Enabling business users to customize SharePoint is good for companies. If that seems unlikely, a Dimensional Research report commissioned by Dell supports this claim. According to the report, almost all of those surveyed (98 percent) said customization by business users is desirable.

SharePoint ROI

The report, The Impact of DIY SharePoint – How User Empowerment Drives Adoption, outlines the results of a survey of 203 people responsible for the administration, development, technical oversight or business ownership of Microsoft SharePoint in companies with more than 100 employees.

The conclusion was clear: Enterprises that enable business users to customize their SharePoint deployments see considerably greater Return-On-Investment (ROI) than those that did not.

The findings are a little bit more complicated than this, though, particularly when it came to the kinds of customizations that IT departments are prepared to allow.

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To help us interpret the findings, we spoke with Chris McNulty, Dell’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for SharePoint, where he oversees the strategic product direction of the SharePoint business.

He said that the purpose of the report was to find out customizations enterprises are doing with SharePoint, and how this impacts business users adoption.

SharePoint Adoption

One of the things that emerged from the report, he said, was the considerable gap between enterprise adoption of SharePoint and user adoption once SharePoint was installed:

There is a considerable gap between enterprise adoption and user adoption. Microsoft’s figures suggest that between 65 and 67 percent of all enterprise have installed SharePoint in some shape or form.

However, when we take it down a notch and talk to individual users, the picture is considerably different. Sixty-three percent say that they are reasonably happy with it as a document-centric collaboration platform. However when we ask about all the other possibilities that are available -- business intelligence, custom applications, social, search, workflow -- all the things that SharePoint has picked up in the last few years, that figure is much lower, at around 16 percent."

Dell's purpose in carrying out this survey is clear: it currently offers Quick Apps for SharePoint, a point-and-click tool that enables users to create code-free customizations in a way IT can support and maintain.

SharePoint ‘Citizen’ Developers

The problems arise when you suggest allowing non-IT people to carry out customizations. Developers feel an understandable reluctance to permit this, for fear of disrupting enterprise systems.

But the customizations that McNulty spoke about would not cause disruption, but could cause major hold-ups in finishing projects if business users have to wait for professional developers to do them.

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He distinguished between what he described as professional developers and “citizen” developers -- business users that implements small changes, but do not consider themselves developers.

One of the challenges, we found, is that no one describes themselves as a 'citizen' developer. However, a lot of people that are building [even small elements] in SharePoint would in fact be what we understand as 'citizen' developers, but would not describe themselves as such,” McNulty said.

Under this umbrella, he included those who make content changes to sites, bring in external data to meet a business need, build custom forms and other small tasks currently carried out by professional developers in some enterprises, which takes them away from important projects.

McNulty doesn't think that “citizen” developers should take over. He said once a task starts to become complicated, the professionals need to be brought in:

There is a certain category of needs that have to be solved by professional developers and custom code. If, for example, you need an internal SharePoint site that needs to be extended outside the firewall that is going to act as customer service portal with a high volume of transactions that all need to be routed, logged and databased, then clearly you really need someone who knows what they are doing."

That said, where possible, business users should be able to make changes when and where feasible. The research showed considerably higher rates of SharePoint user adoption in organizations that have done this, than in those that prohibited customization.

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Customization and IT Backlogs

In fact, 61 percent of respondents said SharePoint is fully used in their organizations when business users are able to customize their experience, compared to just 21 percent of those who do not allow self-service customization.

Enabling business user customization also helps handle the backlog of tasks that build up when only professional developers are allowed act.

Eighty percent of organizations will tell you that they make use of custom code developers for customizations, but most of the things that they are being asked to do are relatively simple changes (forms, workflows), creating a backlog, which organizations say is taking a long time to get their changes made. Only 12 percent say that they think that customization requests are being delivered quickly, but even this figure I find very high," said McNulty.

Requests for customization to IT departments often result in IT becoming a bottleneck in the production process as opposed to being the enabler, which is what it should be.

An effect of this is that enterprise users outside of the IT department start to perceive SharePoint as a slow, IT-centric system that is not agile enough to adapt to changing business needs and tasks.

Enabling SharePoint Customizations

The research turned up some other interesting figures. Where business users were allowed to apply minor customizations, satisfaction and user adoption rose as high as 61 percent. Where they were not allowed customize, that figure fell to 21 percent.

Of the IT departments surveyed, a large number were in favor of enabling low-level customization. They said that the ability to do so would free IT staff to carry out more important work, with 71 percent in favor of customizations as long as they were done in risk-free environments.

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When non-technical users try to make SharePoint customizations on their own without the proper tools, training or custom development experience, the subsequent problems can hurt SharePoint performance.

The report lists four different steps that enterprises can do to successfully develop customization strategies:

  • Discover where user adoption stalls: Identify where users are getting stuck in the customization process, particularly around native limitations in SharePoint
  • Assess common requirements: Identify where customization backlogs are building up and analyze what kind of customizations users are looking for. Where possible, find a tool that can manage these requests.
  • Outline technical possibilities and tools: Provide SharePoint training in the areas where customization strategies are to be implemented and investigate the possibility of code-free tools that empower business users.
  • Adopt a DIY strategy: Whatever strategy is developed, it should enhance the IT/business relationship, and not pit these departments against each other. SharePoint should be providing a common framework across the enterprise.

Clearly, from the research, there is a good business case for allowing low-level customization of SharePoint in an organization, but whether the enterprise culture will allow for that remains to be seen. If user adoption is key to getting the best returns on SharePoint investments and if enabling customization increases that, the C-Suite really needs to consider it.