The story so far…

This is the sixth article in my series exploring The Art of SharePoint Success, a framework I’ve developed to enable organizations to achieve long term business benefits from investments in SharePoint based initiatives. There are four elements to the framework:

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

Last month we wrapped up the discussion on Governance and this month we’re moving onto the second element, Strategy. In the next few articles we’re going to explore the business case for SharePoint, discuss a number of ‘lenses’ which organizations can use to focus their SharePoint strategy, and discuss why you really do need a SharePoint Strategy.

But first…

What Is SharePoint?

I often ask this question at seminars, workshops and when interviewing for SharePoint related technical and sales roles. SharePoint is notoriously difficult to define and everyone struggles. Even Microsoft people. Here’s what Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer had to say in the keynote presentation at the Microsoft SharePoint Conference 2009,

What is SharePoint? This is still a question I get asked when out visiting customers... It’s kind of magical in a certain way. It’s a really special kind of product... It’s kinda like an operating system” (Ballmer 2009)

Even the Microsoft press team didn’t think this was helpful because it’s been omitted from the transcript of the speech on the Microsoft website. But he said it. I was there.

So Why Can't We Define SharePoint?  

Forrester sum it up nicely,

Achieving business value with SharePoint investments requires methodical strategic planning to minimize risk and maximize potential benefits.” (Koplowitz & Le Clair 2008)

But,

Like the ‘Shimmer’ product commercial in the old Saturday Night Live skit, SharePoint can be difficult to define...”

So,

Without clear definition of SharePoint enterprises struggle… lacking appropriate guidance, organizations grapple with SharePoint..” (Koplowitz & Le Clair 2008)

Simply put, if you don’t know what something is you’ll find it difficult to form an effective strategy.

My Take on SharePoint

Here’s my attempt:

SharePoint is a set of integrated technologies which provides a platform upon which an organization can build a flexible, long-term information and knowledge management infrastructure.”

A bit of a mouthful! But this definition includes what I believe are the most important elements. Let’s explore the first two of these ideas in more depth.

SharePoint is an integrated set of technologies

SharePoint is an umbrella term (and license) for a set of technologies that could be packaged as individual products. Performance Point Server, Portal Server and Content Management Server are three former products that are now part of the SharePoint brand, and it’s easy to see how technologies such as Excel Services, document management and MySite could be stand-alone products. Microsoft has an explicit strategy to develop these technologies as an integrated set. The strength of SharePoint is in its breadth more than its depth (although it has increasing depth). A SharePoint license provides a full range of information management capabilities and the more of those capabilities an organization uses, the greater the return on investment. If you already use SharePoint for your enterprise search then perhaps you don’t need to invest in another document management system? Understanding the breadth of SharePoint and the extent to which you anticipate leveraging the range of different capabilities is one key element of developing a SharePoint strategy.

SharePoint is infrastructure

Infrastructure can be defined as,

Substructure or underlying foundation; esp., the basic installations and facilities on which the continuance and growth of a community, state, etc. depend, as roads, schools, power plants, transportation and communication systems” (Yourdictionary 2011)

SharePoint is your information management infrastructure and infrastructure has a number of defining aspects.

Infrastructures are open. There is no limit to the number of users, stakeholders or vendors that can be involved. There is always something on the outside of the infrastructure that could be connected. With SharePoint this could refer to opening up or connecting your SharePoint platform with partners, suppliers, customers. The openness of the SharePoint platform could be a problem when defining your SharePoint strategy. Where do you draw the borders? How do you define the scope of your SharePoint implementation and use?

Infrastructures have a supporting or enabling function. SharePoint is an enabler as it provides a set of capabilities which can be used and reused in many ways and for many purposes. For example, think of a transport infrastructure consisting of road, rail and air links which enables commerce, education, health services and social activity. The benefits are derived from the services that are implemented on the infrastructure rather than from the infrastructure itself and so it is with SharePoint. This is one contributing factor to the difficulties that many organizations face in creating a business case for SharePoint. There are significant costs involved in deploying the base infrastructure of servers and software, yet this base platform does not deliver any direct business benefits. Often the first SharePoint project in an organization has to bear the costs of implementing the infrastructure, even though the benefits are spread across the multiple solutions it enables.

Infrastructure is shared by a larger community. A single SharePoint platform can appear to the users in many different ways. A shared infrastructure requires commonly understood guidelines, or rules of the road, to co-ordinate the multiple groups of users. This underlines the need for effective governance and management of SharePoint.

Building large infrastructure takes time. As time passes, requirements will change and evolve and the infrastructure needs to adapt. Infrastructure is never complete, and your SharePoint implementation will never be finished.

Infrastructure is never developed from scratch. Infrastructure will always be integrated with or replace existing infrastructure. For example SharePoint often replaces or integrates with existing collaboration and file sharing tools and methods such as email and mapped network drives.

For Next Time…

In the next article we’ll consider SharePoint as an application development platform. Should you develop custom solutions on SharePoint, and if so, which ones? We’ll also look at SharePoint as an information and knowledge management platform and explain why you might need one. If you’re enjoying this series then there’s a whole chapter on the Art of SharePoint Success in this new book created by the SharePoint community. You can read more about the project on my blog.

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