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Getting more from SharePoint Part 1
Using “intranet in a box” preconfigured offerings
to get more from SharePoint, Office 365, Delve, Planner, OneDrive, Video and Power BI

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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.

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