In the early days of SharePoint, the emphasis from experts and Microsoft's marketing teams was on how easy it was to deploy and begin using the platform. And they were right. Teams found that they could (and still can) quickly set it up and build simple solutions to meet their specific needs. But those that pushed the platform for its simplicity often left out one little detail: planning.
A lesson I learned early in my career: the easier a technology is on the front end, the more complex it is on the back end. This is not necessarily a reflection of how difficult it is to administer or develop for a platform, but speaks more to the complexity of what is underneath the hood.
Roll out something as powerful and dynamic as SharePoint, and you had better have a plan. How will it be used? How will it be scaled? How will it be supported? The key to proper planning for SharePoint is understanding the culture of your organization, and the business application of what you are trying to build.
Create Your Strategy
It is important to understand how teams within your workforce relate to each other, how they work across teams and individually, and how they use technology to move the business forward. It's no small task to go in and ask these questions, and then build a strategy. Most companies skip it. And many of them come to regret that decision later when they run into scalability issues. Remember that every SharePoint deployment begins as a business analyst activity:
1. Understand the users and their roles. Seems simple enough: know who you are talking to, their pains and pressures, and where process and tools can make their lives easier. Understand how much of their day-to-day revolves around activities that should be automated.
2. Map out their key use cases, the critical business processes to be resolved. Within each role, each job description, people have primary tasks to which they are assigned. Sometimes the role doesn't fit the real-life function. Don't make judgment calls -- just document the way things are today, how they work, and let the process reveal duplication and inefficiencies.
3. Develop robust use cases, and circulate these models to all key stakeholders for feedback. Nothing communicates ideas better than a visual representation. Allow internal business groups to see how their partner groups envision their own roles, and the interactions with other groups. Allow them to provide feedback, strengthening your future solution.
4. Architect your solution. Take what you have learned, compile your master plan, and build. This is not simply a deployment activity, but an architectural activity. If you were to build a house, you would have an architect develop a plan that takes into account all of your ideas and needs, but organizes them into a sound structure that meets all codes, that takes into account the limitations and tolerances with which you are building, and also considers long-term plans. The same can be said for the architecture of your SharePoint plan.
5. Test, refine, and test again. SharePoint is a great platform for agile development. Build in incremental steps, testing at each step of the way, taking in end user feedback and improving on your original designs. Rinse, repeat.
6. Implement a process for continuous improvement. SharePoint is not a build once, walk away sort of platform. It requires ongoing involvement -- both from a governance standpoint to ensure that policies and procedures are being followed and the system optimized, but also for the simple fact that as people begin to use SharePoint and get more productivity out of the platform, their needs mature and the platform must grow to meet these changing needs.
The Building Blocks
Beyond the planning approach outlined above, there are some key areas which any new deployment should consider. Within SharePoint 2010 are the building blocks for shaping your environment to meet the needs of your evolving end users: metadata and taxonomy, service applications, social computing features and the first steps into mobile. Understanding these four key focus areas are the key to planning your current -- and future -- SharePoint deployments:
It is important to build and (proactively) maintain your taxonomy, regardless of how well you understand your future SharePoint architecture. Metadata is the building block of collaboration, powering both search and social computing, and drawing a line in the sand around your taxonomy.
Getting started now will help you better understand how your end users are utilizing the platform, which may help you build better plans for the future. You can't develop a future strategy if you don't understand what is happening today.
Part of your taxonomy efforts is to build a governance model that allows for fast, flexible, and transparent changes, so that end users can develop confidence that their input is being heard – and so that they can find their content quickly and easily. Review usage patterns (just like you do for Search Engine Optimization of your online advertising) and make adjustments often.
2. Service Applications
The beauty of the service application framework within SharePoint is that you can retain centralized control while supporting individual freedom to move about the system. An important paradigm for the next generation is for you to provide guidelines on what needs to be accomplished, but allow flexibility in how those business objectives are achieved. In other words, tell them what to do, not how to do it.
The service applications are a huge step in this direction, allowing teams to consume data in a controlled, managed way, but with the freedom to build and deploy rich solutions, analyzing and disseminating data as they see fit -- within the guidelines you set. Depending on your architecture and future plans, this line of thinking will also get you started in thinking about cloud-based services.
3. Social Computing
Think of social computing as another layer of search. Aside from the fact that the rich user profiles power many other capabilities than social tools (for example, use these profiles to build workflows), social computing is a core component of the way we now work.
Look beyond the consumer-based platforms, and what you see is a real-time web of connections and data that can be searched, analyzed and connected to create a whole that is better than the sum of its parts. The key to social is understanding the features that your company or team is culturally and organizationally ready to adopt. As SharePoint advances, social will likely become the primary way that people will interface with the platform, so start thinking about how these tools can best be utilized inside your organization.
4. Mobile Computing
SharePoint has taken the first steps toward anywhere access. While still a nascent technology, Microsoft is making strides in this area which will eventually become a major component of the platform. As with the social features, you need to clearly understand your end user requirements for mobile, the business value of offering mobile solutions, and how these solutions will be introduced and supported within the business. It’s a fine line between anticipating future needs and promoting technology that nobody is asking for.
How you apply these things depends on a number of factors that span environmental, cultural, governance and informatics considerations. As you develop your SharePoint strategy and start planning for the future, understanding how your end users work and their enterprise application expectations will help you set the right path.
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