The SharePoint Automobile

Inspired by Veronique Palmer‘s post

Analogies can be invaluable in explaining SharePoint concepts to end users. This is one of my favorites.

Microsoft Car

A car dealership is focused on selling you a car. They make promises and provide services designed to produce that specific end result. After listening to your transportation requirements, they present options that (hopefully) lead you to a decision to buy.  

They want a transaction that many of us dread to be a positive experience so that once you buy, you’ll come back and buy again. They also hope you will tell your friends and family good things so THEY will buy from them vs. the dealership down the street. Therefore, it’s very important that they address all your concerns and find out as much as possible about what you are looking for in a car. What are your typical activities? Do you have kids or pets? Do you take lots of trips? Do you have a long commute? All these requirements help them put you in the right vehicle. The successfully completed transaction is the primary goal– they want you to leave the showroom happy, in a car that meets your needs so they can remain in business.

Once you leave the dealership, what is the dealership’s obligation to you? It usually depends on what kind of car you bought. A new car probably came with a warranty allowing services ranging from free car washes and oil changes to lifetime mechanical repairs, with a loaner car while yours is being worked on. They may come to your house to pick up your car for you. New cars usually come with a significant obligation to you post-sale on the part of the dealership. The bigger your investment, the bigger response you’ll get, and for a longer period of time. They want to maintain a relationship with you because you are the type of customer they want to encourage.  

If you bought used, you likely have less coming after the sale. It depends on the specifics of your deal- for example, whether you bought a service contract or warranty. This can also include whether it’s convenient for you to visit the dealership, do they offer loaner cars, etc.  

Generally, the post-sale obligation for used cars is less complex and requires less input from the dealership. Does that mean they value your relationship less? They likely value it in a different way. Does your used car get a lower service priority when you bring it in for repairs? It’s difficult to say. They may not even work on your car themselves- often used cars are of a model that the dealership does not sell, therefore their service department does not have the parts or the expertise in-house and they must “farm out” your repair work to another dealership. This alone will probably increase your wait time, and give at least the perception that your business is less of a priority.  So the type of car you purchase directly influences your post-transaction experience. 

There is a period of transition between the purchase and the actual use of the car. The act of purchasing a car has its own unique characteristics. These are tied to the acquisition and maintenance of the product, and are important in their own way. However, the car will sit in your garage or driveway forever if you don’t know how to drive it. Once you know how to drive it, you have to prove that knowledge by earning a license (more on that later). You must have roads to drive on, and laws that maintain a safe driving environment.

You must register your car and put tags on it, so that it can be tracked and identified by those in authority. All cars and drivers must be logged in a database so that information about you and your car is available to those in authority. The requirements and questions associated with obtaining your license plate are non-negotiable 

Before you change the appearance or functionality of your car, you must verify whether the changes you propose are safe and legal. There are lots of things you can do (depending on your skills) which are perfectly legitimate. However, there are certain types of changes that the law will not allow. Just because you paid for the car, you can’t change it in ways that might affect the safety of others or possibly impede the overall driving experience for the public. Also, if your car is damaged, there are certain damages things that must be repaired or you risk legal repercussions. Your obligations in this regard extend to the entire driving community.  

Back to the topic of your driver’s license- think back on that experience. There are variations in the process but in general, it involves studying a manual, practicing driving and finally testing. It takes longer to become licensed to drive it than it did to buy the car. Sometimes you don’t “get it” the first time and must repeat the process. This is by design. Those in authority want to make sure that before driving on public roads, each person understands all their obligations. The training must be sufficient to ensure that passing the test provides each person enough of a foundation of knowledge to ensure safety for all. In addition, the process must confer sufficient understanding of the consequences if obligations are not met. It shouldn’t be fast and easy to become a licensed driver.  

