SharePoint, Viva, or employee experience platform?

With organizations under increasing pressure to improve employee engagement, choosing the right intranet technology for your enterprise has never been more important. But in a crowded market, working out which solution is best for your business is no easy task. The introduction of Viva has brought more questions than answers, renewing the age-old build vs buy debate – so should you build on SharePoint, Viva, or buy a ready-made employee experience platform?

Understanding the evolved intranet marketplace

The concept of having to choose between various intranet options is a relatively new phenomenon. Twenty years ago, there was only one choice to consider: SharePoint, which was launched in 2001 and initially sold primarily as a document management system. At that time, demands on intranet technology were a far cry from today’s consumer-grade expectations. A simple portal for policies, documents, and basic company information was all that was required – a need that SharePoint fulfilled exceptionally well.

Fast-forward to today’s post-pandemic workplace; the landscape looks very different. In the era of hybrid working and digital dependence, intranets have become the de facto digital HQ. At the same time, consumer-tech has reshaped our expectations of how technology should enable us, both at home and in the workplace. We want personalized, frictionless, social experiences that enhance our productivity, empower us to collaborate, and give us everything we need to succeed no matter where we are or what device we prefer.

"Organizations are under increasing pressure to engage and retain employees through improved experience, at once elevating and transforming the role of the intranet."

Gartner, Market Guide for Intranet Packaged Solutions

The intranet market place has evolved to meet these expectations. SharePoint bolt-on solutions have been developed to adapt the platform beyond its original use-cases, while other enterprises pushed on with in-house customizations. At the same time a fork in the road appeared.

In response to rising intranet demands, employee experience platforms, otherwise referred to as Intranet Packaged Solutions (IPS), entered the market. These solutions were designed to meet the changing needs of enterprises from the ground up – independent of SharePoint, they were created to solve common employee experience challenges without the need for customization. As turnkey platforms, they were conceived to provide enterprises with Out-of-the-Box functionality that reduced lengthy development times and allowed organizations to activate a powerful, tried-and-tested employee experience solution with confidence.

The emergence of these two compelling intranet options launched a build vs buy debate. Was it better to build a platform on SharePoint that could be highly bespoke and customized to meet niche requirements, or buy a platform that came ready-made with sophisticated solutions to common challenges at the sacrifice of ultimate flexibility? Not long ago, the debate seemed to have reached a conclusion: buying an intranet was more cost effective, easier to maintain, and more capable of evolving with changing needs.

"The appetite for custom-built, homegrown intranets is dead… New, cloud-native platforms have shattered the stereotype of static, clunky, internal portals. Since The Forrester Wave™: Intranet Platforms, Q2 2020, customer demand has decidedly shifted away from build to buy."

The Forrester Wave™: Intranet Platforms, Q1 2022

Then Viva entered the fray; Microsoft’s first entry into the employee experience space in 2021. Despite being marketed as an employee experience platform, it didn’t take long for analysts and commentators to disagree. Even so, the entrance of Viva reignited the build versus buy debate, with key analysts including Gartner stating that enterprises should consider Viva as a build solution that comes with the same need for customization as SharePoint.

"Like on-premises SharePoint intranets, Viva Connections also requires significant SharePoint expertise to customize and implement… Viva Connections improves SharePoint (especially the mobile UI), but they are both part of the same toolkit for building internal websites."

Gartner, Quick Answer: What Is Microsoft Viva?

That takes us to now: Viva still in fledgling stages with uncertainty around what it can and can’t deliver, EXPs continuing to evolve at pace, SharePoint still the first-choice IT intranet. It’s no surprise then that enterprises are struggling to decide which technology is right for them.

To help bring much-needed clarity to the debate, we recently ran a webinar on the topic. Below, we’ll summarize the key talking points.

On-demand

SharePoint, Viva, or employee experience platform: Choosing the right intranet solution

With organizations under increasing pressure to improve employee engagement, choosing the right intranet technology for your enterprise has never been more important. But should you build on SharePoint, Viva, or buy a ready-made employee experience platform? In this webinar, we reviewed the pros and cons of each to give you the information you need to choose the right platform for your business.

Watch on-demand

#1. What you need to know about building a SharePoint intranet

The original intranet solution still has a few advantages going for it. It can be customized to meet very niche requirements, assuming communications teams can leverage existing IT support. Given that document management was its original use case, SharePoint is also a good option for sharing files and collaborating in real-time.

