Working in a SharePoint box

spintranetsinaboxRecently I have been helping to launch a new Office365-based intranet.
While we set out with the idea of “out of the box” (a sound strategy, knowing my earlier experiences with extensive customizations) we have had to create some custom things to meet the requirements of several stakeholders.

I was therefore very interested in Clearbox Consulting ‘s evaluation of 26 “SharePoint intranets in a box“.
Unfortunately this report was published when we had already progressed very far in our intranet journey, so there was no reason to buy it.
Still, it kept nagging me because I was really curious if we could have used one of the “out-of-the-box” solutions.

So you can imagine my surprise and elation when Sam Marshall provided me with a copy just before Christmas, as well as a discount code for the readers of this blog.

What is this report about?

It compares 26 products of companies claiming to have a ready-made SharePoint intranet. This means that you do not have to do any developments yourself. It is just some configuration and a little branding.

The researchers have made the evaluation by comparing a set of standard scenarios that most intranets will need:

spbox-content
Content of the report. (Screenshot from the website)

Strengths

The major strengths are:

  • Many offerings compared – I never knew there were currently 26 different products!
  • The evaluators are all experienced intranet peeps who know what they are doing.
  • The evaluation is based on recognizable business scenarios.
  • Consistent and objective evaluation. (We could never have done it, since we would undoubtedly be biased by our own requirements)

To think about

  1. The cases provided are all very common in the intranet world. However, you may have some unique requirements that are not mentioned here. In that case, you may need to create your own filtering to find out who would be the best in-a-box-partner for you.
  2. As mentioned earlier, SharePoint and Office365 are changing very rapidly, and I do not know a. how well all vendors can keep up, and b. if and how quickly SharePoint developments will catch up with the vendor’s unique features. (I heard “Corporate News”  is on the Microsoft roadmap for 2017)
  3.  I expect new vendors to appear as well as consolidations.

So, I therefore hope and expect that there will be regular updates to this report…

Who should read this report?

  • Anyone who is starting on a new intranet should definitely read this.
    This may help you to decide if SharePoint would be a good option for your organization. You may think SharePoint is too much and too big, but an out-of-the-box solution may just offer what you need without too much hassle.
    If you already know you are going the SharePoint way, the report may help you to determine if a ready-made solution would be useful. Even if you think you know SharePoint well, you will learn a few things that may be relevant for you now or later.
    You may decide not to go for a ready-made solution, or even not to go for SharePoint at all.
    The report may also trigger you to refine or extend your requirements. For instance, we all have “Company News” on our radar, but have you thought about if and how SharePoint can be used for ideation? If Communications is your major stakeholder, they may not immediately think of the need for transactions. You may want to check with all stakeholders if they have thought about those things.
  • Anyone who has to decide on the need for custom development.
    If none of these vendors mentions what you are setting out to do, you may indeed need to develop it yourself. But if they all provide this functionality, it is probably available as an app somewhere.
  • Anyone who is working on their intranet or digital workplace roadmap, to determine whether it makes sense to move to a ready-made platform in future.
  • Anyone who is curious what intranets-in-a-box have to offer.

But isn’t this a lot of money?

No, it is not.

  1. That amount of money will buy you only a few hours of consultancy.  If you want to set up your own requirements to test against, agree on it, find and talk to all the vendors, have demos and evaluate all the results in a consistent way you will need much more time than “just a few hours”.
    Besides, the evaluators have not been biased by their own requirements.
  2. I can offer you a 10% discount if you use the code IIAB2CBOX10on the product page .
  3. You can probably get away with charging this (< 500 € / £ / $) on your credit card and submitting it as expenses 🙂 .

Good to know

I have reviewed this report for a number of reasons:

  1. I was interested in the topic because I was curious if the intranet I am working on could have been done out-of-the-box, which might have saved us a ton of time and hassle.
    (Answer after reading the report: I think we really needed the extra work we have done to meet the requirements.)
  2. So far, I have been the only “practicioner” who has reviewed this report. I think it is important that someone, who is actually in the middle of a SharePoint project in a company, shares their view.
    You will find more reviews on the Clearbox blog.
  3. I have known Sam Marshall personally for a number of years. I also know most of the people who have worked with him on this report. I have great respect for all of them. Therefore I trust this report.
  4. This has been a Christmas present so I have had the time to read and think. 🙂

So, everything came together very nicely this time.

