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Digital Workplace, Intranets

How to make SharePoint into a successful digital workplace (Updated August '20)

Let an admin dream 💭

Like many SharePoint admins you can probably clearly picture a modern, digital workplace. One that gets you everything you need, lets you breeze through tasks in just a few clicks, all with a modern AI-powered UI.

How hard could it be, right? Then you look at your SharePoint and think how it's not really there yet. There simply must be some add-ins you can easily plug in that will radically enhance your UX. I mean, it's 2020 after all...

Nope? Okay, then here is our best effort to help you bring some modern experience to your SharePoint. This guide is the closest you can bring SharePoint to being a Digital Workplace.

To tackle SharePoint you can broadly split your attention into two goals:

Goal 1 - Make the most of Microsoft products

You might assume if you get every product Microsoft offers in every space, than that would be a more 'integrated' Digital Workplace – but you would be sorely mistaken!

Slider showing Microsoft Office 365 apps on a scale of being core to a business vs. having a niche usage

Not all Microsoft products are created equally, and cross-shopping some of their more niche products (Dynamics365, PowerAutomate, Forms, to name a few) could reveal some surprising results.

As you'll see from the below examples, sometimes leaving the Microsoft realms can actually lead you to products that are better integrated into SharePoint or Teams than the Microsoft-own application.

Here are some examples that could set the scene for your own investigations:

If you're using...

Yammer: Since Yammer stems from the "Social Intranet" era it's a little older. This means you'll find some features replicated better by other MS products (messages by Teams), while competing solutions like Workplace by Facebook enjoy a more modern UI and more integrations (close to 60). Yammer may be included in your current plan, but even so you could benefit from slimming down on the many, sometimes overlapping, apps within Microsoft 365. Chances are no one will miss it.

Ditch Yammer
Salesforce includes a web part for SharePoint

Dynamics365: A powerhouse of Sales, Marketing and Support software this product does a lot albeit at a high price (starting from $65 per user) and may be a little overkill for some organizations. At this price point it's a shame it doesn't even have a SharePoint webpart, when competitor Salesforce does.

Replace Dynamics365
Planner can be used directly inside Microsoft Teams
Planner app inside MS Teams

Project: Being a very capable project management solution, Project has been somewhat neglected in recent years and thus lost ground to sleeker solutions like Monday or Asana, while being cannibalized internally by the lighter sister application Planner. At a minimum of $120 annual license per user, switching to Planner (included in E3) could be a trade off worth making especially since it sports a very useful Teams app.

Replace Project
Slack document preview prompt for docs shared from SharePoint
Slack document preview prompt for docs shared from SharePoint

Teams: It may seem obvious that Teams and SharePoint go together like peas and carrots. But there is something to be said for Slack: It offers an intuitive chat experience that is more innovative in the details. For example, Slack generates document previews automatically when you share a link, even for OneDrive documents.

However there is one big reason that's stopping most from deploying Slack: It's price. While both are free to begin with, Slack's standard plan costs $6.67. Microsoft's basic plan meanwhile is not just over 1$ cheaper, it even throws in mails, OneDrive and SharePoint. So unless you have strong opinions on usability that may outweigh this, you're probably better off sticking to Teams.

Comparison of Slack and Microsoft 365 pricing
Slack pricing (left) compared to Microsoft (right) at the time of writing
Keep Microsoft Teams

If you're not using...

OneDrive: OneDrive wasn't the first file sharing service, but, by today, it is the most prolific and most natively supported for Windows and within Office apps. Frankly, for Word users no other product (Dropbox or Box) can hold a candle to OneDrive's depth of integration into the SharePoint realms. Plus it's part of the 'Business Basic' plan, so virtually everybody will have access to it.

Get OneDrive

Forms: Is your company already using a forms engine/survey tool to collect questionnaires and surveys? If so, Forms isn't doing anything your existing product won't already do. But it's included from the 'Business Basic' plan and has a native SharePoint webpart that makes it easier to integrate a form into any SharePoint page.

Microsoft Forms makes it easy to integrate forms into SharePoint pages
Get Microsoft Forms

Kaizala: If you're a WhatsApp user you'll feel instantly familiar with Kaizala. Being a more business focused but mobile-only version of WhatsApp, it promises to make communications easier. However, one cannot help but point out the obvious overlap with MS Teams which it cannot remotely match in platform support or integrations.

