SharePoint Hubs

SharePoint hub site branding is “sticky”

Hubs bring families of SharePoint sites together with shared branding, a unified navigation experience, and news and event content roll-ups. Hubs are dynamic and can grow and change with your organization. As departments re-organize, you can change your hub site associations and sites will automatically update to reflect the branding of their newly-assigned hubs.

But what happens when you remove a hub site association?
Let’s say you’ve designed a beautifully themed SharePoint Online site. You’ve spent hours perfecting the site, and it looks phenomenal! You decide to associate your site to the Human Resources hub so it can be tied into your company’s information architecture. You open your site, go to Settings > Site Information and select the Human Resources (HR) Hub from the Hub site association dropdown field. Within seconds, your site is joined to the HR hub and has assumed its branded look and feel.

Now let’s say you’ve had a change of heart and want to remove your site from the HR hub. You go back to Settings > Site Information and set the Hub site association dropdown to “None.” Your site will be removed from the hub, but the hub’s branded look and feel will “stick.” You will be able to update your site’s branding now that it is no longer associated with a hub, but you cannot revert back to the branding your site had before it was associated to a hub.

Implications for your SharePoint site owners
The implications of this “sticky” hub site branding are significant. Let’s say, for example, that your site owners don’t understand what the Hub site association dropdown in the Site Information panel means. They choose to associate their site to a hub without understanding the implications, and suddenly their site has updated branding. While site owners can go in and remove the hub site association, there is no “undo” function that will allow them to revert back to their site’s previous branding. That branding is forever lost once they associate to a hub.

So what can you do to prepare?
Here are a few options for navigating sticky hub branding:

  1. Educate your site owners about what hubs are and what the Hub site association dropdown field does. Make sure they’re aware that hub site branding is sticky.
  2. Consider adding hub site approval flows. These automated Power Automate flows force all hub site join requests to go through a required approval process. This is a great opportunity for hub site owners to identify sites that should not be associated with their hubs.
  3. Restrict who can see and join hubs. You can define specific users or mail-enabled security groups that can “see” your hub in the Hub site association dropdown field. By limiting which hubs are visible, you can control which hubs your site owners can associate to.
  4. Incorporate site designs and site scripts to automate the re-branding of your SharePoint sites.
  5. Build a “staging” hub that resets sites to your corporate brand standard. Build your staging hub with a standard company brand look and feel. When you have a SharePoint site that needs a reset of its branding and theme, simply associate the site to your staging hub. You can remove the hub site association once the site re-brand is complete.

Sticky hub branding examples
Image 1: A SharePoint site with branded look and feel. This site has not yet been associated with a hub.
Hub site branding - 01

Image 2: The site has been associated to the Human Resources hub and has inherited the hub’s look and feel.
Hub site branding - 03

Image 3: The site has been removed from the Human Resources hub, but has retained the hub’s sticky branding:
Hub site branding - 05

Tips for getting started with SharePoint hubs

If you’re on SharePoint Online and haven’t started exploring the use of hubs yet, it’s time to invest. SharePoint hubs are a key component of your intelligent intranet strategy, alongside home sites, branding, navigation, and site scripts.

Hubs provide a familial, logical tie between your SharePoint sites. Hubs unify site branding, provide a common hub navigation experience, roll up news and events, and provide a way for your users to find interrelated content quickly and easily. Hubs also support the dynamic nature of your organization. As departments re-org and your company structure changes, simply associate your SharePoint sites to new hubs and your branding will update automatically.

Hubs will require a re-examination of your information architecture and SharePoint site planning strategies. To help you with the transition, check out my list of getting-started hub tips.

1. Embrace the new “flat” world of SharePointTo embrace SharePoint hubs, you need to let go of the old hierarchical model for organizing sites in nested site collections. Modern SharePoint sites are flat, existing in their own individual site collections. SharePoint hubs allow you to assemble these flat sites logically into families and make use of hub branding, unified navigation, and content roll-ups. And best of all, hubs prevent the age-old struggle of migrating SharePoint sites between physical site collections.