Title inspired by “Living in a box” by Living in a Box from 1987.

 

 

Rest in peace, dear colleague.

InMemoriamI am posting this on the day that the Netherlands have a Day of National Mourning for the victims of the horrible MH17 airplane tragedy.

I have a reason to do that.
Many passengers were not only a partner, a family member or a friend, but also a colleague.

Recently I visited an intranet team who showed me how they use their internal social network to announce the passing away of a colleague, and to give everyone in the organization the opportunity to share their memories about that person.

Of course the immediate colleagues would be informed by their manager. Other employees had to rely on the printed newsletter, so they often learned quite late about the death of their colleague. In many cases, the funeral service had already taken place.

Since then, they have chosen to post the sad news on the social network, in a special “Obituaries’ group. The reactions have been overwhelmingly positive.

  • All employees are informed timely, and can attend the funeral service if they want to.
  • Many people value the opportunity to share their personal memories and stories about their colleague; the responses are many and long.
  • All reactions are collected and sent to the family, which is highly appreciated.
  • It draws people to the social network that normally do not go there.

Technology-wise it is quite straightforward: the main message is a copy of the printed card, with a picture of the colleague, a short message from management, and the reactions underneath. You can imagine it. It does not feel good to recreate screenshots.

I was very touched to see the internal social network being used for this purpose, it was new to me, and I wanted to share it. Perhaps you may need to deal with this one day. Perhaps even now…

My sincere condoleances to everyone who has lost a loved or liked one in this terrible event. My thoughts are with you.

Image courtesy of dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

The oldest mobile intranet in history?

Mobile IntranetIt was the year 2004.
It was long before the iPhone was introduced.
It was long before the word “app” had the meaning it has today. If it had any meaning at all.
You could say it was the year 3 BA:  Before App. 🙂

The BlackBerry was all the rage in the corporate world. Everyone wanted one, and only senior management had one at that time. Having a BlackBerry meant you had arrived!

That year our team launched an “icon” on the BlackBerry’s home screen, that opened a small part of our intranet. That part of the intranet that we thought would be useful if you were not in the office.

This must have been one of the first mobile intranets. It was created and introduced by another part of the team I worked in, and all credit goes to the people who had the foresight and the skills to come up with the concept and make it happen. With this post I want to give them the applause that they deserve.

While reading about mobile intranets, and people proudly showing that they have features such as an employee directory especially for mobile use, I suddenly remembered our old BlackBerry app and that I still had some screenshots. So, for history’s sake, here are some more details. Remember that all information shown is outdated.

The intranet “icon” was automatically pushed to your BlackBerry, but not everyone was aware of it, or how you could use it. Of course we communicated, but we did not reach everyone. But everyone who knew about it, was very happy with it. It was still functioning when I left the company in 2011.

This was the icon. It showed our intranet’s logo.

BBAppHome
On the top right you see the icon leading to the intranet. It was the intranet logo, unfortunately not very well visible.

If you clicked it, you could choose 3 options.

1. Stock Quote

This was updated regularly throughout the day. I have not used this much myself, but I know there were people who could not do without it.

Stock Quote
The Stock Quote, updated every 15 mins. or so.

2.  News

  We showed Corporate News and External News only, because we could not target the regional and local news, as we did on the regular intranet Homepage. When I was sitting at an airport, it was good to be able to learn about organizational changes as soon as they were posted. I might have been on my way to a business manager who had made a promotion…or a sudden exit :-).

News
The News. Only limited news types could be shown.

