A whisper was heard during its launch about 18 months ago -- “SharePoint 2010 is a platform, not an application.” Today that whisper has evolved into a moan from the SharePoint end-user community. As millions gained access to SharePoint from IT organizations that deployed it without an explicit strategy, its out-of-the-box experience often left them disappointed.

End-users often experience SharePoint for the first time as an application for file sharing and collaboration. It was rolled out by their IT organizations without much attention given to the way people wanted to work, share information and get their work done. SharePoint was viewed as just another part of the IT infrastructure, like the user’s Outlook email client.

For those with more knowledge of SharePoint, they know it offers great collaboration features, flexible web parts for designing user experiences, robust search and strong content management features. Although these features can be used out-of-the-box, they are better suited toward applications built on top of the platform. In order to move SharePoint from a user experience that many complain about today to its role as a platform for supporting robust business applications, the idea of an App Store needs to be considered. A SharePoint App Store would dramatically improve end-user adoption, speed delivery of business applications, and give people better productivity applications in order to get their work done.

The Challenge with End-User Adoption

“I have X,000 licenses of SharePoint and end-user adoption is my biggest challenge” is being echoed through numerous companies around the globe. If end-user adoption is your biggest challenge, you are far from alone.

Earlier this year, OpenText Global 360 and EndUserSharePoint.com surveyed 830 people about how SharePoint was being used in their organizations (find the SharePoint in the Enterprise survey here). The #1 challenge for end-users with the platform? SharePoint adoption. Numerous pundits around the SharePoint community are pointing to reasons for the lack of user adoption, including no formal training programs, poor out-of-the-box user experiences, and ill-defined business strategies around use of the platform.

SharePoint Challenges

Speaking from Personal Experience

From my own interactions with SharePoint, I find the out-of-the-box end-user experience challenging. Like many other users out there, I was provided access to our SharePoint environment from day one on the job with no formal training on how to use it. We use the platform for storing and sharing HR information, marketing and sales content, corporate updates, program dashboards and a variety of other capabilities. Like many others, I have been frustrated with the navigation through the platform, finding the content I am seeking, and using it as a collaboration environment. Although a few users have self-trained themselves, many others found their experience with the platform to be less intuitive and less useful for getting their work done and now avoid SharePoint. For example, after placing a file on our SharePoint site to collaborate on a review with others, I have often heard the response “can’t you just email it to us?” as my colleagues vie for an easier to use alternative.

While attending a recent SharePoint event, I heard Jeff Willinger of RightPoint Consulting offer the following advice to attendees for improving end-user adoption: "Figure out what are the most important things to the end-users, make them super-intuitive, and roll those out." If you consider SharePoint a platform, this is the right approach. Figure out the important things. Then find an application to solve the problem. The idea of an App Store would help here too.

The Challenge with Application Development

In the same SharePoint in the Enterprise survey, the biggest challenge expressed by SharePoint developers and consultants was the “development time needed for business applications.” Developers understand that SharePoint is a platform that can host several business applications that solve end-user problems. Developers may hear end-users say, “I need a better way to submit expense reports,” “a standard way to process loan documents,” or an “improved way to collaborate on case work.” As more and more users interact with SharePoint and become familiar with its capabilities, the requests for new business applications will continue to grow.

SharePoint Figures

For the SharePoint developer community, there is an alternative available to spending countless hours building and managing applications in-house. With a simple Google search, you can identify a number of Microsoft ISV partners and consultants who offer out-of-the-box or customized business applications on top of SharePoint. For those developers looking to accelerate their own application builds using SharePoint web parts, you might seek out vendors like Bamboo Solutions, Quest or large SharePoint communities like NothingButSharePoint.com for the components you need.

Although many development alternatives are accessible today, there is no common location available for developers to find applications today. Again, more evidence that an App Store would be useful.

Getting Started with SharePoint Apps

If your organization is looking to get more out of SharePoint as a platform, consider the top applications that other businesses are pursuing. A 2011 survey from AIIM states that workflow/BPM is the top add-on application being considered by SharePoint users -- 55% had firm plans to deploy workflow/BPM in the next 12 months.

AIIM Survey


Source: © AIIM 2011, www.aiim.org


When speaking with Sarah Haase, Collaboration Manager at Best Buy, she expressed the real value of SharePoint applications for BPM/workflow by saying, “When you have unstructured content sitting in file repositories, you have no way of knowing (other than the last modified dates) how relevant this content is to the business or if it is part of a larger work process. SharePoint puts that content in motion and in context so that people can understand it more clearly.”

Business Applications for SharePoint

In all of my conversations with the SharePoint community, I often realize it is difficult for people to visualize a SharePoint-based business application. When minds are so familiar with the out-of-the-box SharePoint user experience, it is often challenging to imagine the platform differently. If you have the same problem, I have offered a few examples of SharePoint business applications below: (1) a SharePoint-based application used to process residential loan applications (source: Global 360), (2) a collaborative learning gateway for schools (source: Dave Coleman, Twynham School UK), (3) an HR employee onboarding application (source: Global 360), and (4) a donation tracking application (source: Microsoft Developer Network blog).

SharePoint7

SharePoint9

SharePoint11

SharePoint13

Getting Started with SharePoint Business Applications

Although an App Store for SharePoint does not exist today, there are many business applications available for the platform. By taking advantage of these applications, organizations can dramatically improve end-user adoption and reduce the development time and effort to roll them out.

If you are interested in learning more about business applications for SharePoint, the best approaches for talking to your organization about SharePoint applications, and pointers for how to get started, here are three sources of information that I have found valuable:

1. Mark Miller advises “Don’t Talk About SharePoint” (video: 3m29s)
2. Sadie Van Buren discusses SharePoint Maturity and Business Process – Why they are Inseparable (SlideShare)
3. Ben Ham shares 7 Components of a Successful SharePoint Business Strategy (article)

At the end of the day, the value of SharePoint business applications is simple: If you give someone an application that helps them get their work done while offering a great user experience -- they’ll never want to go back to the old way of doing things. Alternatively, if you give someone an application that is difficult to use and not very friendly, they’ll seek an alternative.

Editor's Note: You may also be interested in reading: