Last month I presented a quick-start guide to the art of SharePoint success, a framework I’ve developed that aims to ensure that investments in SharePoint deliver measurable returns. The framework consists of four key elements: Governance, Strategy, Architecture and Transition, and over the next few months I’ll be presenting a series of articles examining each of these elements in more detail. But I am beginning this month with a look at the top 10 reasons why SharePoint projects fail; these are some of the issues that my framework addresses.

The most common causes of SharePoint failure in my experience are:

  1. Politics
  2. Not knowing what SharePoint is
  3. Lack of information and knowledge management skills
  4. Vision, the business case and measuring success
  5. Executive support
  6. User adoption
  7. Individual choices derail SharePoint initiatives
  8. Information management
  9. Defining requirements
  10. Technical skills

The following sections discuss each of these challenges.

1. Politics

Politics is the biggest barrier to SharePoint success.

If you’re thinking, “Not in my case,” then you’re the most at risk! There are a number of reasons why SharePoint can become a political football. First, SharePoint has many potential uses, and that can often lead to it being perceived as a threat. For example, at a major international insurance business, I saw an IT-led SharePoint collaboration project lose its £350,000 budget because the Marketing and Communication department responsible for the existing intranet felt threatened by the introduction of SharePoint and questioned the business case for the collaboration project.

Second, SharePoint can be a catalyst for extensive change within an organization, including changes to power structures and processes. This type of change is usually accompanied by political maneuvering.

Third, SharePoint requires different areas of the business to work together, sometimes to the extent of pooling departmental budgets in enterprise-level platforms and solutions. SharePoint is a shared platform, and without some ground rules scuffles usually emerge.

2. Not Knowing What SharePoint is

Can you clearly describe to someone what SharePoint is? In my experience, not many people can. Forrester neatly summarize the problem:

Like the ‘Shimmer’ product commercial in the old Saturday Night Live skit, SharePoint can be difficult to define... Without clear definition of SharePoint Enterprises struggle... Lacking appropriate guidance, organizations grapple with SharePoint...

Simply put, if you don’t know what something is, then you’re going to struggle to use it successfully; and if you can’t write down on a piece of paper what it is, then you don’t know.

3. Lack of Information and Knowledge Management Skills

SharePoint is about three things: People, Processes and Information. Sure, you need experienced IT professionals to design, build and maintain the technical solution, but you need an information and knowledge management professional to design the business solution first. Have you got someone who fits this description on your SharePoint project? If you’re working with a Microsoft partner, then do they have the soft skills and experience as well as the technical skills?

4. Vision, the Business Case and Measuring Success

Many organizations embark on SharePoint initiatives without clearly understanding what they are trying to achieve. For example, here’s an extract from a document I received from a client talking about their aims for a “Collaboration” project:

In essence, staff want to work better together, to share knowledge, to work informally, to communicate, to connect across boundaries and to innovate. They want to move from a set of happy families defined by organizational structure to a networked community.

This type of high-level and abstract narrative can be a useful motivational tool because the lack of detail invites us to form our own ideas as to how this vision might be realized. But although we might all intuitively agree with the vision at first, we soon need more detail. If you can’t answer the questions “What are we trying to achieve?” and “How will we know when we’ve done it?” then you’re not ready to start.

Many organizations struggle to define a clear business case or to measure the success of SharePoint initiatives. For example, at a major UK retailer, the Communication team struggled to gain approval for their Intranet because the £75,000 per annum value realization from printing and distributing savings was outweighed by the £450,000 cost of deploying the SharePoint platform and purchasing licenses. Although they intuitively knew that there were long-term gains to be realized from the investment beyond printing costs, they found it difficult to quantify and articulate these intangible benefits in the boardroom.

5. Executive Support

There’s no such thing as a SharePoint project -- there are only organizational change projects; and executives are in a unique position to be able to drive change in an organization. Visibly active and participatory executive support gives credibility to a program or initiative. Without such support, SharePoint-based initiatives can fail either because the proposed projects don’t gain approval and funding, or projects deliver solutions that are then not adopted and used by the business. 

6. User Adoption

Achieving success with SharePoint requires long-lasting changes in behavior of workers. Weaning information workers off their addiction to email and file shares and away from long-established ways of working with line of business applications and Excel is a long-term war, not a short-term battle.

For example, an international insurance business invested £1.5m in developing and maintaining a SharePoint-based portal for underwriters that aggregated information from several line of business systems in to a single consolidated user interface. Two years after launch, the IT function estimated that of the 100 potential users of the system, only eight regularly used the new portal. The others preferred to continue working in the old ways.

7. Individual Choices Derail SharePoint Initiatives

SharePoint is a shared infrastructure and, as such, requires agreements on how the infrastructure should be used and operated. At a technical level, a lack of agreed policies, processes and responsibilities can quickly lead to failure of the SharePoint platform. At the business level, inconsistencies between the way different departments or teams design the layout, navigation and structure of their SharePoint sites can make it difficult for users moving between sites.

8. Information Management

SharePoint implementations can quickly become chaotic without the appropriate levels of control and training. Thousands of SharePoint sites can spring up, making it difficult for people to find information; people don’t know which is the authoritative version of documents; time and money are wasted as different people work on duplicate, un-coordinated developments and customizations; and vital information can be lost as SharePoint sites are deleted in an uncontrolled manner.

It is a truism that with SharePoint, "Content is King." Content must be up to date, accurate and easy to find, otherwise users will quickly lose confidence in the system. The quality of content relies on the users rather than the IT department.

9. Defining Requirements

The real value of SharePoint lies not in improving what you are already doing, but in changing what you do because you have new capabilities. Simply asking the business what they want, or what their requirements are, doesn’t seem to work for SharePoint. Henry Ford summed the problem up nicely when he said, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would just say ‘faster horses.’ ”

10. Technical Skills

SharePoint is a vast technology platform comprising several enterprise-class products, and with the ability to integrate with an almost endless number of external systems and data stores. It requires infrastructure, database administration, data storage, security, software development and end-user skills. Properly implemented, it provides a high-performance, scalable and reliable infrastructure. Technical issues such as poor performance, system failure or extensive downtime will affect user confidence and reduce adoption rates. Has your SharePoint administrator completed the appropriate training?

For Next Time

So now we know the most common pitfalls! Next time we’ll begin to look in detail at the four elements of the art of SharePoint success, beginning with possibly the most overused topic in SharePoint: Governance.

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