Hubs also change the longstanding trend of using departmental site collections as a quick and easy method for organizing SharePoint sites. The dynamic nature of hubs (and the quickness and ease with which you can change hub site associations) gives you the flexibility to organize your SharePoint sites more creatively.

2. Let your users chart your course. I recommend analyzing your users and their content needs before you start mapping out the structure of your hubs. Consider how your users will draw connections between your content, how they’ll approach finding the content they need, and why they care. Key questions to ask:

  • How do your users classify content? If one of your employees changes their name, where would they go to find information on submitting a name change? Would they start by searching HR policies? Looking for tax forms? Or contacting the Legal department? Learning how your users think about content will help you determine its best logical “fit.”
  • If you had the ability to target content to key employees, how would you do it? Hubs are being enriched with great audience targeting features that enable you to dynamically target content for key users. As you design your hub strategy, keep your audience targeting needs in mind. A simple way to define key audiences is to lay out your content, associated hub, and the audience the content will be targeted to (as shown below).
    audience targeting
  • Branding & common navigation. Hubs provided a unified look and feel and a common hub navigation bar. Simply put, which sites do you want to have joined with a common brand and navigation bar? And which sites will your users want to see together? Breaking down your hub site associations to this level will help you differentiate your site and hub alignment.

3. Learn how mind-mapping can help you map your sites to hubs.  Hubs require us to build logical links between our SharePoint sites based on the subject matter and audience. Tying sites together by department or organizational division is no longer enough. We must account for how users will think about the content stored on our sites and how they’ll connect content from different sites.

Mind-maps are a great tool for drawing and designing your hub site relationships. Mind-mapping is the visual representation of thoughts, discussions, and ideas. While strategists and information architecture practitioners have advocated using mind-maps for years to capture group conversations and decision-making processes, the new flat architecture model for SharePoint makes mind-maps a perfect methodology for outlining the logical ties between your SharePoint sites.

If mind-mapping is a new concept for you, start small. Try building a mind-map while you watch Microsoft Ignite 2019 session videos. Once you get the hang of mind-mapping, it’ll be easier to apply the concepts to your SharePoint information architecture.

Mind map example 2

4. Consider a naming convention for your hubs. If you’ll be using hubs throughout your organization, you may want to consider a naming convention that clearly identifies each hub as a hub. Let’s say, for example, you have a hub for Legal, another for HR, and a third hub for Marketing. How do you want to refer to each hub? Examples may include:

hub naming conventions 03

Using a common term for each hub (e.g.  spot, inside, or about) enables you to clearly differentiate hubs from your other SharePoint sites. I recommend finding a term that fits the culture, style, and brand identity of your organization. You’ll want to educate your users and SharePoint site owners about your new naming convention so they recognize your hub sites.

5. Consider how you’ll govern the use of hubs in your organization. Hubs can only be created by Office 365 global administrators or SharePoint administrators. Since hub creation is centrally controlled, you’ll need to consider how your new hubs will be created. Will site owners request hubs via a centralized form or via email? Will there be an approval or review process to ensure new hubs are appropriately scoped and named?

There are many additional governance questions to consider for your hubs:

  • How will you ensure duplicate hubs aren’t created?
  • How will you manage your number of hubs?
  • Will you require a minimum number of associated sites for each hub?
  • Will you set up permission guidelines for associated sites?
  • Will you define roles & responsibilities for your hub site owners? Will hub owners require anything of their associated site owners?
  • Will you audit your hubs on an annual or semi-annual basis?

I recommend a practical governance model that takes into account the key use cases for hubs in your organization. If you’re working in a large enterprise, for example, you may need to put governance precepts in place to ensure you stay below the 2,000 hubs per tenant limit that Microsoft has in place. If you’re working in a small to medium-sized organization, a 2,000 hub site limit may be a non-issue and require no governance oversight.

