Ask Not What SharePoint Can Do For You …


A considerable amount of development and evolution brought us from the release of SharePoint 2001 to reach where we are today with SharePoint 2016 and Office365 SharePoint online.

The path to development has not been straight, nor well paved, but rather more of a meandering country road, wider in some places and with bridges and diversions along the way. 

Microsoft appeared to listen closely to us at times, and at others, it upset us. The product development strategy and the SharePoint narrative have ranged from being downright confusing to clear and obvious. 

A Love-Hate SharePoint Relationship

The bottom line is this: while the platform matured greatly between SharePoint 2010 and SharePoint 2016 and continues to improve, SharePoint remains “jack of all trades, but master of none.”   

This historical perspective is where the conundrum begins: is SharePoint an end user focused collaboration suite, or is it a platform for developers? Is its future on premises, or in the cloud?

These questions have haunted the platform for years, but were recently raised again in some recent AIIM research, covered by David Roe on this site.

My ongoing love-hate relationship with SharePoint began with its first release in 2001 and continues in my current role, where I manage the internal divisional intranet portal, hosted on (you guessed it) a SharePoint 2013 publishing site. 

As the product developed, it has bamboozled us in different ways at different times. This speaks to the conclusions drawn in the AIIM research about user adoption.

What’s the Weakest Link: The People or the Technology?

This is far from the first piece of research that speaks to this complex dichotomy. 

Microsoft sells millions (and millions) of seats, making it one of the most successful pieces of software in the short history of enterprise IT. In spite of this, following every product release various consultancies or industry groups weigh in pointing out issues with user adoption. 

Roe’s article suggested the AIIM research’s conclusion is that the fault lies not with Microsoft, but with us, the people working with the software. 

While I agree wholeheartedly that technology is rarely the sole source of the problem, SharePoint sometimes does not do us any favors. 

Why SharePoint Success Still Eludes Many (Most?)

After 16 years of development of the core product why do the same problems plague organizations? 

Keep in mind SharePoint now has:

  • Massive global ecosystem of third party vendors delivering add ons and enhancements
  • Massive global ecosystem of consultants, design shops and individual contractor “experts”
  • Lots of SharePoint MVPs
  • It’s just SharePoint, not rocket science (I know, I have worked with rocket scientists)

The problem is us.

Despite decades of developed and shared experiences, conferences, webinars and an entire training industry, not to mention “SharePint” meetings all over the world, our organizations still struggle to do a good job deploying SharePoint and generating real business value from its use.

Obviously this is highly contextual to each organization, and some organizations have had great success with the SharePoint platform, in spite of the AIIM research reporting only 7 percent “have achieved all we planned and it is a success.” We can probably put that low result down to sample size.

A Stinging Indictment of … Our Information Management Capabilities

As I’ve witnessed in my previous work as a consultant and as we’ve seen in many research studies over the years, the true villain of the AIIM report is the maturity (or lack therein) of many organizations’ information management capabilities. 

Yes, the broad range of capabilities can make SharePoint a little confusing. But it doesn’t take a world class PhD to figure out that strategy and planning needs to be different for different use cases:

  • What is your overarching use case:
    • Collaboration (team sites, social communities, social collaboration)
    • Document and Records Management
    • Intranet / web publishing 
    • Business process management including workflow
    • Development platform
    • All of the above (Enterprise Content Management)
  • For a given use case are you going with simple, out of the box functionality or are you customizing, developing or enhancing?
  • If you’re going beyond out of the box, who will do the work: internal team, external third parties or both?
  • Can you go cloud, or do information governance policies require your deployment to be on premises?
  • Who “owns” SharePoint? For any given deployment or use case scenario is it the IT division, a line of business or a collaboration/partnership between groups?
  • How mature is your information management, information governance and knowledge management practice? Do you have expertise on information architecture, metadata schema, content types, user centric design, user adoption and change management that can be brought into the project? 
  • Do you have generic IT trainers or SharePoint experts who can develop training materials, present classes, help with hand-holding the users ?

If your internal research suggests a simple out of the box team site will meet your needs, with no thought to information architecture or metadata, no training other than links to Microsoft online videos, and no adoption or change management activities, then good — and good luck with that deployment.

However if your looking to solve specific business problems — whether generic knowledge worker collaboration or knowledge management, or very specific line of business processes that require design of custom lists and workflows — you will have to put in the same effort as you would to deploy any other major piece of software. 

No magic spell will absolve you from planning.

And so we arrive at the crux of the SharePoint conundrum: you keep buying it, but you keep complaining about failed projects and lack of adoption. 

I have read article after article over the last 16 years, attended conference sessions, local get-togethers (a.k.a. therapy sessions) in the pub, and maybe it’s just me but … I don’t hear ERP or CRM professionals complaining the same way? Where are the hundreds of articles bemoaning the lack of adoption of SalesForce or Documentum, or OpenText or Pega, or Jive? 

I know people complain loudly and frequently about other platforms, but maybe they too are failing to plan deployments properly. 

What’s the Solution?

A big part of the problem, as some of the commenters to Roe’s article noted, is a lack of understanding as to what SharePoint can do for your organization, and at what level (strategic to tactical) and with what level of resources (people and budget). 

With the appropriate business led education, training and change management, you can deploy SharePoint as a platform for “business managed applications” — providing the business with a platform for rapid development of simple custom solutions that are far more robust than Excel sheets, Access databases and email. 

Until people start paying attention to both the specific platform and the non-system specific intricacies of unstructured information management — the metadata schemas, the information architecture, the usability of the software, etc. — and plan accordingly, the deployments will continue to fail. 

Allocate the required resources to exploring the requirements. Stop cutting back the training budget at the first sign of fiscal trouble. Invest in change management and broader education. 

If you’re looking for a relatively cheap and simple cloud collaboration solution, or a highly customized on premises software development platform, or something in between, some version of SharePoint can often meet your needs.

But without an appropriate strategy, clear objectives, a good plan and the required resources, your implementation may well fail — and you know whose fault that would be.

Jed Cawthorne is director of business technology strategy and KM in the Legal, Corporate and Compliance Group of one of North America’s top ten banks. He is responsible for Intranet, Document Management, collaboration and various other systems and technologies for his division.


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