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Should Sharepoint 2013 be on your intranet roadmap?

Over the last 10 years, SharePoint has grown to be the dominant platform for intranets. With the next version due out around the end of the year, it seems timely to ask if intranet managers should be pushing to embrace it, either as an upgrade or a switch from another technology.

Much is being written about the technology improvements in SharePoint 2013, but in this special guest post for Intranetizen, Sam Marshall from ClearBox Consulting takes a look at it from a business perspective and asks: are the improvements compelling enough to take on the disruption that goes with an upgrade?

Current SharePoint users may do a side-by-side comparison between 2013 and earlier versions and see upgrading as a no-brainer as it is undoubtedly an improvement. However, the drivers for the original decision to go with SharePoint may no longer be in place, and user expectations are evolving rapidly. The wise organization should be looking at its wider digital workplace and deciding if SharePoint will be a good fit.

Why you should

SharePoint activity feed

Activity Feed

For site owners and end users, the most visible change to 2013 will be the social and community aspects. Status updates and discussions have been overhauled so that they work in a contemporary way, with the ability to follow hashtags, refer to people with @name conventions, like posts etc. (see screenshot).

The concept of communities is directly supported with a new template that highlights trending topics and topcontributors. It even brings in an element of gamification with badges, attainment levels and a points system (though as gamification takes a lot of pre-planning, there’s a risk that this may be too-readily available to site owners).

The out of the box navigation has also improved. Instead of My Sites, users have a series of hubs:

  • Newsfeed – like a Facebook wall
  • Sky drive – a personal document storage, like Dropbox
  • Sites – a directory of sites you follow and your organization’s main portals (see screenshot)
SharePoint site directory

Sharepoint site directory

Intranet managers and site owners will also see some changes that will make their lives easier. Governance is often seen as a challenge with SharePoint, but with 2013 most of the functionality needed is now in place.  In particular, a request process for new sites is straightforward to implement so that you can easily add workflows and a site deletion policy. Governance will doubtless continue to be a challenge, but no more so than with other intranets.

I’m undecided about the benefits of the new App Store model. It may appeal to developers, but for site owners it will initially just look like the web-part gallery re-branded. Let’s hope that Microsoft manage the central app store well and it becomes a useful marketplace for third-party add-ons too.

If you’re already on SharePoint you will also appreciate the numerous smaller fixes, ones that seem small but can become major irritants. For example, pasting from Word into the text editor used to send the formatting haywire with hidden codes, but this has now (they say) been fixed.

Overall, if you’re committed to the SharePoint platform and social is a strong part of your future plans, then 2013 will be a worthwhile upgrade. Indeed, the frustration may well be the delay between the product launch and its actual deployment in your organization. If you’re thinking of transitioning to SharePoint then it offers strengths in team collaboration and a broadly integrated set of tools that also reaches into Office applications and real-time communication through Lync. Office 365 as a cloud-based option is also more appealing because much more of the on-premises functionality is now supported.

Why you shouldn’t

What SharePoint represents is the ‘party bucket’ approach to intranets. It gives you a lot as a starting point, but it’s not necessarily wholesome or a good match to everyone’s needs.

Fundamental drawbacks to SharePoint still exist:

Firstly, the vision for what SharePoint is for is not well articulated, leaving companies to figure this out for themselves. In Turn this can leave stakeholders feeling overwhelmed by the options and deployments that never live up to initial hopes.

Secondly, as a content management system very little is offered as a starting point for communicators. There is still no ‘news centre’ facility that someone used to web CMS would recognise; the building blocks are much more basic than that.

Thirdly, the user experience is still patchy. Newer parts like communities work relatively well, but the wiki tool soon requires arcane markup codes, and the generic ribbon exposes far too much complexity for scenarios such as blog writing.

SharePoint on iOS

SharePoint as viewed on an iPhone

My other main reservation is around SharePoint’s support for mobile devices. There are some improvements – for example, you can design pages for different ‘channels’, such as laptop, handheld and tablet. However, when you view the mobile version of a team site, all the visual context such as images and descriptive text is lost. If this already seems rather primitive – think how it will look by 2016. Microsoft have missed an opportunity to partner the launch with a series of compelling mobile apps, optimised for handheld screens and a toolkit that allows site owners to easily create a rich experience for their users.If you don’t currently use SharePoint, there are certainly benefits to avoiding a big package approach. Some companies such as AEP say they have achieved much more at lower cost by building in-house. Small to medium organizations may also find that more focussed intranet packages give a much richer starting point (see Intranetizen’s vendor profiles). Mixing and matching tools allows you to add in functionality as you need it. However, this comes with its own price as each tool can end up as a silo, particularly if some are cloud-based.

Wait and see?

A good argument for a wait-and-see approach is that your intranet should be driven by your strategy, not Microsoft’s release schedule. Although your IT department may face pressures to stay in step due to support contracts, there is also the business stakeholder view. One LinkedIn commentator reacted to the SharePoint 2013 announcement with “we’re only just moving to 2010, the last thing we need is more change”, and they’re right, people need time to adapt and migration can be disruptive. It is still rare, for example, to see SharePoint 2007 team sites used to their full extent, with many ending up as Network Drive 2.0.

