Sharepoint: IT doesn't kill businesses, people do

Sharepoint 2010 is now a credible platform player for collaboration and business social networking. The larger challenge: Changing user perceptions of what the tools are for, and what you can do with them.
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

I had the opportunity to sit down with Jared Spataro, director of Microsoft SharePoint product management earlier this week to hear about the state of the Sharepoint ecosphere. For all the talk about disruptive social technologies in the last few years there is no denying the spectacular penetration of Sharepoint in the enterprise: 78% of Fortune 500 companies use it in some capacity and twenty thousand user seat licenses have been added every day for the last 5 years - and that number is increasing.

As enterprise folks know, the Microsoft calendar cycles through release dates three years apart, and although Sharepoint 2010's launch was last August, this spring huge numbers of companies are now embarking on migrating from Sharepoint 2007 to 2010 across the world and in forty languages. I've been reading a couple of excellent Sharepoint developer books over the last month: 'Step by Step Sharepoint Foundation 2010' by Londer & Coventry, which is a good 'how to' fundamentals cookbook, and 'Inside Sharepoint 2010' by Pattison, Connell, Hillier & Mann, a more in depth architecture and custom solution design resource. I'm sure these and other titles are being used at countless locations worldwide to stand up 2010 instances by IT professionals aiming to provide next generation technology to their internal clients.

Sharepoint 2010 is now a credible platform player for collaboration and business social networking - the larger challenge is changing end user perceptions of what the tools are for within the enterprise, and what you can do with them.

Document and file management has a legacy dating back to the dawn of bureaucracy, which is both a blessing and a curse for Sharepoint, which is closely associated with the Microsoft Office document creation suite.  Now that the weaknesses of earlier iterations of Sharepoint are being updated across the planet, there is also an urgent need to update the way people work.

For literally human generations office desk work has essentially been focused on creating and editing documents and storing them, first with pen and ink, then automated with typewriters, filing cabinets and microfilm, and with the advent of the personal computer to disk based media... floppies and cartridges, then personal hard drives, intranet portal link aggregations and networks of drives. The working paradigm of pounding on a qwerty keyboard and saving your input somewhere has been unchanged for decades - I'm doing it now as I write this.

The challenge of course is that the fast pace of technical change isn't matched by evolution of our work behavior - to most people on the planet, desk work equals personal documents which are kept in containers, despite the recent prevalence of mobile technologies and social graphs.

When the automobile replaced the horse and cart the buggy whip manufacturers went out of business. in the modern era people are still mostly using old buggy whip work techniques even though the technology tools they are using are capable of much greater performance and efficiencies. The tools have transcended the old work methods but not much has changed in the filing department.

Blogger had a great strap line for their product 'the push button publishing tool for the people' at the end of the last century (prior to being purchased by Google) that really encapsulates a lot of what has subsequently changed with persistent broadband connectivity. We now expect to be able to publish to our networks and the world with the trivial push of a button - the current social software tech world now offers raging torrents of status update information from your business and social networks as a result (which may or may not be useful as I discussed in my previous post and in the past...)

A popular bumper sticker in the USA is 'guns don't kill people, people do' - the title of this post is a play on that and the concern many IT professionals have when they see how their carefully architected environments are often used by the desk luddites they serve. You can't blame Sharepoint - or any other technology for that matter - for this, but the reality is that businesses who get people using these expensive enterprise tools well and efficiently have a massive competitive advantage which can be the difference between commercial life and death in competitive markets.

Sharepoint, through no fault of its own given what it is capable of these days, is still perceived as a file repository by most users - an endless set of magic digital gray filing cabinets to keep your stuff in, limitless Z drives. As a platform it provides technology connectors so other products can expose information in those containers in context and within specific workflows, and a significant new online file storage and transfer market has also opened up. Box.net, DropBox and others, as previously noted, have landed and are expanding in the cloud file transfer business, while Accellion, who provide enterprise-class secure file sharing solutions focused on ensuring data security and SOX, HIPAA , FDA level compliance just announced significant mobile collaboration capabilities.

For those who have committed to multi year Microsoft enterprise licenses and who therefore rely on their technology stack, the Windows mobile strategy and offerings are a concern, as I often hear from our clients. Given the rapidly increasing pace of mobile technology business use, finding ways to put Sharepoint at the forefront of these new ways of working rather than as back office filing is getting more and more critical, but Microsoft have been clever in not getting pulled into the 'filter the information firehose' problem which is now an increasing problem for enterprises who have multiple social software streams, and plenty of push button publisher users users building up pressure.

What Microsoft are seeing through the customer research Microsoft's Jared shared with me is a three stage approach by their clients, rather in keeping with their three year release cycles. 'Ramping up', 'Building momentum' and 'Driving business value' are seen as the three stages of business evolution in refining the Sharepoint platform for effective use.

As you'd expect the 'ramp up' is the test phase, typically focusing on one or two work loads, team collaboration through portal thinking and file share replacement.  'Building momentum' tends to be usage make or break with emphasis on handling Governance, Regulation and Compliance, something Sharepoint excels at. Businesses successfully using Sharepoint to 'Drive business value' are typically focused on ten or so mission critical processes whose workflows are threaded through Sharepoint.

The world is a different place every time the Microsoft planet has finished its three year orbit of the business world - the next version of Sharepoint may be visible low on the horizon later this year as an early preview of the next gen Sharepoint (maybe called 2013?). We're at the 'building momentum' stage of the gestation of this next generation and a lot of people are looking for coherency around mobile strategy. There's no question Sharepoint has great momentum, but for IT architects the challenge is to avoid configuring enterprise environments that perpetuate old, inefficient ways of working, despite opportunities for accelerated performance that can drive business value.


Image from Shorpy - Washington, January 1925. "Bureau of Identification, Justice Department."

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