Considering Using Office 365 and SharePoint Online to Build Your Intranet?

We have endless queries from companies and people just entering the Office 365 / Microsoft 365 / SharePoint Online market, so we thought we’d go back to basics, start from the beginning, and take you on the journey to the cloud.

There are 2 main types of enquiries we get – people either fresh in the market, or people used to working with on premise SharePoint whose companies have now migrated them to SharePoint Online. For the purposes of this series, we are going to focus on the fresh to the market people. It is aimed at Exco and Intranet Manager level people in business and will not be a deep back-end technical dive.

Everyone wants to do document management using SharePoint, it is the right choice of technology. However, it is also important to understand where you are in your Office 365 journey so you can do things in the right order. If you do things in the wrong order, it will cost you ridiculous amounts of money later on to sort out. Rather take the pre-requisite time to plan upfront first. If you do that, you will have a platform that will last you a lifetime, the most bang for your buck and return on investment for your licenses.

Step 1 – Budget and Buy In

We’re not going to lie to you – getting and maintaining this platform is not a cheap exercise. People always say they just want to keep it simple and just do document management, but the reality is that there is no simple business. Every business is complex, and Office 365 and SharePoint Online are complex platforms; the bigger the company gets, the more complex it gets. Whether you’re 10, 80, 300, 2000 or 30 000 people, you need to understand that there A LOT of moving parts and this process can’t be rushed. Start budgeting for licensing, consulting and training costs on an annual basis, and plan for the fact that if you have a large business (over 200 people, this can run into the millions over a 3 to 5 year period).

Intranet rollouts using Office 365 and SharePoint Online need executive buy-in because of the large spend in most instances. This is not something that can be handled by an admin assistant somewhere far down the reporting line. At minimum, the Financial Director should be involved. It must have Exco level support and mandate or risk wasted expenditure and operational issues.

Step 2 – Licenses, Emails and Domains

You can’t start rolling out SharePoint, Teams, OneDrive and all the other platforms unless the technical backbone has been taken care of first. Emails, domains and AD (Active Directory) are key here. Your IT Department must complete all this before commencing any intranet building. There will be other compliance settings they will do over and above this, but these are essential to an intranet rollout.

  • What licenses have been bought and how many of each?
  • What platforms have been rolled out to whom and how?
  • How many domains are in the tenant (Office 365 account) with completed setups? Any outstanding?
  • Is Active Directory fully configured and up to date?
  • Have all the emails been migrated to Exchange Online?

Step 3 – Information Audit and Architecture

Map out the business landscape and content to understand what you’ve got. Gather the companies in the group where applicable, regions, departments, organogram, business processes, audit findings, medium term company strategy, communications, policies, procedures, management reports … anything that defines the business structure, determines how people need to do their jobs, and report on matters.

This is important so you can determine the new intranet structure. Your information audit of existing content then needs to be restructured in a more efficient manner. All you’ve had to date is your emails and a shared drive of some kind with thousands of folders. This is not the most efficient way of storing content and there is seldom a good structure in place to begin with. The content needs to be properly interrogated and re-organised into a new intranet architecture.

Step 3 – Strategy, Governance and Ownership

This is less important in very small businesses, but crucial for any medium to large business. Document a strategy for implementing, managing and maintaining Office 365. There are SO many platforms inside that umbrella that it becomes a nightmare in a very short space of time if you have not formally documented what will be used when, by whom and why. There will also be multiple vendors working on your intranet due to the variety of skills needed for the different platforms – document how will this be managed and who has the final say on configuration changes.

The strategy defines what the platform is positioned for and how it will be rolled out. The governance plans defines who can do what when and how, and how content must be managed. Change control is especially challenging in the cloud and needs to be documented – traditional change control methods simply do not work on this platform. The cloud also changes on a daily basis with functionality coming in and out making it enormously challenging to manage. This is not a space for beginners, you need to call in the experts, don’t under-estimate the complexity of any of this.

Ownership of the intranet needs to be with business but managed in partnership with IT. Start planning for a full time Intranet Manager position if you don’t have one yet. Any company over about 50 people will need a full time person to manage the intranet.

If you skip this step, it will very likely result in rebuilding the intranet over and over and enormous cost, as well as lost revenue in unplanned licensing spend. Or alternatively, end up with an unused platform and wasted license and consulting fees.

Step 4 – Build and Migration

DO NOT just move all your documents as is from Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, your shared drives into SharePoint. It will be a disaster and you will not get any value from this powerful platform. If you have to get your documents into the cloud urgently, then sure, put them all as is into a separate area – not the main default site collection – then unravel them later once the planning has been done.

Develop your intranet in phases based on your information architecture planning. Big bang does not work, do one area at a time. Implement something that impacts the most staff to ramp up visibility of the intranet.

Start with document and data management and move to automation as a second phase where possible. This is because most businesses do not have their processes well defined and do not understand this technology. Once they start seeing what it can do, people will change their minds about what they want. Expect and plan for this, it’s normal.

When you do any automated systems, make sure you get a comprehensive technical user manual from the people that build it for you. Do not negotiate on this matter. You may want to change vendors at some point in your journey, make sure you have continuity of business with that document. Some vendors withhold this information to guarantee business for themselves, don’t allow that.

Step 5 – Adoption, Change Management and Training

You cannot start training hundreds of people at the beginning of an intranet rollout before anything is built. If you do that, I guarantee you will end up re-training every single one of those people 2 years from now and huge costs.

Not only that, if you attempt to train people with no strategy, no governance, no architecture, nothing built – you will end up with an insane sprawl of Microsoft Teams site, thousands more subfolders, countless silos of information, potential loss of confidential data – and basically never find a thing again.

Timing is everything.

Get the basics up first, then do one department at a time. You can start training the Intranet Manager if they have no experience in this field, but don’t do any bulk training until all your ducks are in a row.

Handhold people daily in a stop doing / start doing methodology that encourages them to work more efficiently. We are asking people to make a quantum leap change in the way they have worked for decades, it takes time for people to understand why and how to do things better.

Step 6 – Support and Maintenance

Be ready to effectively support your user base once they’re trained. Again, the traditional way of doings things is going to be a barrier here. Traditional IT Helpdesks are challenging when supporting SharePoint and related technologies, because of the extremely varied requests that come in, and sometimes it literally takes 60 seconds to sort it. Don’t make it hard for people to work with you and get support or they will stop using the platform.

And that’s our high-level approach to things. It is a life-changing journey this that can be hugely rewarding or mindnumbingly frustrating depending on how you do things. Office 365 is a brilliant platform, but it needs to be fed right. Don’t rush it, do it properly, and you will be rewarded with a super operationally organised business. This blog is not meant to scare you, rather forewarn you, as forewarned is forearmed. And to impart that you need to take this platform seriously as it reaches every corner of your business.

You will need different vendors to help you manage the different components of an Office 365 / SharePoint Online intranet as it is a highly specialised field. Get the right people in to do the right things.

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