Taming the SharePoint Bear with Social Software: A Cautionary Tale for Microsoft Customers

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Carrie Basham Young avatar

Social Business Taming the SharePoint Bear with Social Software
We’re Goin’ on a Bear Hunt is a fun song when sung by a group of excited schoolchildren. But it seems as though it may have been actually composed by an IT manager to secretly cope with his frustrations about Microsoft SharePoint.

We’re goin’ on a bear hunt.
I’m not scared!
Oh no, it’s a cave.
We can’t go over it…
We can’t go under it…
We gotta go through it.
Wait, what’s that?
Two big fuzzy ears and two big eyes…
It’s a bear!

The vast majority of large companies with whom I’ve worked to deploy an enterprise social network depend upon SharePoint. In fact, SharePoint integration in some form seems to be a requirement for most companies when they select a vendor and vet social software.

During the employee quest to accomplish work, end users and IT trek daily into the cave that is SharePoint to get work done. In fact, millions of employees do this -- SharePoint generates billions in revenue from 125 million user licenses and 65,000+ customers.

The Reality of SharePoint Today

But as we've seen with new, user-friendly enterprise social networking tools, actual adoption and engagement rates are far lower than the licenses sold. While IT managers may not come out and say this bluntly to the public or to their employees, the reality of SharePoint today for the customers with whom I’ve worked to launch an enterprise social network is as follows:

  • SharePoint is the home base for desktop employees every day. To get to the web, to find colleague contact information or to work on a shared document, they have to jump out into the SharePoint abyss.It’s like Groundhog Day -- a constant repeat of logging on and navigating the messy unknown.
  • Most enterprise content lives inside SharePoint. You can’t find it, because searching for it is like searching for a needle in a virtual haystack. But it’s all there somewhere, and companies are afraid of losing their content, so they just keep building on top of the existing SharePoint haystack.
  • You can put lipstick on a pig, just like customers can customize SharePoint to look prettier and match their branding. But ultimately, it’s just lipstick -- the not-so-attractive reality still sits there underneath.
  • Unfortunately, that lipstick tends to come in the massively expensive form of professional services and agency consulting, making the investment in SharePoint higher from both a financial perspective and from a dependency on others to keep the experience robust.
  • The mobile experience is nonexistent, and customers have little faith that mobile will be available any time soon.

So yes. SharePoint is the deep dark cave of nursery rhymes and usability nightmares. You can’t go around it. You can’t go over it. But you gotta go through it. And when you do go through it, you encounter something so frightening that you run in the opposite direction.

It’s not an optimal user experience by any means, which is why Microsoft has high hopes for the addition of Yammer and Office 365 into the mix. If companies just can’t give up their legacy SharePoint installations, but can’t fathom working how they work today, then adding social capabilities, document collaboration and other app integrations might be enough to meet user demand for a seamless working experience.

The Challenge: Social is Not a Free Gift with Purchase

So you’ve come to the realization that your SharePoint cave isn’t going anywhere, but at least the scary bear, a permanent squatter in your IT stack, can be tamed if you make the user experience more social. It’s a good thing that Microsoft is now bundling Yammer with SharePoint and Office 365, right?


My concern with the bundling of Yammer -- an activity-stream and group-based technology that facilitates a more social enterprise -- with more established “required” technology like SharePoint, is that it signals that truly “social” technology is just an add-on and unworthy of its own consideration. Even though yes -- I absolutely advocate that an enterprise social network should be deeply integrated into other technologies and existing employee workflows -- real-time social technology needs to be treated as a special cultural and communications program just as much as a technology program. And with these new bundles, the following problems arise:

1. IT shouldn't “own” social

When Yammer is bundled with SharePoint or Office 365, you run the risk of IT taking ownership of a Yammer deployment. Yes, they need to be heavily involved, but because Yammer is a transformative and disruptive method of communication at many companies, it needs to be managed by a robust team of communicators and people-focused community managers. Typically, this isn't IT.

2. Bundling devalues the importance of “social” as a standalone program

As noted above, Yammer or other social tools should be heavily integrated into other systems, portals and user workstreams. But the most successful deployments of an enterprise social network, regardless of vendor, stem from companies that recognize the powerful and important role that “social” plays in their company. They create rollout strategies, plans, and align it with intended business outcomes. They host events, activities, and work to integrate it into the working culture. If Yammer is bundled with IT-lead initiatives, customers risk having social just appear without a purpose and a plan, creating an easy opportunity for failure.

Learning Opportunities

3. Bundling lowers the perceived financial value of social technology

Trying to put a price on enterprise social networking has been a challenge for vendors for years. Because enterprise social can’t necessarily always demonstrate proven financial ROI, it’s not uncommon to see customers attempt to negotiate for pennies per license per year. Bundling Yammer with other Microsoft products opens up the door to categorical reasoning -- the natural tendency of humans to classify things as expensive and inexpensive. According to Alexander Chernev,“when an expensive item is bundled with an inexpensive one, people categorize the bundle as less expensive, and this lowers their willingness to pay for it.”

Ultimately, Microsoft’s bundling of Yammer with pricy software suites continues to create the perception that enterprise social networking tools are of lower value, whereas those of us who are still believers and evangelists know that you can’t put a financial value on the positive transformation that these tools can bring to your company.

Next Steps: Tame Your SharePoint Bear Carefully

As companies start to bring in enterprise social programs, accepting that they’re the reality of the modern workplace, I urge you to remember that “social” is not a free gift with purchase. Just because you get access to Yammer as part of your Microsoft license, you can’t just open the doors and hope that it will work. It won’t.

If you do decide that Yammer is what you need to transform your company’s communication culture, then by all means, take the opportunity to do so. But just because it’s there doesn’t mean you have to turn it on right away -- you must take a measured and strategic approach to ensure that you get the benefits of Yammer in the long term. And, don’t think that your only option is Yammer, either. Some companies may not need or desire as robust of a tool, and something more mobile-based like Anchor or more use-case specific like Salesforce Chatter might be more appropriate.

There are myriad vendors out there with social technologies, and I urge companies to select the tool that best fits their needs and business objectives.

Title image courtesy of lineartestpilot (Shutterstock) 

Editor's Note: Want to read more by Carrie? See her The 8 C's of Social Software Success: When Employees are Your Most Important Customers

About the author

Carrie Basham Young

Carrie Basham Marshall is a digital workplace leader now focused on farming and agri-tourism in Northern California. After 15 years building collaboration products (Socialcast) and leading technology implementation projects as the CEO of Talk Social to Me, Carrie advises, invests in, and offers pro-bono consulting for small businesses while building out “The Ranch” as her next career chapter.