Why not collaborate?

Microsoft’s SharePoint product has been around for about a decade and its core version is as close to free as a Microsoft product can be,1 yet I find it at only a few small and medium-sized organizations.  Why would this product, which is, at its core, almost free, be absent in so many organizations?  If isn’t licensing cost and it isn’t insufficient product maturity or lack of functionality, what is holding people back?  From my experience, organizations haven’t explored SharePoint sufficiently for two reasons:

  1. SharePoint cannot be summed-up in a single compelling sentence; there isn’t a magic elevator pitch.  I could try with a sentence, but you’d rightfully protest if I approached you on an elevator to exclaim:  “SharePoint is a content management system and collaboration framework!”  What does that mean to you?  Probably nothing.  Would you wish I took another elevator?  Yes.  To make Sharepoint relevant to you, we need to first have a conversation.  The elevator won’t give us enough time, unless I press that red emergency stop button, which poses other problems.  We need to brainstorm, mull over some of your collaboration and workflow issues, and figure out what it could mean to you.  Is it something as simple as shared calendaring?  Sure.  Automated workflow for document creation?  Probably.  Dynamic searching?  Perhaps.  An extranet to serve your clients data?  Depends.
  2. Although the core SharePoint licensing is “close to free,” some of the functionality requires additional licensing and costs.  I’ll be the first to admit the licensing details had me scratching my head for a few months as I struggled to understand the caveats.  Without the aforementioned conversation to brainstorm, define objectives, sketch out a pilot project and additional phases for implementation, it is impossible to meaningfully price.  Usually clients don’t find it useful when I say:  “SharePoint could cost you nothing from a licensing perspective and only $500 as a project, or $60,000 in licensing and $20,000 as a project, or somewhere in between, probably on the lower end.”

Compare SharePoint to the legions of standalone applications built to solve easy to define problems while demanding little planning and effort to deploy.   Two of my favorite stand alone applications come to mind: Microsoft Excel and Adobe Photoshop.  These applications have legacies stretching into the 1980’s and you don’t need to explain their benefits.  Out-of-box, this software is useful and the costs and benefits are easy to understand and quantify.

Further along the complexity continuum, I’d place software like Worldox for document management or a legal practice management application such as ProLaw which critically tie-into your workflow.  Out-of-the-box these applications are not useful without a plan and some tailoring to your needs.  To implement a document management or a line of business application, planning is needed, multiple decision-makers are involved addressing considerations spanning an organization’s departments and divisions, technical customization is absolutely required, and it would be fool-hardy to proceed without staff training.

SharePoint resides somewhere in the middle of that continuum, but it isn’t marketed with a single set of problems to solve.  Instead, it has the potential to solve scores of problems spanning an entire organization, whether you’re a law firm or a manufacturer, whether you work in human resources or engineering.

My experience with Sharepoint, indicates that as an organization pilots SharePoint, they discover two categories of problems solved by the application, and forgive me if I seem to wax Rumsfeldian:

  • problems they know they had, and…
  • problems they didn’t know they had.

The process of implementing SharePoint usually has collaborative “ah-ha moments” associated with it.  I compare this  to those moments experienced 25-30 years ago when people first tried Visicalc or Lotus 1-2-3 and soon abandoned their calculators to their trash cans.  Or step back 10-15 years and imagine those “ah ha moments” as firms started with their first tentative web presences and realized perhaps they didn’t need to spend all that effort updating their marketing pamphlets.  These “ah-ha moments” are associated with discovering solutions to problems they didn’t know they had. Implementing SharePoint helps you become aware of those roadblocks to collaboration you never realized were there.

This month, SharePoint 2010 will be released by Microsoft and you’ll be hearing a lot more about it, I’m sure.  I’ve been experimenting since SharePoint Portal Server 2001, first testing it nearly a decade ago with my fellow Thinsolutionist, Brian Guscott, who led the charge!  SharePoint overwhelmed us with possibilities.  On paper, it seemed like it could do everything.  Unfortunately, back then the application lacked most of the useful features it has today and was terribly buggy.  Back then, the interface was a bit counter-intuitive and made it easy to seriously muck things up.2

Since 2001, with each release of SharePoint, Thinsolutions spent time testing it internally to determine if it was useful.  2003 looked promising, but remained costly, so we tested, but didn’t implement internally.   Though with the 2007, we found promise, and as I pointed out earlier, Microsoft made the entry-level product quite affordable by including it as an add-on.  We implemented this at Thinsolutions and immediately found it useful for supporting a special project across our organization’s offices in Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio.  Since that pilot project, we learned more about what SharePoint does well and what still needs work, and we made the plunge last year to create an internal site which continues to grow.  Obviously, since then we have also successfully deployed SharePoint for some of our clients, but as I started out saying, not as many as I’d expect, though I’d bet that changes.

If you’re interested in exploring this further, your best bet for a successful implementation, is to first determine a fit for a few smaller or specialized projects.  Then, implement that as a pilot, use it for a bit, ask us questions, allow possibilities to percolate through your organization, and find those collaborative problems you don’t know you have.  Once you’ve reached that collaborative “ah-ha moment,” circle back to the drawing board. We can help design the solutions those problems, learning from the successes and failures of your low-cost, low-risk pilot.  We’ll plan that second round implementation, determine your costs and timeline, and work to improve your collaborative capabilities.


ENDNOTES:

1 Please note, I say “close to free.”  If you’ve purchased a Microsoft Windows 2003, 2008, or Small Business Server along with appropriate Client Access Licenses, you can use the Windows SharePoint Services add-on without any additional licensing cost.

2 For one such dramatic example, we checked a single box which led to an accidental attempt to index the entire contents of Google over our 100 megabit/second Internet pipe. Needlessly said, this did not succeed and eventually led to a series of 1am emergency phone calls and a hefty bill from our Internet service provider, but fortunately no denial of service ban by Google. Today, making a similar mistake is nearly impossible.

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