The market for the intranet in-a-box — software products like Powell 365, Unily, Valo, and Wizdom, purpose-built to improve the usability of Microsoft’s standard SharePoint intranet — is booming. This suggests that for all of their ongoing efforts to improve SharePoint’s basic intranet capabilities, Microsoft is still a long way from offering an easy-to-use solution for communicating effectively with today’s modern, mobile workforce.

But are add-ons the best solution for getting the most out of your organization’s SharePoint intranet? Let's look at some reasons why they might not be. And while we're at it, let's challenge the add-on concept entirely. Is SharePoint a rock solid foundation upon which to build a modern employee intranet.

Microsoft reports that more than 250,000 organizations worldwide use SharePoint. This includes more than 85% of Fortune 500 companies with SharePoint Online as part of Microsoft 365.

Office 365 is feature rich, but application poor”

Real Story Group

Despite its popularity, SharePoint’s shortcomings for employee engagement and the overlapping functionality of Microsoft 365 (think Yammer vs. Teams) require additional customization, extensive user training, and long-term governance efforts. This is where SharePoint add-ons enter the picture, as they promise to ease some of the customization pains for SharePoint.

SharePoint Online’s intranet roadmap could limit your options in a competitive market”

Gartner

Especially when it comes to its capabilities for company-wide communication, organizations should ask themselves two questions. 1) is SharePoint is the right platform, and 2) do add-ons tackle the real shortcomings of an employee-centric user journey.

Why? Let’s have a look.

1. Sharepoint Add-Ons Aren’t Mobile-First

To reach all employees, including the majority who aren’t sitting behind desks, a successful communication channel has to be mobile-first. And by mobile-first, we mean that it has been purpose-built with mobile communication as its number-one priority.

Crisis Communications Hub
Example of a mobile start page of the Staffbase Employee App

Mobile-first apps solve the employee engagement problem in two ways: they foster trust by showcasing visually familiar company branding, and they offer a consumer-grade user experience by providing an easily accessible digital doorway through which employees can find the tools they need to do their jobs.

If It’s Not Mobile First, It’s Mobile Last

Mobile-first solutions also address the issue of company-wide communication with the use of push notifications, which make the immediate delivery and reception of important information possible anytime, anywhere. Push notifications boost app engagement by 88 percent, and 65 percent of users consistently return to an app when push notifications have been enabled.

SharePoint wasn’t originally created to be a broad-reaching mobile communications platform. Likewise, SharePoint add-ons, based on a platform first developed for desktop, have been saddled with the same limitations. A true mobile-first intranet solution has prioritized mobile communication and user experience from day one, engaging people in the ways they’ve become accustomed—on their mobile devices.

A true mobile-first strategy has less to do with goals like optimizing your website for responsiveness, and more to do with enhancing the employee experience for all of your employees, turning a device that’s already in their pockets into a functional tool for workplace communication.

2. The Intranet in-a-Box Can't Solve the Basic Problem of Office 365 for Employee Communication

The key focus of SharePoint and its adjacent Office 365 tools like Yammer, Teams, and even Outlook+Exchange (email) is to support collaborative team and community communication. Sam Marshall, author of the ClearBox report, says it well when he notes that, “Microsoft’s use of the term intranet has most strongly aligned with large team and business-unit collaboration and communication rather than company-wide.”

The overlapping capabilities of these applications continue to leave users wondering exactly where to start a conversation in Office 365. In fact, most of the effort that went into custom development in the old, on-premise SharePoint world now goes into governance efforts and training to help users figure out what to do where.

An illustration from Microsoft attempting to explain the differences between Yammer, Teams, and Outlook.
This illustration (published by Microsoft) tells the confusing story about where to start a conversation in Office 365. Imagine handing this out to your frontline employees as part of their initial user training!

Employees want a simple, single place to go.”

Josh Bersin

The shortcomings of these distinctly separate user experiences might be partially solvable on desktop, but that’s just not where employees are engaged these days. If you want to communicate and build overall company culture, mobile is the only way to effectively reach everyone in your organization.

SharePoint add-ons have begun to recognize and address this issue for their desktop experiences. But they fail to provide a simple, single place to go on mobile devices.

An illustration of a side-by-side comparison of the dispersed toolset of Office 365 and the consolidated experience of a branded employee app.
The dispersed tools of Office 365 vs. the consolidated experience of a branded employee app.

