shutterstock_65188939.jpgI always like to put events into a solid sports analogy and SharePoint lends itself to this in a unique way. SharePoint is somewhat akin to the New York Yankee teams of the past couple decades: this product has been a consistent leader, though it has had some ups and downs in the enterprise collaboration space, and continues to hold its place in the echelon of enterprise productivity tools that will continue to lead well into the next many “seasons” to come.

Before I go further with this, huge kudos to Microsoft and the SharePoint team for the latest release of SharePoint slated for 2013.

Back to the Yankees: like the Yankees, SharePoint has attracted its share of attention and criticism, some justified and some not. Just as many wonder how rich new players will fit into the Yankees’ player rotation, we find ourselves wondering how Microsoft’s US$ 1.2 billion Yammer purchase will fit into SharePoint and Microsoft’s broader social collaboration and social business ecosystem.

Despite its huge payroll and fan base, the Yankees sometimes need to rally from behind -- and despite its built-in user base and huge financial resources, SharePoint sometimes needs to rally its users, partners and enterprise clients to drive adoption. This is a long pennant race and we are just getting started.

If you’re one of the more than 135 million SharePoint 2010 seats in the enterprise, you may also be migrating from 2007 to 2010 and struggling with a plan for driving adoption. What to do? Wait for a “one-size-fits-all-2013” answer to your prayers or work within a solution framework that enables you to easily deploy a user interface recognizing the unique challenges and needs associated with your company, its departments, employees and your culture?

With the latest iteration of SharePoint on the horizon, I’ve had candid and interesting exchanges with varied business leaders at Microsoft about this topic. There’s a lot worth watching for for anyone in our industry, in addition to those contemplating SharePoint adoption.

Customize and Keep it Simple

Point is not to complain (and I have done my share), but to lead-off with two truths I’ve been telling many of the world’s largest enterprises face-to-face during the past several years: first, when it comes to driving adoption, one-size-fits-all does not work!

There is not a company out there in today’s global environment that is consistent with all the use cases developed to build software -- enterprises are NOT 100 percent consistent, predictable and similar in nature and scope -- not today, not ever! This sounds obvious, but I continue to see a lot of big companies assume that one-size-all or “out-of-the-box” is the way to fly, but it most definitely is not.

Speaking of fly, remember that another basic tenant for adoption of SharePoint or anything really is to keep it simple! Could you imagine an airline having to train their user base (paying customers) on how to order a ticket online? This is my rallying cry: your SharePoint solution and line-of-business integration should be so intuitive that it does not require training.

The Sleeping Giant is Awake

We used to joke that Microsoft will kill you with US$ 100 paper cuts. Well, bigger picture, Microsoft is suddenly becoming much more aggressive in the social business and collaboration space, as evidenced by its just-closed US$ 1.2 billion purchase of Yammer (that’s a lot of paper cuts for Jive Software, but more about them in a bit), as well as deploying many of its smartest employees and teams to focus more on the intersection of social collaboration and the enterprise.

I’ve read and heard a lot in recent days about how companies and individuals are both excited and wary about the upcoming latest iteration of SharePoint and how it could affect adoption, as well as online collaboration within the enterprise. There is a lot happening at Microsoft that stands to impact our entire industry in a positive way, as well as the tens of millions of end-users who already have SharePoint at their fingertips.

If I am managing my Jive implementation, I want to know what the usage data tells me 90 or 180 days after deployment. Jive now has many of the same basic issues as SharePoint: what are people using it for and how are they using it? If this is a true social tool, is it adding any value to our business?

Think of SharePoint as the Platform

As I recently wrote in a separate CMSWire column, SharePoint deserves a ton of credit for providing a solid and important platform for development of social collaboration solutions for the enterprise. There is still work to be done to bridge the frequent gaps that exist between what SharePoint can deliver on its own and what enterprises demand.

You wouldn’t deploy a customer-facing Web site without deploying an intuitive design and the same should hold true for your company’s intranet solution. SharePoint is a great platform and one of its strongest attributes is that it is a robust and flexible platform that -- thus far -- has been uniquely able to accommodate pretty much any level of integration to meet specific and unique user needs at the enterprise level.