However, since SharePoint lacks dedicated support or success managers, companies will be left to manage their intranet entirely by themselves, or engage costly third-party consultants. Developing on SharePoint can also be expensive and time-consuming, which is why it’s so important for companies with SharePoint intranets to have extensive, internal IT support. Finally, one of SharePoint’s most cited pain points surrounds governance, which can become unwieldly fast on account of a lack of intuitive governance features.

"Overall governance and life cycle management of SharePoint content and sites is difficult using Microsoft’s out-of-the-box capabilities, especially at large scale, and will frequently require purpose-built third-party solutions."

Gartner, The Top 10 "Gotchas" of SharePoint in Microsoft 365

Pros:

  • Ability to meet highly unique use cases. With the support of a robust IT team or knowledgeable third-party service provider, a SharePoint intranet can be customized to meet highly bespoke use-cases.
  • Trusted by enterprise IT. SharePoint is backed by one of the largest technology firms, Microsoft, and historically has been used to create some of the world’s best intranet platforms. High standards of security and compliance, if configured correctly, make SharePoint intranets attractive to IT.
  • Costs included in standard Microsoft 365 package. One of the biggest reasons enterprises opt to build on SharePoint is because it comes included in the Microsoft 365 suite, making it first-choice for many IT teams.

Cons:

  • Lengthy deployment times. SharePoint intranets can take months to develop, unlike employee experience platforms which can be stood up in weeks.
  • Upfront and on-going costs. Building a SharePoint intranet requires significant upfront and on-going investment. Even if an organization has in-house IT resource to design and implement the platform, it’s likely that consultants will need to be engaged. To ensure the platform continues to evolve to utilize emerging technology and meet an enterprise’s changing needs, on-going maintenance and development costs must be factored in.
  • Unwieldly governance, unmanageable search. Aside from sub-par mobile experiences, one of SharePoint’s most cited pain points is difficulty effectively managing governance and maintaining accurate search experiences, which can quickly lead to loss of user trust and ultimately platform disengagement.

When is SharePoint the right choice for an enterprise intranet?

  • If the intranet will be owned by IT
  • If the organization has a large CAPEX budget
  • If the organization has extensive in-house IT support and highly unique intranet requirements

If your company is looking to have IT own the intranet and has a lot of developer resources available to customize and maintain it, SharePoint might be a good option, especially for enterprises with highly unique intranet requirements. Organizations that use SharePoint will have a large CAPEX budget to support ongoing development needs.

#2. What you need to know about building a Viva intranet

The first thing to note with Viva is that it’s a collection of applications. Viva Connections is Microsoft’s answer to the intranet. It provides a new channel for surfacing internal communications within Teams, but its ultimate purpose is to act as a launchpad for the Viva suite, weaving together the different Viva modules into a cohesive experience. Analysts do not consider Viva to be an employee experience platform, with Gartner stating it's better classified as an example of EX Tech. To be a fully-fledged employee experience platform, Gartner says it would need broader top-level organizational structure, to address a much larger set of touchpoints and interactions, and to meet the needs of a variety of employee types, including deskless or frontline workers. Even so, enterprises are still considering whether Viva Connections could suffice as an enterprise intranet, so here’s what you need to know:

Pros:

  • It’s free (at the moment) to enterprises with Microsoft 365 licenses. Although, other parts of the Viva suite come with high price tag. It is anticipated that costs may rise in the future, with the likelihood that bolt-on features such as analytics will come at an additional premium.
  • Mobile. Viva improves on SharePoint’s widely criticized mobile experience, making it more suitable for enterprises wishing to provision device agnostic access. But unlike EXPs, the mobile app cannot be branded, and will be accessed through the existing Teams app.
  • Familiarity. Viva could be a good option for enterprises where Teams is already well embedded, especially if intranet requirements are basic, but not for frontline teams who have little use for wider Teams functionality.

Cons:

  • It’s basic. To meet the complex demands of the modern enterprise, Viva Connections needs the same heavy customization required for a SharePoint intranet. You’ll need a large, SharePoint-savvy IT team or budget for external consultants.
  • It’s new. As yet, there’s no proof that Viva provides ROI and no documented best-practices to follow. Microsoft also has a track record of offering new products for free and later monetizing them – so in these fledging stages, the future cost of Viva is unclear and expected to rise.
  • You’re on your own. Organizations that opt for Viva will not have access to dedicated support and will need to navigate the journey on their own or with the help of third-party consultants.

When is Viva the right choice for an enterprise intranet?

  • If all of your employees have Microsoft licences and Teams is well embedded into your organization
  • If you have a small organization with basic intranet requirements
  • If you do not intend to publish large volumes of content
  • If you’re prepared to engage third-party consultants or in-house resource to maintain, manage and develop your platform as you would with a SharePoint intranet

If your entire workforce already has Microsoft licenses (or your organization is ok with paying for everyone to get them) Viva might be worth considering, especially if you’re only planning on putting out communications infrequently.