3. Licencing All Employees for Office 365 Is Expensive

If your SharePoint add-on is meant to reach everyone in your company with vital communication, including your non-desk workers, then all of its users must be fully licenced for Office 365. But many remote workers will have little use for all of the tools offered in an enterprise package.

Communicators often don't take part in the decision for Office 365 in the first place. The main driver here is more of a technical decision to expand the Microsoft services already in place for desktop productivity (Word, PowerPoint, Excel) and Exchange (email) to the cloud.

It's revealing that Microsoft almost always tries to pitch O365 to senior IT leadership and your CFO, rather than workplace business leaders.”

Real Story Group

These O365 services are generally licenced for knowledge and office workers. But having them in place creates a situation that has long been familiar. With SharePoint already present, organizations try to squeeze as much out of it as they can for a wide range of use cases. But this strategy won’t reach employees who aren’t licenced (remote, offline, external, or non-desk workers).

In other words, not only does an add-on create costs in and of itself, it also requires that all employees be fully-licensed for Office 365. And yet most remote workers will only need a fraction of what's included in an O365 plan.

4. Being Tied to SharePoint Slows Intranet in-a-Box Speed and Innovation

Despite the promised convenience of an intranet in-a-box, add-ons can't develop as quickly as providers untethered to an existing system. Built to sit on top of the standard SharePoint platform, add-ons must respond to every SharePoint update. This often results in further negative effects to the overall speed of the platform. Also, there are limits as to how customizable add-ons are. Many of their parts are locked down as a result of their out-of-the-box nature.

Add-ons will need ongoing support for on-premise versions of SharePoint 2013, SharePoint 2016, and SharePoint 2019. That's also true for current versions of SharePoint Online. As if that wasn't enough, Microsoft’s move to the SharePoint “Modern” layout created a huge disruption and a great deal of work for add-on providers who had to change much of how an intranet in-a-box operates in a SharePoint environment.

What this ultimately means is that add-on providers are only somewhat capable of developing around their customers’ needs and wishes. They’re too busy keeping up with the increasingly complex SharePoint on-premise and cloud ecosystem.

5. SharePoint Is a Shaky Foundation for a Modern Employee Intranet

An illustration demonstrating how an intranet in-a-box sits precariously on top of Microsoft Sharepoint.
An illustration demonstrating how an independent intranet solution compliments Microsoft Sharepoint.
Independent, side-by-side solutions might be a safer bet than an intranet in-a-box built on an unstable foundation.

SharePoint was never really a tool where team collaboration happened. It was rather a system of record for documents and structured information (i.e. lists). With the rise of Microsoft Teams as the go-to destination for team-based collaborative work, the major question is whether SharePoint add-on providers are still betting on the right horse when it comes to picking the center of engagement in Office 365.

What had been missing in the Microsoft SharePoint experience is the idea of a ‘collaborative workspace’ for conversations and shared content serving teams doing focused, ‘heads down’ work.”

Gartner

The SharePoint role has been shifting towards a “content service platform for Office 365” (Gartner). But real collaborative engagement now happens elsewhere.

A solution that works alongside SharePoint but remains independent of it—one that’s mobile-first and focused on communication and engagement—is perhaps the better option. It will allow SharePoint to concentrate on what it does best as a flexible repository and system of record.

6. The Intranet in-a-Box Comes with the Considerable Risk of Obsolescence

The add-on marketplace offers many possibilities for tailoring the standard SharePoint intranet to the needs of today’s employees. But one huge downside of such a fast-growing field is its volatility. The solution you choose today is likely to be made obsolete by the solution that's available tomorrow.

Likewise, SharePoint Modern continues to introduce standard design templates with communication and hub sites. These changes haven’t solved the points discussed above. But they have turned up the heat in the market and put pressure on add-on vendors whose whole point of existence has been to make SharePoint look better that it does on its own.

The Modern Intranet: Employee Experience First, Communication First, and Mobile-First

As of now—despite its strengths as a place where work happens—Office 365 creates complexity and confusion. This may be a manageable impediment for expert users and knowledge workers. But it’s a huge barrier for effective all-employee communication. In such a scenario, add-ons might seem like the wise solution. But when factoring the shortcomings outlined above, companies face the considerable risk of trying to build a modern employee intranet on a foundation that’s already showing cracks.

None of this should inspire much confidence for organizations looking for a dependable intranet that they can count on to perform and evolve for years to come. Many companies have already recognize the need for a "less-is-more" intranet with a focus on employee experience, company-wide communication, and culture-building. The know they need more than an intranet add-on. They need a rock-solid, mobile-first intranet foundation.

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