So it can be quite flexible in the way that it’s approaching that content, but also it could feel quite rigid if you want that traditional structure.

If you don’t want to approach something in that kind of slightly more flexible way, then it’s something that if you are going out and looking for an independent intranet, just need to think about that and what’s right for the business. But an example would be Communifire, for example, they have a spaces approach. So everything they have is built by that group of people. You could have an HR group, which is the people that work in HR, and then you could have an HR space, which is where the actual policies and questions and that kind of thing come from there.

Tommy Ryan:Yeah. As you’re talking about how the structure is in many of these intranet solutions, it seems like SharePoint has moved in that direction of a flat of hubs and almost hubs being peers to each other. And now there is structure that’s becoming more and more available over time. But, I think that the nature of it is you have a community where most of your activity and collaboration and communication takes place, and you want to be able to get to that and hone in on my community versus being a home page for the entire company where everyone’s competing for space for communicating their message within this landing page. Is that the typical architecture where it is flat in most of these products where it’s not that traditional, you have the top-level site, and it just kind of nests all the way down to your organization?
Suzie Robinson:It does vary. So there are some so Communifire being an example, which just does the spaces approach. And then there are some that are kind of more flexible still and will actually allow you to vary it by the type of content that you’re sharing. So it could be that you set up a social space, but kind of next to it within the navigation is a more structured knowledge kind of content area. But generally, we found that social experiences are much stronger and more pervasive across independent intranet products.


So, SharePoint products tend to either have their own commenting system or own the social areas that maybe don’t integrate that well with the whole platform, or they try to use Yammer. And so they use Yammer for commenting, but then those comments kind of disappear or don’t quite hang together properly. Whereas, within an independent intranet, because they don’t have that need to work around SharePoint and other Office 365 tools, they can choose to but quite often they have their own maybe discussion boards. They kind of go a little bit old school with forums and discussion boards or their own built-in commenting systems and activity feeds that you can tie everything together. So it then has that flexibility of being both flat in terms of maybe the reference material, but actually, the sense of community can be built through and brought through a lot stronger.

Pete Skelly:We’ve kind of mentioned a few capabilities that they sort of shine at. Were there, what was the sort of business scenarios that you guys used as criteria? Were there specific areas that these had to shine into kind of move into the report?
Suzie Robinson:So we have 10 scenarios that we judged everything against. Judge sounds a bit harsh, but we use that as the way to compare everything. And we have a series of business and use cases that we share with vendors and that we use to have a look at the ways that they approach things. So, we don’t have a tick list of they have to do these set things for them to get this number of points. We know roughly what that would look like, but we want to see how they approach these things and how they will actually serve these scenarios for us to then be able to write those up and compare. So news is one of them, one that we’ve already touched on, and one that was generally high-scoring across all of them. But then there are also integrations with other systems or business systems. So actually, how will they bring in the rest of the digital workplace or link out or bring through the relevant things so maybe even just notifications for people to act on.


And then beyond that, it’s things around user experience and the experience for publishers to make sure that that is covered enough because as an intranet manager, you have an awful lot to do. And if the way that you have to do it is painful, then that can reflect in what you’re doing on the site and actually what the engagement levels can end up being for the people that are using it. And then also we’ve got things like finding and sharing. Search is one of those things that always comes up when we come to review intranets with clients, the search is always one of those things where people say it doesn’t work, or it doesn’t bring things back. And so we look at the way you use that. These products will surface information or allow users to feedback if they’ve not been able to find something, so then improve that search you’ll findability across the whole site. So we really kind of bounce between technical and user-based things. It’s quite a broad approach that we take across those 10 scenarios.

