SharePoint has been a run away success in many organizations and judging by the number of award winning Intranet’s that have been built on the SharePoint platform, a great number of organizations are experiencing real results. Having been involved in a number of Intranet projects on SharePoint, particularly SharePoint 2010, this is not always the case.
There have been many articles written about why Intranets fail in general (such as this great piece from the Step Two guys) but what I want to cover in this article are some of the common issues that are specific to implementing SharePoint as your Intranet platform.
You might be surprised to see that most of the issues are not technical but revolve around change management, shared understanding, basic project management and business/technology alignment. However, I want to explore these areas in the SharePoint context to see if there are any insights that we can glean.
Concentrating on technology and not outcomes
The classic mistake for many organizations is to implement SharePoint without understanding why they need it, what they are going to do with it and hope it’s a panacea for organizational woes. Enter the very expensive SharePoint consultant that decides to start the discovery process by leading with technology:
Well it sounds like you need an Intranet as well as Team Sites for collaboration and finally an extranet for partners. Your internal communication needs will be covered by your Intranet, people will collaborate better with Team Sites and you can grant your partners access to content through your Extranet. Isn’t it great you have such a powerful platform at your disposal?
In an Intranet scenario you still need to look first look at the business and user needs before even considering a solution. SharePoint can be a great Intranet platform but just because it comes with a wide and impressive array of functionality doesn’t mean that you don’t need to explore the business outcomes you are striving for.
Focusing on technology usually means that organizations are trying to look for a quick answer to their needs. This may lead to complex solutions with no end in sight. For SharePoint Intranets this can result in far too much custom development in order to create a system that meets the needs of something poorly defined. In many cases, organizations have simple needs that can be met with a focused solution on SharePoint like a good How Do I or FAQ area, great search and shared calendars.
Concentrate on what people need to do their work every day and what binds organizations together. In other words, what is their organizational culture, their strategies and goals and then determine how to leverage this on the Intranet. Don’t look at a list of fancy features in SharePoint then desperately find a business problem to apply them to. Look first at your business issues, spend time defining and understanding those and then look at how SharePoint can help you craft an Intranet to meet those needs.
SharePoint Intranet projects can be a minefield of scope creep for a number of reasons. Things that seem very difficult to do technically can be achieved fairly easily (robust document management or user profiles for examples). On the other hand, things that appear to be simple, can be very difficult to do technically (have you ever tried to brand a SharePoint Intranet?) This mismatch of difficulty v.s. effort can cause confusion for the project team and stakeholders by allowing functionality that seems easy to be scoped in, only to find out that it is very costly because it doesn't quite satisfy what is needed.
The second issue is that even if things are easy to do technically they can be very costly from a change management perspective. Take User Profiles for example in SharePoint 2010. Most Intranets on SharePoint 2010 implement user profiles so that you can find experts, use some of the social features that the platform offers and provide single view into employee data for example. However the change management cost of getting people to fill in their profiles, communicating why the organization is doing this and the governance costs can be huge.
My best advice for implementing a SharePoint Intranet is that less is more. Consider implementing your Intranet iteratively and focus on core business needs. Don’t start scoping items in because they might be easy, most commonly they are not. SharePoint can do a lot but don’t take it for granted from a scope perspective, it will come back to bite you.
Collaboration and Communication are the same problem
Many organizations view "collaboration" as a key component of their intranet without realizing that it can address different sets of problems. A communication centric Intranet with a light smattering of social features (tags, wikis, rating and blogs for example) will have a vastly different set of outcomes and objectives than a collaboration solution that solves a particular business issue, allows an organization to take advantage of an opportunity or improves the way that projects are managed.
Far too many Intranet projects seek to improve communication and collaboration without realizing how large this problem set can be. I have seen organizations spend huge resources on getting the communication/Intranet portion right and then put in a Site Directory and create a couple of site templates under the banner of collaboration. Collaboration is an extension of a companies culture, strategy and core process in a specific context. It needs time, effort and the right people to be done correctly. Thinking that you can create both a compelling Intranet and solve collaboration challenges is simply far to much scope for most projects.
If you want tight integration between both your collaboration and Intranet activities on SharePoint, you need to realize the scope you are taking on and that you might need to address these two challenges differently.
