In my experience, you need to keep six things in mind to get SharePoint right the first time:

  1. There’s no such thing as out of the box SharePoint
  2. One size does not fit all
  3. If you build it, they will not come
  4. It’s never just about SharePoint
  5. SharePoint is not an IT thing
  6. SharePoint is not an Office product

Let’s take a detailed look at each of these in turn.

In my day-to-day work, I come across a lot of information about SharePoint, both first-hand at client sites and second-hand through research and reading. And honestly, a lot of it is not only less-than-useful, it’s downright redundant -- we’ve all heard so much of it before, you wonder why folks keep writing it (and why we keep reading it!).

The answer, of course, is that SharePoint has a massive adoption footprint: every client I work with either has it or is about to have it. And on top of that, just about anyone who has SharePoint also has horror stories to tell about procuring, implementing, supporting or upgrading SharePoint (or some combination of all of these).

So it’s no wonder that we’re all so interested in hearing and talking about SharePoint…even if we’re just regurgitating and digesting the same information over and over.

Also from Joe, read: SharePoint: Is It Worth Using as a Collaboration Tool?

Six Things

With that having been said, I’m going to jump back into the fray and risk adding to the regurgitation by giving advice on how to get SharePoint right the first time at your organization, not only because I see so many organizations get it wrong the first time (and second, and third), but also because I think there’s very little information on this subject that goes beyond the technical perspective to discuss the strategic, planning dimensions of getting SharePoint right -- which is what I want to do here.

Ok, enough hedging: here we go!

#1. There’s no such thing as out of the box SharePoint

Sure, SharePoint’s easy to get up and running. But anyone who tells you that it’s ready to go for most organizations, as is, out of the box, is either lying or has little practical experience with SharePoint.

SharePoint is a platform (and an enterprise one at that), which means that it’s designed to do “everything for everybody” by providing broad functionality across a wide range of capabilities.

But “everything for everybody” quickly turns to “nothing for anybody” in practice if a platform’s broad functionality isn’t configured effectively to provide specific solutions to end-users.

So when you’re planning your SharePoint program, get a big old mason jar and make anyone who says “out of the box SharePoint” put a fiver in there…and then make sure you take the time to figure out how you need to tailor SharePoint to meet the requirements of your end-users.

#2. One size does not fit all

One of the key benefits of an enterprise platform like SharePoint is that it allows an organization to leverage functionality across the enterprise and achieve economies of scale. But there’s a big difference between economies of scale and forcing a one-size-fits-all solution on everyone at your organization.

The latter is sometimes an unavoidable evil (especially for structured processes like AP or AR being enabled by an ERP system), but you should avoid it whenever you can, because in the wrong situation, it can lead to long-term failure for an enterprise platform.

I would argue that an enterprise SharePoint implementation is always the wrong situation for a one-size-fits-all approach. At those enterprises I’ve seen try it, either adoption is low to non-existent or rogue usage (i.e., users adapting the platform to their needs) is the norm. The former turns your enterprise licenses to shelfware; the latter creates a SharePoint environment that is uncontrolled, ungoverned and unsustainable.

#3. If you build it, they will not come

Let’s face it, the adoption of SharePoint in the marketplace has been nothing short of staggering: from zero to a billion in one year, the near ubiquity of MOSS 2007 in medium to large organizations, the almost-Apple-like fervor surrounding the launch of 2010 -- SharePoint’s gotten people excited about document management in a way that other tools simply haven’t been able to.

But don’t let that fool you. If you think that SharePoint will have the same viral adoption at your organization that it had in the wider world simply because you turn it on, you’re kidding yourself.

I can count on one hand the number of clients where I’ve seen the if we build it, they will come approach to SharePoint succeed. At all the other clients I’ve worked with, the if we build it SharePoint programs stall out within 12-18 months.

Basically, users won’t adopt technology unless is helps them do their jobs better and more easily than they can now…and if they’re currently using technology to do so, you need not only to actually be better and easier than what they have now, but users need to believe that you are, too. Because I think we’ve all witnessed examples of users not adopting a solution that’s technically superior to the suboptimal tools (aka crap) they have now simply because they were stubborn, didn’t see the merits of the new solution, or didn’t have the time to make the change (or some combination of all three).

