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Take your SharePoint implementation to the next level


Among Social Business and E2.0 practitioners, there has been some debate about whether or not Microsoft’s SharePoint product is (or can be used as) an E2.0 solution. Regardless, within the world of social tools, SharePoint is impossible to ignore, and for as long as IT departments are able to dictate to their business organisation the tools that must be used, it will continue to be a major market segment.

If used properly, despite all its limitations, there is no reason SharePoint cannot succeed. But anecdotal evidence suggests that in many cases, neither widespread adoption nor business value are being achieved. As my colleague James Dellow pointed out, there is an emerging body of ‘worst practice’ around SharePoint implementation projects, and this is partly why we see shocking statistics such as 80% of users with SharePoint access still share documents by email, according to one survey.

The frustrating thing for us is that we know how to use the underlying capabilities of the platform to deliver user value and help drive social business outcomes, but whilst many IT departments seem content to over-spend on basic technology, implementation and customisation, they are often simply unaware of the necessary social experience design and adoption skills that can transform an IT platform into a piece of successful business infrastructure. But thankfully, that is starting to change.

Earlier this year, I ran a workshop for internal communicators who use SharePoint, intended to help them get to grips with the platform and work out how best to use it. At the beginning, I asked whether any of the attendees had gone through an evaluation of different technologies and platforms and then selected SharePoint as the best. None had. In most cases, it was chosen by people in the IT department with little or no involvement from potential users.

Why SharePoint?

So why do so many IT departments choose SharePoint? Various reasons, including a desire for control, ignorance of alternatives, and the fact it is based on the Microsoft stack, which is seen as a safe choice. Price is also a factor, but there seems to be something of a myth that because they already have various Microsoft licenses, SharePoint is inexpensive. The reality is often quite different, as a few moments with the SharePoint license calculator demonstrates. In fact, it is among the most expensive options available, especially when you factor in Microsoft’s own recommendation that the product requires approximately $8 of customisation services for every $1 of license fee.

However, the real cost for any user-facing technology in a large organisation is not licenses and hardware, but the attention and time it demands from thousands of people in the firm. Poor Return on Attention (ROA) has a far bigger impact on the business than the setup costs alone – and given user experience is probably the biggest weakness of the product, this is a real and present danger. And finally, of course, there is the cost of maintenance and upkeep. Because SharePoint is designed to meet the needs of IT buyers, not users, it brings with it a culture of control that means you have to go running back to the IT department for a whole host of simple activities, such as setting up, managing or customising individual spaces.

So, given the costs, is SharePoint the best social business platform? Well, probably not when you compare it to native social business platforms such as Jive, Socialtext or IBM Lotus Connections. In every key area of functionality, you would be hard pressed to find anybody who would even place it in the top 3 available options. It is an adequate Document Management System (DMS) for most purposes, with the advantage of tight integration with MS Office, but it lacks the depth of functionality of leading products in this category. As a portal server, it is adequate and probably competitive with mid-range products, but the user experience is so poor out of the box that only a minority of users actually take the time to create and populate webparts (portal elements).

In terms of social features, SharePoint 2010 has a very weak wiki, which turns out to be a plain list of pages that can be edited collaboratively; a blog, which is very basic compared to the dominant (and free) WordPress platform in terms of both ease of use and features; personal profiles and social networking, in a very basic sense; and finally, tagging (at least within individual sites or spaces). Sadly, a great many IT folk would respond to this by saying these features are probably “good enough” for their firm, and thus denying their users the possibility of something substantially better than adequate. But as Michael Idinopulos points out in regard to activity streams, what seems like a basic feature can succeed or fail based on the user experience they support.

Mary Abraham recently touched on the problem with this Swiss Army Knife approach in relation to law firms and their use of SharePoint:

To be fair, you may be able to open a wine bottle and slice a piece of cheese with your Swiss Army Knife, but are you actually able to use it to prepare a nutritious and delicious meal?  It seems that the SharePoint Swiss Army Knife suffers from similar limitations when it comes to social media.