Forget Kaizala
Power Automate lets you create workflows to perform actions when a trigger happens
Directly post a message to MS Teams with Power Automate

Power Automate: Along with similar services like Zapier, Workato or Integromat, Power Automate (formerly Flow) is a "super glue" that connects apps with one another. You generally create a "recipe" does something inside of an app you connect to, based on things happening or updating in a first trigger app. While there is relative feature parity between any of these solutions, their number of 'plug and play' connectors, as well as their pricing, can differ dramatically.

It may be a small detail, but while Zapier has ample of connectors to and from Microsoft 365, only Power Automate has the power to directly create Adaptive Cards in a Microsoft Teams channel. Just something to keep in mind.

Shortlist Power Automate

Summary

As you can see, finding the right mixture of Microsoft products can be hard, but is ultimately a great start to getting your SharePoint shipshape to become a Digital Workplace. As we've shown, swapping some (more niche) Microsoft products for the best-in-class competitor could actually result in a better, more up-to-date integration with SharePoint + Teams and thus improve the Digital Workplace experience for your users.

Goal 2 - Bring more outside data into SharePoint

In the 90s Intranets were meant to be the one and only start point to any task at work. Fast forward 30 years, and companies have sometimes up to 500 different applications. #fail 🤯

No wonder then that 90% of Intranets fail. Just switching to SharePoint and Teams won't be a panacea either. You need to have some capability to bring in outside data into your SharePoint.

In this section will look in the built-in options and explore an integration platform for 3rd party data and APIs.

A - Built-in integrations

Office 365 Connectors web part in SharePoint lets you embed third party apps

Office 365 Connectors web part

Since 2016 SharePoint has been adding more and more apps to their dedicated Connectors web part, in August 2020 they had some 80 apps listed.

This web part allows you to embed information from a range of 3rd party apps into SharePoint pages, and sometimes even receive notifications from them. In August 2020 Microsoft announced that notifications will go away soon.

While there are some issues around authorization (one user's credentials are used to show data to all group members) and the customizability is sparse, this is a pretty quick way to get at least some basic outside data into SharePoint.

List of available Connectors for the Office 365 Connectors web part
List of available Connectors for the Office 365 Connectors web part

Microsoft Teams apps

A lot more feature-laden are the apps available for Microsoft Teams which app store also lists over 600 apps. Chances are a good proportion of your existing apps will have some kind of Teams integration.

Microsoft Teams apps add extra functionality to Teams

The nature of apps can be quite different and depends on their use:

Chatbots for Microsoft Teams make it easy to find information
  • Chatbot: Many apps will offer you an NLP-powered search or indeed a conversational bot that you can ask to pull up data or edit it according to your wishes. Oftentimes bots use Adaptive Cards which lets you interact with and manipulate data directly inline.
  • Notification bot: This is a dropbox of kind where the integration sends a message to an individual or team whenever there is something new available and it's possible the most direct comparison to a typical email notification. An example for this functionality would be Mailchimp's app.
MailChimp's notification bot sends updates to users when something new happens
Atlassian Jira displayed in an IFrame inside Microsoft Teams
  • IFrame of a web app: These are quite common and easy for vendors to implement and are effectively just a mini browser tab which opens a web app, while Teams' conveniently handles the authentication behind the scenes (as vendors are required to support some single sign on). Examples for this are quite plentiful, but Jira Cloud would be one that's nicely executed
  • Message attachment: These are a handy way to enhance messages sent to colleagues or a group, for example by directly sharing a meeting invite via Teams rather than to everyone's inbox, i.e. like this (built-in) stock quote attachment
Meeting invite shared as a message attachment in Microsoft Teams

However setting up all these apps can be challenging as there may be odd bugs, old API standards or not very user-friendly set up instructions that may require IT intervention or else they might be off-putting for individual users.

Third party authorization for Jira in Microsoft Teams
Inelegant authorization that requires multiple clicks and results in an awkward pop up window
Configuring the Trello connector for Microsoft Teams requires a single account for the team
Outdated APIs requiring impersonating a single account for everyone to access
Very lengthy set up instructions for manually setting up a Connector

B - Integrations for 3rd party API

Even though Microsoft's own app store listing is pretty exhaustive, it could never entirely reflect every app an organization might use and want to bring to users.

