Mar 7, 2016

I held a two-part presentation at a conference in Oslo last year, the first part of which discussed typical intranet concepts and technologies in the Nordic countries. The second part was about intranet conceptualization methods and things like various workshop techniques. In this story, I’ll summarize the topics of the first presentation through five assertions.

My presentation focused on the technology alternatives for large corporation because the audience comprised mainly representatives of corporates. I did, however, also touch upon today’s trends and new phenomena apparent, for example, in the startup circles of San Francisco.

Assertion 1: Small teams live in a wonderful world

The development of cloud services, together with enthusiastic Silicon Valley funders, have created a world where small teams and small companies can avail themselves of absolutely outstanding technologies. In addition, many of these tools can be purchased at a very moderate price, especially as far as initial costs are concerned. For example, Dropbox and Box are magnificent document storages where synchronization and backups work better than perhaps ever in the on-premise world.

Google’s Apps for Work has been the number one choice for small companies for years, and although Google has not invested in it much, a truly fine ecosystem has developed around it. Google credentials allow the activation of a number of other cloud services, making it unnecessary to remember sign-in info for each service separately.

For more traditional intranet usage, small companies have a plethora of great tools. For example, Basecamp works as a versatile intranet and project management tool at many companies. Similarly, Atlassian’s Confluence is available as a cloud service and works for the intranet needs of even larger organizations.

Slack, at the moment experiencing fast growth, is the highest-quality social channel for a small company.

It is easy to state that if you represent a company with less than 50 employees, or an independent team, you have a whopping palette of alternatives at your disposal. Initial costs are very moderate – everything can be trialed in advance, and the monthly cost does not rise quickly. Great, isn’t it?

Assertion 2: The world for big organizations is lagging far behind

If, however, you employ more than 50 people and you’re not a software company, your alternatives are much more limited. Especially on-premise alternatives often require setup investment of several tens of thousands of euros, and the end result will often be less functional than those described above. For organizations with several thousands of users, the much-lauded cost-effective cloud services can quickly become really expensive.

Microsoft’s cloud services, such as Office 365, are also far from the thoroughbred self-service products mentioned in Assertion 1, as far as productization goes. Sure, Office 365 has other benefits, but there is no way you can call it a carefree self-service product, at least not in the same sentence where you’re talking about Dropbox, Slack or Basecamp.

The future really does not look equal. Companies with a few dozen people live like kings, whereas organizations with thousands of employees only have weaker technology with outrageous price tags on offer.

Assertion 3: Microsoft’s turn toward cloud services is impressive

Microsoft can be criticized for many things (as I will later on), but not for strategic cowardice. Their change of course toward cloud services and Office 365 is an impressive strategic change that seems to work well if numbers are to be believed. It is difficult to say yet whether the Office 365 service will become a similarly significant cash generator for Microsoft as Office and Windows have been, but at least they’re heading in a promising direction.

For customers, the change has been and still is dramatic, but at least nobody can accuse Microsoft of being stuck in the past.

I also believe that in the end, it is better for customers that Microsoft has the courage to make dramatic changes rather than rest on its laurels the way Oracle and IBM have done to some extent (although IBM is showing small signs of waking up).

Assertion 4: There is a lot of good in Office 365 but not necessarily for intranets

The most important thing for Microsoft today is to get organizations to buy Office 365 in one way or another. It is enough for Microsoft that organizations take the user directory, email and calendars from the cloud (and later perhaps the mobile device management and other pricey management tools).

Is it strategically important for Microsoft that as many customers as possible build their intranets on top of Office 365? No.

Of course, Office 365 has the old SharePoint built in, so it can be used to create many kinds of lightweight intranets. With some software acrobatics, you can also create mobile-enabled versions and even some small applications. This, however, is not much.

There is also no point waiting for more in the near future. Business applications and other more complicated things have been left to partners on purpose. Partners can build a variety of business apps or platforms, such as packaged intranet solutions, to Office 365 Store or as their own products. Microsoft is even encouraging this.

Office 365 itself will hardly support this development very much. Still, it may be sensible for customers to build an intranet on Office 365 if internal requirements are not very special or demanding, but don’t expect Microsoft to put a lot of effort in this over the coming years.

Assertion 5: Especially big and multifaceted organizations will more often select other technologies than Office 365 for their intranet platforms in the coming years (such as Liferay or EPiServer)

I dare say this even though I know Microsoft’s sales machine is almost invincible. In earlier years, big organizations were led to SharePoint with the identified requirements and SharePoint’s realistic capabilities being miles apart. These massive work burdens were then cursed for years later on, with lots of head-scratching about how we got into this situation in the first place.

In Office 365, Microsoft naturally says it has learnt from the problems encountered with SharePoint and that “now everything is better”. I’d like to believe this, but I doubt.

A shared cloud platform and a basic application suite are an environment that is many times more demanding, especially for tailoring, than earlier on-premise SharePoint installations. Isn’t it now more likely that development speed will now even slow down?

At least nothing at all has happened to Yammer in three years, although it should be the crown jewel in Office 365 as an enabler for customers’ social intranets. What does this mean? Difficulties in development, different priorities or something else? We can only guess.

Truth be told, Yammer is still a working concept. It is a lot more important to be aware of the shortcomings of Office 365 in the context of multilingual intranet implementations, the difficulties in customization, the hard-to-predict roadmap, and the significant deficiencies in creating a profiled, and even more so, personalized, user experience, not to talk about management.

We should also remember that all these were problems inherent in on-premise SharePoint, and even if big organizations tried to solve them with literally millions of euros, the result with the budgets available to average organizations was only a continuous, barely tolerable headache.

The problems I described above, however, are not universal. Portal products, such as Liferay, can serve a large variety of integration needs, profiling and personalization needs, and offer a relatively predictable roadmap for years ahead. Many web publishing systems, such as EPiServer, are able to offer excellently working tools for managing several language versions and displaying the same content in multiple places.

Usually, these things become the more prominent, the larger the organization. That’s why Office 365 does not have the potential as an intranet platform for big organizations that it has for smaller organizations.

Future trend #1: Social channel

To wrap things up, I want to say that even though I can’t see Office 365 as a particularly suitable alternative for large organizations, I still consider Yammer in particular as an important tool that shows us the direction where the internal work of knowledge-intensive organizations will be developing.

In my opinion, it is fairly clear that particularly organizations that mainly do knowledge work will replace internal email (and the automated prompts involved) with social channels, such as Yammer. This is one of the reasons why it is a shame Microsoft hasn’t been able to develop Yammer much anywhere in the last few years.

This year, at the latest, Slack has become a much more important example of what a social channel and an activity stream together can make possible. Here, too, however, small organizations and teams are in a better position than large organizations. Slack is a fine tool especially for software teams, but still not usable for many large companies working in a more traditional industry.

Atlassian’s HipChat is a good challenger for Slack, and even offers on-premise installation, but has not been able to keep up with Slack’s growth rate in recent times.

For intranet customers it might be the top priority for Microsoft that besides its cloud competition, it would put some effort into tools that are important for intranet customers, such as the functionalities in SharePoint and the development of Yammer.

At the moment, though, I’m not holding my breath for either of these.

That is why it is particularly important just now that customers developing their intranets on Office 365 make sure its features are sufficient to meet their organizations’ specific needs. I think it is not a good idea to rely on the fast development of Office 365 into an intranet platform that can meet the needs of large organizations.

The original article was published in Finnish: http://intranet-ostajanopas.fi/2015/12/02/office-365-slack-ja-muita-intranet-teknologiatrendeja/

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