6. Determine whether you’ll incorporate a home site as part of your intelligent intranetHome sites serve as the landing site for your organization, bringing together personalized and organizational news, events, conversations, content, and video on a single SharePoint Communications site. Incorporating a home site along with your hubs will require additional information architecture planning. Check out Microsoft’s home site planning recommendations to get started.

SharePoint home sites and hubs: A primer

christian-stahl-313383-unsplash.jpgIn May 2019, Microsoft announced SharePoint home sites, the new landing site for your intelligent intranet. Home sites are designed to bring together personalized and organizational news, events, conversations, content, and video on a single SharePoint communications site.

Your home site will be your Office 365 home base. Your tenant admin can configure your Office 365 navigation bar so users are taken to your home site when they click on your company logo. And when your mobile users click on the yet-to-be-released “home” button in their SharePoint mobile app, they’ll be taken to your home site.

As the new Office 365 landing site for your organization, home sites are designed to engage users and highlight your brand and organizational messaging. And with megamenu navigation, you can use your home site to link to your key internal SharePoint sites and hubs.

You’ll be limited to one home site per tenant. Your administrator will need to use PowerShell to elevate your SharePoint communications site of choice to be your home site. The PowerShell elevation command will:

  • Make the site an official organizational news site
  • Set the site search scope to be tenant-wide
  • Enable 1-click site access via the SharePoint mobile app home button
  • Connect the home site to your SharePoint start page

So what’s the difference between a home site and a hub?

Your SharePoint home site is your organization’s Office 365 “home.” By design, you’ll only be allowed one home site in your Office 365 tenant. And the home site must be a SharePoint communications site.

Hubs provide a familial, logical tie between SharePoint sites. With hubs, you can unify SharePoint site branding, provide a unified navigation experience, and roll up news and events in a centralized display. Hubs enhance content discovery by tying sites together and enabling browsing. Hubs are also flexible, easing the work involved in re-branding sites as org structures change and evolve. Simply assign your site to a new hub and your site’s branding is automatically updated.

While Microsoft has controlled the number of hubs that are allowed per Office 365 tenant, the limits continue to increase. When hubs were first released in May 2018, there was a limit of 50 hubs per Office 365 tenant. In August 2018, Microsoft increased the limit to 100 hubs per tenant. In May 2019, Microsoft announced another increase–this time to a maximum of 2,000 hubs per tenant! No release date has been provided for this 2,000 hub limit, so stay tuned for more information. In the meantime, we’re all living with the current 100 hub limit.

Hubs can be built on a variety of types of SharePoint sites, including communications sites, team sites, or classic sites.

Can a home site be a hub?

Yes. You can use a hub as your Office 365 home site, but only if the hub is a SharePoint communications site.

So where do you start?

Hubs are available in SharePoint Online today. Microsoft recommends we “hub before we sub” (use hubs to connect your modern SharePoint sites instead of building classic SharePoint sub-sites).

While home site functionality has been announced, no formal release date has been set. Your best approach in the near-term is to start designing and laying the framework for your organizational information architecture, including buildout of your hub framework. Once home sites are released, you’ll be able to synchronize your approach and designate your organizational home site.

Learn more

Information architecture in a flat SharePoint world

There’s a tectonic shift taking place in the world of SharePoint information architecture. The deep nested webs of SharePoint 2007 and 2010 site collections are a thing of the past, as is the exhausting task of combatting site urban sprawl. We’re now being told to rest easy and create a multitude of modern SharePoint sites. And these modern SharePoint sites don’t exist in a hierarchy with many sub-sites. Since each modern site is its own site collection, all modern sites exist in a flat architecture. Managing hordes of these modern SharePoint sites is easier than ever, with stronger built-in management capabilities (e.g. retention policies and labels), meatier reporting, and an advanced Office 365 modern admin center. But why is a flat information architecture better? And how do we help our users connect the dots between our multitude of modern SharePoint sites?