Pete Skelly:Okay. And so you mentioned integration. One of the things that… the elephant in the room, so to speak, is I’m going with an independent intranet, but I probably do have Microsoft behind the scenes in most large enterprises. So, how do these solutions balance sort of the independence with the need to surface information from SharePoint or integrate with other… Some folks may say, “Well, no, I want to have all my tasks and planner.” Can these products integrate at a level that meets some of the business scenarios that are not in that kind of independent intranet list
Suzie Robinson:Yes. That’s one of the scenarios as well that we explore separately from general integration. We run the two separately because as you say, people probably invested in Outlook and especially Teams at the moment is so popular. And these products, again, it really varies. But on the whole, we found that they do SharePoint integration quite well, especially the library side of things. But then some of the other Microsoft 365 tools, they do less well. They have all seemed to realize the importance of Microsoft Teams. So that’s something that we have seen more of and know is on more vendor roadmaps for some form of work to be done. Whether that’s being in the left-hand menu as a tab or something a little bit more fine-grained or more closely integrated. But then some of the other tools, some of the attitudes of the vendors was, well, actually, we know that people will go externally.


We know people will go to either the desktop app, or they will go to the suite of options. And so they haven’t necessarily looked at them too closely. So for those businesses that use the whole Office 365 suite of apps, SharePoint intranet may actually be the better solution just purely because of how easy it is then to access everything and to get all that information into one place. Whereas, an independent intranets on the whole, that’s one of the patchier areas where they don’t do it quite as well across the board. And some just don’t even want to consider doing it so it’s not something they’ve even looked at.

Tommy Ryan:It’s interesting as you talk about all the different products of Microsoft and the usage of that and how that compares to your ability to surface that information from an intranet-in-a-box and how integrated that is. And in a lot of the conversation with the reports from ClearBox over the years, this SharePoint versus intranet in the box, or the ecosystem of those working together, one of the things that we’ve noticed is a shift from SharePoint to Teams where now Teams, especially with Microsoft Viva, is that single pane of glass that is the promise of one place to go. It’s all integrated. You don’t have all these disparate parts and pieces of the platform. But now you have Teams because they’re bringing SharePoint in kind of your SharePoint homepage within their news and other aspects of content. And SharePoint’s becoming more of that background service and it’s Teams. So do you see over time there’s comparisons of Teams to intranet-in-the-boxes, or is it still SharePoint intranet-in-a-box?
Suzie Robinson:What’s interesting about Teams is that it has kind of shown a light on the fact that SharePoint doesn’t need to look like SharePoint, because that is what Teams is. In the background it is just SharePoint with a different interface laid over the top of it. So in a way it may have made more people realize, hang on a minute, yes, we have got SharePoint, but what is it we actually want on top of it? And Teams is a very good product. And it does the collaboration side of things very well, but I still think it misses something when it comes to sharing news and getting announcements out to people. And I think intranet managers are probably, I think at the moment would certainly agree that it’s not really the right place to completely replace an intranet as yet.


It does do a lot of things very well, but there are things that are still missing there. And so I think, in fact, we’ve covered Microsoft Teams in the employee mobile app report, because that was one of the things that we were getting asked about, whether people should do something else or use a Microsoft tool. But, it could be something as time goes on that we look at Microsoft Teams and think about how it sits within the world of intranets and how they do complement each other. But certainly, at the moment, we’re not hearing from clients that they want to replace their intranets with Teams. We’re hearing that they just want to be able to make sure that they complement each other. And that’s, I think, the challenge at the moment is just to make sure that they do work well and people who maybe do go just into Teams and not into the intranet get that information still, or are still able to get some of that experience and don’t miss out if they had gone through intranet in the first place.

Tommy Ryan:Yeah. Yeah. And I wonder if that improves with Viva. Microsoft Viva, some of that’s marketing, some of it’s already productized, but in a new name and package. And some of it’s really the focus of employee experience, which I think is something that’s been out there for a long time and we’ve heard from other platforms like Unily where that’s been the focus. What’s the employee experience? And I think it speaks to that simplicity and ease and flow of information that makes it more effective. What’s your thought so far from what you’ve seen in Viva and how that helps address some of the pains within the Microsoft product?
Suzie Robinson:I think it’s still difficult to say because it’s still so new and there’s still not a lot of the information out there yet. I think it’s a really interesting approach that Microsoft has taken to look at that experience and to look at HR as well so actually to focus on those people as a group because it’s not necessarily been an audience that they’ve tried to speak to you before. But I wonder whether they reached them. So whether HR would be willing to listen to Microsoft and to consider a Microsoft tool for engagement, for poll surveys, for whatever else it might be. And certainly, something that I’ve not mentioned actually ready is around SharePoint. SharePoint gets a bad reputation. And actually, something that I’ve spoken to a client about the last couple of days is, you always remember a bad intranet. At some point in your life, you know you’ve come across one and it just stays with you.


