The Overwhelming Scent of Vanilla
Attend any SharePoint event or conference, and you'll like find yourself immersed in how to build very detailed, specific solutions. While Microsoft may be moving away from the IT Pro (I'm not saying they are, but that some in the community state that it feels that way) these conferences are the last bastion of IT Pro content and community. Browse through your favorite SharePoint-related community website and you'll likely find that the majority of content trends toward the administrator and the developer. Even if we're not focused on the back-end, we may be caught up in trying to build out something beyond the simple, maybe involving a third-party solution, as a way to make ourselves and our teams more productive.
If your job depends on SharePoint, it's easy to get lost in the forest and not see the broad open spaces. Many of us are constantly working with our heads down, focused on architecture, scalability, and governance issues. Here's the thing: SharePoint is supposed to be about improving business productivity, not server maintenance. We bought into this platform because it was supposed to make life easier. We purchased the platform — whether it was SharePoint on premises or online — and then a couple things happened once we started using it:
- We decided we didn't like the vanilla. We thought that was what we wanted when we bought it, but then we got a taste for what was possible — and our "needs" suddenly got more complex. Instead of the vanilla, we realized that we wanted triple-fudge Ghiradelli brownie with Brazilian nuts and hand-picked Maraschino cherries.
- We realized that the guys running our email server might not be the right people to deploy and configure the SharePoint platform, much less own and maintain the ongoing governance (no offense to my IT guys).
In fact, we realized that to make SharePoint efficient and effective, and to treat it as the critical business platform that it is, we needed to staff it appropriately. For our 5,000 employees, we needed more than 2 people working on SharePoint.
Furthermore, we recognized that what SharePoint actually required to be successful was a serious planning effort.
Let's be honest — many of us got caught up in all of the marketing for the platform and figured it would just somehow read our minds and do what we wanted before we even knew what we wanted. Apparently it's a little more involved than that. We also concluded that a successful SharePoint environment required proactive governance, adhering to the same corporate, IT, and project standards as any of our other enterprise platforms.
In general, we're focusing on the wrong things. Not because we made the wrong decision of moving to SharePoint. Quite the contrary: it's a very compelling solution, with a very broad and powerful set of capabilities. But it's also really complex, and many organizations find themselves spending more time and money and people on maintaining it than they expected. That's just the reality of where we are individually, and of where SharePoint is in its lifecycle. The simpler you make something on the front-end, the more complex it will be on the back-end. SharePoint does some fantastic stuff out of the box. And it can be a huge mess to support.
So where do we go from here? What's the solution for those of us who are sold on the platform, but recognize the need to spend less time managing servers, and more time using the platform to improve our businesses? I see things moving down three paths:
- Dedicated, expert teams
For some organizations, the benefits far outweigh the pains, and keeping SharePoint in-house makes the most sense. To do this successfully, companies will need to learn from the observations above, building out (i.e. properly staffing and growing) your SharePoint expertise, and doing the detailed planning that SharePoint requires.
- Hosted platforms
Another option is to outsource it. Companies have options here, from dedicated to multi-tenant, with some vendors providing deep expertise into specific verticals (like health care or manufacturing) and horizontal solutions (project/portfolio management, or FAST search). Hosted platforms move the back-end cost out of your organization, but you will still require some expertise in architecting and managing your environment, making sure you're getting the most value out of the platform for your team.
Right now it may only appeal to small to medium businesses, but Office365 will catch up eventually, and offer you another option for moving SharePoint off-premises — bundling SharePoint with email and communication services.
The longest running joke in the SharePoint world is that the answer to any question is "it depends." But its also the honest answer. I just posted an article over on Markets for Good that recognizes the fact that many IT shop are beleaguered by too many decisions, which makes it next to impossible to make any decision. My two cents on Office365 is that this is why many organizations will move to the platform — not because it has everything they want and need, but because a more locked down, controlled and limited platform (in its current state) means fewer decisions to make, and less time, cost, and people managing it. Am I right?