3. Employee Directory

This was really useful for me, especially when travelling. You could search for someone, and their name, position, telephone numbers, email address and assistant would be shown. I have often used this functionality  when my plane was delayed or cancelled, or when I just wanted to email or call someone while being on the road.
If anyone in my audience is still  discussing an employee directory for use on-the-go: yes, this is useful. I think it should be one of the first things to implement on a mobile intranet!

Employee Directory
The Employee Directory. This has been really useful to me.

I hope you liked this little blast from the past! 🙂

If you would like to see more modern mobile or responsive intranets:

Image courtesy of scottchan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

SharePoint White Magic

White-magicianIf you are not a qualified designer, and/or SP Designer is not available, you sometimes have to find other tricks to design your pages properly. That is why the colour white is an important ingredient in my SharePoint page recipes. Used as image, web part or text, you can use it to make your pages look better. Here are some I have learned over the years:

1. The “White Space” webpart.
This is an empty Content Editor webpart, that you can import to a page to create some more vertical distance between webparts in a zone.
How? Add a Content Editor web part to a page, name it “White Space”, remove Chrome, and export the web part as a .dwp file to your computer. You can import it whenever you need to add some vertical space between two web parts.

No vertical space added
No vertical space added
With vertical space added to right column
With vertical space added to right column
White space web part
The White Space web part

2. The white (or transparent) image as space bar.
You can use a white picture of exactly the right amount of pixels to make one of those nicely-but-sometimes-annoyingly-flexible-web-part-zones behave better. You have to be careful though. First of all, it will only work if the content webparts in the zone are of identical or smaller width than your “space bar”. Secondly, your page will look different on different devices and with different resolutions, so the design you so carefully crafted on your own PC may look strange on other PC’s.
How? After you have created your pages, create a white picture of the desired width and a few pixels height, add it to an Image or Content Editor web part that lives at the bottom of the zone-to-be-fixed, give it a memorable name (e.g. “Spacebar”),  and remove Chrome.

3. White letters for vertical alignment.
Do you have two Content Editor webparts side by side, that contain different amounts of text? That will mean all web parts under those web parts will start at different heights, which may look a bit messy. You can add white text to the webpart with the least amount of text to make it appear of equal height as the other one.
How? In the CE webpart with the least amount of text, add as many extra lines of “blah” as the larger amount of text has. Make the “blah” text white.

4.  The “white news image”
I once talked to an Internal Communications manager who was complaining about his News functionality. A picture was required for every news item, but publishers did not always have the time or motivation to look for a proper picture. There was no image catalogue or any guidelines, so it frequently happened that people used outdated logos or used a picture from the internet, without looking if they were allowed to use it.
I suggested to make a white or transparent image easily available, for those occasions where a picture was not necessary, not available, or the publisher did not have time. A news item without a picture does not look particularly attractive, but at least they were no longer infringing copyright. (And worse, they once showed their intranet news to an audience containing representatives from their caterer, and the caterer said: “Hey, you are using the logo we replaced 3 years ago”…).
How? Create a white or transparent picture with the correct size and upload it to the library you use for your news images. Copy the link and add that to the description field of the Picture column. See screenshot.

Adding a White Picture made easy
Having a White Picture easily available saves time and helps the company avoid copyright issues

Mind you, these are all simple workarounds that are not a replacement for proper design. Some will no longer be necessary or available in SharePoint 2013. But in certain circumstances these tricks can help you create better-looking pages without too much effort.

Do you have similar tricks you would like to share?

Image courtesy of sattva at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tools for texts (on your intranet)

tools4textMany communicators complain that employees do not read corporate news. So they demand more space on the intranet homepage and newsletter functionality to make the news more visible.

I generally suggest them to measure the readability of their news articles first, using the Flesch Reading Ease test. Especially in multinational companies it is extremely important to write in a simple style. You want to reach all employees, including those who are not too fluent in English. And all too often, I find that corporate texts are simply too complicated!

I have recently written a guest blog on this topic on Wedge’s Kilobox Communiqué, suggesting various ways to make your corporate (and other) content easy to read for a diverse audience.

