With SharePoint, it really can be 2007, 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2014 all at the same time.

Over the years I’ve been faced with some very challenging intranet projects but none of them come close to the challenges of upgrading software on the office computer. 

Over the last few months of iPad ownership software upgrades have been a delightful user experience, but I am still scarred by a recent battle with downloading the latest version of Ovi Suite from Nokia. I know just how the NASA project team felt when they pressed the button to land the Curiosity Mars rover and then had to wait what must have seemed like a lifetime to know it had landed safely and was working correctly.

All the talk over the last few months in SharePoint Land has been about the early release by Microsoft of the features of SharePoint 2013 ahead of the launch next year. Already analysts have explored every pixel of the videos, PowerPoint decks and briefings to try to work out what the benefits and challenges will be of the new version.

Enterprise Software Management

Of course every vendor upgrades their software from time to time, but as far as the major enterprise content suites are concerned (IBM, Oracle, EMC, SAP, OpenText, etc.) the pace of change is fairly slow, with many of the changes taking place behind the scenes with little (unfortunately!) change to the user interface and user functionality.

Many of the modules of these suites (and SAP is a good example) will only be used by a relatively small number of employees, many of whom will take training and familiarization courses well in advance of upgrade. In most cases there will have been very close contact between corporate IT and the software vendor.

Microsoft does things differently. Despite the fact that SharePoint 2007 is about to go out of support, the latest AIIM survey indicated that 25 percent of respondents are still using SharePoint 2003 and 2007 and a further 20 percent are in the process of upgrading from SharePoint 2007 to SharePoint 2010.

So that means that nearly half of the user base does not have SharePoint 2010 fully installed and tested and yet Microsoft has announced major changes in the version to be launched next year. Even if I just take the search functionality, Fast Search Server for SharePoint (FS4SP) is being quite radically upgraded, despite the fact that several of my clients are trying to get the current version working to their satisfaction.

The User Experience

If all these upgrades could be managed by IT then I would be less concerned, but SharePoint works best when IT and business teams are working together -- I almost wrote ‘"in harmony," but sadly that is often not the case. The changes to the management of site collections (for example the Community site type) will have implications for business users who have even less time than IT teams to work out what the implications might be.

Despite the level of detail that is now emerging it is still unclear where Yammer is going to fit in and how Microsoft is going to provide enterprise strength support for mobile devices. I know that there will be further announcements in due course but with smaller teams all round, organizations do not have the luxury of playing a "let’s wait and see" game.

I have three major multinational clients, two of whom will be implementing SharePoint 2010 later this year with no prior experience of SharePoint and one who will be moving up from a fairly poor implementation of SharePoint 2007. Right now they would rather not know what Microsoft has in store for SharePoint 2013 as each day they are getting emails and meeting invites from IT colleagues eager to suggest that they should jump to the next version. As Tony Byrne has commented, in reality, SharePoint 2013 is still at least a year away.

Manage the Roadmap

In many respects I applaud Microsoft for paying attention to the comments from customers, but I have serious doubts about whether the company appreciates the impact on the business community, especially where there is limited internal expertise in SharePoint. What I am seeing is organizations deciding not to customize SharePoint 2010 in case it makes the upgrade to SharePoint 2013 more difficult, even though no decision has been made about the upgrade. This situation is not helped at all by Microsoft advising customers not to customize 2013. 

There are some difficult decisions to be made about the levels of commitment by an organization to SharePoint 2010 and SharePoint 2013. In my opinion there needs to be a small, but informed team that has the responsibility for developing a SharePoint roadmap. This is a decision that cannot be left to crowdsourcing and letting a consensus emerge.

In the short term the priority has to be to get the best out of the current roadmap but at the same time flag gaps between user requirements and SharePoint 2010 delivery could be (please note, could be!) the basis for an upgrade business case in due course.

Editor's Note: You might be interested in other articles by Martin White:

-- Intranet Management: Shaping the Internal Customer Experience