Is your SharePoint missing the point?

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Using SharePoint is sorta like paying taxes. Supposedly, everyone does it, though few can explain what it accomplishes. Well, Content Management Master and Senior SharePoint Solutions Architect Lorne Rogers has been eavesdropping on your posts, questions and maybe even happy hour rants! In our tête-à-tête he proposes that we’ve merely gotten off on the wrong foot. Here are thirteen responses (this has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with paths to real success) to questions that will make you say, “Gee, I never thought of it that way.”

Q1) Familiarity is tempting and a Harvard Business School study illustrates it best – Any service which does not confer 900% improvement over efficiency is unlikely to be adopted. SharePoint enthusiasts take pains to define it as a platform combining multiple solutions to many problems. What would persuade a user from dumping documents in to their Drop Box or an e-mail?

A1) As someone who could comfortably self-identify as a SharePoint enthusiast, it doesn’t matter to the majority of front line staff if the potential efficiency improvement is 9% or 900% if the tool provided to them is hard to understand in how to use well, forces them to think in ways that don’t seem to make intuitive sense to them, or simply requires too many clicks to get something done. Fact of the matter is that many CIO’s, or other responsible execs, in too many organizations simply don’t take the time to really understand this “Swiss army knife” from Microsoft and how it can be well-employed in their environment. Or, the deployment is short-changed in either funding, time, or both. It’s sorta like baking a cake: if you don’t put in enough flour, or you take it out of the oven too soon, you don’t get a product that many folks are going to eagerly belly up to the bar to wolf down!

I have personally seen, and there are countless postings and webinar comments from consultants and IT pros within organizations the world over, any number of organizations that have tried to shoehorn SharePoint into delivering a capability that it is ill suited for.

But didn’t I say it is the “Swiss army knife” from Microsoft? I did! But, even though Swiss army knives do provide pretty impressive utility from such a small and seemingly innocuous package, you still don’t use one to spray paint on a wall.

So, if your organization actually WANTS staff to utilize SharePoint, and especially if you would really be pleased to see it used eagerly, you have to invest the time, funds, and thought to make sure it is EASY (like Dropbox), highly ACCESSIBLE (like e-mail), and MAKES SENSE. I use the acronym EAMS to represent this.

If your deployment of SharePoint can truly pass the “EAMS test”, then your users really have little to no reason to look for greener grass outside your organization’s fence.

Q2) The projected cost of running an efficient SharePoint solution for a company exceeding three thousand employees over three years is four-million US dollars. Why can’t an internal wiki accomplish the same tasks at a lower price tag?

A2) To begin with SharePoint HAS a wiki function as part of the platform, actually J. However, SharePoint is quite a bit more that any wiki platform. And it can be drastically even more with the judicious addition of appropriate 3rd party add-ons/ISV extensions. For instance, SharePoint provides one of my most favorite features, that a wiki does not: workflow! This can be just document/content centric, or can be expanded, with either of a couple of great ISV solutions, into really powerful BPA (Business Process Automation). I favorite this because it is perhaps the easiest capability of the SharePoint platform to be monetized in terms of hard ROI (“collaboration” is notoriously hard to clearly delineate hard ROI for).

Workflow is just the start of some of SharePoint’s goody bag though. SharePoint is also a pretty adept DMS (Document Management System). And, again with the addition of 1 of a few available industry add-ons, SharePoint can also provide a pretty capable RMS (Records Management System) capability.

Unfortunately, it is the DMS/RMS realm of functionality where SO many deployments of SharePoint start to really fall down. Why? I believe it is heavily because Microsoft made an incredibly bold decision in the early design of SharePoint to veer off from their own earlier design of a nested folder hierarchy in Windows Explorer that got cemented into massively widespread usage in File Shares in organizations all over the world. Instead they chose an almost total reliance on metadata.

Lots of people understandably reply with something like “meta-what??” when confronted with that term so, at the risk of rehashing what has been spelled out in literally thousands of other posts about SharePoint, I will briefly explain that scary term in a way I’ve found almost everyone can understand.

Let’s start with the classic definition of metadata: it is data that describes data. Now that I’ve helped you not at all with that, allow me to continue with my modest narrative to where it can make more sense.