Before we examine why flatter is better, I want to ensure we have a common definition of information architecture. I define SharePoint information architecture as the art and science of organizing, storing, and labeling content (e.g. documents, list data, Office 365 groups, SharePoint sites, etc.) to support content findability and usability. Information architecture helps your users find what they need and ensures your content is stored once and not multiple times.

Now let’s review why a flat SharePoint site architecture is advantageous:

  • Flat = modular. Flat SharePoint sites can be assembled in an endless array of logical families (as opposed to a physical hierarchical architecture of nested site collections). These logically-grouped SharePoint sites support quick navigation and contextual flow without requiring sites to move and data to be migrated anytime an information architecture change is required. Microsoft released SharePoint hub sites in March 2018 to help us manage families of SharePoint sites using these logical links. No physical relocation is required for hub sites–sites are linked together and links can be updated quickly and easily.
  • Adapts to ever-changing organization structures. A flat information architecture eliminates the need to migrate sub-sites to new site collections based on departmental reorganization. Re-orgs may require updates to the navigation links between your site collections (or updates to your hub site’s navigation bar), but it will not require a physical migration of your SharePoint site or result in a site URL change.
  • Supports new Office 365 capabilities. Functionality like Office 365 groups are heavily reliant on a modern information architecture. Office 365 groups serve as the security foundations for a wide array of functionality in Planner, Yammer, Exchange, and Microsoft Teams. New Office 365 groups cannot be nested–each exists at the same layer as all other groups. Quite simply, a hierarchical information architecture cannot be used easily alongside Office 365 group-enabled capabilities.
  • Enables sites to operate independently. As I mentioned previously, every SharePoint site in a flat architecture is its own site collection. This enables each site to operate independently, with custom permissions and unique governance settings. There’s no longer a need for all sub-sites in a site collection to be ruled by the governance requirements of one site. Each modern site has independent settings.
  • Shorter site URLs. When you create a nested series of sub-sites in SharePoint, you end up with long URL addresses for your sites. If you have an Information Technology site collection with a child Help Desk site, your URL would look something like this: https://splibrarian.sharepoint.com/sites/Information%20Technology/Help%20Desk/
    If you create these same sites in a flat information architecture, you will have shorter, easier-to-use URLs:
    https://splibrarian.sharepoint.com/sites/Information%20Technology/
    https://splibrarian.sharepoint.com/sites/Help%20Desk/

Mind-mapping our SharePoint sites
This new flat architecture requires us to change the way we conceptualize and present our SharePoint sites. Instead of building pyramid-style site hierarchies, we need to build a logical links and connection points based on subject matter, user base, etc. Tying sites together by department or organizational division is no longer enough. We must account for how users will think about the content stored on our sites and the connections they’ll make as they access SharePoint Online.

A good model for this new conceptual model is mind-mapping. Mind-mapping is the visual representation of thoughts, discussions, and ideas. It connects thoughts and ideas together in a documented, visual map (almost like a cognitive diagram). While many strategists and information architecture practitioners have advocated using mind-maps for years to capture group conversations and decision-making processes, the new flat architecture model for SharePoint now requires us to apply this same mind-map thinking to the logical ties between our multitude of modern sites.

The example mind-map below shows how ideas and data points can be connected to a central ideal/theme in a visual way. If we apply this mind-map idea to connecting our SharePoint sites or hub site families together, we’ll be in a better position to build navigation links and “connect” our flat SharePoint sites together in a usable way.

Example mind-map. Illustration credit: Meagan Haase
Sketchnote

 

SharePoint hub sites: How do you know when you need one?

As SharePoint enthusiasts, we’ve eagerly anticipated the arrival of hub sites. Hubs provide a new means of logically grouping our SharePoint sites, changing the way many organizations will manage their intranet and information architecture. But the use and management of hub sites also brings up key questions. How should site owners determine when a hub site is necessary? And what processes should organizations put in place to manage the provisioning and use of hub sites? This blog post provides an introduction to hubs and explores key criteria for the evaluation of hub sites.