If you use any of the thousands of applications not listed with Microsoft, or indeed have a custom development, you will require a more universal approach in order to bring them to your Digital Workplace.

Make lists from an API

This is relatively easy with a tool called Postman. Postman is a free API debugger and development tool that many developers use or at least heard of. You can use a free tool to generate Postman collections and then connect them to your API with instructions like this.

The crux is lies in getting your APIs data (formatted in json) onto a renderable Card that you can then embed into your SharePoint or Teams instance (formatted as HTML). Free tools like Digital Assistant can do just that by importing your Postman collection.

Once that's done, Digital Assistant will offer you multiple ways to display Cards you made, for example with the Teams app or by simply embedding a Card inside SharePoint.

Digital Assistant Cards work in SharePoint, Microsoft Teams + in other collaboration tools
Showing a user's Cards side-by-side in either SharePoint or in MS Teams

Generate Charts

Interactive HTML chart

Lists are a nice start, but to really offer users at-a-glance information and allow managers easy monitoring of data, dashboards and charts are a necessity. Chart generators such as chartJS can take data sets (derived from your API) and directly output them as charts.

With a chart visualizer tool for your Digital Assistant, you can conveniently tell your API connector to directly convert the data into one of the supported chart types. Some chart types, such as pie charts, even offer some interactive toggling of data sets and tooltips when hovering over them.

There are however also channels that don't support showing HTML + JS based charts, namely MS Teams. In that case, the Digital Assistant virtually takes a screenshot of the chart and then sends it to the user as a chat attachment.

Digital Assistant Cards intelligently use images for apps which don't support HTML and JavaScript chatbot responses
Static image of a chart to add support for chatbots like MS Teams

Add AI smartness to your Digital Workplace

As you can see above, sometimes Cards are requested by the user via chat. You can easily make your Cards available via a chatbot by including some utterances in your Postman collection. That is necessary so an NLP engine has some training data to build a model with.

Utterances are usually structured so that it's easy to account for synonyms or abbreviations that different users may use.

In your Postman collection you can simply include such utterances as part of the description for each request. The Assistant will then import these separately and train the AI engine with them.

Add Utterances to your Postman requests to train Digital Assistant's AI engine

Browse the App Directory for Digital Assistants

Digital Assistant App Directory showing popular business apps
App Directory of existing apps for your Digital Workplace

Making Postman collections, while straight-forward, could be expedited depending on how popular the application is whose API you're trying to display.

There is a list of pre-existing apps where you can install collections directly, or at least use them as a template for your own changes in Postman.

Goal 3 - Offer a personalized experience

What is personalization?

Personalization allows users to see just their data; so if you have a Card that shows you your tickets than the Card knows who you are and pulls precisely your content for you to see. Or, say, you ask the chatbot to show you how much PTO you have left, then the chatbot will ask the API to send your allowance and not someone else's.

Personalization helps avoid static info that's largely the same for everyone; so corporate news or anything that's a flood of impersonal data. Having too much impersonal data is strongly linked with creating a bad Digital Workplace that users won't find helpful to use.

Not so easy in Microsoft-land

While Microsoft's connectors seem to be super snazzy on the surface, they actually have one huge disadvantage in their architecture; they're not personalized.

What does this mean? It means when you create a webpart with a connector you have to login into the service at hand with your account through which the content will be requested, and then everyone in the SharePoint group can read it.

Example of SharePoint connectors  which require a single user for team access
Many Connectors in SharePoint require that one user gets picked as the "funnel" through which everyone shares access

This becomes evident as soon as you try to add any of these webparts. They ask for one specific account that acts as the "funnel" through which you will show the content to everyone.

It's not hard to see how this could be a security concern (letting everyone read one person's data) but it's also not as useful. The Github issues assigned to user A aren't that interesting to user B, who would've liked to see their issues. But alas, that's not what SharePoint's webpart does.

In Teams the story is a little better with at least some apps offering true Single-Sign On solutions (that one admin can approve for the entire organization).

Example of SharePoint connectors and different authorization types, including SSO and individual user sign-on

In the above example, you see Workstream (left) offers that, while Github and Trello (middle) resort to impersonation. There is also a number of inbetweeners like InVision (right) where every user will need to log in individually (which at least keeps Infosec folks happy at the expense of usability).

