The SharePoint Trip to Modern – Are We There Yet? Part 1

Is time travel possible? It sure feels like it with the SharePoint Modern experience. Leave it to the Microsoft SharePoint team to turn me into that little boy on a car trip, asking “Are we there yet?”.

I’m referring to the current state of SharePoint, and the trip to “Modern”. I’m loving the sights along the way…  but when is this journey going to end?

As a SharePoint architect, I weigh many aspects of the platform (and the client’s needs and capabilities) before formulating a solution. This has been – ahem – especially challenging as Microsoft sloooowly releases its “Modern” vision piecemeal.

Hub sites, Communication sites, modern team sites, modern lists, O365 Groups, Flow, PowerApps, SPFx web parts and extensions, Microsoft Teams….  and the tools to regulate, control and govern everything….  all in different states of readiness and maturity.

This drip, drip, drip of wonderfulness puts SharePoint architects and developers in a weird spot… titillating us with ooh-la-la “modern” features…  but making us wait… drip.. for feature gaps to close… drip… before using them.  Like you, I am reluctant to deploy yet another “classic” team site, create yet another custom MasterPage, design yet another SharePoint 2013 Workflow, as the “new” taunts me….  dares me… to “go modern”. But are we there yet?  No. Not yet. But almost.

Of course, it’s not all or nothing…  some modern goodness is ready now…  Microsoft Teams has “blown up” (popularity-wise, in a good way)…  and the “low code, no code” ways to extend it are terrific.  At Slalom (where I work as a Solution Principal in the Content & Collaboration practice in NYC), we’ve published a Slack vs Teams whitepaper that is extremely popular among our clients evaluating both.  And while Teams has caught fire in the last year, the recently released governance & compliance controls are only now allowing highly regulated industries to realistically consider adopting Teams.

Microsoft Flow is terrific…. I’ve used it for over a year now and use it whenever I can….  but there are many things it still cannot do (such as elevated permissions not tied down to a specific user, or long-running state-based workflows, to name two features Flow currently lacks), and I find myself “enhancing Flow” with the occasional SharePoint 2013 Designer workflow.

Modern SharePoint publishing disappoints me – in its current state – as I wait for the modern equivalent to classic page layouts, Master Pages, item scheduling, and a better way to control article/news metadata than the way explained here. And while the recently announced “News Approval” workflow is very important to some organizations, in practice, I found many organizations preferred to keep it simple and forgo the classic “approval workflow”, instead using just check-in, check-out and Major/Minor drafts with versioning.

I’d like to see a better way to schedule articles. In classic, the way this worked is that a background timer job changes an article from draft to published, or visa-versa – depending on the schedule. But to create an article archive for “no-longer published articles” that visitors could search for and re-read, the classic scheduling approach is bad, because when an article is in “draft mode”, it cannot be read by visitors. I’d prefer a “modern” approach that avoids this technique, so visitors can search and view an archive of old articles… OOTB. But I digress.

Microsoft Communication sites bring the “wow”. Just the other day, we created one for a client unaware of them. The client was resigned to getting a “classic” experience.  So we surprised them (not always a good idea, but OK in this case). In a short demo, I heard a half-dozen “awesomes” and several “wows”… all for only a few days of configuration (and some snazzy images). I want all my engagements to delight clients like that.

I think Communication sites make ideal Hub sites. The “hubiness” idea is not new with Modern SharePoint. Classic SharePoint has offered the “Portal Site Connection” feature going back at least to SharePoint 2007 MOSS.  But Modern Hubs are so much better.  We’ll get to that later.

Two more “classic features” awaiting modernization are Document Sets and Search. I don’t use Document Sets that often, but when I need them, they are terrific. I find them to be most useful in “lawyer-like” scenarios, where a “matter” is best handled with several documents that are related.  Document Sets allow all documents in a set to be auto-tagged with the same meta-data. And provide a logical grouping that is natural to “lawyer-like” scenarios.  Microsoft has promised to modernize the Document Set experience – BUT I’M STILL WAITING.

Search is the “SharePoint killer app” (MS Teams not withstanding)… and has been since SharePoint 2013. But in my experience over the years, many clients have not realized the value.  One reason is lack of what it can do, when properly configured. It requires expertise in several areas –  such as defining a metadata taxonomy and associated site columns and content types, configuring the search web parts and customizing Display Templates. These are all do-able, repeatable and don’t require a PhD.  At present, there are no modern search web part equivalents to the “classic” ones. I anxiously await their arrival. Until then, I’ll continue to build the “classic” search experience with a “classic” publishing site collection and “classic” search web parts. (By the way, this is not in lieu of using modern “delve-like” search experiences based on Microsoft Graph. The graph-based modern search experience fills a different niche – highly personalized and useful for discovering new – often unanticipated – search results.  The “classic” search experience will remain extremely valuable for “Knowledge Management” search experiences, where content is authoritative and curated, and users have a general idea of what they’re looking for, and seek authoritative results.

In upcoming articles, I’ll take a deeper look at many modern capabilities, highlight the gaps, and suggest work-arounds where possible.

So sit back and enjoy the ride.  And together we’ll answer  “Are we there yet?”