My company has been researching and evaluating in-a-box intranet space since 2016. We just released a new report comparing 31 SharePoint and non-SharePoint options against the same criteria, and it’s fun to see how fast the market is. is thriving. As you might expect, the pandemic is putting digital workplace solutions on the agenda of many organizations, but we’re also seeing effects from trends in related spaces. In particular, there is a renewed focus on frontline workers, and companies are working on changes to the employee experience to improve transactions using tools such as ServiceNow and Workday.
SharePoint: Above, Next to or At Arms?
For several years now, SharePoint has been the mammoth in the intranet marketplace. The addition of Viva Connections to tie it closer to Teams has pushed it further. This has certainly motivated other vendors to increase their game, but it has also created more open-mindedness towards different strategies.
We used to see companies arguing over whether they should take standard SharePoint and customize it or buy the in-a-box product above. What we see now is a dichotomy of companies planning to use SharePoint as-is, or buy something that performs well with their investment in Microsoft 365 but doesn’t have to sit directly on top of the SharePoint tenant.
I think this openness is reinforced on the part of Teams. Once you understand the concept that even in Teams the data stays in SharePoint but the presentation layer is different, it seems reasonable to ask “What other presentation layers are out there?” This can lead to many alternatives to the look of SharePoint, such as the mobile approach.
Nor should we forget that there is always a strong range of independent intranet products. They have their own content management systems, but many of them still use Microsoft 365 APIs to release documents, integrate Yammer and even allow users to directly share stories. news on a Teams channel (something Microsoft itself does not support).
Related Article: Viva Connections Vs. SharePoint: A Primer
The Intranet Now Provides a Better Experience for Users and Publishers
It is undeniable that intranets used to be ruthless in operation, often very dated compared to their consumer-facing equivalents. If websites are luxury jets, intranets are military transport planes. But the last five years have seen huge improvements in the user experience. All of the products we reviewed are capable of attractive, highly usable designs.
I suspect the next arena for competition is the back-end experience. Unlike websites, where only a handful of expert people will have access to the CMS admin panels, a good intranet is likely to have hundreds of contributors, most of whom are lacking in time or inclined to undergo extensive training. It is recognized by leading intranet platforms and has invested heavily in making admin tasks easier and more integrated. Some, for example, show instant previews of a page for mobile and desktop renderings. Many others have drag-and-drop tiles to rearrange widgets or step-by-step configuration guides.
When non -technical people can adapt an intranet page to their needs without relying on IT support this is a huge advantage. This is a place where looking beyond the world of SharePoint can pay dividends.
Related Article: Intranets Are Back, But Not How They Used To Be
A Focus on More Integrated Interactions
The whole interpretation of ‘what an intranet is’ is also evolving. Sometimes I talk about the ‘big intranet’ being driven by a “one stop shop” perspective and trying to cover multiple bases in one hub, and the ‘small intranet’ recognizing that many roles used to fall into intranets – specifically collaboration – have moved to other tools. Instead they focus on filling in the gaps that are left, and this is usually focused on making internal communications work properly.
To that end, internal communicators are pleased to hear that some platforms reflect content marketing platforms such as HubSpot, which takes a more holistic approach to internal communication channels. For example, some use a campaign-based model that will link web, mobile, email newsletter publishing and digital signage channels.
Related Article: What Does M&A Mean in the Employee Communications Apps Market for Communications Pros
Mobile and Frontline interaction
Frontline workers are also getting more attention from vendors. We’re seeing an increase in mobile-first dedicated apps, but some suppliers that have started in the mobile space are also rapidly expanding to the desktop. In response, many traditional intranet vendors have redoubled efforts for deskless employees, making mobile apps slicker and tackling the challenge of how to enroll workers without a corporate email account.
The Intranet Is Getting Better, But We Still Need Better Basics
Despite all the encouraging news, some places are not getting the attention they deserve. Analytics and reporting dashboards are usually a weak point overall, but especially in the world of SharePoint. No matter where analytics are provided, they are often fragmented and focus on anonymous web-like reporting rather than the known audiences of an employee base. For some, the fallback has been Google Analytics, but it hasn’t been enough, and rising concerns with the GDPR are making it even more unsatisfactory.
In the rush to release new features, we are also seeing some legacy features left behind. The “Customer voice” feedback we’ve gathered really highlights how frustrating it can be for an intranet manager who reports critical bugs but never sees them addressed. Releases are always focused on new shiny features.
Finally, I would like to see a greater emphasis on improving accessibility. In most countries it is a legal requirement for employers to ensure that people with disabilities are not harmed. There is much more vendors can do to actually promote and educate companies about compliance, in favor of softer initiatives by many companies about diversity and integration.
Related Article: What Employees Always Want From Their Intranet
Outlook for 2022
There is a lot of interest in venture capital investment in this space right now. Money injections are probably good news for customers of intranet platforms and I hope customers will have many powerful options to choose from. The more these platforms perform, the more intranet launches can focus on good quality content and strong usability rather than technical barriers.
However, I also expect additional waves of mergers and acquisitions, especially with companies relying on plugging SharePoint slots that Microsoft has now shut down. It can be disturbing for companies releasing a product to just find it in the hands of another supplier as soon as possible.
Finally (and one for another article), the entire ‘Employee Experience’ territory is in tug-of-love between HR Management Systems vendors, Employee Services platforms and Digital Workplace specialists. The ‘big intranet’ is at the heart of it, and companies need to work hard to develop cross-functional insights that deliver the best for their employees.
Sam Marshall is the owner of ClearBox Consulting and has specialized in intranets and the digital workplace for over 20 years, providing consultancy to companies such as AstraZeneca, Diageo, Sony, GSK and Unilever.