10 essential features of a SharePoint intranet for schools

Secondary schools are complicated organisations that usually have an equally complicated digital landscape, with a wide portfolio of disparate systems, apps, tools and channels being used every day by staff and pupils. The complexity of this digital workplace increases sharply when you have a chain of schools such as an Academy Trust or schools group who share resources across multiple locations. How do you ensure the right communications and information can be accessed by everybody? How do you make sure that staff who are already incredibly busy can easily and effortlessly find the content, news, documents, processes, tools and apps they need every day?

Here, a good Office 365 intranet can make a huge difference, doing some of the heavy lifting in helping both teaching and non-teaching staff find what they need for their working day, as well as providing a robust platform for essential communication and collaboration across multiple locations. An Office 365 intranet likely to be based on SharePoint Online, so we use the terms interchangeably can also leverage the investment schools have already made in Microsoft 365, and prove to be highly cost-effective for an Academy Trust operating across a number of schools.

But what features and capabilities should an Office 365 intranet for schools include? Here at Content Formula, we’re currently working with two Academy Trusts to improve their 365-powered digital workplaces. Here are our thoughts on what a school intranet needs to include.

1 Personalisation and audience targeting

Modern Office 365 and SharePoint intranets support personalisation and audience targeting, allowing content and experiences to be targeted to each user based on their Active Directory (AD) profile. This means you can ensure the intranet is made relevant based on attributes such as a user’s location, role, level of seniority, whether they have recently joined and so on. For complex organisations with highly diverse workforces, personalisation underpins intranet adoption and value, and without it, an intranet will be less successful.

For an Academy Trust intranet, personalisation is a must-have feature. When you have multiple locations with different schools and highly diverse roles (for example, leaders, teachers, teachers assistants and non-teaching staff) with different information needs, personalisation means your intranet will be more relevant for each employee in providing access to the right content and resources. At some stage, you may also want to open up some access to students or even parents; personalisation is a dependency for this option.

2 Integrations and access to apps

In most schools, staff and pupils need to access a vast array of different systems, tools and apps in order to carry out their work and get things done. Some of these are common to all organisations, such as an HR system, a financial system, IT ticketing support and more. A school that has Office 365 will also be using some of the suite of 365 tools such as Yammer and particularly Microsoft Teams, which has proved to be essential for supporting online lessons during the coronavirus pandemic.

Within schools, there may be a School Management System, a Student Information System, different apps relating to specific educational use cases, an array of educational resources, a Learning Management System, an analytics and reporting suite (perhaps Power BI), a portal for parents, social media channels and more.

Accessing so many different apps and systems with varying credentials and inconsistent interfaces can be time-consuming and confusing. An intranet can play an important role in providing an easy and convenient gateway to the wider digital workplace through a directory of apps and the ability to configure personalised links to commonly used tools. Integrations with the intranet allowing for simple transactions to be completed or information to be viewed can also save time; for example, an integration with your HR system that allows staff to view how many days annual leave they have and then book a holiday all from within the intranet means they don’t have to visit your HR system separately.

An Office 365 intranet based on SharePoint Online will also allow you to integrate 365 tools, including embedding Yammer conversations and potentially allowing staff to view a list of different Teams spaces that they are enrolled in. This is covered in more detail below.

3 News and internal communications

A staple of any organisational intranet is support of internal communications. A school or chain of schools is no different, and an SharePoint intranet should support news publishing – not only organisation-wide internal communications, but also local news and updates at the individual school or department level – reflecting the hive of activity across the entire school network.

A good Office 365 intranet will allow for both; for example, the LiveTiles intranet solution has tightly controlled news that appears on a homepage with approval workflow, as well as a stream of noticeboard local news that appears on different sites but is aggregated on the homepage. This supports both official internal communications and more informal updates; it also allows for audience targeting so news is displayed to particular groups or schools. Added to this, LiveTiles is also available on mobile devices, a key requirement for a school intranet.

4 Robust findability

Helping staff find what they need in their everyday work is part of the job of an intranet. Sturdy findability to connect people to the right information, content, documents and apps is a central feature of a good Office 365 intranet.

Findability is usually delivered through both search and a user-centred intranet navigation. Successful Office 365 intranets support good findability using the Microsoft Search which continues to improve, as well as user-centred intranet navigation using a mega-menu with links into different sites and pages. Of course, each organisation defines its own information architecture, so defining good navigation is a dependency here. An intranet also supports strong findability with central collections of high-value resources such as policy libraries a feature which we explore below.