More tools!
The Flesch Reading Ease test is an easy tool to measure readability. Since I discovered it, I have been fascinated by tools that apply “hard” mathematics to “soft” language,  and come up with something useful!  I have found several tools that “do something” with your text. Some give your text a numerical score, others provide other insight in your use of language, or they convert your texts. There is a small collection on Scoop.it, for your learning and amusement. A few highlights:

If you have any other suggestions for my collection, fun or serious, please let me know!

Image courtesy of hinnamsaisuy at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Title inspired by  1979’s song “Cool for Cats” by Squeeze.

6 Mistakes to avoid when installing intranet kiosks

kiosk_256It was not my plan to write about this. With more and more computers on the production work floor, and more home and mobile access for intranets, I honestly thought that intranet kiosks were a thing of the past.
But recently I met several people who are planning to install kiosks in their companies, so I thought I’d share my experiences and help them avoid the mistakes we made.

More than 10 years ago we installed kiosks in some production locations in Europe. The idea was simple: give employees without their own PC a place to access news, policies and procedures, forms etc. It was much applauded by the works council, we thought they looked pretty cool and we expected people to swarm around the installations regularly.
However, not much happened. Whenever I visited a production location, I looked at the kiosk, gathering dust. Some were even broken, and had been so for months.
We decided to take them away and ask people why they did not use the kiosks.

1. Nobody was responsible
There was nobody who was responsible for communicating the availability and purpose of the kiosk, work with management to stimulate usage and adoption, or to call support when something was broken.

2. There was no technical support
IT thought we were supporting these and we thought IT did it. Both parties did not know how to maintain the machines. 

3. There was no training or instructions
At that time, we thought our production personnel was not that internet savvy. Despite that, there were no proper training or clear instructions provided.

4. People had to use the kiosks in their own time
Since management did not know the benefits of using the intranet at that time, and feared all employees would be “surfing on the intranet all day”, personnel was only allowed to use the kiosks in their lunch break or after work.

5. It was not personalized and it was read-only
All our European kiosk-users saw the rather American-oriented homepage by default and they had to click several times to get to useful local content in local language. It also meant that people could not complete forms or make requests or share documents. The American news did not interest them, and the useful content was not fully accessible.

6. They were positioned in crowded locations
Although it was a good idea to bring the machines to places with many users, it meant that people had difficulty concentrating, because many people were talking and passing by. Remember, employees were only meant to use this during lunch!
And…you could only use it while standing.

One of my colleagues used these lessons to roll out an intranet café in a more comfortable setting and with better conditions. Still it did not bring what she had expected. I am therefore still doubtful of the use of intranet kiosks. I am not alone, see these earlier articles from Toby Ward James Robertson and Steve Bynghall who all suggest home and/or mobile access as a better option.

But if you really want to do this, please do not repeat our mistakes! (And please share a blog post with your key success factors!)

Image courtesy of Visual Pharm via gettyicons.com

Eight and a half ways to collect feedback with SharePoint.

achtAre you interested in what all employees think about your company’s latest product launch, or do you want to know which date would be preferred for that training session? Regardless of your role in the organization, I am sure that you will have asked your team members for feedback or data. How do you usually find out the answers; do you send an email, perhaps even with an Excel file attached? Why not try using your SharePoint intranet? Collecting and managing data is so much easier!There are different ways to enable and collect feedback, depending on your needs and your experience. Are you looking for individual opinions or do you want to know if version A is preferred over version B?

1. Displaying an email address on an intranet page. 

This is often used on web pages on your intranet: “If you have questions or remarks, please contact Firstname.lastname@company.com.” When clicked, this will open an email.
For a little more sophistication, you could add the name as a hyperlink. “If you have questions or remarks, contact Firstname Lastname.
Even shorter is a link called “Feedback” with that same hyperlink. Once clicked, the sender will see the addressee of the email  anyway.

Feedback button, leading to email or a survey/list.

If you want to add some visual interest create a hyperlinked button. (In a Content Editor Web part, add an image, then select the image and insert a hyperlink).