Let’s say you want to be able to send a piece of mail to someone. I’m speaking here of the old fashioned “snail-mail” variety. If you’re physically located anywhere but literal walking distance from your intended receiver, and you don’t intend to hand deliver it yourself, you need a way to explain to someone else – the friendly, neighborhood postal carrier in most cases – how to effectively figure out where on planet Earth you would like them to drop off your letter.

In the large majority of the world this is done via the combination of an address and a postal or zip code or similar. Easy-peasy, right? And this relates to metadata how? Well, the structure of that address IS metadata! So, first you have the field “addressee name”, let’s use Hans Katze as an example. Next you might include the company where Hans works as the field “company name”. We’ll use XYZ Corp as the example. Now, the postal person may not be lucky enough to know where on our planet XYZ Corp happens to have an office. So, you’ll want to include the field “country” to at least narrow the possible location to a region of the global map. For our purposes let’s say it is in Switzerland. Then, the carrier needs to know to narrow down Switzerland to a field called “city/town”, example Bern. The next level of specifics is “street” with a possible example of Hochbaumstrasse and, depending on the exact nature of the building being delivered to, there may be just a “building number” field with a value such as 123, or, if there are multiple units within the building for different occupants there may be a “floor number” value and/or a “suite number” such as 730. All the items in italics, such as “country”, are metadata! And they each describe their own piece of data, such as Switzerland. So, data that describes data, voila!

Taking this concept and applying it to all the content generated in most moderate to large/very large organizations, called Taxonomy (or a collection of related Taxonomies called an Ontology) in ways that a majority of people there can understand fairly easily, and agree upon (!), is where a large number of organizations fail to sufficiently invest financially or time/effort.

If your organization fell into this large percentage bucket, well, then you probably SHOULD have just used an internal wiki site and saved any further expenditure.

Q3) How much should a company budget for long-term user adoption?

A3) This truly depends on quite a few influencing factors including number of geographies/cultures the organization operates across, the average rate of staff turnover (especially in critical operational areas), what functions within SharePoint, and 3rd party add-ons, are being utilized, what other systems SharePoint may be connected to, how rigorous and demanding the information management needs truly are, and the ACTIVE support of the top levels of management.

All of that said though, if an organization starts with an assumption of roughly 100% of the initial full project costs for the start-up deployment over the 5 years following the close of the initial deployment project, and then factors in the preceding factors I just mentioned, my experience says they would be in a good range in terms of funding the activities that should keep their SharePoint usage strong and vital.

Q4) In your opinion, has Microsoft misrepresented their platform? Is this misrepresentation partially responsible for implementation and long-term user adoption?

A4) In MY opinion, unfortunately, I would have to say yes. Sort of. Yeah, wishy-washy answer, I know. What I mean is that Microsoft does admit that SharePoint is not designed to be a massively functional, integrated ECM suite such as OpenText or Documentum. However, I have personally experienced many instances, such as CIO forums and the like, where senior Microsoft personnel strongly suggest in their commentary that SharePoint is practically a proverbial silver bullet. You just plug in the install media and watch your problems whisked away in a puff of smoke. I assure you, it is NOT the case!

Still, you absolutely can use this multifaceted technology to address multiple possible pain points. You just need people, internal and/or external consultants, that really “get it” to help make this happen.

Just please wipe away thoughts of bullet rides to instant success.

Q5) Computer Weekly revealed that even as recently as May 2015 over a quarter of IT professionals surveyed have had their SharePoint project stall partly because of user resistance, but largely because senior management does not back them. Why would this be so despite SharePoint’s pervasiveness?

A5) I’m sure there are a litany of reasons, real and perceived, or maybe just imagined! However, I honestly believe it is Microsoft’s own portrayal from my previous answer, combined with the very well-documented fact that so, so many organizations deploy SharePoint without clarity of what problem(s) they are trying to actually address let alone a good plan of how to get there.

As well, in mine and others experiences, of the organizations that do at least know what and how they’re trying to throw SharePoint at as a solution, a shockingly small percentage get to the point of defining valid and effective measurements of success. How can any worthy exec/senior manager enthusiastically back something that lacks clarity of purpose, outcome and/or measurements, I ask you?