All drivers are subject to traffic regulations regardless of how long ago they took the test or how much of it they recall. If you break a traffic law- even one you forgot about or didn’t remember from the driver’s manual- you will still get a ticket. If a new law is passed, all drivers must comply even though that particular law was not in force when they took their test. For example, a driver ticketed for texting while driving cannot claim that the law does not apply since it did not exist when he got his license. You’re still ticketed for running a stop sign even if you didn’t notice the sign was there. If a governing body imposes legislation that affects any part of the driving experience, all drivers must obey. If the city changes a traffic pattern- for example, turns a road into a 1-way street- you can’t ignore it, even if it adds 15 minutes to your commute.  

Many of us resent low speed limits, “no U-turn” mandates and all the other legal responsibilities we must comply with as drivers. But we understand why they exist. They ensure a safe, consistent environment within which we can operate our vehicles. Without their enforcement across the board, everyone would be subject to great risk every time we got behind the wheel.  

Once your car is safely operational and you are properly authorized to drive, your trip will be very short if there weren’t a system of roads and traffic signs & signals providing you with safe, navigable routes. While driving, you are subject to all the constraints that may be imposed by the current state of affairs in your area. The DOT may have whole highways closed down- sometimes you have to take a detour when a road is closed for maintenance. Rush hour affects your drive time- when lots of cars are all trying to get to the same place at the same time, everyone has to go slower. Sometimes things come to a standstill and you’re unable to drive at all if a traffic accident or other incident requires an emergency shutdown. Eventually, the blockage is removed and you are able to resume normal operations.  

Scheduled maintenance signs are often posted alerting you to upcoming closures or detours during construction projects, allowing some level of pre-planning to accommodate such changes. All these things are by-products of our reliance on the local infrastructure to get where we are going. We all share the same roads and are therefore subject to circumstances and events that affect them. Those responsible for their maintenance do all they can to reduce and avoid disruptions so that most of the time, the driving experience is optimal.

Wondering what in the world this all has to do with SharePoint? Let’s review… here are the headings for the sections above:

  • Provisioning
  • Support
  • Registration
  • Enhancements
  • Training
  • Governance
  • Infrastructure

 Do any of them sound familiar? Thought so. The next time you find yourself struggling to clarify a SharePoint concept, perhaps these examples will provide a “roadmap” toward a common understanding.


Do you expect results from SharePoint? Then do the hard work.

I was inspired to write this after reading Andrew Gilleran’s article, “Who cares about the SharePoint End User?”

Since my job revolves around SharePoint, it may surprise you to learn that this is the question I dread more than any other:   “So tell me all about SharePoint! What can it do?”

I dread it because this is really what they are asking:

“How soon can you zap my company/department/team with SharePoint’s amazing superpowers and POOF! fix everything that’s wrong? Oh- and it will work perfectly forever, and everyone will automagically know how to use it, right?”

The conversation usually devolves into a recitation of features, and this response:

“So SharePoint peels the potatoes and makes julienne fries? AND it cleans my oven? While I sleep?? AWESOME! How soon can you be done? We have a big meeting next Thursday- I’ll slot you for a 5-minute demo. That should be enough time for you to show us how it works!”

Soon enough, the conversation changes:

You promised me SharePoint could slice and dice AND make me look 10 years younger. It’s not working… I have no idea who owns that site- no one’s used it since you created it last year… I know you invited me to training class but I don’t have time. Isn’t SharePoint supposed to be intuitive?”

 (I am barely exaggerating, as many of you know.)

What’s wrong with this scenario?

Opening with “Tell me what <technology X> can do,” rather than, “Here’s my problem: _________. How can <technology X> help me solve it?” invariably places the technology person at a major disadvantage.

Would you walk in to an auto dealership and expect the salesman to sell you the perfect vehicle without knowing anything about  your transportation needs? Would you hire a builder and assume that the home with the most popular floor plan will automatically suit your family perfectly? Yet that is exactly how big companies (who should know better) decide to use SharePoint, and how they frame their expectations.

Unless you can define a specific reason for wanting SharePoint around which its deployment can be focused, its successful implementation will always be a crapshoot. In fact, I will go so far as to predict that unless you can articulate specific reasons for which your company plans to use SharePoint, your deployment will fail.

PLEASE NOTE: by “specific reasons,” I do NOT mean “improve collaboration” or “increase productivity.”

