Can Office 365 replace your intranet?

In 2017, Microsoft announced some really exciting changes to the Office 365 stack; Microsoft Teams, Communication Sites and Hub Sites which were announced at Microsoft’s Ignite Conference in September. These new tools tie into Microsoft’s “new vision for intelligent communications”, supporting their on-going mission to create “an intranet in your pocket.” So with these new tools available from Microsoft, can the out-of-the-box technology from SharePoint and Office 365 finally replace the need for a customized intranet?

office 365 integration with Unily

To set the scene, here’s a glossary of what each of the Microsoft tools offer and where they excel:

Office 365 Groups: Released in 2015, at the basic level, an Office 365 Group is an object in Azure Active Directory with a list of members and a loose coupling to related tools including a SharePoint team site, Microsoft Team, shared Exchange mailbox resources, Planner, PowerBI, OneNote and sometimes Yammer depending on how the Group is created. A Microsoft Group is not a product, nor does it compete with any of the others. It is a security group but with an automatic provisioning service to setup other tools in Office 365, unlike a standard Azure Active Directory security group. Designed to tackle Shadow IT, Office 365 Groups can be created by anyone, quickly giving groups of employees access to a variety of different tools to support their particular use case. This means less time waiting for IT to provision sites and more time using the tools. Share-gate have an excellent series of blogs around Office 365 Groups if you need a little more explanation.

Microsoft Teams: Microsoft Teams are chat-based workspaces in Office 365, which Microsoft have stated will eventually replace Skype for Business. Their purpose is to bring together “people, conversations and content – along with the tools that teams need – so they can easily collaborate to achieve more”. Teams is available on desktop but also has a mobile application. When a Team is created, an Office 365 Group is created which sets off Microsoft’s automatic provisioning engine to also create Office Online, Skype for Business, a SharePoint Team Site, Planner and App Connectors.

Modern SharePoint Team Site: A SharePoint Team Site is a traditional site that anyone who uses SharePoint will be used to. Their primary purpose is for teams to store and collaborate on files or to create and manage lists of information. Pages can be configured using web parts. In 2016, the classic team sites received an upgrade to Modern Team Sites, which provide new integration with Office 365 Groups (which subsequently link to other Office 365 tools), mobile-responsive design and a generally better user experience when creating and publishing content. SharePoint Online also has a mobile application so sites can be accessed on the road.

Communication Sites: Whereas traditional Team Sites are designed for select employees to work on details of a project or campaign collaboratively, Communication Sites have been created for broad-reach communications and top-down content. They are created in the same way as Team Sites, with the ability to create multiple pages with easy to adjust layouts, made up of a rich library of web parts. These web parts can surface dynamic content from across Office 365, such as social feeds from Yammer or videos from Stream. In comparison to a Team Site or Microsoft Teams, a related Office 365 Group isn’t created when a new Communication Site is created.

Hub Sites: Hub Sites were released in 2017 and allow you to associate SharePoint Team and Communication sites with a parent. Many organizations most likely have many intranet team sites, each in a different site collection, that are related to one another because they all have content from the same function within your organization. Currently, there isn’t a simple way to tie those sites together. Hub sites are meant to solve this problem, allowing you to create Hub sites and then associate existing team and communication sites with the Hub site. All sites will then inherit the Hub sites theme and you’ll also get rollup web parts that can surface content from all of your associated sites in one place. Read more about Hub sites in our blog here.

Can these tools replace your intranet?

Intranet: An internal site where employees can go to view and engage with internal communications, collaborate with colleagues, share documentation, complete HR activities, find tools and applications and generally increase their day-to-day productivity.

This seems to have been a popular question over the last year as Microsoft sell new products as an answer to wider business challenges of communication and collaboration. From our experience, we’ve found that there are a few capabilities to consider when looking at Office 365 out-of-the-box (with no additional development) to support an intranet:

  • One Stop Shop – Microsoft Teams has really helped to bring some of the disparate Microsoft products together. For any project group or team using an Office 365 Group, a Team is now a logical homepage, bringing together files, tasks, channels, apps and more. However, a Team doesn’t fulfill the brief for a One Stop Shop platform for the entire workforce, which is high on the wish list for the enterprise intranet. Employees need one place to go for top-down corporate information, HR tools, collaboration tools, documents, forms, policies, tools and more. With a limit of 2,000 users, limits to branding and customization options and a focus on ‘bottom-up’ or ‘inner loop’ conversations, a Microsoft Team is not a replacement for an intranet homepage.
  • Consistent navigation – SharePoint Communication Sites do offer some options for top-down communication. When created, they stand alone, rather than automatically provisioning collaboration tools such as a Team and Planner to support (as Office 365 Groups do). With simple drag and drop layouts, rich web-parts and the ability to create sub-pages, they can be great tools for communication. However, there is no way to connect these pages to the wider digital workplace and no consistent navigation across other Communication sites across your network. This is a problem as your employees won’t know what to look for to find the latest and greatest information.
  • Simplicity – The challenge with using these tools for an intranet is that it’s much harder to create a simple ecosystem where people know where to go to find what they’re looking for. We’re not just talking about things like documents, but also conversations. With Teams, Groups, Yammer, SharePoint and more all set up across the business, how do you know where a particular conversation has taken place or a particular document is stored? With multiple mobile apps for each of these applications, it also makes it very complicated for frontline workers to stay connected and know where to go to get the most up-to-date information.
  • Scalability – The Office 365 tools seriously excel when you look at the benefits for a small group. Your teams and departments need an area to chat about join projects, share internal documents, keep track of email threads and create a plan. But what about those documents which are relevant for the entire business? This could be a new HR policy or a global marketing strategy. With Office 365 Groups and Teams limited to a certain number of users, without an intranet, there is no central channel for documentation and information required by all.
  • Localization and personalization – A couple of years ago, it was a common story for businesses to have siloed intranets across brands or locations. Now, there is a huge drive to bring these platforms onto one to break down information and knowledge siloes. The challenge with tools like Microsoft Communication Sites, is the lack of personalization, localization or targeting functionality. This makes it very challenging to use the sites to support global communications, which have to be tailored to be relevant to a range of individuals’ roles. Central intranet platforms like Unily are designed to support global corporate communications. Every piece of communication can be managed within one Content Management System, with each type of content tagged and targeted based on profile properties.
  • Governance – The great thing about Microsoft tools like Teams is that anyone with sufficient permissions can create one. But this has its challenges when it comes to governance, if trying to use the platform as a corporate intranet. Without effective communication as to how and when to use the tools, they can very quickly get out of control, with a number of dis-used Sites and Teams cropping up around your digital workplace. Using an intranet platform, like Unily, to manage your global sites and pages makes governance easy to manage, as only employees with the correct permissions can create and manage content, which sit under a central platform. You can also make governance of the other Office 365 tools easier through an intranet, simply mandating the tools you want people to use through a customizable Apps and Tools widgets, rather than providing access to all tools through the traditional Office 365 ribbon.