According to Gartner, “Viva Connections may suffice for a small intranet where content is published infrequently.” However, if you’re looking for more than a newsfeed that acts as a plugin on top of the Microsoft stack, Viva won’t cut it.

"Most larger companies have much more complex intranet demands that involve multiple locations and divisions. I’ve every hope that SharePoint will continue to evolve and fill the gaps, but until then it’s going to mostly feel like a small SharePoint intranet using Teams as the browser. It’s not clear that the ‘Viva’ element adds anything on top for enterprise scale."

Clearbox Consulting, Microsoft Viva – Who is it for?

#3. What you need to know about buying an employee experience platform

In contrast to SharePoint and Viva, EXPs – also known as Intranet Packaged Solutions (IPS) – are designed from the ground up to solve enterprise-scale employee experience challenges. They are designed to be owned by non-technical teams, making them the preferred choice for communicators per Gartner analysis.

"The IPS market appeals to the many organizations desiring a relatively preassembled, configurable intranet. One of the main attractions comes in allowing business stakeholders to create and manage their own intranet sites and content without requiring heavy involvement from IT. Deployment times are typically a fraction of those required to implement an intranet using other methods."

Gartner, Market Guide for Intranet Packaged Solutions

Unlike SharePoint and Viva, one of the key selling points of EXPs is that platform innovation is outsourced to vendors who compete to release state-of-the-art functionality in response to fluctuating needs, allowing enterprises to keep pace with the latest tech advancements.

This also means that all EXPs aren’t created equally, and buyers must sort through options with care to find the platform that offers the level of support and innovation to meet their requirements. Alongside outsourced innovation, inclusive support, transparent costs, and faster time-to-value are some of the key reasons enterprises choose to base their intranet on EXPs.

Pros:

  • Outsourced innovation. Employee experience platform vendors are driven to release the most competitive, cutting-edge features that keep your platform at the forefront of employee experience technology innovation. The best EXPs will come with app store style feature catalogs that allow non-technical resources to add new capabilities and integrations to their platform with ‘plug-and-play’ ease.
  • Transparent costs, inclusive post-sales support. Unlike platforms built on SharePoint and Viva, most EXP providers offer inclusive post-sales support, including implementation consultancy, on-going customer success management, and technical support.
  • Proven ROI and documented best practices. Some of the world’s best intranets are created using employee experience platforms. Extensive case studies and analyst reports attest to the value of using an employee experience platform to solve complex enterprise challenges. Good vendors will have a library of documented best practices – Unily customers, for example, benefit from access to Universe, Unily’s customer portal.

Cons:

  • Ultimate flexibility. Enterprises opting to buy an employee experience platform will need to understand that they must map their requirements to their chosen vendor’s platform framework.
  • Third-party risks. When working with an EXP vendor, enterprises should consider the risks of placing control in a third-party’s hands. For example, if innovation stagnates for the vendor (think of Jive) the enterprise will suffer from technology that does not keep pace with evolving needs.
  • Not all EXPs are created equally. The EXP market is full of options with many vendors offering similar functionality and services. Enterprises must be careful to choose the right vendor to build a long-lasting partnership.

To help you compare EXP vendors:

#1. Consider industry recognition, including studying key analyst reports such as Forrester Wave: Intranet Platforms and ClearBox’s intranet and employee experience platforms, as well as examples of success at industry awards such as Nielsen Norman Group and Ragan Communications.

#2. Look at the vendor’s existing client-base for comparable examples of proven delivery in your sector. Search for case studies that show tangible ROI and considering reviewing independent ROI analysis in Forrester TEI reports where available.

#3. Ask about community-led innovation – does your vendor crowd-source ideas for platform development from existing customers? How often do they release new versions? What exciting roadmap items have been released recently and what is anticipated on the future roadmap?

#4. Understand what implementation, support and on-going consultancy comes inclusive with the cost (some vendors will charge for these services separately – although Unily doesn’t!).

"Modernize your intranet by selecting an intranet packaged solution (IPS) that has the ability to not only meet typical current demands, but also to sense and respond to changes in employee demand over time. Place a premium on usability, interoperability, composability and analytics when selecting an IPS."