Those are NOT measurable goals. They are NOT hittable targets. They are vague concepts whose definition constantly changes. They are corporate buzzwords tossed around by salesmen and executives who have no idea how SharePoint really works. If anyone tries to sell you SharePoint with nothing more than those two promises, be very afraid.

I especially hate the rampant use of the word “collaboration.” It is not a “thing” that can be “improved” or “increased.” It is a behavior; it is a state of mind; it’s the result of many sub-actions and practices, an organic process that is often only recognizable after the fact. It means something different for every person and every organization.

Once you have defined what collaboration means FOR YOU, and you can analyze your company’s practices to locate the breakdowns in how they do their work which inhibit or impede collaboration as you define it- only THEN you can apply technology to help address those breakdowns. The technology cannot identify your breakdowns. It cannot analyze your processes. It cannot reveal your shortcomings. You have to do that first, in a technology-agnostic vacuum.

Then, if you choose to do so, you can open the SharePoint toolbox and select the correct “wrench” to tighten that bolt and (hopefully) stop that annoying PING that occurs every time you turn a business process corner. Or, more likely, you can present your findings to the SharePoint expert and allow him/her to recommend ways that SharePoint might be able to make a difference. Those recommendations must take into account a variety of factors, including:

  • Version of SharePoint in use
  • Current supported version(s) of Office in use
  • Current supported browser(s) in use
  • Mobile device expectations
  • Previous experience (if any) with SharePoint
  • Level of impact on users and expected “change aversion” to new technology
  • Training options (if any)
  • Support options and long-term maintenance of the platform
  • And more…

SO- If we know all this- why do we continue to fall into the same traps over and over again?

The answer is: if they told you how much work it took up-front to really make SharePoint work, no one would ever purchase it. So that part is glossed over:

“Once your governance is in place…”

“Once you’ve mapped out your corporate vision…”

“Once you’ve planned your security strategy…”

That’s like saying, “Once you’ve earned a million dollars…” or “Once you’ve trained to run a marathon…” What comes next is smooth sailing in comparison. The level of agreement and cooperation it takes to effectively implement SharePoint in an organization can strike fear into the hearts of even the most dedicated administrator.

SharePoint is a true platform, relying on active, informed engagement from all parts of the enterprise. Often these are parts of the enterprise who rarely (if ever) even communicate with each other. You cannot just install it and walk away. It is a living organism that requires constant attention. It demands a level of expertise that cannot just be handed over to “that one guy who doesn’t seem to have enough to do,” or learned in a week-long seminar, or achieved by passing a certification exam.

To successfully meet these challenges- to deliver a solution that truly improves the work life of those who use it, brings value to the business and a positive return on the (considerable) investment in people and hardware- you must aim for measurable results that SharePoint can help you achieve. The more vague and amorphous the reasoning behind SharePoint’s use, the more impossible is becomes to ever know if it’s making any difference at all.

Before you begin, you must identify as many critical success factors as possible. These are ideally formatted as responses to the question, “We will know that SharePoint has succeeded at our company when: ____________.”

Outline as many scenarios or measurements as you can whose presence serves as an indication that SharePoint is doing what it’s supposed to be doing. NOT acceptable are responses like, “… when productivity is up” or “… when there’s more collaboration.” Rather: “…X% more projects are completed without going over budget” or “… every department’s expense report is submitted by the 25th.”

Not only can SharePoint facilitate achievement of these goals, it can help provide the data required to ascertain whether the benchmarks were met.

While you’re at it, finish these statements:

  • Our standard process for engaging SharePoint support is ___________.
  • Our standard process for providing SharePoint support is ___________.
  • For non-standard SharePoint support, escalation process is __________.
  • The highest permission level an end user may be granted is __________.
  • Our response to user-initiated “site borking” is _____________.
  • Our stance on SharePoint Designer is _____________.
  • Our stance on SharePoint accessibility on mobile devices is ____________.
  • SharePoint training will be provided by ___________.

