Trends of Modern SharePoint Online Intranets and Information Architecture in Office 365 as of Fall 2017

SharePoint is widely considered as the best intranet platforms in the market. If you have been tracking Nielsen Norman Group’s Top 10 intranets over the years, 70-80% intranets are built on SharePoint On-premises and SharePoint Online.

SharePoint has a long history as popular intranet platforms due to its publishing framework (CMS platform introduced in SharePoint 2007). In addition to SharePoint’s limited publishing CMS features, SharePoint provides a solid infrastructure for lists & libraries as a data storage,  site columns & site content types to define the data structure, sites & site collections for the portal containers, site templates for site definition packaging, and web parts & rich APIs for the extensibility. I have been involved in close to more than a dozen corporate intranets, sales portals, and customer portals built on the SharePoint platform over the years.

In May 2017, Microsoft unveiled their next wave of intranet sites in the SharePoint Online. These new sites called as communication sites and are designed with the principle of mobile-first, cloud-first, and a beautiful-first. Although communication sites as it’s the first incarnation are very limited (limited customization & branding options), Microsoft has continued its investments throughout the Q3-Q4 of 2017.

At Ignite 2017, Microsoft unveiled why future SharePoint intranets should be built using SharePoint Online’s modern communication and modern team sites. SharePoint communication sites can be used for traditional 1-way or 2-way communication and Modern team sites can be used for department and collaboration sites. Not only Microsoft started revealing its full intention of how future of intranets can be built on the SharePoint online platform but also hinted at the approaches required for the information architecture.

Future of SharePoint Intranets

As of early 2018, if you are planning to design intranets on the Office 365 platform, try to look at the hybrid architecture of communication sites, modern team sites, and classic publishing sites. Classic team sites with publishing infrastructure are still valid if organizations are looking for highly customized, visually branded intranet.

At the same time, modern communication sites and modern team sites will provide future-proof intranet, if organizations are willing to have few limitations until Microsoft bridges the gap. I would look at the Shire case study to get some inspiration. Rather than using custom publishing infrastructure, try to look at the modern site theming, site design packages, and SharePoint framework to customize the communication and modern team sites to design next wave of an intranet.

Building block of intranet - sites

At Microsoft Ignite 2017, Microsoft has unveiled new SharePoint hub sites to solve the problem of ever-changing site taxonomy and site hierarchy issues due to ever-changing organization structure. New SharePoint hub sites will allow you to associate and disassociate modern team sites and communication sites as needed without any physical association of the child sites to the parent sites. In addition, hub sites will dynamically roll up content and share site navigation, look and feel, taxonomy, and search.

SharePoint Hub Sites

All the images are courtesy of Microsoft Ignite and Microsoft Tech Community Blogs

With the innovation in SharePoint online, modern intranets built on SharePoint Online 2018 and onwards should be primarily architected using communication sites, modern team sites, and SharePoint hub sites. If modern sites are limited for one or another reasons (few known issues at this moment are branding, page layouts but Microsoft is bridging this gap very quickly), classic publishing sites is still a valid option.

Building block of intranet

building block of intranet - hub sites

Future of SharePoint Intranets Information Architecture – Flat IA

Traditionally, SharePoint publishing intranets consisted corporate homepage, department team sites, community team sites, and various resource centers. I have seen SharePoint intranets designed as single SharePoint site collection with corporate homepage as a root site and department sites are subsites. Even though subsites are evil, many intranets over the years designed as a single site collection with subsites, mainly due to time & rapid delivery constraints. I have also seen SharePoint intranets designed with multiple site collections or hybrid multiple sites and site collections especially on the SharePoint on-premises to overcome the issue of site collection size limit.

With the release of SharePoint hub sites and both communication & modern team sites is site collections based, Microsoft has hinted that future SharePoint intranets information architecture can be flat, loosely interconnected site collection based with either SharePoint hub sites or customized all-umbrella root site. This isn’t surprising for seasoned SharePoint architects. For a while, SharePoint architects have raised their concerns over subsites based architecture because of complexity (e.g. parent-child sites relationship management) and governance issues (e.g. unmanageable security groups) due to subsites proliferation. With the innovations in SharePoint hub sites, it’s great to see Microsoft’s recommended approach for the flat information architecture.

Here is the wonderful example of current vs future state of the brave new world of SharePoint information architecture.

Current state

Brave new world of intranet IA

Future state – If business requirements changes to map all the sales sites under single sales department, it’s easy to disassociate “EMEA Sales” from “EMEA” hub site and associate to the “Sales” hub site.

Brave new world of intranet IA 2

Modern Digital Workplace – SharePoint and Office 365 Information Architecture

It’s important to note that SharePoint modern team sites, communication sites, and hub sites should be a small part of your overall Office 365 digital workplace strategy. By keeping modern team sites and communication sites light branded, you can plan to incorporate additional Office 365 applications like Yammer, Planner, Microsoft Teams, OneDrive for Business to design modern digital workplace using Office 365 suite as a seamless experience.

Here is an amazing SharePoint/Office 365 IA diagram from Microsoft Ignite showing how SharePoint can be used along with Yammer, Stream, Teams, OneDrive for Business, and Microsoft Graph.

SPO information architecture

Modern branding and modern site template options

To ease the adoption of the new communication sites as an intranet platform, Microsoft has announced new branding & site template options (site theming, site design, and site scripts) to bridge the gap between communication sites and classic publishing sites. Please note at the time of writing, these might be still in preview.



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2 Responses to Trends of Modern SharePoint Online Intranets and Information Architecture in Office 365 as of Fall 2017

  1. The graphics for Current State and Future State appear to be the same. Thank you for a wonderful article. Very well written and documented. This helps bring more clarity on where SharePoint is going.

    • Nik Patel says:

      Thanks. As far as current vs future state IA diagrams, as described – there is a slight difference. If business requirements changes to map all the sales sites under single sales department, it’s easy to disassociate “EMEA Sales” from “EMEA” hub site and associate to the “Sales” hub site. This is the idea of SharePoint hub sites which allows you to reorganize sites without major structure.

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