I recently attended and spoke at the SharePoint Saturday: The Conference this August 2011. My presentation was around real world applications on SharePoint: ideas, trends we’re seeing and actually uses. I also had the opportunity to speak with several experts in the field, and some current and future consumers of SharePoint. Here’s what most of the buzz was about.

What’s in the Box?

Once you clear away the packing peanuts, in essence what you have is a framework, a platform. From a rapid application development (RAD) standpoint, this starting framework can moderately increase your firm’s time to market for a portal-type solution. The typical application development work needed for authentication providers (logging in), authorization and provisioning (what you have access to), menus and navigation, basic site structure, and some basic functionality (the out of the box web parts) can help jumpstart the development effort and accelerate you project’s percentage of completion from the install alone.

What you don’t get, but DEFINITELY need, is configuration. By configuration I mean all of the settings and fields that make the portal work for YOUR business specifically. This includes most of the following:

  • Information Architecture. How is your portal’s site structure setup? This is very important because the right architecture, one that “fits” your business model, would lead to effective browsing, users being able to quickly find content, and conversely, happy users.
  • Taxonomy. How is your content classified? Every business is different, and the portal’s content needs to be able to be cataloged so that it can be searched effectively. A professional services firm may need customer, project and tasks to associate content to while a biological research organization may need kingdom, phylum, genus and species.
  • Document Types. Companies have different document types. More times than not, it’s important to be able to associated a document as a certain type. This allows for a more relevant advanced search; for example: when a CFO performs a search for “expense reports,” are they looking for every content item in the portal with the words “expense” or “reports,” or are they more interested in a listing of actual “expense reports”?
  • Workflow. If you were to survey 100 companies, I have a feeling you would see 100 different processes of performing similar tasks. Even for very similar processes across companies, there are variable settings that should be customized accordingly. Using the same expense report example, the following parameters could change from company to company: who in the firms is a part of the approval workflow, what is the approval validation, do different ranges of expense report amount cause different workflow steps, etc.

Most Common Enterprise Wins with SharePoint

So with a combination of what you get out of the box plus the necessary configuration needed to make your portal relevant to your users, most organizations are able to gain some of the following functional application wins.

Learning Opportunities

  • Document management. For most organizations, document management is usually the first area to tackle with SharePoint. Many companies are in need of creating order out of chaos with regard to their internal document management practices. SharePoint 2010 has several new features and functions that give business users a lot more out of the box to work with than what was available in previous versions. Here are some of the key additions on the document management side: document sets, managed meta data, business connectivity services and records management.
  • Forms & Workflow. SharePoint is also an adequate platform for forms and workflow. By using SharePoint lists, web-based forms or Microsoft InfoPath, forms can be created fairly quickly in SharePoint. These forms then can be validated and submitted in to a custom workflow geared towards how your company operates. Implementing high traffic, and/or existing “pain point” workflows as one of the first you take on is good strategy to gain a quick win and increase user adoption.
  • Reports. The right information at the right time is essential for any business. SharePoint has become an increasingly attractive platform to host a business intelligence solution on top of, especially for organizations with an existing investment in Microsoft technologies. Here are the key features in SharePoint 2010 that can help accelerate a reporting environment: Business Connectivity Services to query and/or write back to external databases, Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services integration, and the inclusion of rapid application development reporting tools like Performance Point and Excel Services. It’s important to note, however, that most of the business intelligence tools are in the Enterprise version.
  • Search. SharePoint comes with an enterprise-level search tool built-in to the platform. The lack of search and organization is one of the main reasons why companies lean toward SharePoint in the first place. Being able to configure, and take advantage of the robust search is a critical success criteria for most portals.

Trends, Tools & Strategies to Consider

Once installed and configured correctly, SharePoint can pretty quickly become a nice productivity tool. Depending on business model, corporate culture and user adoption, I have helped several firms extend SharePoint way past the “basics.” Here are some strategic plays to consider.

  1. Virtual and cloud offerings. SharePoint virtualizes well. From a platform architecture standpoint, when installed as a farm, it’s quite easy to add new SharePoint servers to the farm as needed. A lot of firms are making the connection on the hardware side as well: extending servers in a virtual environment, as needed, is quicker and more economical than a standard physical setting.
  2. Mobile. The mobile workforce is growing by the day. More and more of us are using smartphones and tablets to perform more than just communication tasks. Understand the features and applications your user community “should be” accessing from mobile devices, and then deliver.
  3. Business Intelligence. Although stated earlier in this article, once your “standard” reporting environment is in place, you may consider extending it into more of a full service application. Self-service is the utopia here -- don’t build 100 canned reports; build a self-service platform capable of delivering a million-plus custom views in the same amount of time.
  4. Functionally-driven, not team site driven. How does your organization operate? Are there large departmental teams, where each employee only works in one department and one “main” function, or is your organization more matrix-driven, whereby each employee wears many hats and performs several functions that span across multiple departments? Determining this in the planning phase and then implementing your intranet’s site structures accordingly can make a big difference in usability, effectiveness and adoption.
  5. Brand it and name it. A little bit of branding can go a long way with user adoption -- have fun with it, and don’t forget to name it also. Any name works except for “the Intranet.”

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