What’s the answer?

A trend we’ve seeing growing this year is how organizations approach intranet and digital workplace initiatives. Rather than implementing a new piece of technology, there is a shift towards starting with ‘Why’. A term coined by Simon Sinek, intranet managers are now defining the requirements of their intranet based on Why employees need them, rather than based on the technologies they have or what the IT team want to use.

This attitude is essential to understanding how to bring together the Office 365 tools in a way that will make sense for employees. Every tool has a place, it’s about what your people are looking to do, and which tool will work best.

To help employees understand what to use when, and ensure proper governance, a world-wide corporate intranet is your best friend. For our Unily clients, they use the platform as a gateway to their digital workplace, linking to and integrating with the Office 365 tools that they have mandated as a business. To breakdown how an intranet and Office 365 come together, we refer to the Outer Loop (global, company-wide information) and the Inner Loop (content and tasks that take place within smaller project teams).

Communication – Outer Loop

For companywide communication, our clients use Unily’s built-in functionality as it allows them to centrally manage content across global teams, personalizing and targeting content depending on region, role, location or other profile detail. This is a superior experience for users compared to Microsoft Communication Sites and Hub, which don’t offer a centralized content management system or personalization functionality. For mobile workers, using the Office 365 tools for corporate communications can also be a challenge, as each of the tools have a separate mobile application. By using Unily, they create a one stop shop for essential information with Single Sign-On, which can then link off to tools across the Office 365 network.

Collaboration – Outer Loop

Every business has initiatives and campaigns which they want to engage the entire business in, gathering feedback and driving engagement to generate new ideas. This could be a new sustainability initiative or charity campaign. In these instances, your intranet is again the best place to highlight information, documentation and conversations. On Unily, we have a couple of ways for businesses to do this, either through Unily Sites or Tribes. By using these pages and connecting them to the overall infrastructure of the intranet, content is searchable and visible, helping to engage more people in the initiatives.

Social communication – Outer Loop

Microsoft have committed to new enhancements and updates to Yammer in 2018. That’s because, despite the release of products like Teams, Yammer is still the only solution they have for company-wide social communication. We recommend integrating Yammer feeds and functionality deeply within your intranet. In Unily, all Yammer feeds and channels are available from within the intranet, with employees able to post, share and comment without leaving the portal. Yammer’s engine is also used to comment and engage with internal communications which have been published through Unily’s CMS. This brings Yammer into context for employees, rather than it being just another tool.

Collaboration – Inner Loop

For bottom-up collaboration, this is when the Microsoft tools come into their own. If your teams require a space to share ideas and documentation that aren’t beneficial to the rest of the business, then Microsoft Teams is a great tool. The benefit of a team is that it automatically provisions an Office 365 Group and other Office 365 products like a SharePoint Team Site, Planner, OneNote and more, making it very easy for an employee to set up and start working together. Any documents created or authored through the Team live in the new automatically connected SharePoint Team Site, but provides a simplified user interface directly within the Team. Documents are also linked with capabilities such as OneDrive that users will be familiar with. Teams can also create plans with Planner and manage tasks, or surface content from other Apps like Twitter or Salesforce that are relevant to their work.

To bring these sites back into your overall information architecture, make the accessible through links on the intranet. On Unily, we have customers who have mandated Teams as the tool for bottom-up collaboration. Links to each of the company Team sites are linked to from the navigation menu, with users only able to see the teams they have permission to view. They have removed links straight to Office 365 Groups to prevent confusion.

Don’t want to use Teams? Unily Sites’ flexible layout options and widget catalogue provide another great platform for smaller groups of employees or project teams to collaborate within a private space, with access to documents, social feeds for collaboration, Tasks and more.

To summarize

To summarize, when reviewing the Office 365 tools for a corporate intranet, start with Why and think about what you want to get out of the platform and how your people like and need to work. From there, cherry-pick the tools that meet those business requirements and think how you can make them accessible and understandable to every employee.

This diagram shows how our Unily customers utilize both Unily’s tool and those from Office 365, picking the right tools for the right working scenario (Inner Loop, Outer Loop, 1:1) and wrapping up all the functionality in a centralized, easy to use, mobile-friendly intranet platform.

If you’d like to learn more about how Office 365 can support intranet solutions, download our guide on ‘Cloud Intranet Solutions with Office 365’. Or if you’d like to speak to one of our consultants about how this strategy can be implemented, get in touch with our team today.

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