When SharePoint first came on the scene many years ago, Microsoft embraced a broad and deep partner ecosystem, supported all sorts of educational events to train people and placed millions if not billions on marketing events, all focused on showing us how to customize SharePoint.

With the release of SharePoint 2013, we suddenly had Redmond telling everyone to stop customizing SharePoint. A lot of companies are now embarrassed and ashamed to admit that they have customized their SharePoint sites. In less than three years it went from de rigeur to risky and questionable.

Up until 2012, the importance of customizing SharePoint was understood -- it’s a platform, after all. And it is designed to be all things to everyone, which makes it pretty challenging for the average knowledge worker. So why not customize? I don’t know of a single instance of SharePoint where the end-user company has not customized the deployment. This starts with simple menu configurations during setup and goes all the way to deploying server-side code and solutions. Competing ERP solutions allow for this, so why would SharePoint be any different?

A handful of companies developed a core competency around the quirks of SharePoint, and how to customize to help make the solutions meet the needs of their clients. Some focused on integrations, others on template creation, and still others on unique user experiences for different companies. We were one big happy family, helping clients get the most out of their Microsoft products, and helping them drive greater productivity with an in-depth understanding of their needs.

Winter Arrives (for SharePoint UX)

Then SharePoint 2013 came out. And Microsoft made the following statement in its blog post about the launch:

Use SharePoint as an out-of-box application whenever possible -- We designed the new SharePoint UI to be clean, simple and fast and work great out-of-box. We encourage you not to modify it which could add complexity, performance and upgradeability…"

Microsoft meant well for its enterprise clients. The company surely thought it had finally launched a product that addressed the needs of everyone, as unlikely as that may have been. It forgot that to be all things to every company means being nothing to anyone. Why Microsoft thought that the needs of, say, a multi-state hospital and healthcare company would be the same as a Fortune 100 global financial services company is beyond me. But apparently it did. Maybe it thought it was “close enough.”

The upshot was that companies began to think they were doing something wrong if they wanted to customize SharePoint. “Well, if Microsoft, the producer of the platform, thinks that it’s a bad idea, maybe we just need to understand the platform better.”

This has gotten out of hand as we move to Office 365. The forced upgrade path comes out weekly / daily / hourly in some cases with little or no warning. Make a change to this powerful solution, and your change may be there one day and not the next.

If It’s Good Enough for Some …

Big consulting companies you’ve heard of -- with names like Accenture and PWC -- have built thriving businesses around customizing platforms like Oracle and SAP. You don’t hear those companies telling you to stop customizing their products the way Microsoft did. They embrace the understanding that they make powerful platforms -- and there is always room to customize to further enhance the power.

In other words, you could buy a very nice suit off the rack at Nordstrom, and it will look good -- you will look good -- but when you go to their tailor you will walk out looking like a million bucks.

Learning Opportunities

Everyone knows this. Maybe Microsoft thought its product was good enough now. And maybe it saw that companies back in 2012 were looking to tighten their belts everywhere, and (this is my guess) it thought they could sell more upgrades if it told enterprises that they wouldn’t need to pay an additional $X to customize on top of that.

But we know “good-ish” won’t drive adoption. It will drive frustration. When companies do the minimal work, with the minimal number of integrations, minor configuration and the like, the overall value of the product suffers. For a big enterprise with thousands of users, those incremental productivity declines can add up quickly. In fact, it turns SharePoint into the dumbest of tools. The out-of-the-box experience was what gave SharePoint a bad rap in the first place.

There are hundreds of additional products and tools you can add today to your SharePoint environment, and arguably all of these add a certain level of customization to your out-of-box deployment. This is what makes the franchise so strong: the ability to bolt on and do new, different and cool things to SharePoint. That’s why it’s high time we stop saying that customization is a bad thing.

Spring Is Coming (for User Experience)

The great news is, while everyone scratched their heads back in 2012, and spent time playing with SharePoint out of the box in 2013, it confirmed what we already knew: it’s a great platform that’s much greater when customized to the needs of the business. That’s why we saw an uptick in customizations in 2014, despite many companies’ moves to the cloud (and associated concerns about code breakage during bi-weekly patches and updates from Microsoft). My prediction for 2015 is even greater comfort with the need to customize -- from enterprises as well as Microsoft itself. They recognize that the promise of out-of-the-box SharePoint is good, but the delivery on business objectives is even greater with customization.

Cheers to a successful new year on your customized, enhanced, souped up SharePoint, be it on-prem, in the cloud, or a little of both. 

Title image by Everett Collection (Shutterstock)