Gartner Market Guide to Intranet Packaged Solutions
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Case Study

The Estée Lauder Companies: Designing the world's best intranet

Discover how The Estée Lauder Companies is transforming employee experience and internal communications for 60k+ global employees with Unily's employee experience platform. Get an exclusive look inside the world's best intranet of 2022 and learn why MyELC made history as the first-ever beauty company intranet to feature in the Nielsen Norman Group's Intranet Design Annual.

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When is an employee experience platform the right choice for an enterprise intranet?

  • If your platform will be owned by non-technical teams such as Internal Comms or HR
  • If you’re looking to solve common, complex employee experience challenges with a proven solution
  • If you’re seeking to leverage cutting-edge employee experience technology without the need to research and develop in-house

Employee experience platforms are the preferred choice for intranets intended to be owned and managed by non-technical resources such as Internal Comms and HR. Large enterprises with complex enterprise needs will be well-suited to an employee experience platform that leverages emerging technology to solve common yet complex employee experience challenges.

Enterprises choosing an EXP should understand that they will need to work with the Out-of-the-Box functionality to bring their unique visions to life, and while many vendors offer the ability to build on top the platform to meet more niche requirements (Unily’s Extend module allows for this), some flexibility will be required. However enterprises will find that in making this sacrifice, they will ultimately gain a more powerful, easier to manage, futureproofed solution.

The best of both worlds

So far, we’ve talked about these three options for intranet creation as if they are mutually exclusive. The truth is the best intranets leverage the best of both worlds to maximize value. An approach that sees the EXP act as the experience layer on top of SharePoint allows enterprises to reap all the benefits of a powerful document management and collaboration solution while plugging well-recognized gaps centering around UX, mobile access, and governance.

To show you what this looks like in practice, below we outline three ways an employee experience platform can enhance SharePoint to give employees the power of two best-in-class technologies in one place.

#1. Reuse and repurpose existing resource

Most companies use Azure Active Directory (AAD) as their single-source-of-truth for data – a place where all user and document data gets stored and synched. With IT entrusted to manage this data and preserve its accuracy, AAD acts as an approved source of information pertaining to employees and important company files.

By leveraging this AAD data within an EXP, enterprises can unlock three key benefits:

  • User data can be used to populate user profiles and org charts to support richer digital identities
  • Document metadata can be used to improve search accuracy, helping users to find documents through topic tags, date ranges, and authors
  • A combination of EXP and AAD data can be used to create dynamic target audience lists that enable more precise targeting.
SharePoint user profile SharePoint user profile
Unily user profile Unily user profile

#2. Curated search experiences

Empowering your employees with quick access to knowledge is one of the most critical services your intranet should provide. A robust search experience that’s intuitive to use and spans all of your repositories helps employees to be more productive and reduces errors caused by misinformation. EXPs elevate search by bringing all of your searchable assets under one roof and surfacing results intuitively. Instead of employees navigating between systems to find the information they need, an EXP lets them search for everything in one place.

Not only does the EXP search experience improve on SharePoint from a UX point of view, it also helps you to curate results in more meaningful ways. With detailed search analytics built-in to the platform, platform owners can keep close tabs on search accuracy and use features like promoted search to ensure the most relevant content displays first.

Search Unily search experience

#3. Eliminating digital friction, maximizing Microsoft 365 adoption

Employees waste precious time toggling between the many applications they rely on at work. As well as draining efficiency and leading to frustration, having information siloed away in different applications means employees struggle to put information in context.

An EXP resolves this issue by providing a one-stop-shop for all systems, tools and knowledge. Through integrations, enterprises can pull together information from different systems in one place. Not only does this prevent context switching, but it also allows organizations to maximize their investment in existing applications, including Microsoft 365.

Microsoft intranet widgets

For a deeper dive into how employee experience platforms and SharePoint can work together to deliver elevated results, check out our guide on the topic.

Microsoft 365 with an intranet guide pages

Guide

Unleash the power of Microsoft 365 and SharePoint with an intranet

Microsoft 365 and SharePoint are a popular choice for the foundation of a modern digital workplace, yet many global enterprises struggle to unlock the full potential of the Microsoft stack. This comprehensive guide outlines the role of Microsoft 365 within the digital workplace, offering examples and steps that your business can take to maximize the return on your Microsoft investment with an intranet.

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Still struggling to decide which platform is right for you?

Selecting the right platform for your people and your business is critical to ensuring your organization is prepped to rise to future challenges. Whichever platform you invest in, you want to be sure of your choice so you’re not sinking time and money into a solution that ends up delivering sup-par ROI. To help you on your quest to find a platform that works for you, our digital workplace experts are on hand to unpick your requirements and find the right match. Get started on your journey to employee experience transformation today and get the answers you need to make the best decision for your people.

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