Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: You can’t build business applications in SharePoint because it’s too difficult and time consuming.
Or it takes forever to get things done in SharePoint.
Or SharePoint isn’t good at X, or it’s terrible at doing Y. It simply can’t solve your business challenge in an efficient or effective manner.
Well maybe you're doing it wrong.
People are out there building business solutions in SharePoint, and doing it very successfully I might add. There are consultants who are delighting their customers, and I personally build solutions in SharePoint every day.
I recently spoke with Thomas Duff of Cambia Health Solutions at length on this subject. Despite repeatedly hearing from former colleagues and vendors alike that it isn’t feasible to build applications in SharePoint, Duff tells me that his SharePoint team at Cambia has a very effective system in place to quickly turn out great SharePoint solutions that wow their customers.
While his formal title is Software Engineer, Duff focuses primarily on out-of-the-box SharePoint solutions, as well as support, training and adoption. Duff is part of a four-person team that supports Cambia’s SharePoint environment for approximately 5,000 people.
So what are the secrets of their success? Duff shared some insight into how his team has consistently built SharePoint solutions that actually solve their business users’ challenges. He offered several key pieces of advice:
Work Directly with the Business
Duff’s team works directly with the business areas that they serve. Any one of the SharePoint team members can be called into a meeting by their customers, and they welcome that. They don’t force people to go through a hierarchy of IT people to request their help.
This allows them to hear and understand first-hand what the problems are, and they have the freedom to offer input and solutions. That speeds up the entire process and strengthens the trust between the customer and the SharePoint team.
“Our goal is to have them view us as partners and consultants who know how to translate techno-jargon into things they can understand. We want to be the people they think of first when they have a business issue.”
Understand the Business Problem
To solve any kind of problem you first need to fully understand it. Duff’s team uses an agile/lean approach to churn out solutions. This mindset gets them in front of the customer quickly to assess the problem at hand.
The interactive and iterative process is designed to accommodate different levels of customer expertise when it comes to dealing with technology.
“We like to break things down into smaller stories that we can prioritize and schedule. We also try to keep the process simple and informal. We feel that fewer barriers between us and the business mean that we can get involved early and reduce frustration.”
Their typical process consists of gathering information from the customer via an agile story template and adding it to their work backlog. Then they meet with the customer to understand their pain points, when they need the work done, and what additional details they’ll need in order to complete the work.
Quickly Create a Prototype. Then Improve Upon It
When it comes to building out a solution, the team takes an iterative approach. Duff’s team prefers to gather the general requirements, usually obtained in a single meeting, to build a basic version of what the customer wanted.
“We could ask for a full set of specs (which could take days), then go off to build the whole system (which could take weeks), and then end up redoing major parts of the system when we find out they changed their minds or we didn’t capture what they were expecting.”
Completing the first iteration of the solution allows the talk to shift to what is on the screen instead of abstract ideas. Changes made at this early stage get the solution back on track if it was off-target for what the business wanted. Subsequent iterations may add in business rules, logic and workflow.
Use OOTB Solutions Whenever Possible
Quick delivery depends in great part on the team's commitment to building solutions “out-of-the-box,” rather than turning to custom code requiring Visual Studio or other tools.
“The business isn’t impressed by how we built a site or what language was used. That may impress fellow techies, but it gets in the way of getting things done.”
And they know how to get the most out of tools like SharePoint Designer and InfoPath, options that do not always receive a lot of respect. But they’re available, they’re free, and they are good enough to get 95 percent of the job done.
Even better, the power users at Cambia can understand them, and they often want to take over the site after Duff’s team is finished. That allows the team to move on to other projects without having to make all the future changes for them.
Take Chances and Have Fun
Duff’s last piece of advice: take chances and have fun. It helps that his team are all very passionate about SharePoint, like and respect each other, and have fun working together.
Do their solutions always hit the mark right out of the gate? No. But their approach allows them to fail fast and make iterative adjustments based on customer feedback. Each subsequent change cycle gets them closer to the perfect solution.
Still Think You Can’t Build Business Solutions in SharePoint?
If you follow Duff's advice, you'll find building solutions quickly in SharePoint that solve business challenges is not only possible, but probable.
Work directly with the business, have a solid understanding of the problems and pain points, and demonstrate to your customers that you understand those pain points. Using an iterative approach to solution building and utilizing OOTB solutions whenever possible will allow you to quickly get something in front of customers and then improve upon it. And don’t forget to take chances and have fun.