Are there better alternatives?

Yes. There are services like Digital Assistant that exclusively leverage the oAuth authorization standard. With that standard every user is logged in with a secure token, that will display to them only their data.

Apps like Github (mentioned earlier) actually support this standard, Microsoft just chose to implement it poorly. Unlike Microsoft, with the Digital Assistant integration for Github you can actually rely on every user getting their data shown by the Assistant.

Digital Assistant provides extremely granular authorization controls

This is due to a whole user layer that's part of this Digital Workplace platform, something SharePoint doesn't support for external data out-of-the-box. This also allows users to see a list of all the authorizations they have made, and selectively revoke permissions when they are no longer needed.

What can I do with such personalized data streams?

With personalized data the entire Digital Workplace suddenly becomes a much more holistic approach that shows users their data securely. Basically, it's as if they had logged into the original application, except they don't have to anymore as the entire experience is accessible from within SharePoint or Teams. Here are key benefits of this digital employee experience:

A. Own Board

This a little like the Sci-fi movies where the hero gets a futuristic dashboard holographically projected in front of their eye. Well, maybe it's a little more pedestrian in appearance... 😉

But architecturally that's exactly what is happening. The Assistant, as the backbone of the Digital Workplace, is securely logged into every single application and will retrieve the user's personal list of tickets, personal PTO allowance, personal tasks, etc. to aggregate all their data into one view.

As a result, they can consume all this information from within the same Dashboard/Board that's embedded into the existing SharePoint intranet.

Working through workflow approvals and scrolling down your Digital Workplace dashboard in SharePoint

B. Answers

Sticking with the Sci-fi analogy for just one more moment: this is basically a clerical office version of HAL9000, Kitt or Her; a personal assistant that has almost supernatural knowledge of your environment.

Again, it may not look as futuristic, but the user could now just ask a chatbot or their Intranet search whatever they want. And the Assistant both deciphers the intent of their question, as well as fetches the response from the API in question.

So you could go from asking about your leave allowance, to the guest Wifi password to your open Sales contacts within the space of a few seconds. The Assistant remembers where to look everything up, so users don't have to.

Regular search but infused with AI-powered answers from the Assistant

Maybe it's not exactly HAL9000 but it's not a bad start for a Digital Workplace, eh? 😎

C. Notifications

Notifications are like a briefing for the user. No longer do they have to sift through troves of email notifications in their inbox. Instead, every application delivers real-time updates to the Digital Assistant which will highlight them to the user instantly, and in a way that is more helpful to the user by grouping notifications based on origin, priority and ML algorithm.

Schematic of how Digital Assistant
 aggregates notifications from a Helpdesk app
A smart aggregated list of notifications from a Helpdesk app (schematic)

Goal 4 - Minimize IT spend & improve engagement

More employee engagement is a gift that keeps on giving, not only are people simply happier, they tend to have better ideas, deliver better business results, and stay more loyal to a company, but they also are more productive and help outperform competitors.

So on that count alone a Digital Assistant that actually helps users get their mojo back, is worth its weight in gold. But even for the controller or buyer in your organization there is a very compelling case:

IDC found that the average user spends 36% of their productive time looking for or consolidating information so they can get their job done. Without a Digital Workplace, this is usually spread across many different applications, file shares or databases which can be cumbersome and slow to navigate.

A ROI tool like this one can quickly run some numbers for you and calculate how much, for each 1% your organization shaves of this 36%, it will save in the bottomline.

We've also prepared specific guides for HR or IT managers and how their departments can uniquely benefit from implementing a Digital Workplace strategy on top of their SharePoint Intranet.

Bottomline

SharePoint powers at least 70% of all organizations. Chances are, yours is among them and you face similar challenges in breaking the innovation fatigue that many organizations try to overcome.

By extending your SharePoint into the hub for your Digital Workplace initiative, your breaking down information silos and help users get their jobs done more efficiently.

Placing SharePoint at the heart of your digital workplace strategy can pay dividends. By bringing everything your employees need to do their job well into one place, you can put your employees first and create a company culture that fosters productivity, engagement and happiness.

Article by: Henry Amm

I’m the Senior Director for the Digital Assistant Platform. Prevously gained 6 years of experience as an Intranet consultant. Fluent in German.

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