Just because IT owns the technology platform, that doesn't mean they know best how to implement it.

The role of information technology (IT) is one of the most unappreciated, abused and misunderstood functions of the modern company. Sometimes relegated to cable pulling and basic computer support as a commodity of an economy past, IT professionals are one of the most underutilized resources in the organization. The people who gravitate to these roles tend to be creative problem solvers, multitaskers and early adopters of the latest technology trends and push to incorporate those technologies into the business world. They are usually viewed as overhead and a cost center, when in actuality they should be viewed as being strategic, and as innovation leaders.

But they shouldn't be responsible for designing your governance model.

One of the most broadly recognized problems with SharePoint is that deployments begin in IT as a proof-of-concept, and then unceremoniously roll out to the broader organization without extensive business input. The platform begins on the wrong foot, and we wonder -- months later -- why day-to-day management of SharePoint has become so hard.

As the owners of this new technology platform, it is often left to your IT team to figure out what features to use, how to configure the platform, and where to assign ownership. Whether the decisions they make actually solve business problems is secondary to keeping the platform up and running (if considered at all during the initial launch).

Understanding First, Solutions Second

In their recently released book The Heretics Guide to Best Practices, Paul Culmsee (@paulculmsee) and Kailash Awati (@kailashawati) define governance as having to answer four key questions:

  • WHAT is the desirable future state?
  • WHY is it desirable?
  • WHO will do what to get there (and who is accountable)?
  • HOW will we get there?

These are fundamentally business questions, not IT questions. Not to say that your IT team is incapable of understanding the business and doing the right things, but it is just simply not their focus to view all problems through holistic lens. Ask an IT person to solve a problem, get an IT answer. Nor should you expect your IT team to focus on business topics. Let them do what they do best, and get out of the way.

The goal of the questions asked by Paul and Kailash is to coerce the business into understanding how the deployment of this shiny new technological toy -- in this case, SharePoint -- will further the needs/goals/priorities of the business. When building out your governance strategy, roles and responsibilities should be clearly defined. IT plays an important part in the ongoing dialog, they have a seat at the table, but they are just one part of the overall decision support system of which your governance policies are an important piece.

Case Study

In the late 90's, I was hired as the director of Program Management for a newly-public telecommunications company located south of Market in San Francisco. I entered at a time when things were a bit chaotic, with people strewn across offices in three separate buildings, and my team divided between the shopping district and a space just inside of Chinatown (with me going back and forth between buildings 3 or 4 times a day).

The company had experienced some degree of success -- enough to take the company public and make a handful of executives a lot of money (at least on paper). But the company was struggling with their sudden success and rapid growth. There was chaos in IT and an inability to make quick and effective decisions. Well, at least not the right strategic decisions within each business unit, understanding how those decisions connected to the shifting needs of the business at large.

The executive team wanted a decision-support system -- mechanisms and processes to provide visibility into the decisions that needed to be made, to provide critical data about those decisions, and specifically, the actionable steps to be taken to move things forward. The ultimate goal of this decision-support system was to tie individual initiatives to the larger corporate vision and objectives, and to clarify ownership and accountability. They wanted to know:

  • What the proposed project/solution would deliver (features, capabilities, processes)
  • What benefits these things would provide to the business (ROI)
  • Who owned the financial and technical decisions
  • The immediate steps (work involved), costs, and timeframe

It took several months to get the process off the ground, and some reluctant executives to buy into the model. What we discovered was that this high-level governance model soon impacted how other, non-IT projects and initiatives were reviewed and prioritized. While not perfect (in fact, it evolved and changed quite a bit as the business adjusted), this decision-support system provided guidance to all other systems and projects by helping people to more readily connect their work back to those corporate goals and vision. It got people talking about the business value of decisions being made, which was a good thing.

What made it work was that it created a dialog between IT and the business, between stakeholders and executives, between people in the field and people back at corporate.

It’s easy to share an airbrushed version of the past to help paint a pretty picture of a strategic concept. The reality is that the work was hard. It was messy. We tried things, failed, and tried again. But we kept talking. And the added visibility helped us work through some difficult business decisions.

From a SharePoint Perspective

Within SharePoint, it is important to understand how your governance activities roll up into the broader IT -- as well as corporate -- goals and initiatives. It is not simply a matter of managing alerts and setting site quotas. That view of governance is limiting. You need to look beyond the tactical, the ground-level views of how to execute your plan, and understand the What, Why, Who and How of your governance strategy. You need to understand how this strategy will help you meet your business deliverables, and how those deliverables fit into the broader corporate vision.

Some ways you can get the dialog started:

  • Create a governance team, with stakeholders from across your company. Make sure there is a balance between business and technical, so that both perspectives are properly represented.
  • Articulate/understand your corporate vision, the subsequent objectives (which may be at a business unit level), and any other system-wide business requirements that will help inform the decisions you make.
  • Outline your priorities, weigh them against each other, and manage the risks. This is a constantly moving target -- as progress is made, you will need to constantly review and refine your priorities.
  • Start defining your information architecture based on how your business operates today. As priorities for expanding SharePoint are made, go back to your information architecture and refine the model. Make sure you understand the impacts of your decisions across the system.
  • Clearly outline roles and responsibilities, helping people understand what they own and what they are accountable for.

I joke to people that governance is your glimpse into your “corporate Lion King” moment -- it’s part of the circle of life, where everything we do in has an impact on the company's ability to perform and achieve. It may sound a bit conjectural, but I believe it to be true. The decisions you make around governing your SharePoint environment will have a direct impact on user adoption, as well as the platform’s value to the business.

It is difficult to know how to administer SharePoint, how to make the right decisions to the platform, without knowing the big picture and why you're doing it. There are few right or wrong answers -- as with anything in the SharePoint world, it all depends. But having a sound governance strategy makes visualizing the connections to your corporate strategy much easier, helping everyone to better understand their roles and their impact on the business.

When governance is viewed as a team effort -- not as an IT effort -- the end result will be more balanced, better defined, and better aligned with your corporate goals.

Editor's Note: Related SharePoint articles include: