SharePoint intranets can grow to considerable size, particularly with the ease of site creation in SharePoint Modern. With many business owners and content creators, intranets can sprawl to hundreds of sites and many thousands of pages.
This sprawl raises many questions, including:
- What is all this content for?
- Is it presented and structured in the best way?
- Should it be on the intranet at all?
One useful metaphor to put shape around all this is “shop window vs back office content”, a concept we shared with intranet teams in 2010 in our book Designing intranets. With the ease of publishing in SharePoint Modern, this metaphor is even more powerful (and needed!) than before.
Mixing metaphors … and content
Intranets have a habit of growing organically over time, as many intranet authors and owners create sites and content. In the absence of clear guidelines governing intranet content, the following challenges invariably emerge:
- a very large number of sites, with many owners and stakeholders
- intranet sites don’t have a clear audience or purpose
- sites may be filled with ‘blah blah’ content that doesn’t help employees to get work done
- even when an employee gets to the right site, it can still be hard to complete common tasks
- sites mix internal content for business areas with information for others
- search returns many irrelevant results, as well as potentially sensitive information
SharePoint Modern is a two-edged sword in this regard. While it cuts through the complexity of publishing information by providing easy-to-use tools for authors, this enables and even encourages the creation of many pages and sites.
The answer to these challenges is to have a clear idea of the purpose of your content, and therefore where it should live.
Shop window content
A considerable amount of information is published by business areas, particularly by corporate services such as HR, IT, finance, etc.
A useful metaphor for owners of this content is the ‘shop window’. This presents desired and needed items in a clear and attractive way, visible from the street outside. The shop window is placed in a heavy traffic area, and careful thought goes into the design of the shop window so it is easy for current and potential customers to see.
In the context of the intranet, shop window content is the ‘visible face’ of a business unit, sharing the information and services needed by the rest of the organisation. This information must be structured in a way that can be found, understood and used by staff outside the business unit itself. Content must be written in a user-centric way, and be easily found by users.
This screenshot is a good example of taking a task-based and user-centred approach to shop window content:
The central team will play a supporting role in developing the structure for these areas of the intranet. Time will need to be prioritised according to the importance of the content, and business owners will need guidelines and supporting information to help them understand the role of their sections of the site, and how to structure them for greatest effect.
Note that not every business unit needs or requires a shop window area. Mandating or pre-creating these sections in the site structure can lead to many pages of ‘blah blah’ content.
(The article Creating effective intranet “shop windows” provides further guidance on how to shape content in a way that’s most useful for employees.)
Back office content
In addition to their shop window content, many business units will also have ‘back office’ content. Following the metaphor from the previous section, at the back of the shop will be the door marked ‘staff only’. Behind this is hidden away all the stock and tools needed by the organisation to deliver its services.
In a similar fashion, business units will have extensive resources they need for their own use. These might include internal procedures, working documents, internal references, and confidential figures.
This needs to be clearly separated from shop window content. Even when it isn’t strictly confidential or sensitive, presenting this alongside shop window content will cause confusion for staff. There is often a large volume of this information, and separating it out can do much to visibly clean up the intranet.
In the context of Microsoft 365, most or all of the back office content will end up in a SharePoint team site, or more likely, in Microsoft Teams. Teams provides an increasingly rich set of tools for combining conversation, collaboration and supporting content.
It can be left to the business unit to structure the information in a way that makes sense to them. Beyond providing overall support and mentoring, the intranet team doesn’t have to be actively involved in structuring or managing this content.
Back office content also doesn’t need to appear in intranet navigation, beyond providing users with a mechanism to easily find the Teams or other back-office areas that they’re members of. While back office information will typically be searched by default, it should be clearly marked as being different from ‘official’ intranet content.
Putting it all together
SharePoint Modern provides easy and intuitive tools to create sites and content, but this doesn’t need to lead to sprawl and a muddle of content. Drawing on the ideas outlined in this article, these practical steps will help to put shape around your modern intranet.
- Use the metaphor outlined in this article to help get all intranet authors and stakeholders on the same page.
- Create well-designed templates for the top landing pages of SharePoint sites, emphasising task completion over ‘blah blah’ content.
- Empower content authors to help them deliver the best possible content, and create an authoring community for peer support.
- Draw a clear line between ‘shop window’ content on the intranet, and ‘back office’ content in Teams.
- Establish good governance, to manage the creation and updating of SharePoint sites (Step Two’s Intranet Operating Model offers a robust foundation for this).
Now is the time to bring order to your SharePoint intranet, regardless of whether your intranet is old, new or coming soon. By applying multiple strategies, from templates and governance to support for content authors, an effective home can be found for all content whether it’s ‘shop window’ or ‘back office’.