This Article was originally published in KMWorld Magazine and online.
Using “intranet in a box” preconfigured offerings to get more from SharePoint, Office 365, Delve, Planner, OneDrive, Video and Power BI
A common refrain from SharePoint users is “I can’t find anything.” There are ways to mitigate that problem, but usability and architecture experts have to face the facts of typical business circumstances—often, the “correct” approach to SharePoint deployments is not something the business wants to invest in. That does not mean all hope is lost—that we abandon best practices and let users complain or merely install quick fixes. Tools and approaches are available to help move the needle on SharePoint solution effectiveness even when only minimal resources are available, as well as solutions that help make up for past (knowledge management) sins.
Barriers to SharePoint productivity
The reasons people don’t get the most from SharePoint (and the cloud version in Office 365—I will use “SharePoint” to include both on premise and cloud installations) fall into a few broad areas: structure and configuration, including terminology and architecture; user fluency and adoption; and content hygiene, governance and maintainability. The answer is not a new search engine that provides a Google-like experience or a new design or deployment. The biggest challenge is haphazard deployment with more of a focus on standing the platform up and “checking the box” than thoughtfully considering user requirements. Third-party methods and tools can help overcome many of those challenges.
Structure and configuration
SharePoint administrators and super users create various architectural and design elements: the site collections, sites, libraries, folders, lists, content types, columns and terms. Those comprise the user experience when surfaced in pages and through web parts (the windows into content and data contained in libraries, lists and even external data sources). Terms are used for populating lists of values for identifying the “is-ness” and “about-ness” of content, i.e., its essential nature and various descriptors of the content. What is this document? It is a policy. What is it about? It is about maternity leave. The about-ness can be in the form of a topic, process, industry or other characteristic of a document. A policy document can be about a particular topic, for instance, personal time off. If you had one hundred documents in a pile, the name of that pile is the “is-ness.” If you then separated that into multiple piles to tell them apart, that would be the “about-ness.”
When a comprehensive strategy is not applied for defining those structures, sites can be created haphazardly to meet a short-lived need and then abandoned, or departments and groups can create duplicate sites, leading to a proliferation of content. Without coordination, an information management strategy and a defined methodology, the same thing can happen with all of the other elements. Libraries containing confusing folder structures and content types with poorly architected metadata structures will proliferate. Taxonomies become long lists of overly granular terms with ambiguous or overly broad concepts. That leads to poor user adoption and an inability to correctly tag and store documents in the first place—which also has a negative effect on search. With that kind of a confused mess underlying the organization’s knowledge, no search engine will be able to function correctly, and users will be left with frustration, duplication of effort and friction impeding all of the knowledge flows in the enterprise.
Design patterns and common processes
One approach is to begin with processes that every organization requires, such as document tracking and versioning, project management, basic collaboration, task tracking and so on. Those common processes lead to common design patterns. To some degree, SharePoint already has many of those capabilities out of the box, but only at a basic level. They are designed to be applicable to all industries and, therefore, do not have specific terminology or nuanced content models and workflows. SharePoint (and its associated components including Delve, Planner, OneDrive, Video and Power BI) is still a platform on which to configure, build and integrate applications rather than being a complete, user-ready environment. Out-of-the-box functionality in SharePoint includes the elements common to all verticals, but those elements are limited since they are foundational. Those foundational platform capabilities are meant to be extended.
That said, many SharePoint consultancies have found that after they have developed custom environments for several customers in a particular field, design patterns common to a class of customer begin to emerge. Professional services firms, for example, are very document-centric, while technology organizations may be project-intensive. A good example of a document centric approach is the Matter Center for law firms—microsoft.com/en-us/legal/productivity/mattercenter.aspx. One way to save time and accelerate deployment is to look for services firms that have developed applications for similar organizations or, at the very least, organizations in adjacent markets. Those firms can save time by filling in the gaps around scenario-specific requirements and look for distinctions that are unique to your organization rather than defining everything from scratch.
Solution example, enter the intranet in a box (IIB) vendor
With the advent of Office 365 and advances in SharePoint capabilities, greater power is now in the hands of organizations that wish to deploy collaboration and knowledge sharing environments. The challenge is that unlocking those capabilities requires traversing a significant technical and organizational learning curve, and most organizations go through painful experiences and make costly mistakes. In some cases, those experiences cause the culture to reject the platform out of hand, causing a repeating pattern of deploying another technology rather than catalyzing learning from the root cause issues for the failure. Rather than repeating that pattern, organizations can take the path of a semi-custom solution offered by the right IIB vendor.
Many choices of subscription-based solutions are now available with core capabilities built on top of the SharePoint and Office 365 foundation. Most of those players have configured essential functionality and templatized their solution, which is bundled with requirements and final set of services offering. That approach greatly reduces the time to value and can get organizations up and running with customized SharePoint applications relatively quickly. Some of those companies are consultancies with a starting framework for a particular vertical or application, and others are true product companies with minimal services or services offered through partners. Some are on premise and cloud, while some are cloud only. I will refer collectively to those vendors as “IIB” (intranet in a box) vendors.
The pros—faster time to value, an intentional approach to IA
What I like about this approach is that most of the companies I have researched offering preconfigured intranets based on SharePoint also include requirements and setup services to determine details of organizational needs. One IIB vendor, Bonzai (bonsai-intranet.com), has a comprehensive process beginning with vision and planning and moving through multiple phases including reviewing infrastructure, conducting a content audit, developing the information architecture (IA), prototyping functionality, framing governance, defining roles and responsibilities, facilitating migration and supporting rollout planning. The analysis ranges from a half-day for some vendors to several weeks of discovery including working sessions to define the information architecture and taxonomy to suit the nuances of enterprise terminology and organizing principles. Those key activities are commonly missing in many SharePoint deployments dooming the implementations to failure.