5 Policy management

Being able to access and reference school policies, procedures and standards is critical in a school environment. Across a chain of schools in an Academy Trust, it is also likely that common policies will need to apply across all locations.

Policy management is an important element for an Office 365 intranet, providing a central policy library where documents are easily discoverable and staff have absolute confidence that they are accessing the very latest, up-to-date versions of policies. A policy library also needs to have content governance built-in with the right ownership, approval workflows and review periods to ensure policies are kept up-to-date.

Thankfully, SharePoint libraries provide a strong base for policy management with elements such version-control and the right permissions, but additional features are usually required to make policy management more robust. Intranet software like LiveTiles has an in-built policy library feature which is good, but some Academy Trusts might need a dedicated SharePoint policy management solution like Xoralia that will tightly integrate with your Office 365 intranet and provide robust policy management.

6 Flexibility and scalability

It’s essential for a school intranet to be both flexible and scalable when responding to organisational changes. For example, an Academy Trust might acquire a new school. Being able to add a new school to an intranet and onboard all the staff quickly can support the merger process, and provide access to important information to help standardise approaches where appropriate. It is also good to have the flexibility to extend access if you wish, such as in adding students and even parents to your intranet ecosystem, as well as implementing new integrations and features to meet staff needs. A truly flexible and scalable intranet is future-proofed, meaning it will remain fully fit-for-purpose.

Flexibility must extend to methods of access too. An Office 365 intranet should be available to view on mobile devices and even potentially through Microsoft Teams – both inherent capabilities in the LiveTiles intranet software.

7 Governance and content lifecycle management

An Office 365 intranet needs robust governance to ensure it is successful and sustainable. Governance takes on many forms, including ensuring security and data privacy – particularly important for a school intranet – which can be done by leveraging the enterprise-grade security of the 365 platform.

Governance around the content lifecycle is also key to ensuring content is accurate, up-to-date and of high quality. This is not always easy to achieve, as your intranet publishing model will be decentralised with a community of content owners and publishers spread across your schools, most of whom are going to be incredibly busy, so updating the intranet is not going to be their priority. Content governance features such as page-level ownership, automated reminders for reviewing content and approval workflows can do some of the heavy lifting here, as well as having an easy-to-use interface, making life easier for content owners and having a direct impact on the success of your intranet.

8 Social and collaboration features

One of the strengths of an Office 365 intranet is the ability to support enterprise-wide collaboration and strengthen a sense of community right across an organisation, seamlessly integrating the different social and collaboration tools that are available within the 365 suite. For Academy Trusts, this means staff can collaborate and connect across different schools.

An intranet can include social tools that are used for wide, open discussions as well as engagement, including the ability to comment on and rate news, add blogs and use polls and surveys. Perhaps the most important feature is the ability to embed Yammer feeds right within an intranet page, adding context to both content and conversations. An intranet can also potentially aggregate a list of Microsoft Teams spaces that employees belong to or may want to join, helping facilitate collaboration.

9 Automation and workflow

One of the main aims of Office 365 and Office 365 intranets is to drive efficiency and improve processes. Across the 365 environment, there are many opportunities to increase efficiency by deploying workflows and automation using tools like Microsoft Forms, Power Automate (workflow) and Power Apps (app creation). These can be integrated with your 365 intranet, reducing and eliminating the need to rely on paper forms, email trails and spreadsheets to complete processes. For example, requests for new equipment that might previously have been carried out by email or even through a paper form can be recrafted as online forms available through the intranet that then go through the right approval workflow defined in Power Automate. When you start to automate multiple processes like this, it has a real-world impact, saving time, reducing costs and making life easier for everybody.

10 Learning management

Learning might be at the centre of a school culture, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that staff have access to a learning management system. A good learning platform can help support IT training, introduce staff to new processes, complete onboarding for new starters, deliver professional training, offer courses on softer skills and much more. For the admin team, it can also help to track the progress of mandatory training and provide valuable analytics on staff training and learning.

Bringing learning into the heart of your Office 365 intranet can make it far easier to access and support adoption. At Content Formula, we implement LMS365 – a dedicated learning platform that is based on SharePoint – that can integrate so seamlessly with your intranet that users are not always aware that they have entered a different system.

School intranets for Academy Trusts

An Office 365 intranet can make a huge difference to the life of a school, an Academy Trust or a schools organisation. If you’d like to discuss your intranet needs for your school, get in touch!

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