In our last two installments we have been exploring the business case for SharePoint. We’ve introduced the idea of the left-brained business case and the right-brained business case, and we’ve looked at the costs of SharePoint. In this episode we are bringing the business case discussion to a climax with the difficult bit: the benefits of SharePoint.

This is article number 12 in the series exploring my four point framework for ensuring long term, measurable success with SharePoint. There are four element to the framework:

  1. Governance
  2. Strategy
  3. Architecture
  4. Transition

Clearly articulating and quantifying the benefits of SharePoint is where many people struggle. It’s difficult because as a platform SharePoint has so many potential uses and applications. The secret to success is to break the problem down into smaller and more manageable chunks. Firstly examine the technology benefits and secondly estimate the business related benefits.

The Technology Related Benefits

Table 1 summarizes the potential technology benefits of SharePoint.  

Table 1: Potential technology related benefits of SharePoint

The Business Related Benefits

Treat each business solution that you deploy on to your SharePoint platform as a discrete project with a discrete set of benefits. Your business solutions will fall into one of two broad categories:

  1. enabling a specific business process
  2. delivering a general capability

These different types of business solutions require different approaches to estimating the business benefits.

Enabling Business Processes

Organizations have strategic objectives that are realized through business processes that are unpinned by technology. Mapping the use of SharePoint (or any other technology) to specific business processes is the key to developing a robust left-brained business case because process improvements are usually easily observable and measurable. The process is quite simple:

  1. Identify the organizations high-level strategic objectives
  2. Identify and map the core, high-level business processes and consider how they relate to the strategic objectives. You need to identify the process and the people who take part in it, and understand the information they use
  3. Understand how technology underpins the current process
  4. Find a way to improve the process. Consider how you could improve what you already do (process improvement), but don’t forget to consider how new technical capabilities may enable you to change what you do (process re-engineering)

A Few Examples from my Recent Experience

An events management company which owned and operated a number of large venues that were used to host pop concerts and conferences had SharePoint deployed inside the firewall, where it was used for the usual team collaboration and document management purposes. They engaged me to explore how the business could further leverage its investment in SharePoint.

My first question was, “What are your strategic objectives as a business?” The answer was an increase in sales revenues and profits. Each event was basically a project, and the event delivery process was the core business process for the organization.

We quickly mapped the process on the whiteboard and talked it through. The venues were typically booked many months or even years in advance of the actual event and once the booking had been made there was a lull in communication between the event management company and their customer. We soon realized that creating a SharePoint extranet site for each event (project) opened a new way of communicating and sharing information with the event promoters and that this could be used to cross sell complimentary services such as security, merchandising and ticket printing.

Cross selling to existing customers is generally accepted as being more profitable than acquiring new customers so this seemed to fit the organization's strategic objectives perfectly and some simple estimates of the level of sales provided the basis for a convincing and easily understood business case.

In 2009 I worked with an international private bank. In this case, the credit application process by which (very) rich people applied to borrow even more money was identified as a core business process. Cost reduction and customer service were identified as two key strategic drivers.

We mapped out the existing process. Credit applications forms were based on a Word document template stored on a shared network drive. Every time a new application was made, the private bankers would take a copy of the form and manually complete it by coping data from a CRM system and a credit scoring system. The form was then emailed around to other departments including Actuarial and Legal department. The process was time consuming and error prone.

The proposed solution used InfoPath forms in a SharePoint site collection to replace the Word based credit application form. The InfoPath form was integrated into the CRM and credit score system using the Business Data Catalogue and workflows were used to route the form through the approval process. The business case was based on improvements in the efficiency and speed of the process as there was now no need to manually copy data from multiple systems, and in the effectiveness of the system as there were no more data copying errors and the use of workflows rather than emails meant that there were no more lost forms.

In 2011 I worked with a London based asset management company who were deploying their first SharePoint 2010 solution. One of their core business processes was the client on-boarding process for setting up the legal and financial framework required to deliver services to new clients.

In a one-day workshop we produced a high-level process map and identified the key roles within the process and the way in which they used information and technology. The process used lots of spread sheets, each team stored files in folders on network file shares which were inaccessible to other teams, and email was the main means of sharing information between teams. We quickly identified a number of business challenges relating to time, cost, quality and risk. One of the main challenges was that the team managers found it difficult to keep track of the process and to identify bottlenecks and delays.

The SharePoint solution enabled information to be effectively and efficiently shared between teams, automated document specific processes using workflows, and most importantly, used SharePoint lists for task allocation and management enabling team managers to keep track of progress and identify problems quickly.

Delivering General Capabilities

Delivering general capabilities is about giving information and knowledge workers a set of tools and the support required to use them without knowing in advance exactly what the tools will be used for. Think about mobile phones or email. They enable almost every process within an organization but there is no need to map the processes in advance and few organizations attempt to quantify the returns from investments in these technologies, they are simply accepted as a prerequisite for doing business in the modern world. Some people make the strong argument that information and knowledge management technologies like SharePoint should be viewed and treated in the same way.

A European central bank and a global manufacturer have implemented SharePoint as a generic collaboration service that allows any employee to create SharePoint sites for any purpose at any time without the need to involve the IT team or gain approval from anyone. With the right leadership, motivation, education and support people will adopt these tools and use them in their own way. The individual workers determine for themselves how best to use the new tools.

The challenge when developing a business case for such a capability is that the benefits from any software solution are only as predictable as its use. Each site created within the service has its own value proposition.

The capital expenditure on projects to deploy the services or capabilities tend to be smaller (and cheaper) than those to enable specific business processes because there’s no need for a detailed central view of the business processes upfront. But the operating expenditure may be higher through heavy investment in on-going activities to drive user adoption.

In my experience investments in delivering general capabilities with SharePoint are best suited to a right-brained business case. Start small with prototypes or pilots, grow and expand the capability iteratively, and show success at each step of the way. But to do that you’ll need to define a set of success measures. The success metrics I’ve seen used include:

  • Sites created / requested
  • Site visits
  • Number of people using the capability / service regularly
  • Number of connections made between people (for example, on MySites)
  • Number of blog posts
  • Number of blog comments
  • Wiki pages created / accessed
  • Reduction in email traffic / storage
  • Staff survey results

Next Time on the Art of SharePoint Success….

That wraps up our look at the business case for SharePoint and the Strategy element of the framework. Next time we’ll be diving into the Architecture element and finding out what SharePoint has to do with running an office block!

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