The design and supported processes may be somewhat cookie cutter in that they are repeated from organization to organization, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The core features of news, events, documents, project collaboration, people and corporate directories organized with specific department contexts with preconfigured search can be quickly defined and deployed using that approach. Packages vary according to the depth of functionality in areas such as training, recruiting, HR records, sick leave, meeting attendance, event planning, social collaboration, workflow, notifications, mobile interactions and search functionality. Some solutions don’t look anything like SharePoint—a valuable consideration when people have been turned off to the technology by a suboptimal deployment.
The cons—less flexibility, loss of competitive differentiation on collaboration
Enterprises compete on how well they process information, meet customer needs, solve problems and differentiate their solutions. Therefore, the way that organizations share information, collaborate and enable internal processes is actually a competitive advantage. Relying on generic approaches to internal information processes means that this aspect of business is not part of what makes the enterprise different from its competitors. For example, a retailer would not launch a website with an identical structure and user experience to that of a competitor in order to save money on deployment. Retailers compete on the ways they curate content and present product data.
Although there may be nothing unique and proprietary about how internal users collaborate, the company may have a unique set of internal collaboration processes built on SharePoint between merchandizers, product managers, the procurement organization and marketers that allow item onboarding and integration into demand generation to take place faster and at a lower cost than the competition. In that circumstance, SharePoint becomes part of a competitive advantage.
Many more levers can be deployed that provide differentiation. If the intranet is the locus of the convergence of multiple systems and is part of the secret sauce, enhancements of IIB solutions developed by customers become part of the overall vendor offering and solution (but read the fine print of contracts; many times your approaches become the vendor’s property). Although the vendor is providing a solution to expedite the launch for the company, the vendor may incorporate some of the company’s unique processes as it implements them on the IIB SharePoint. That may not be intentional, but good ideas are hard to contain and your processes may find their way into a future general release and become of value to the competition should they implement the solution after you.
There is also the issue of less control over the overall structure and application functionality. Most of the solutions have constraints over applications that are developed using a clean sheet approach. Additional costs of the package are also incurred; they include setup fees, the cost of modules and ongoing subscription fees in addition to Microsoft’s software and subscription costs. However, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) versus custom development is bringing the overall spend for SharePoint solutions down from high hundreds of thousands to low hundreds of thousands depending on the level of customization. The final 15 to 20 percent of customization is the most costly.
The components of architecture
Documents are still at the core of knowledge work, and every intranet needs a simple way of managing them. The ways that IIB vendor offerings deal with documents fall into a couple of categories. One is to provide simple out-of-the-box libraries with the default metadata. Most add topic or subject tags as well as category metadata and then expose the additional metadata in views. That step immediately adds more context to the plain out-of-the-box SharePoint library. Being intentional about the metadata for documents is a step in the right direction and will help with findability.
Another way of adding structure to content is by defining document types. That is where SharePoint has a great deal of power, and where a lack of intentional decision-making can cause problems. IIB vendors address the issue of document types by considering documents from a departmental perspective and predefining the documents that might be used by that department. For example, an HR department will use employee evaluations as a document type. FAQs, classified ads, open positions, new employees, project profile, case studies, training documents can all be considered content types if they have different structures, templates or workflow processes associated with them.
Different IIB vendors treat those constructs differently and have a variety of approaches for creating the appropriate structures. Some are “baked in” and some are variable. It is important to understand which of them are part of the vendor’s core architecture, because those cannot be adjusted, and which are open to be changed. In some cases, changes will constitute “customization,” and that can become costly and send companies down a compatibility issue path when new versions of products are released (either from the vendor or from Microsoft). Be sure to evaluate an IIB based on the solution’s ability to allow you to leverage the entire out-of-the-box functionality of SharePoint and Office 365.
Each of the IIB vendors that I researched had different areas of focus—from narrow simple intranets all the way to ERP-like suites that covered HR, IT support, facilities, training, projects and other areas with department-specific processes and information constructs.
A good beginning does not ensure adoption
Socialization and engagement can be faster and more effective with a well-constructed starting point that has been user tested and vetted, but that does not mean that user acceptance and adoption will be automatic. It is important to include lunch and learns, training sessions and mechanisms for capturing ongoing feedback for adjustments and improvements. Those initiatives need to be governed through a structured decision-making process with representation from the correct stakeholders. Resources are available from Microsoft in its FastTrack Center (fasttrack.microsoft.com), as well as onboarding services from the FastTrack Team.
There are many ways to jumpstart an Office 365 or SharePoint deployment, including using applications developed by IIB vendors. Many of those applications save significant time over a custom software approach. The challenge is that selecting the correct starting point is not a trivial matter and, if done correctly, entails a thorough investigation and selection project, including development of a vendor scorecard, development of use cases and, most importantly, alignment with corporate and departmental strategic objectives. It is also very important to evaluate the vendor’s core information architecture (preconfigured taxonomies, metadata schemas and content types) and information management constructs (leveraging SharePoint for governance and compliance).
Those fundamental approaches make or break both custom and preconfigured solutions. Organizations have been through the pain of out-of-the-box SharePoint deployments that only exploit a tiny fraction of the potential value of knowledge management and collaboration. Intranet in a box solutions are a viable way to quickly take advantage of some very exciting new capabilities available in this space.
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