Avoiding Implementation ‘Worst Practices’

Despite its limitations, it is perfectly possible to develop an effective social business platform using SharePoint 2010; but there are some common mistakes that should be avoided if at all possible. We are often asked to look at under-performing SharePoint systems, often because they are not achieving expected levels of adoption and usage. More often than not, we see one of the following patterns:

Install it and they will come: this is where companies install the out of the box system and expect that because SharePoint claims to have blogs, wikis and other features, that these features are good enough to attract voluntary usage right out of the box. Sadly, that is not the case and an out-of-the-box Sharepoint install might be used as a place to dump documents, and perhaps even to publish a 1990’s-style intranet, but it is very unlikely to see usage take off in the way we have come to expect with consumer tools.

Customised to death: this is where IT departments decide that, for the sake of consistency, they will develop and build all required features within SharePoint, rather than use other tools. This results in the kind of inflexible, tightly-integrated, highly customised system that becomes harder and more expensive to develop and maintain, and which runs the risk of being thrown out if the next version of the platform does things slightly differently (as has been the case with each version to date). Despite the high cost and complexity of developing inside SharePoint, IT departments often fall into this trap. What should be a relatively straightforward area of technical development has become so complicated that multiple technical experts can be required to install and configure Sharepoint 2010, as Cap Gemini (a systems integrator who do Sharepoint work) recently outlined in their technology blog.

IT-implemented silos: this is where the system is architected and configured to require specialist help whenever new sites are required, permissions need to change or customisations are required for a particular area of the business. It may result in lower risk from an IT point of view, but at the expense of usage, which is almost the definition of a self-defeating strategy given that more and more people are able to use tools like Dropbox, Skype or Google Apps as work arounds for poor internal systems.

Technology tail wags the business dog: social business platforms should be selected on the basis of user need, not IT preference. Even once the platform is selected, the solution design process should be as independent as possible from the default look, behaviour and structure of the platform, and driven instead by business need and desired behavioural outcomes.

SharePoint as a capability layer

Our preference, and the approach we often advise our clients to consider, is the pace layering strategy we have outlined previously. Essentially, we argue it is best to treat SharePoint as a base platform on which to build user-facing features. Use the platform to provide Office integration, authentication, document management and portal services, but build as much user-facing functionality as possible above SharePoint, either by leveraging one of the many complementary specialist products that sit on top of SharePoint, such as Newsgator Social Sites or Telligent; or, perhaps by using best of breed social tools that have strong SharePoint integration, such as Confluence or Socialtext. Thomas Vander Wal gave a good overview of the pros and cons of this approach in a presentation assessing Sharepoint’s potential as a social intranet platform earlier this year in Copenhagen. Finally, in an ideal world, where you want fine-grained control over user experience, you might also consider developing your own social layer that leverages the SharePoint APIs to integrate documents, lists and other SharePoint objects, whilst avoiding the platform’s biggest user experience limitations.

Once you have decided how to create the functionality you require, the interesting work begins, which is to mould and shape SharePoint into something that users will want to engage with, and then work closely with them on adoption, training and communication plans that puts these features into the context of day-to-day tasks and processes that people need to perform.

In shaping SharePoint to deliver a workable social business platform, there are a few key issues to bear in mind, but all of these can be overcome if you have the right blend of design, user experience and business skills on the project, rather than just developers. For example:

User Experience. Why do millions of people use Twitter, Google docs or Facebook? Part of the answer is undoubtedly the simplicity of their consumer-grade user experience for the individual, and the way these tools enable them to connect with others. A tool that does one thing well will usually be used ahead of a tool that does many things poorly or even adequately. User experience *is* the product as far as people are concerned. This is perhaps the biggest failing of SharePoint projects, and in some ways, the easiest to fix.

Silos and Document graveyards. The basic model of SharePoint assumes each site is a silo that does not need to share content with other sites, and there are too few meaningful cross-silo sharing features in the platform. This is a big problem for users, but ironically, it is an even bigger headache for administrators as it runs the risk of re-creating the world of separate file shares and home directories that SharePoint is partly intended to replace. This is an anti-pattern that needs to be designed out of the solution in many cases.

A document-centric, not a people-centric model. SharePoint assumes the pivot for knowledge sharing is a document object. Notwithstanding the fact that less and less current information is these days stored in documents, this assumption makes it harder than necessary to navigate the social networks of the organisation or to locate and find expertise.