A second argument for waiting is about SharePoint’s own future, to do with the post-launch update cycle. Three years to plan and release leaves each version with gaps compared to rapidly-moving user expectations. SharePoint 2007 was weak on blogs and wikis when they were at their peak, 2010 missed the Facebook/Twitter wave. 2013 is too weak on mobile support.

Google, Facebook and others have moved away from the large release model on onto smaller incremental upgrades (much as Intranetizen have argued should happen with intranets too). There is speculation that Microsoft will do quarterly updates for the Office 365 version of SharePoint , but it isn’t clear how significant these will be or whether they expect enterprises to commit to such an upgrade cycle too.

Fundamentally, SharePoint is starting to suffer big-system inertia, leaving it exposed to permanently looking outdated. This in turn creates pressure for unsustainable ad-hoc and third party add-ons to fill the gaps, much as we saw with unofficial Yammer adoption alongside SharePoint 2010. There’s much to be sai, then, for waiting to see if Microsoft can bring back enough agility to overcome this before making a decision.

Find out more: this blog post is a summary of a longer set of blogs by ClearBox consulting, see the full SharePoint 2013 for intranet managers series.

 




There are 6 comments

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  1. Jeff Cate

    I’ve been teaching SharePoint all over the U.S. since 2003.

    I agree that the three-year release cycle causes SharePoint to quickly be behind other more nimble products in the marketplace. The example you give about the SharePoint 2010 Social Computing features is right on target, in my opinion. You are probably going to be right about the SharePoint 2013 mobile features.

    Of course, Microsoft believes that the solution to this problem is Office 365, which includes SharePoint Online. They believe that SharePoint Online can be updated a lot more frequently, like, for instance, Salesforce.com. They are correct. They should be able to roll out updates three times per year, just like Salesforce, if they set their mind to it.

    The problem is that CRM is fundamentally a vertical-market multi-user database application. That kind of application has been proven to be well-suited to the cloud and companies of all size seem to be willing to move from on-premises to the cloud for this type of application.

    SharePoint, on the other hand, is not a vertical-market database application at its core. It is really more of a platform for building a lot of different applications that a company needs. It can be used for Intranets, business process automation, reporting and dashboards, official records storage and archiving and much more.

    Will companies really be willing to give up control of such a broad platform and move all of these applications into Office 365? I guess only time will tell, but the C-Level guys are usually interested in perserving assets at all costs. Moving primary business applications into the cloud may seem like risking important business assets to them. What CEO would want to give over control of a key business asset to a third-party unless there were no other options?

    Even with all I have said above, I don’t see the three-year on-premise release cycle or the problem with trusting the cloud as the biggest problems for SharePoint.

    The biggest problems that I see are with lack of use of fundamental and powerful features that have been shipping with SharePoint for a long time. Content Types is probably the most glaring examples. In a training class of 10 students, when I ask for a show of hands about who’s company is using Content Types in their Intranet, on average only 2 hands go up. When I quiz those two students a little bit, I usually find out that they really aren’t properly using Content Types for important business documents like SOPs, Proposals, Contracts, etc.

    There are many other examples I see on a monthly basis while working with students in the classroom. To me, the vast majority of SharePoint deployments are very, very basic and not getting the benefit of a lot of the excellent features that were added in 2007 and 2010. In my opinion, that is a bigger problem than SharePoint 2013 not having a lot of great new features.

  2. Peter Richards

    Ever since details of SharePoint 2013 have been released I have been keenly reading everything I could to discover what wonderful enhancements are coming next and I’m impressed by the inclusion of a richer and
    more seamless integration of social features. I have checked out the developers version that is currently available and I really like the new look Team Sites (you can check them out on my blog http://diga2230.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/team-sites-looking-purdy-in-sharepoint.html).

    In reality though, my current organisation is not mature or sophisticated enough in the social space to warrant the switch. We are taking baby steps towards the acceptance of internal social networking as a way of working together better and the current SharePoint 2010 is facilitating that use and acceptance.

    We now have Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010 across the enterprise and are just starting to reap the rewards that this integration brings user.

    So currently my efforts are focussed on removing the extensive customisations that were done to our SharePoint Intranet and reverting back to standard web parts and functionality. This is so that we can reinstate a frequent schedule of patching and updates that our heavy customisations have previously inhibited.

    With my users getting educated in how to get the most out of SharePoint 2010 and dipping their toes in the social way of working and our developers are systematically getting the platform to a known stable state I believe that we will be in a perfect position to upgrade to SharePoint 2013 when the appropriate time comes.

  3. James Dellow

    Sam – re: App Store

    This is probably a feature that many intranet people might overlook, but if they are serious about evaluating the benefits of SharePoint 2013 then they need to do a bit of deep dive into it and understand Microsoft’s strategy.

    This gets a bit technical in places, but if you are thinking of creating a “digital workplace” (rather than a traditional intranet with SharePoint) this provides an overview of the Cloud App Model they are developing:

    http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/office/apps/fp179930(v=office.15)

    A more concrete example of this is a product like http://glassboard.com which runs on Windows Azure – the hybrid on premises SharePoint + cloud apps (through Azure) could support an alternative BYOD strategy for companies, so this is important to get your head around.


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