Standing in the SharePoint Gap

IT departments must manage the entire SharePoint platform, ensuring long-term stability, security and integrity for the enterprise. The business just wants what they want! This can result in dissatisfaction on both sides. How does your company resolve this conflict?

bridgingthegapCompanies using SharePoint for end-user collaboration need someone who stands in the gap between IT and the business to broker that often tenuous relationship. This is usually assumed to be a business-side role. However, it’s much more appropriate for it to be a SharePoint role.

Before SharePoint, my background was in business process improvement and project management. I did not start out in IT at all. I was not a developer, programmer, engineer or system administrator. I took on SharePoint in the context of another initiative and quickly discovered its vast potential. I was fortunate to be able to make a career change and spent the next 5 years immersed in SharePoint, dramatically increasing my skill set.

Without the options of coding or development at my disposal, I learned how to get results by pushing the envelope and exploring the platform’s native options. Along the way, I also increased my knowledge of the IT side and built strong relationships with those responsible for the “care and feeding” of the platform. We quickly learned the value of what each side brought to the table. They appreciated the presence of someone skilled in speaking both languages. I interpreted “SharePoint-ese’ for the business; I also translated requirements and pain points into well-designed, quickly-deployed sites & solutions. These solutions delivered valuable return on a (sizable) SharePoint investment without spending a dime on development. I can also walk into any meeting and speak clearly and intelligently about SharePoint to stakeholders at all levels.

Do you have such a person on board? Don’t you wish you did?

From a technology standpoint, SharePoint is something of a latecomer. Those who currently make SharePoint their career have, by and large, come to it from somewhere else. Most were already in IT- usually developers/engineers/system administrators- who continue to focus on those areas as they extend into the SharePoint space. This tends to cause a “development approach” to solving SharePoint problems which is not always conducive to building a strong relationship with the business side. It can delay delivery of solutions and sometimes negatively impact upgrade paths. My strengths offset that risk.

By first exploring all “in-box” options to their fullest potential, companies can be assured of getting the most bang for their SharePoint buck. The vast scope of features built into the product practically demands such an approach to truly realize that investment. Before throwing development dollars at the problem, don’t you owe it to yourself to see what might be possible?

It’s amazing what SharePoint provides out-of-the-box! There are so many tools and functions are already there, just waiting to be leveraged. As previously mentioned, this approach also helps ensure future compatibility for upgrades, patches and service packs. Even more importantly, such methods are much easier to make transparent to end users. Handing over a “configured” solution often means that your users don’t need to come back to IT for enhancements down the road- with a little education, they can make many change or repairs themselves. It’s vital to take advantage of every opportunity at hand to strengthen the business partnership.

That’s MY SharePoint role. What’s yours?


SharePoint sites and solutions- set yourself up for success

Inspired by this blog post by consultant Gia Lyons which specifically targets launching a social media pilot program- it’s practically the same conversation with regard to SharePoint solutions. I recommend you read her article for context but I have used it as the foundation of this post.

Don’t pretend that throwing this rock won’t make any ripples- Acknowledge the impact that implementing SharePoint will have on your team.

  • Depending on user experience, SharePoint may present brand-new technology, ALONG WITH a brand-new learning curve.
  • It’s a challenge to establish both at the same time. Who will lead your users?
  • Manage your expectations- figure out how to prove usefulness in small ways before trying to make SharePoint “do it all.”

Survey the landscape

  • What is your team’s general contribution to the business?
  • How many people will use your site/solution?
  • How long will it be needed?
  • What is the lifecycle of the site’s content?
  • Where are team members/participants physically located?
  • What is their general attitude towards collaboration software? What concerns do they have?
  • Are there inconsistencies in technology? For example, multiple Office versions or IE versions in use) among participants?
  • Are most participants considered “technology-forward?”
  • Can you anticipate pushback from those less inclined to embrace a technology-based platform?
  • Are there cultural or language differences within your group that should be considered?

Find a purpose
How does the group want to use SharePoint? This is very important- mandating one person’s vision will not produce success. There must be a strong sense of “group-ness” permeating the reasons why SharePoint is the tool selected for this job.

  • How are participants getting what they want today, without SharePoint?
  • Fix on a few key “pain points” and go from there, then branch out.

