Archive for October, 2009

IM Trends 4 – Doing SharePoint wrong, and right

In this fourth post on information management trends in NZ, I look at the phenomenon that is SharePoint.

NB. In this article I focus specifically on the use of SharePoint for Intranets, Collaboration, and team based Document Management. SharePoint can also be used for Enterprise Document Management, Records Management, and as an application development platform, but I don’t explore those in depth here.

The key trend I’m picking is that given the sheer number of deployments we’re seeing in NZ, and the capability of some of the solution partners and consultants, by 2010/11 we’re going to continue to see lots of very bad implementations of SharePoint, and some very good ones.

Here’s why.

I’ve been observing SharePoint implementations since the product first debuted in 2001. The software company I used to be part owner of used SharePoint’s predecessor, Microsoft Site Server, to build the first Intranet for one of NZ’s largest insurance companies. They then (after we sold the company and I went out consulting), built an Intranet product on top of the first version of SharePoint and deployed it with a number of large corporate customers.

Like most Microsoft products, SharePoint wasn’t very good in its first couple of versions. By SharePoint 2007 however, there seemed to be general consensus in the industry that the product had reached maturity, and was starting to be very good. It was feature rich, stable, and very well integrated with Microsoft Office 2007.

Why then, am I predicting there will continue to be lots of bad implementations in 2010/11? Firstly, the background context. New Zealand, by international standards has only a handful of real ‘enterprise’ size organisations (5,000-50,000 staff). Most ‘large’ NZ organisations are between 500-5,000 staff, with relatively few above the 2,000 person mark. As such the deployments of ‘Enterprise Content Management’ products and stacks (such as those from Stellent, Interwoven, Vignette, Documentum, Lotus) have been proportionally fewer than in countries with larger organisations, due in part at least to cost. Many NZ organisations have therefore struggled along with shared drives, and Exchange Public Folders (shudder) for longer than their Australian, US and British counterparts. Perhaps recognising this challenge, New Zealand passed the Public Records Act in 2005. Audits begin in 2010. A lot of public sector organisations (in particular the smaller ones) are implementing SharePoint to meet their records keeping obligations. A lot of corporates are implementing SharePoint because of its strengths in collaborative workspaces, and the fact it provides a platform to on which to build useful systems and services (that is much cheaper than the big ECM stacks).

Because of NZ’s smaller scale, Microsoft has a greater penetration in the back office server space in NZ than in larger countries, where Sun, IBM and Oracle products are proportionately more pervasive. Many of the organisations in NZ that had Novell infrastructure have shifted to Windows servers and Exchange in the last few years. That means that in NZ, there are proportionally more Windows servers, and more people with experience deploying Windows infrastructure and developing solutions for the Microsoft platform, than in larger countries.

As many people will know, SharePoint comes in two ‘flavours’. Windows Sharepoint Services (WSS), which is free with Windows servers, and Microsoft Office Sharepoint Server (MOSS) for which Microsoft charges licence fees. Because WSS is ‘free’, and relatively easy to implement, it is to content/document management this decade what MS Access was to data management in the 90′s. MS Access was fantastic in that database applications could be built cheaply and quickly, and awful in that those applications proliferated almost uncontrollably in some organisations, becoming a management nightmare for IT and the business alike. In a similar way, where organisations implement WSS sites without some centralised strategy, governance, and configuration management (or for that matter use MOSS to do the same thing), it’s the same recipe for chaos. SharePoint is a complicated product, and it’s easy to implement poorly, from a usability, content discovery, scalability, and manageability point of view. Because of this, and the reasons above, I predict we will continue to see a great many SharePoint implementations done organically, hurriedly, or just put in by IT, without appropriate user testing, configuration management, and governance processes. This will lead to inconsistencies across SharePoint sites, silo-ed information, and user frustration. Darryl Burling, the SharePoint product manager for Microsoft New Zealand provides some views on how SharePoint skills shortages (both technical and business) in NZ are contributing to this problem.

That’s the bad news. So what’s the good news?

I also predict we are going to start seeing some stunningly good SharePoint implementations in NZ. The reasons for this are:

  1. The capabilities of some SharePoint solution partners,
  2. The SharePoint Elite initiative,
  3. A maturing user community,
  4. The work on the human and business sides of SharePoint implementation being done by a small number of NZ consultants.

A small number of solution companies that implement SharePoint have been doing so for quite a number of years. Intergen and Provoke in particular have learned the hard way, made most of the mistakes there are to make, and are now very good at tailoring SharePoint solutions to client needs, and implementing them in a usable, manageable and scalable way. Intergen also has a ‘Rapid Results‘ service where they’ve configured an implementation of SharePoint for very fast, high quality, deployments of SharePoint for intranets with up to 500 users.

In order to validate the growing sophistication and competence of a number of SharePoint implementers, Microsoft New Zealand has launched the SharePoint Elite initiative. This is a certification and training scheme to provide ‘SharePoint Elite Partner’ status to those who meet the standard. Datacom, Fujitsu, Information Leadership, Intergen and Provoke are the first companies in NZ to do this training.

There are now SharePoint user groups in a number of centres, and 2009 saw the first national SharePoint conference (for which there’ll be a followup next year). Knowledge sharing through these fora should increase the comunities’ capabilities. Ian Oliver of Provoke discusses the changing face of the implementation community and ‘raising of the bar’ of customer expections in this blog post.

Last, but not least, there are a small number of people working on the ‘softer’ aspects of SharePoint. Information Leadership provide a number of assessment methods, information design, records compliance, and training services for SharePoint. Michael Sampson, a global expert in using SharePoint for collaboration, lives in NZ. He’s written two books on SharePoint – ‘Seamless Teamwork‘ and ‘SharePoint Roadmap for Collaboration‘. In both books he provides a very critical and rigorous analysis of SharePoint’s strengths and weaknesses. Even more importantly, Chapters ‘4. Governance Structure, Process and Themes‘ and ‘5. Engaging the Business‘ from his second book, provide, I believe, extremely valuable guidance on how to manage the human and business aspects of implementing and using SharePoint. If followed, this guidance will help organisations avoid many of the pitfalls I predict above.

So, that’s my prediction. In 2010/11 we’ll see a proliferation of awful to barely mediocre implementations of SharePoint, a number of extremely good implementations, and not much in the middle. As to whether the upcoming release of SharePoint 2010 will make any difference to the above, I’ll let others comment.

Sidenote and disclaimer: I am not a SharePoint consultant, I’m an IM/KM/IS Strategist, so my arguments above are based on what I’ve seen in the industry, rather than through ‘hands-on’ experience implementing SharePoint. In addition, I don’t receive money or consulting work from any of the organisations mentioned above. I try, as much as is possible, to be technology and vendor agnostic. 

This is the fourth in a set of posts on NZ information management trends:

  1. OpenSource ECM
  2. CMIS will save us
  3. Enterprise Social Computing
  4. Doing Sharepoint wrong, and right
  5. Structured Content
  6. Toes in the mist

Next up, Structured Content.

We need to start from the cold blooded premise that almost everyone is a genius - not that almost everyone is worthless.
John Taylor Gatto