Ignore these aspects of managing SharePoint at your own peril. These are not things you should plan on figuring out as you go along. Every one of them has the power to bring an unprepared SharePoint team to its knees- and this is just a short list. Get it done beforehand, and make sure all the right people are at the table when you do it. Yes- it’s called a Governance Plan, and Googling that term will show you more than you ever wanted to know about the part of SharePoint that no one seems to have time for.

Have you ever regretted a major purchase? ANY purchase? Think about it. What would you have done differently? What research would you have done? What questions would you have asked? How much money would you have saved? A shovel cannot dig a hole for you. It is just a tool. By the time you realize you should have rented a ditch-digger, how much time and effort will you have wasted? How much is too much?

“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”  Put in the time. Do the hard work. Only then do you earn the right to expect results from the technology.

More than words

SharePoint leaders owe it to the user base to stick to their guns when we talk about SharePoint. Don’t fall into the trap of using non-SharePoint words to describe SharePoint things.

More than words...

Words are EXTREME-ly important

For example- I’ve heard people refer to their SharePoint profile as their “landing page.” I hear other people refer to their My Site home page as their “landing page.” Still others say “landing page” when they mean the home page of their team site. This inconsistency and non-standard usage will only lead to confusion and frustration. If a user is interested in finding out how to update his profile, and he keeps Googling “SharePoint landing page,” he won’t find anything relevant. (Trust me, I tried.) That’s because no one calls the profile the “landing page” in any official capacity. So we shouldn’t either. Is this just semantics? I say no- it’s leadership and training played out in consciously managing what we say and how we say it, and taking every opportunity to get others to do the same. Continue reading

SharePoint Site Permissions and Security 101

SharePoint security uses the inheritance model. This model establishes access at the site level, then passes that access on down to all content inside the site (lists and libraries and the items within).

Compare it to a building where anyone can walk into the lobby. From there, you may or may not be able to go into higher floors or offices/rooms within offices/locked cabinets. 

The company owner or CEO can go anywhere/see anything in the building. His role is seamless- he never encounters a denial of access regardless of where he is in the building. 

A manager can replicate that behavior, but only so far- his role prevents him from entering certain parts of the building or seeing certain materials. The manager’s access is also seamless- up to the point at which his role prohibits him from going any higher. When he meets a locked door, he understands why- it’s part of the job.

General members of the public have the most limited role- beyond the lobby, they can’t do much. They may be able to observe or temporarily visit other parts of the building, but that access is carefully monitored.

Someone has planned all this ahead of time and put controls in place that enable these access roles. How would the building ensure its security if no planning had taken place?

This analogy carries over into the concept of a SharePoint site. Using roles in this manner provides a seamless, streamlined experience for users and ensures that they only have access to content relevant to their role within the site. It ensures the security of the information within the site. It requires (and assumes) thoughtful preparation by those managing the site. 
Continue reading

Reusability as a SharePoint guiding principle

There are very few instances where you will interact with SharePoint and NOT find yourself in a position to benefit from re-used content in one form or another. From site columns to site templates, “one-off” content creation has practically no place in a well-planned SharePoint environment. SharePoint wants you to leverage that which has already been created, which is why so many features and tools exist that facilitate this behavior.

Create for re-use
The more you can standardize aspects of your SharePoint site, the better off you are. The more users your site has, the greater this need. Every time you create with re-use in mind, you save time and effort down the road for everyone (even though you may not see instant return on your investment). You also increase consistency, improve adoption rates, boost search results and build integration.

This is important to remember when you’re tempted to just throw another choice column into a default document library or list… instead, stop and consider whether that column should really be a site column. Wouldn’t it be better to place that column in a location where everyone could benefit from it? And while we’re on the subject, why not go ahead and save that library as a template, so no one has to recreate it from scratch? If you thought it was worth creating, chances are someone else will too.

I feel so strongly about this that I will go so far as to say ,“If you create something in SharePoint without first thoughfully evaluating it for re-use (or incorporation into an already-existing content element), you’re doing it wrong.” That evaluation should become second nature and be part of every creation process.

[Keep reading!]