They key thing to bear in mind here is that the most important skills required to turn a SharePoint implementation into a successful social business of E2.0 platform are not MSCE certification or SharePoint development, or indeed technical skills in general, but rather a deep knowledge of social experience design, user behaviour, incentives and motivation inside the enterprise. If an expensive IT system deployment results in 36% of users refusing to even engage with a platform and 80% defaulting to email for sharing, that is wasted investment.

Given how many SharePoint deployments are now hitting an adoption wall, I hope that more and more IT departments will begin looking at higher level thinking such as social business design to take their internal systems to the next level and give them a greater business relevance, and therefore a greater chance of success.

10 Responses to Take your SharePoint implementation to the next level

  1. By EphraimJF on June 6, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    Thanks for this great post Lee.

    Recently I’ve been seeing this: Companies build great corporate intranets using SharePoint – you know, the corporate news, reference info, HR material, etc. Teams re-skin the main intranet site so it looks great and offers good usability.

    But they then leave SharePoint team sites to languish in poor UX wasteland.

    A lot of the stories about companies getting great value out of SharePoint are actually about the corporate intranet site, but not about team-based collaboration.

    Many intranet teams don’t get around to re-skinning team sites, so employees are left with the poor usability for collaboration. Additionally SharePoint team sites are often considered as separate from the intranet and end up managed by IT departments who take a purely technical approach to implementing them – very little adoption planning.

    I think this is sort of the dirty little secret behind a lot of successful SharePoint implementations.

  2. By Christoph Schmaltz on June 6, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    Atlassian released its latest version (1.4) of the SharePoint-Confluence Connector today. It offers deeper integration than previous versions.

  3. By JB Holston on June 7, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Thanks for the post. SharePoint is a beast — over 100 million paid seats worldwide; a bigger business than; 20,000 new seats per day every day the last five years. But as collaboration has moved from document- to people-centricity, augmenting the SP platform socially has become vital to its continued end-user utility. Newsgator’s had tremendous success with its SocialSites product filling this role, with over 2.5 mill enterprise seats worldwide across 250 of the Global 2000. ‘Social Business’ is understood to be a global, enterprise-class, ‘big-data’ business going forward, for which SharePoint and Microsoft (it will be interesting to see how Skype can add, here) are important foundation elements.

  4. By James on June 7, 2011 at 8:28 pm

    Perhaps the problem is marketing?
    Who has heard of Jive or SocialText?
    And who is going to install IBM software in an SME? The dinosaurs of the Software world.

  5. By Trudi Schifter on June 8, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    Excellent and insightful article.

    Thank you.

    More companies should understand the exponential cost that lack of integration and good UX requires to make a useful, scaleable solution. This is why I am a fan of unified, unified collaboration, unified comms…Best also to be in the cloud, then you don’t have to worry about all the sw download issues and maintaining the beast.

  6. By Lee Bryant on June 8, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Thanks for the feedback.

    @James: Actually, I think in most cases I have come across, IT depts have known of the existence and quality of Jive, Socialtext, et al, but they have made their choice anyway.

    @Trudi: the problem with doing this 100% in the cloud is that such systems can end up separated from internal, securely held content and information that people need to access. Also, with cloud solutions, clients have even less control over UX.

  7. By Anne Patrick on June 9, 2011 at 9:15 am

    Microsoft is truly a huge part of business operations. As long as it’s Microsoft, it is good. That is also why SharePoint is mostly used, however, is usually misused. I agree that businesses should clearly understand and know the capabilities of SharePoint enable to get desired social business solutions. Thank you for sharing. This is very helpful.

  8. By Alistair on June 13, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    What a terrible article; an awful slur against the IT community supported by unsubstantiated comments and poor examples.

    Having worked with many IT departments I know that pretty much all of them need to balance what solutions they implement by balancing the needs of users, budget, support & management, previous investments and compatibility with overall strategy.

    They don’t just buy stuff because they want to. They also usually go through thorough product selection process -based on elicited business requirements- and often consult analysts like gartner to get independent support in their decision making.