SharePoint’s flexibility in this regard has differentiated it from the more one-size-fits-all offerings such as Jive Software and other “me too” like solutions. There has been a lot of “chatter” (no pun intended) and industry concern of late that the newest rev of SharePoint may aggressively market and encourage “out-of-the-box” usage.

This makes sense for SMB clients or smaller organizations, especially those SMB clients that are thinking about deploying Office 365. However, the concept that Fortune 500 clients are not going to tailor their corporate intranet is not realistic; this is akin to deploying SAP out of the box: not going to happen.

SharePoint integration in the enterprise is anything but one-size-fits-all. To quell the skeptics, Microsoft should focus its message on the flexibility of the platform with the caveats to hire reputable and experienced developers or consultants to manage the tasks. Not every MS certified architect understands how SharePoint works.

For enterprises contemplating SharePoint adoption, integration and/or hiring resources to work on SharePoint projects, the caution here is to not hire full-time employees, a firm or even “consultants” who cannot demonstrate that they’ve done significant work in your industry. Yes, this probably means hiring folks or partnering with firms who’ve actually done work for your competitors.

We have seen and fixed too many projects that have either been implemented incorrectly from the get-go or made from a template. While there can be lessons shared within an industry or vertical, remember that when it comes to driving adoption, your business is unique and not like widget company X down the street or across the globe. Make sure you are working with people who have experience actually supporting the work they build. As the saying goes, talk is the cheapest part.

The Enterprise and “Out-of-the-box” Don’t Mix

If I had to pick one bit of advice for our friends at Microsoft in terms of driving or marketing SharePoint adoption, it would be to jettison the phrase “out-of-the-box” in any future communication with existing or potential enterprise-level clients. 

Fair or not, “out-of-the-box” implies lack of willingness to accommodate the unique challenges associated with each enterprise and it may be the worse term around when talking “ERP.” This is particularly ironic because Microsoft thus far has provided the one solution framework -- SharePoint -- that has uniquely been able to accommodate important modifications and integration points with line-of-business apps needed to drive adoption and widespread usage in the enterprise.

In terms of driving adoption and overall, I think Microsoft’s been working hard to get better in dealing with the enterprise. In fact, some very recent and direct conversations with the SharePoint team have provided indications that the perceived “out-of-the-box” movement is not intended to eliminate UI architecture or line-of-business integration, but to encourage quality in the work that is being done. In short, Microsoft has been concerned that sloppy customization work can not only reflect poorly upon SharePoint and its performance, but can have severe effects on the user experience and negatively impact adoption.

SharePoint adoption should focus on easier line-of-business integration:  every enterprise has unique challenges and needs throughout multiple departments, locations, levels and areas of employee interest. Whether by accident or design, SharePoint has to date provided a comparatively robust and reliable framework for UX customization, line-of-business integration and unmatched security -- they should not change their marketing message at this point!

SharePoint has the unique underlying advantage of being part of the Microsoft stack, a huge driver of the 135 million+ seats SharePoint currently has. On the back-end of the US$ 1.2 billion investment to purchase Yammer, this should be an exciting and productive time for Microsoft in the enterprise!

As great a company as Microsoft may be, neither it nor any organization can predict anything close to every use case associated with 135+ million seats. It should not paint itself into a corner by pushing a one-size-fits-all or “out-of-the-box” solution, but provide new improved tools to make adoption and integration as easy as possible for its partners and clients.

Social collaboration is the shiny new spinning top in the enterprise, but it is not a replacement for email. Microsoft now has a horse in the race with Yammer: great, now let’s figure out how to make it easier for the clients to adopt SharePoint across the enterprise, beyond social. Sexy as it may be, social is the sideshow, the B side, whatever you want to call it. The “activity feed” is NOT a net driver of productivity.

If Microsoft can stay true to the notion of empowering adoption via customization and unique, quality user experiences, it is poised to thrive and possibly even become the industry leader in social collaboration for the enterprise.

Whatever the case, many of the world’s largest enterprises will be watching and will make decisions to stick with SharePoint for long-term adoption or look elsewhere. Back to the baseball game, we’re probably only in the second inning or so of what promises to be a long and exciting game: hope you brought your rally cap!

Title image courtesy of David Lee (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: You might be interested in other articles by Kevin Conroy about all things Microsoft:

-- Microsoft and Yammer: A Fresh Take