So you need to not only build a better mousetrap in SharePoint but also effectively communicate its value to your end-users if you want to have a shot at getting the adoption you need to succeed.

#4. It’s never just about SharePoint

The complexity of most technology environments makes it highly unlikely that SharePoint will be an island unto itself at an organization. Yet I can count on that same one hand the number of clients I’ve seen that approach SharePoint holistically, as but one part of a larger, interrelated IT ecosystem.

This interrelation starts with core enterprise content management applications, from big ECM (like IBM FileNet, EMC Documentum, or OpenText) to niche solutions that address more targeted or vertical needs (like scanning/image management, contract management, asset management or product development).  And then you’ve got other enterprise tools for web content management, ERP functions and business process management applications. Add to this all the tools to address social media and enterprise collaboration, and you’ve got a huge portfolio of technology that your SharePoint implementation has to play nice with to be successful.

Again, at the risk of being a broken record, very few organizations I work with have a plan for how SharePoint will interoperate with these other critical systems. To be sure, they all know that SharePoint will have some intersection with other systems, but they almost all put off thinking about this intersection for “Phase 2” because they’re so heads down trying to be successful for Phase 1.

The irony, of course, is that Phase 1 has a much lower chance of being successful if you haven’t thought about how SharePoint will fit within the larger IT application ecosystem, and so there never is a Phase 2.

#5. SharePoint is not an IT thing

This is a biggie -- even organizations who are get most things right get this wrong. And in a way, it’s understandable: most organizations see content management as an IT thing, so how can they be expected to view the use of a content management tool as more than just an IT thing?

Content management is most definitely not an IT thing. Content, along with physical assets and human capital, is one of the three core things all organizations manage.

But neither is SharePoint.

Your SharePoint implementation will impact how everyone works with documents at your organization…which at most organizations is everyone at the organization. To allow IT to own this kind of an effort is a recipe for disaster, because if they don’t fall prey to some combination of the first four challenges we’ve examined, they (quite naturally) overcome each of them in a decidedly IT centric way -- how could it be otherwise?

But precisely what’s needed to ensure the success of a platform that will enjoy such universal usage is an enterprise perspective on the core issues that need to be settled…and without it, you’re almost certain to fail, or at the very least be much less successful than you otherwise would have been.

#6. SharePoint is not an Office product

This last one is easy to get wrong, and that’s Microsoft’s fault. They’ve been smart about leveraging the Office look-and-feel for SharePoint, and doing so has been a big contributor to SharePoint’s success.
But as positive as this has been for the SharePoint user experience, it has a downside: it lulls folks into a false sense that SharePoint is kind of like MS Office.

This is why you find IT executives fully supporting a roll out of SharePoint with little to no training or communication in place -- they approach it the same way they approach an Office upgrade or giving users Visio: view a training PowerPoint to get going, and if you have problems, ask a co-worker or search the Internet.

These same technology executives would never in a million years be quite so comfortable approaching an implementation of an ERP system, supply chain platform, or enterprise workflow tool this way (although they may have to out of necessity when short on time or resources).

To be successful with SharePoint, you need to approach it like one of these enterprise applications and then communicate with and train your end-users accordingly. Simply pointing them to some training videos and hoping that an informal peer network of SharePoint expertise will spring up to train your user base is pure fantasy -- I’ve never seen it work at a single organization I’ve encountered (client or otherwise)…so don’t do it.

The Final Word

That’s my stake in the ground on how to get SharePoint right the first time. It was intentionally focused on strategy and planning because to me, that’s not only where most SharePoint implementations fall down, it’s also the perspective most lacking in the voluminous information available out there on SharePoint.

In my next post, I want to roll up my sleeves and dig in to the details on how to get SharePoint right the first time and step you all through the kinds of activities you need to do to adhere to the six things we discussed here. Some of these I’ve written about at length elsewhere, some will be net new. But by pulling them into one post, I hope to provide you all with a practical guide to what you’re getting into if you’re committed to being successful with SharePoint.

In the meantime, I’d love to get a good conversation going about all this: did I get it wrong or leave anything out? Have some real-world experience that supports or disproves any of this? Jump in and let’s get the conversation started!