What are hub sites?

Hub sites enable logical grouping of SharePoint Online sites with a common navigation and branding experience. In a March 2018 Tech Community article, Mark Kashman calls out 4 key elements of hub sites:

  • Cross-site navigation (navigation that spans multiple sites without requiring manual creation for each site)
  • Content rollup (automated aggregation and display of news content from multiple sites)
  • Consistent look and feel (common site theme and branding that drives familiarity and make sites feel connected)
  • Scoped search (ability to search all sites in a hub quickly and easily)

While there is no limit to the number of sites you can associate with a hub site, you cannot associate a single site with more than one hub. (In other words, there is no opportunity to “parent” a site under two different hubs.)

Enterprise governance of hubs

If you work in a large enterprise, be prepared to govern your use of hub sites. While Microsoft hasn’t provided much guidance on what should constitute a hub site, they initially capped the usage of hub sites to 50 per tenant. In August 2018, Microsoft announced they were doubling hub site capacity, enabling a maximum of 100 hubs per tenant. In May 2019, Microsoft announced another increase–this time to a maximum of 2,000 hub sites per tenant. No release date has been provided for this 2,000 hub site limit, so stay tuned for more information. In the meantime, we’re all living with the current 100 hub site limit.

In order to ensure your hub sites are being leveraged appropriately, I recommend putting key questions and criteria in place to govern what constitutes a hub site. Since sites are elevated to hub site status via Powershell, tenant admins can establish governing principles and/or processes to manage the creation of hub sites. If you are a SharePoint administrator, you will need to determine how hub site promotions will take place. Will you require your site owners to submit request forms for new hub sites? How should they justify whether the hub site is needed? And how much rigor will your enterprise team go through in validating these hub site requests?

To get you started, here are a few hub site questions. The questions are intended to guide site owners through the process of justifying the need for elevating a site to a hub site. You’ll want to modify these questions to suit the specific needs of your organization.

  • Do you need to centrally control the branding theme for multiple SharePoint sites?
  • Do you need to relate multiple disparate sites together with a similar branded look and feel?
  • Do you need a common visual experience for 2 or more sites so users view them as “belonging together”?
  • Do you need to apply the same navigation settings to many different sites?
  • Do you need to update your navigation settings in one location and have it automatically applied to many other sites?
  • Do you need to aggregate news from multiple SharePoint sites into a single aggregate feed for a specific audience of users?
  • Do you need a targeted search function that searches across multiple disparate SharePoint sites quickly and easily?
  • Do you have multiple sites that fall under a logical business area (e.g. Human Resources, Legal, Corporate Communications)?
  • Do you have a functional business reason to link your sites together into a hub site?
  • What value will a hub site provide to your site users?
  • What value will a hub site provide you as a site owner? (In other words, do you have a clear business objective for your hub site?)

You should also consider what operational standards are required for the management of your hub sites. With only 100 hubs to work with, you should consider:

  • Who can approve use of a hub site?
  • Will hub sites be reviewed or audited to ensure they’re still being used? At what interval will auditing take place (e.g. 6 months, annually)?
  • Will you set up thresholds for hub site management (e.g. when you reach a total of 30 hub sites in use, will additional reviews be required?)
  • Will certain key business units (e.g. Corporate Communications, Information Security, etc.) be provided a hub site right away?
  • Should hub sites be “public” by default (e.g. be viewable by all employees)? If not, why not?
  • Will you set up a required minimum number of modern sites that will be joined via a hub? (e.g. you must have a minimum of 5 modern sites to qualify for use of a hub site)

Enterprise governance of hub sites is in its infancy. Most of us are just scratching the surface, trying to determine how much (or how little) governance will actually be required. If you plan to use hub sites, start having open dialogue about hub management now. As you continue learning more about how your site owners (and your organization) engage with hubs, you can build in appropriate governance processes and checkpoints to ensure effective management.