Based on simple math, we all know that 1+1=2. This is a simple concept that we learn very early in life. When it comes to SharePoint though, when you consider the tools available to you, you have a huge advantage of being able to use more than one tool, combined together, to create an outcome that is far greater than 2.  

An Approach for Learning to Build SharePoint Solutions

The beauty of SharePoint, is that, in your hands you have a collection of tools, that when combined together can be used to solve various business solutions. And, most of the powerful solutions that can be developed can be done without a single line of code. And yes, that means no semi-colons or syntax for you to have to worry about!

Gone are the days of needing to rely on IT to help you build simple solutions that can have great impact on your environment. You are likely already familiar with the basic Office applications, so adding SharePoint into the mix is really like adding a tool that can pull all of what you know into a single solution. Using SharePoint will allow you to combine the best features for the job, together in a single approach. To really understand this, let’s look together at an example scenario:

From the Requirements to SharePoint

We have a specific process that we would like to have better control over. Each week, there is a management committee that meets together to review the requested expenses from their department. Once the group agrees on what expenses are approved, they complete a scheduling process to determine what dates the money should be spent. By doing this the management team is able to keep better tabs on the available budget and needs across all groups within their control.

In this solution there is a collection of requests, a process to approve them and then a process to schedule them. One way to use SharePoint to help manage this process is to provide a way for all steps of the process to be accounted for.

By looking at the steps in the process and identifying the data that your users need, as well as the ways they would like to interact with the data, you should be able to create a clear outline of the requirements needed within your solution. You want to be sure to always remain focused on the user, the data and the movement. If your solution can account for these items then you will be able to provide true value to your organization. At a very high level, our scenario has a few key steps:

  1. A Request is Submitted
  2. A Request is Reviewed
  3. Accepted Requests are Scheduled

When we look at these three phases, the next thing that we will want to do is to look at the data being processed at each step, who the key players are and what they ultimately want to get out of the solution. There is really no way to map all of this out clearly in a single article, however you should be able to see the direction that would need to be taken as you keep drilling down into the business case you are looking to address.

The more levels you can drill into, the greater chance of success you have. At the end of the day, the value of your solutions has nothing to do with the technology or the approach used, it is all about the users and their ability and desire to use your solution. The only way to get a solution to this point is to drill down as far as possible in understanding the users, the data and how the users typically work with the data.

Matching Needs to Technology

Once you have completed the process of looking at the requirements, wants and needs, the next phase is all about matching the needs to the technology. This is where things can get a little bit tricky, and for those just getting started with SharePoint, often it can be very overwhelming. The best advice I can give when you get to this phase is to really look at the tools you already know and use.

A great example is the need to display a business process in a visual way to users. What tool is the first tool that comes to mind as a tool to create visual displays of a process? Most likely it is Visio. So the next thing to ask yourself would be, how can I use the best of Visio and the best of SharePoint to help me better manage my data? Asking yourself these questions won't tell you how to build the solutions, but instead will help you to start asking the right questions.

Start 'Where You Know'

Learning SharePoint is a journey, and even though many things within SharePoint are fairly easy to do, the real power comes from combining many small things to build one powerful solution. In order to combine things, you need to know all of the components, and then learn how to best integrate them together. This is a learning experience that happens over time and evolves based on the tools available and the business need you are looking to address. The process for building these solutions will occur over time and takes a true willingness to think creatively from the person who is addressing the problem at hand. The benefits of the time spent learning are immeasurable and each new solution will reap the benefits of things learned from the creation of the previous solution.

The best advice I could give, would be to encourage you to start where you know. In most cases this means looking at all of the things you can do within SharePoint (from the browser) or within the existing Office Applications.

Some tricks I have used throughout the years is to look at the things my users are looking at doing and then go through planning how I would solve the solution if SharePoint didn't exist. Once I do that, I can see the benefits of the way users most likely want to interact with the data. I then can look at the items and evaluate if the way I would have done it makes sense based on the new tool set. If it does, then I would look for ways to integrate the items.

Some examples of integrating these items would be displaying an Excel Document or Visio Document on a SharePoint page. I would then look to see if there were ways that I could enhance that experience. Once I did that I would find that both Visio and Excel have web parts and web part connections that allow them to display content as well as interact with content on my SharePoint site. This would lead me to learn the new ways to work with existing tools to get different results. If I started by looking only at SharePoint and how to solve the problem using SharePoint I might have missed some of the integration points available within the tools I already use.

Jump All In!

This article is advice that is going to help you get started with building solutions and hopefully encourage you to start by building on what you already know. Using this approach you will be able to continually build on your existing skill set and gain experience that over time will continue to multiply your effectiveness within the solution.

As you begin to learn, you can create an internal community and teach others. The greatest part about being empowered to build solutions is to then use what you have learned to empower others. These small changes we make in how we do things will ultimately be the things that change the culture within our organizations.

Technology is the Easy Part!

One final thought to encourage you as you get started is that at the end of the day, the technology is really the easy part. Once you learn the technology, you can apply the same concepts over and over within many solutions. The trickier part is understanding the users and what they really need. Translating their request for features into requirements that really solve what they wanted or needed.

The more time you can spend planning and engaging the users and truly understanding their needs, the better off your solution will be.Once you get this part you will be able to identify what things are going to drive their engagement with your solution. If you truly understand them, then you will be able to gauge the success of a solution before you even make it available to them.

To me, this highlights the need to grow two skill sets at the same time. To get the most you can out of SharePoint you must work on developing both the technical elements as well as an understanding of the user’s perspective.

If I was just getting started with SharePoint, these are things that I wish I would have focused on early. So if there was one piece of encouragement I could give you, it would be this -- focus on the users and their needs and wants before ever thinking about the technology. If you can truly understand your users, the technology becomes the easy part!

Image courtesy Mmaxer (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Interested in all things Yammer related? Be sure to check out Jennifer's articles: SharePoint, Social and Yammer: A Way of Working, Not Just Tools and An Overview of Social Features in Yammer.