Another reason I firmly believe for this is the comparatively low price point of SharePoint to feature-rich ECM suites. A lot of C-level people in mid to large organizations become ingrained to believe that any technology that isn’t ludicrously expensive (think SAP, Oracle and Maximo as sterling examples) can’t possibly be serious or important enough to really need, or deserve, a significant portion of their attention and involvement. I consider this to be an example of “DeLorean complex”.

Q6) Computer Weekly also determined that 35% are frustrated by a lack of mobile support. What can developers do, if anything, to integrate SharePoint in to their mobile world?

Q6) While this used to be a very real technical problem, in the most recent builds of SharePoint on premise and SharePoint Online (Office 365 or O365), this technical limitation has largely been usurped by a more pervasive and insidious beast: bad UX design! {insert your own version of a mad scientist cackle there, dear reader}. Quite often this is due to organizations having little to no idea of who their mobile consumers are and then not designing to meet the actual mobile needs of the variety of mobile use cases that they may have. Ya gotta, gotta, gotta get those parts clear before creating your mobile channel, people!

At the same time there is also often a valid and certainly well intentioned resistance from corporate/IT security personnel to allowing any sort of meaningful interaction with corporate data and systems from, quite often, uncontrolled mobile devices.

I have definitely been involved in quite a few discussions on this topic myself with network and other IT security personnel lamenting the inability to lock things down to an acceptable degree, but also try to make organizational assets available as and where needed. The issue I always find perplexing is that when I recommend a solution to this can be to employ Rights Management on all the content in the organization, most of these folks go right back to the groove of trying to figure out new and painful ways to lock down the hardware or the transmission channels. Perhaps my solutions are simply too straightforward and cost-effective? J

Q7) Thirdly, Computer Weekly found that nearly half of IT professionals surveyed had yet to clearly align SharePoint with corporate governance policies and 20% had not done so at all! SharePoint enthusiasts adhere to a mantra that governance is a full-time job. Why do so few professionals do it?

A7) 1. Because good governance of almost any major system is downright hard, and 2. Because trying to have an effective and enforceable governance of such a multifaceted platform as SharePoint is rather like trying to arm-wrestle an octopus! Ever so much more so when taken in context with many of my previous comments around lack of clarity in problems/opportunities to be addressed with SharePoint, metadata/taxonomy misses, design and deployment misses and so on.

Interestingly, I faced these same issues with another technology years ago in my own early career in IT when I was working with Lotus Notes and Domino. And many, many organizations were so badly burned by the rampant, and often ‘diseased’ spread of that that technology that even saying the name today in company premises is close to a hanging offense!

Q8) According to AIIM Market Intelligence, approximately half of professionals interviewed admitted that a lack of expertise was their biggest ongoing business issue. Why do so few IT staff understand SharePoint’s strengths?

A8) To put it bluntly, I believe Microsoft is often their own worst enemy in this case with their sales focus on “collaboration”. This is a term I have yet to get 2 people, let alone any whole organization, to agree on a specific definition of. So, if the biggest “strength” that Microsoft sells on can’t even be reasonably articulated in anything approaching a common definition, how are IT pros going to figure out how to best exploit it?

Personally, I try to take an antithesis approach to this: I prefer to focus on capabilities like workflow management, integration, eForms, application portals, and similar within SharePoint as I find them to be much more easily understood by BOTH line of business personnel and IT pros.

Q9) Version updates often frustrate users. In fact, professionals complain they spend equivalent time educating themselves and finishing projects. Is there a core skillset which professionals can perfect when Microsoft drops one fad and goes after another?

A9) I assume there is a thinly veiled reference to the whole InfoPath debacle in that question. Regardless, this has more than a single grain of truth. There are really 2 core skill set “paths” to focus on related to SharePoint:

Technical – which includes the sub-groups of development and of technical infrastructure deployment and support.

Functional – which includes all the rest ranging from UX design, information architecture, workflow design (though not the ‘build’ aspect if some custom code is required), eForm design, navigation, etc.

Unfortunately, any of these can be affected when Microsoft makes decisions about the product. This is not confined only to SharePoint in the IT world for sure. However, I think Microsoft’s decision to use SharePoint technology as the foundation for Office 365 (O365) has to shoulder a sizable portion of the responsibility here. That decision, a number of years into the product lifecycle, has required a series of deprecations and changes to be more feasible from Microsoft’s side and IT pros have been required to adapt. The rapid evolution of the Office 365 platform, combined with the market’s uptake pervasiveness of SharePoint on premise, have exacerbated the discomfort from IT pros.

There’s no sugar coating for this one though (and I can say this as an almost 20 year IT veteran): it’s a case of “suck it up princess!” JJ

Q10) Document migration from any previous form of system is tough. Executives and employees alike fear migration will lead to wasted productive hours. Is this a misunderstanding of the platform or a legitimate weakness in SharePoint?

A10) Neither. This fear, as real or perceived as it may be in any particular case, is common to any major system introduction or change. In fact, it’s actually usually more real if an organization is going to one of the so-called granddaddies of the ECM suite world, OpenText or Documentum (or FileNet to a lesser degree) due to the dizzying depths of functionality in these suites.

However, there are enough tools and proven methods out there to reduce this risk to very acceptable levels if utilized correctly.

Q11) It’s 2016. While metadata provides fluid sorting, viewing, and scalability, we love our folders more than ever. Do users have trouble conceptualizing metadata’s advantages or do old habits truly die hard?

A11) As I alluded previously, the habit of folders in Windows, carried over from physical folders in filing cabinets, which is, itself, a carryover from chaptered books, dies about as easily as the Minotaur, the Hydra, and Donald Trump’s bad hair combined! LOL!

This is my personal pet bone to go after in ECM, whether in SharePoint or any other system: it is critical, critical, critical. Oh, and it is really important too! J

Q12) An argument can be made that a human element makes SharePoint record management infeasible. If IT professionals lack insight, how can employees be held accountable for improper record management? On the other hand, hierarchy provides comfort and ease-of-use. Has Microsoft failed to understand intuitive record management?

A12) Hmmm, I don’t think Microsoft has failed to understand it, I think they have chosen to not really seriously address it. I believe that proper and effective Records Management should not be something line of business staff should be accountable for. Period. I really think that is an extremely poor approach to governance, system design, deployment and virtually every other aspect.

Rather, properly trained professionals need to figure out a reasonable and simple records classification scheme for the organization to start. My god, some of the classification schemes I have seen are complex to the level of absurdity of a Rube Goldberg machine!

Then IT professionals need to automate the hell out of that in SharePoint and/or any other systems that may generate and/or store Record content.

Next, training professionals need to develop decent training programs and desk procedures, and have on-going budget to continuously deliver this, so that users, all the way up to the CEO, have a decent grounding. Not deep understanding, just a grounding.

Then, you have a well-oiled Records Management capacity driven from content creation to deletion. And that CAN happen in SharePoint.

Q13) Finally, no matter how meticulous their processes, an organization is made up of dozens or even hundreds of complicated moving parts. At what size does record retention typically begin to capsize and are there preventative measures? How does an organization get back on track?

A13) This would be an interesting question to get a quote on from PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric) in California! This is almost certainly one of the scariest of examples of poor records management in existence as evidenced by the San Bruno event.

Problem is, an organization doesn’t have to be anywhere near the size, or age, or even complexity, of PG&E to be subject to poor or haphazard Record keeping. It is MUCH more an issue of the budget priorities and culture attitudes of the senior-most management. If the people at the top don’t want to invest the organization’s human and financial assets towards making solid record-keeping a priority, then San Bruno type incidents need to be expected.

Getting back on track is as easy, and as hard, as changing the viewpoints and actions of those at the top.

Changing your viewpoint certainly is easier said than done if you cannot see the forest for the trees.  Herein lies the benefit of inviting a SharePoint Jedi to guide your team. You need not take that fatal step! Or, if have, failing to correct course leads to thousands in lost profit at best – legal repercussions at worst.  Respecting SharePoint’s nuances (Yes, we said respect) multiplies productivity, profit, and work place sanity!



Keywords: SharePoint, Governance, User Adoption


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