Define roles and responsibilities
In the context of the functionality your site will be providing, classify all participants into the following broad categories:

  • Site owner/Business Process Owner (~1-2 persons)
    • Top “responsible party” for the site who would have to answer to upper management when/if anything about your site came on their radar
    • Person on the hook for budget dollars related to SharePoint costs
  • Site manager (~2-3 people)
    • Could be at the site or site collection level OR both
    • I consider this the most important role in SharePoint.
      • Person(s) established as site managers must spend a lot of time in the site; they are required them to know its ins and outs and troubleshoot most situations that arise for end users
      • They may also be responsible for on-boarding new users and/or hand-holding less confident users.
    • Facilitate use of SharePoint and help others incorporate its use into their work routine.
    • They are the go-to person for anyone who has questions about the site and should present a confident, knowledgeable, pro-SharePoint attitude.
    • They must know how to quickly and accurately escalate issues beyond their expertise.
  • Site contributors (as many as needed)
    • Persons whose normal role requires no stake in the site’s design, look & feel etc. but who need to be able to interface with content elements (lists/libraries) to do their jobs- upload, create/modify list items etc.
    • These people are the best resource for feedback on site functionality- site “mechanics” must work for them or overall success of the site will be threatened.
    • They need good training that lets them clearly step through the most common site-related functionality
  • Site visitors (as many as needed)
    • Persons whose normal role only requires them to view content to gain value from the site, but may occasionally be elevated to a more interactive role for specific situations.
    • They are a good feedback resource regarding site navigation- if an occasional user experiences frustration navigating the site, it needs to be re-thought.

Define success factors- How will you know if your group is using SharePoint successfully? What will the indicators of success look like? Define measurable success criteria BEFORE launching the site/solution. If your site/solution does not support the criteria you have listed, you have a problem!

  • For example:
    • Problem: Team members are constantly email-requesting current presentations from the team PowerPoint author.
    • Solution: Centralize presentation storage in a versioned document library. Train users on the new process.
    • Success indicator: Track email request levels before/after implementing the solution. Did they drop? Are users self-serving from the library? You’ve got a success metric.

Encourage feedback on site performance and user experience.

  • Have some early adopters create good-quality, substantive feedback early on, so that others have an example of what you’re looking for.
  • Periodically send out a simple user survey: “As a result of using SharePoint, I am better able to… ”
  • Share those responses to see if others can benefit from the gains. People support what they help to create!

What’s in a SharePoint Site? Understand the Basics (FREE Webinar)

Exceptionally helpful site presents a webinar led by Benjamin Niaulin, specifically focused on educating people who are new to SharePoint:

What’s in a SharePoint Site? Understand the Basics (It’s FREE but you must register)

  • WHEN: Wednesday December 5th 2012 at 1:30pm Eastern Time
  • WHO: Users new to SharePoint (or anyone wishing to get a refresher on the elements of a basic site)

Only 250 attendees may attend- so register now!

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.

Desperately Seeking SharePoint

By now I can’t help but wonder… where are these SharePoint superheroes the business world seems to think exist? Where do they roam the earth, these titans of technology? 

I can see one of them now… Gathering business requirements with one hand, configuring servers with the other… Leading user groups one day, developing web parts the next, dodging support calls while his fingers spit out flawless PowerShell scripts… Delivering whizbang demos to executives, followed by a rousing session of disaster recovery configuration to cleanse the palate.

Wait- what’s that? Governance? Hold on while he instantly acquaints himself with your corporate vision- or he’ll create one on the spot if it’s lacking. Watch as he hands over an airtight governance plan that will be understandable at all levels of the enterprise and never need updating. Did I mention he’s also an expert at InfoPath, Excel, Access, SQL, AD, Exchange, .NET and an MCM, MCPD, MCTS and MCITP as well as a certified Scrum Master? 

He has to be real- because every job posting I see is looking for him! Why would they seek him so diligently if they did not expect to find him?  

This is from a REAL email I recently received, asking if I (or anyone I knew) was interested in the position:

The applicant needs to have a blended skill set of Architect, Analyst and Developer yielding an Advocate and an Expert of the application across the enterprise. The ideal candidate will have experience with upgrading to version 2010 and will be able to lead an enterprise level SharePoint initiative. The position will be responsible for the migration strategy, configuration, site master setup, site look and feel, workflow development, user administration and light central administration of our SharePoint installation. Duties to include:

  • Develop and implement migration strategies for Microsoft SharePoint Server
  • Assist with the installation, configuration, and management of SharePoint for the enterprise; providing troubleshooting, application administration, and technical support. 
  • Assist with performance monitoring and tuning. 
  • Integrate SharePoint with other applications, including Microsoft Office, Office 365, Google Search Appliance (GSA), and business applications. 
  • Manage sites, lists, document workspaces, libraries, and etc. and configure workflows for SharePoint. 
  • Provide and coordinate End User Training and Desk Side support 

My head exploded a little when I read this. Am I crazy, or is it as impossible as I think it is for one person to be equally good at all those things? Or did he just emerge fully-formed from Bill Gates’ forehead and descend from Mount Redmond to walk among us?

Do any of you work with such a demigod/goddess? ARE you one?  Tell me honestly- is it logical or realistic to expect that there are enough people out there who possess such a depth and breadth of knowledge in SharePoint? No one I know who works in SharePoint full-time can claim that level of expertise across the board. By now, people have found their niche- at least the people I know and work with. 

By Zeus, if this comprehensive level of skill is the new expectation, I’d better get going…. I’ve got a lot of work to do.

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.