In the first half of 2018, Office 365 First Release customers will be able to make use of a new feature from Microsoft called “Hub Sites”.
A hub site is an intranet-type interface that is populated by content published in team sites and communication sites, which are two types of SharePoint sites. In essence, a hub site is an aggregator of news, activities, and other information from these sites.
(March 16, 2018: For updates on the release date, see this Microsoft blog.)
Is a hub site an intranet? Will hub sites become the preferred method of creating corporate intranets? And should the many “intranet-in-a-box” vendors be worried about being replaced by this free offering from Microsoft?
As would be expected, there has been a flurry of blogs — written by companies that offer SharePoint “intranets-in-a-box” — that downplay this possibility. Their claim is that hub sites will be a lightweight version of an intranet, not substantial enough to replace a “true” intranet, and that their offerings provide a wider range of features commonly found in intranets.
But it is premature to come to any conclusion and the debate is wide-open. For example, Joel Oleson, well-known SharePoint expert (see his blog: https://collabshow.com/), is giving the following session at the upcoming San Diego SharePoint Saturday January 13th:
“Communication Sites vs. Intranet in a Box – Debate!”
Communication sites are pretty cool, but are they cool enough to be the Intranet? What value do I get out of Intranet in a box solutions? In this session we’ll dig into the ins and outs of SharePoint Online Intranets. I also hope to show off some of the latest and greatest in Intranet in a box solutions from folks like Valo, Powell, and Bonzai.
A Challenge to Intranet-in-a-box Providers?
With hub sites fresh out of the oven, it will take some time before we see how they are used. Clearly, though, hub sites will present a challenge to “intranet-in-a-box” providers. Number one, hub sites will come free with most versions of Office 365 — a hard-to-beat price, especially when the “in-a-box” price tags reach into the many thousands.
Second, hub sites are fluid and dynamic, meaning different communication and team sites can be attached to a hub and then moved around to other hubs as organizational needs change.
Third, navigation, look-and-feel, search, theme, and other UI elements are inherited by the linked communication and team sites, simplifying branding, search, and navigation.
Key Features of Hub Sites
Let’s dig into hub sites in a bit more detail and see what Microsoft is offering. A hub site:
- Brings together team and communication sites
- Rolls-up news and site activity
- Provides search capability across all related sites
- Enables cross-site navigation
- Makes it simple to have a consistent look and feel across all sites
Inherited top-down structure
A hub site can be comprised of multiple team sites, communication sites, and also site collections. Sites can only be associated with one hub site at a time and users will not be able to join multiple hub sites to each other.
The design concept of hub sites is to present a common navigational structure, look and feel, and search capabilities across associated sites. This common structure is defined from the top-down. When a team site or comm site is associated to a hub site, it inherits the following characteristics from the hub site:
- Navigation: Top-level navigation is inherited by linked sites.
- Theme: Hub site theme is pushed to the linked team and/or comm sites.
- Logo: Hub site logo is inherited by linked sites.
Consolidated news and activities
The audience and purpose of a hub site is similar to a comm site: it’s designed to be aesthetically-pleasing while reaching a wide audience. Hub sites are a way to convey content to a large audience. In a typical enterprise hierarchy, a hub site may be intended for viewing at the division level and populated by multiple sites from the department level downwards. It is meant as a way for segments within large organizations to communicate with colleagues who have contributed in some fashion, whether directly or indirectly.
Hub site content is handled in the following manner:
- News Aggregator: In an Office 365 / SharePoint environment, news published on sites is automatically pushed out to SharePoint home, SharePoint mobile apps, and to its associated hub site
- Combined Site Activities: In addition to a site’s home page and on a site’s card on SharePoint home, site activities will be rolled up to their associated hub site. This provides a one-stop-shop for viewing activity across a wide range of sites
- Scoped Search: Running a search on a hub site displays results from all associated sites. This enables users to perform relatively wide searches across all sites with a shared interest
For a more in-depth look at hub sites, see “SharePoint Hub Sites Overview”, a video by Mark Kashman, Senior Product Manager at Microsoft, and “Building Blocks for Your Intranet”, a LinkedIn post, also by Mark Kashman.
Hub Sites, Intranets, and SharePoint / Office 365
Microsoft’s new hub sites will undoubtedly become a popular feature for large enterprises where the employee count is in the thousands. In these scenarios, disseminating information efficiently becomes a high priority and hub sites could become a much-used feature by directors and division heads who value internal marketing opportunities. Small to mid-sized businesses will also find opportunities to leverage the power of hub sites.
Time will tell if hub sites replace or simply complement third-party SharePoint intranets. Meanwhile, as the Office 365 community anticipates the release of hub sites, the debate about the usage and functionality rages on!
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