You can even pre-populate the email subject to make sure the addressee knows immediately that this is feedback from the website.

This is suitable for receiving ongoing general feedback about intranet pages, team sites or online manuals and policies. And please do not forget to check the name and the link on a regular basis!

2. Commenting to a Blog.

Because the commenting option in a blog is very visible, you may encourage commenting more than with a button or a link. People comment on a specific blog post and generally not on the entire blog. This may be very good for getting feedback about news and blog posts. These comments will help you to understand which post subjects cause strong opinions and which not.
Comments are stored in a separate list in your site. You can treat them just like other list items: add a workflow (e.g. to review) or create views.

3. SharePoint Survey. 

SharePoint has a decent survey functionality, which allows you many question-and-answer types, a graphical representation of results, different routes depending on answers given, exporting results to Excel for further analysis, configuration of a “thank-you page” and what not. It will suit most purposes for qualitative and quantitative feedback.
If you really want to implement SharePoint in your organization, try to educate people in using SharePoint, and avoid external tools like SurveyMonkey. Like all “one-trick-ponies”, SurveyMonkey has more specific functionalities but it also means data are stored elsewhere and you have to log on when creating a survey. SharePoint will suit most needs perfectly well.

The Graphical Summary gives a quick overview of results

4. SharePoint List.
While I personally think a Survey is generally better for a short-time activity burst, a SharePoint list (generally a Custom List or Issue Tracking List) is better for collecting feedback, such as ideas or complaints, over time. A list allows you to add a description to the questions, you can use a workflow to manage responses and you can create different views to group and manage your data over time. It does not create graphs, however. (But you can create a chart if you export your list items to Excel).

5. InfoPath.
An InfoPath form is a beautiful combination of an Excel document (customizable design, printable, calculations and conditional formatting) and a List item (transparency, lightweight). It can be used when a regular List or Survey does not have enough functionality, such as design or many calculations. I would suggest using it only when you really have no other options. It can be quite cumbersome to create, edit and optimize, and I have personally experienced many access issues.

6. Discussion Board.

Discussion Forum

If you are looking for a no-nonsense way to ask questions and generate answers and opinions, the discussion board is a good idea. In general, everyone will be able to start a discussion, so it is more “democratic” than a blog, where questions can only be initiated by the blogger. On the other hand, while a blog can exist without comments, a discussion board with no comments is not viable. Generally, I would use this either as a Question-and-Answer board for specific networks, or when it is actively endorsed and promoted by management. But perhaps my own experiences with a discussion board play a part in that.

7. Poll.
A Poll is not a standard SharePoint Poll functionality, but many web parts are available. (Kwiz, Bamboo), most of which use a SharePoint survey as a basis.
You use a poll when you want to ask one question with a number of pre-defined answers. It is generally very visible and is also very suitable for lighter subjects. It is great for engagement because it is inviting to click it. A Poll is generally anonymous (unlike the other tools) and respondents are rewarded with the results immediately after voting.

8. Star Ratings.

Star Ratings

In SharePoint 2010 and later you can rate an article or a blog post by giving it a number of stars. It is very interactive and makes it very easy for your audience to vote, but it is not always clear what people vote for: do they like the article for the subject, do they think it is well written? It is also not shown how many people have voted. So it is not so clear how you should act on the results.

8 1/2 : Outlook Voting Options
This only counts for a half, since it is not exactly SharePoint, but most organizations that have SharePoint, will have Outlook as their email programme. If you have only one question with predefined answers and your audience is not too large, you can use the “Voting Buttons” that are in Outlook. (When you have a new email open, click Options > Voting Buttons.) This may be easier to set up for yourself, and easier to answer for your audience than a Survey. You will have to count all the responses though! Please note this is not available in Outlook Web Apps.

How have you used SharePoint to collect ideas, opinions and data? Have I missed something? Looking forward to your suggestions! (This Blog has a comments box :-))

You may also like:

What SharePoint can learn from SurveyMonkey (and vice versa)

Playing “Hide and Seek” in SharePoint

The Perils of InfoPath