Utilizing correct tools and techniques
As a SharePoint Analyst, there are a range of tools and techniques that can be used to facilitate the process of elicitation, analysis and verification. Most of the these Intranet elements are completely platform agnostic and you, or your consulting partner, should be using the best out there from other disciplines such as:
- Information Architecture: Tree Testing, Impression Testing, Card Sorting, Site Maps
- Business Alignment: Dialogue Mapping, Visioning workshops,
- Business Needs: Interviews, surveys, Gamestorming, contextual inquiry
- Design: Personas, A/B Testing, Mock-Ups
If your SharePoint Intranet vendor is more interested in simply diving straight to the technology before really looking at how the Intranet will provide you business value you will most likely achieve less than stellar results. A SharePoint Intranet doesn’t amount to much if it doesn’t solve the fundamental business problem that plagues the organization (and that problem is never not enough SharePoint!)
I would recommend you choose a partner that is either very strong in both the business and technical areas of SharePoint or choose an partner that specializes in platform agnostic Intranet planning and then choose a strong implementation partner. Its very hard for organizations to do both well, especially in SharePoint, so be careful.
Lack of training/education for users
Don’t worry about training users on the new SharePoint Intranet. How hard can it be? Its simply a website right? And authoring content is just like authoring in word!
You need training/education for your users. Whatever form this takes (face to face, just in time, videos, community of practice, etc.), both your end users and particularly content authors will need some training on how to use their new SharePoint Intranet.
Content authors need training on how to author content in SharePoint. Authoring content on SharePoint isn’t as simple as creating a Word document, it requires a different set of skills. Content authors not only need training on how to author content (the technical stuff) but require guidance on where to author content, the tone of the communication and any particular policies and procedures for approval.
End users need some level of training or familiarization with using the Intranet. Maybe not to the point of how to click on the screen but some basic education on the following:
- Search: Just because a monkey can type in a keyword in a search box and press enter doesn’t mean they are proficient at search. Explain any scopes, how to filter content and maybe how search federation with Windows works. For more advanced users show advanced search and the search query syntax.
- User Profiles: Show users how to fill in their profile but more importantly why they are filling it in
- Basic Navigation and Layout: A quick video about how to navigate around and how things are structured works really well in explaining the basic premise of the Intranet to end users.
Focus on low hanging fruit
A SharePoint Intranet can become an extremely costly affair as many things in SharePoint can be difficult to customize. However there are many areas where the platform can provide significant value with relatively low effort. Too many organizations fail to realize these features and spend considerable resources on custom branding solutions that can be extremely expensive, fancy custom development that provides little to no value or the too often seen example of spending money customizing SharePoint when the feature was available out of the box.
Now don’t get me wrong here, a pure out of box SharePoint Intranet is as common as a unicorn but once you understand the business outcomes you want your Intranet to achieve then you need to balance this with the cost of implementation in SharePoint. In my experience some pieces of functionality that are low hanging fruit (relatively easy to do and provide great value) are the following:
- Search: Custom Scopes and Best Bets can enhance your search experience for users greatly. A collection of 50 best bets should always be on an Intranet.
- Integrating External Data: Using BCS you can bring in data from another system further solidifying your SharePoint Intranet as the place to find information. It’s a great way to either show KPI’s, allow users to update their phone numbers on another system or show customer information from a CRM amongst other applications.
- Simple Content Approval for Publishing: It comes out of the box but understanding how publishing works and your publishing model can ensure that content is reviewed and vetted before its published out for your organization to see.
- Blogs: Project blogs, team blogs and executive blogs are a great way to start to communicate knowledge within your organization. Yes there are better blogging tools available but in most cases what SharePoint provides is enough.
- Online Forms: Taking simple paper forms and replacing them with either InfoPath or lists can be a great start to moving to electronic forms. Add in a simple workflow through SharePoint Designer or a third party too like Nintex and you can do some really powerful stuff.
- Calendars: Shared calendars for company events, projects, teams or departments can also be a very simple and powerful way to leverage the platform.
So those are some of my experiences that I have seen out there in the SharePoint Intranet world. Don’t take this all as doom and gloom however because there are some amazing Intranets built on SharePoint. But make sure you focus on the outcomes and not the technology, don’t fool yourself into thinking that collaboration and communication are the same thing, focus on simple high value items and you will see the tangible value your SharePoint Intranet can provide.