    SharePoint is actually designed for users, not IT buyers. One of the key tenets of the platform is that it empowers the users, allowing them to own site collections, site creation, configuration. They can create their own simple workflows. Any policies that mean the IT department are gatekeepers are just that, policies. Its a cultural issue and that IT department will be just as cautious and lock down any other platform the same way.

    I’d also take issue with comments about simplicity of consumer tech. Facebook is poorly designed; just try finding how to just see a list of all your friends, manage your account or find where the picture you’ve uploaded has gone. Twitter isn’t easy either; you’ll need to google or call on friends before you can comfortably use hashtags, retweet or attach images or shorten urls. The reason these are popular is that they serve a purpose that people have a thirst to have fulfilled, not because of an awesome UI.

    I’m not totally sold on SharePoint, inparticular the social aspects, -though I think the wiki structure and blogs are just fine in 2010- and in fact my usual preference is for a combined Jive and SharePoint system, in organisations where the culture is ready for being properly social.

    I know an organisation that has 95,000 Jive users and, whilst it’s great for social tagging, blogging and running discussions, it’s appalling for using documents. As it’s combined with Alfresco as a DM system, pretty much all the docs there get exchanged through email too.

    Organisations need a whole bunch of things to support them in being communicative and collaborative; tagging, blogging, discussing, document management, conferencing, screen sharing, dashboards, archiving, search. You can’t get everything you want from one product. If you get everything – by deploying a whole heap of best of breed- you’ll end up with an integration and administrative nightmare. SharePoint gets deployed so much because it provides all those features, though only perhaps 80% as well as the best of each breed. It’s not perfect but it offers what a lot of businesses need, at a reasonable cost -compared to doing lots of other stuff- and is well integrated with everything else they usually have.

    Making something useful and making it easy for users to use is a broad topic. User adoption is a relatively new field that IT is becoming aware of and how it is handled will only get better. Making it the place to go is all about getting a critical mass of content and usage. Whether that is about going all the way with E2.0 when businesses aren’t quite ready -culturally or procedurally- I’m not sure. UX is very important but can get totally lost when people focus on it too much. I’ve seen plenty of £100k SharePoint projects cost a million just because a bunch of design and ‘new media’ agencies with the ear of corporate comms pushed through their obsessions about cool stuff and UX, without actually understanding business, what users actually need to do or engaging with IT.

  9. By Tony Naismith on June 14, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    Interesting article but I have to agree with the above comment. The post does come across a bit one sided and blaming the IS department for lumbering companies with sharepoint. Even outsourcers like my company strive to work with the business, in addition to balancing the bottom line.

  10. By Lee Bryant on June 15, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    Very interesting spread of reactions. Thanks.

    I should emphasise that my intent was not to point the finger just at IS/IT – the problematic way in which centralised purchasing decisions are made is an organisational issue and not just an IT issue.

    In response to Alistair, I would say this:

    1. When IT balance the needs of “users, budget, support & management, previous investments and compatibility with overall strategy” guess which one of those gets squeezed every time? Yep: users. Also, with respect, do IT really understand user needs better than the business? Which brings me to…

    2. The process of IT eliciting requirements is a key problem here in my view. If I want a porsche and go to many IT departments, they will dutifully note down my requirements … “wheels, paint, an engine… etc” and then give me a grey Skoda that ticks every box but is a fundamentally different product. Especially with social tools, it is impossible to represent their value in a spreadsheet of features. That is why many IT departments believe that Sharepoint does wikis and blogs, but in reality the experience is not good enough to meet the need. I don’t claim to have a pithy, smart answer to this problem, but I think we should start by NOT having IT gather requirements in the way they have done in the past.

    3. How many times have you heard of users crying out for Sharepoint in an organisation, compared to wikis, blogs, Yammer, Socialcast, etc? Not many, I would wager.

    4. If you think the wiki feature in SP2010 is “just fine” then I would be interested if you use it on a day-to-day basis, or indeed whether others you know use it. It is quite simply not a wiki – it is a list of editable pages (see point 2 above 😉

    I think where we agree is that neither of us is 100% pro- or anti-SharePoint and you probably cannot get all the necessary sharing and social features from one product. But most of all, I appreciate you taking the time to share your views on this, so thanks.