And for some people, that’s a very early SharePoint. And so those, that reputation and that experience is quite difficult to shake. And when you’re outside of the world of intranets and outside of the world of SharePoint as a user in HR, then hearing from the people that made this product, you have this horrible memory of, is that are you going to actually listen to them? Are you going to believe them, or are you going to believe the world of HR technology that’s out there? And some of the other products that actually maybe speak to you in a different way that doesn’t have that memory connected to it. And that’s something I’m interested to see whether the world of HR does kind of start to listen to Microsoft or not.

Pete Skelly:I think there’s a lot of people waiting to see what Viva does and what’s reality versus what’s marketing at this point because some of it’s so new and some of it’s not available. They’re kind of leaking out some information recently at Ignite, but that’ll be a very interesting space to watch for sure. I think that’s a kind of… Yeah.
Tommy Ryan:Pete, I have a question. I know you’re probably going to wrap up here, but what has come up recently for us and we’ve seen it a few times is Facebook Workplace. Is that in your report or do you… is that in the sphere of your conversation around how people are managing-
Suzie Robinson:Yeah, so we have covered that in our employee mobile apps report. Because as we were researching it and writing it up, it isn’t an intranet. So it does have document storage to a degree, but not in the same kind of slick way as an intranet does have. But it does have a few different or two different apps associated with it. You have the kind of the Facebook experience. Then you have the Facebook Messenger experience as two separate apps for employee to download. So actually they’ve taken that kind of slight step back and said, well, we know these two things do two different things so we approached it in that way.


So we’ve reviewed it in that context rather than in the context of being an intranet. But we were quite impressed with it as we were going through and seeing the different features and especially from a communications perspective. So live events, although that’s something again that Microsoft can do, but live events are done very well through Facebook and the whole community feel and the variety of things that you have at your disposal as a communicator to write messages and to share the news. But we’ve not come across any clients asking about it instead of an intranet. It’s always been an additional platform if they’ve decided to use it.

Tommy Ryan:We’ve seen in some larger companies that they’ve considered it at least. It’s been in the conversation, which has surprised me, especially in the larger enterprise corporate space in terms of protection of information and privacy and all that. Thanks, Suzie. Pete, you want to wrap this up?
Pete Skelly:Yeah. This has been really interesting, kind of stepping out of the box that we normally live in, and kind of focus on SharePoint. So, just prepping for this was interesting to learn a little bit more and see a few more products. What’s next for you? Are you working on additional reports or how can folks get in touch with you? What’s coming up
Suzie Robinson:We are looking at the different services that we offer. So as we’ve been going through these reports, we’ve been considering actually, how can we make it clearer, what we do offer. So we’ve just launched a service which is 25 things you can do to improve your intranet. So we will come in and have a look at that. And we’re also trying to make some guidance around how to choose an intranet product. So that’s something that we’ve been writing for a little while to try and make sure it’s comprehensive. So hopefully in the next few weeks that will be up. But you are very welcome to contact us. You can contact us through our website. It’s And then we have a series of reports on there as well so if you go to forward slash reports, then you will see the three different ones that we’ve mentioned today
Pete Skelly:Great. Well, this has been really informative. Appreciate you taking some time to chat with us again, and hopefully, we’ll be able to do this again when the next report gets refreshed and have another good conversation. Thanks, Suzie.
Suzie Robinson:Yeah. Sounds great. Thank you very much for having me again.
Tommy Ryan:Yeah, thanks, Suzie.
Pete Skelly:If you liked this episode, please let us know with a review in iTunes or tweet about the show. All of our podcast episodes, including transcripts, conversations, and questions can be found on by searching for podcasts. Follow us on Twitter at ThreeWill and subscribe to us on iTunes, Spotify, SoundCloud, or your favorite podcast player. We’ll see you next time on the ThreeWill Podcast.


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