Announcing: The End User’s Guide to Manual Migration

Over the years, I’ve helped numerous clients migrate from one implementation of SharePoint to another. Sometimes this was because of version upgrades, sometimes as they migrated to the cloud, and sometimes just because their first implementation was so “challenging.” Over the years, I picked up a few useful ways to think about the migration process when you’re asking a user to do it. I created a two-page guide (one sheet, double-sided) that we would share with every user as a part of the migration process. However, it didn’t look that good.

So, I partnered with Sharegate to help “make it pretty”. The result is available on their web site at https://get.share-gate.com/manual-migration-reference-guide. It may seem weird that an organization that sells migration tools would be interested in helping you know how to do it yourself. However, the truth is, they care about you getting to the new platform. In some cases, the right answer is their tools. In other cases, the right answer is for the users to migrate the content themselves. If you’re looking for a guide that you can share with your users, check it out.

SharePoint Community Survey Results

A few weeks ago I posted SharePoint Users Groups and Community 2.0: Reflections and Projections. I shared my perspective on the state of technical users’ groups and SharePoint in particular, and asked folks to please take a short survey to help me get a sense for where everyone’s thoughts were about the technical community. The results are in so I wanted to share what I heard.

Importance

The first question was the importance of the community. Not surprisingly, folks thought community was fairly important:

Events

Of the highly engaged audience, there were many (38%) who had attended two or fewer events in the last year. At the other end of the spectrum, 36% had attended more than six events.

More interesting than how many they attended was the number of those that were attending less than they used to (57%). Again, this is telling in a highly engaged audience.

Desires

When asked about the balance between on-ground and virtual communities, most folks (51%) felt like a balanced approach was best. More telling is that if you include slightly more or less (so roughly the same) nearly everyone answered that they wanted it – “it” meaning a mixture of both types. No one indicated a desire for all virtual events – though clearly we’re moving in that direction.

However, the most interesting results (to me) were the results when I asked folks what they wanted more of. Half- and full-day events on one or more topics topped the list, with over 60% for each of the two options. Webinars and Face-to-Face meetings (one-hour format) were next, with both receiving 50%. There was strong support for just getting together at a restaurant as well.

Overall, what folks want from the community is Show and Tell (92%). Other folks are looking for social interactions and development discussions (over 55% each). It’s really interesting to see what people want out of communities. Some of it is training but a lot of it is really that community connection.

Next Steps

I don’t know what the next steps are for our group in Indiana – but I do know that my perception of what people want has changed.

SharePoint Users Groups and Community 2.0: Reflections and Projections

First and foremost, this post is a desire to start a conversation about where the SharePoint community is heading and how I can help foster that growth as a community leader and sponsor. The SharePoint community has been very good to me. They’ve repaid my work in kindness and assistance that is immeasurable. I want to help breathe more life into the community but in truth, I’m not sure how.

So I’m asking for you to react to this post. It can be on Twitter, as a comments on my blog, and/or posts on your blog or if you’re willing, you can even comment via the survey I’ll put at the end of this post. (or any combination of those things.) I’ll share the results of what I find — if you provide your email address — and I’ll share summary to the community at large.

Users Groups Closing Down

As the owner of the SharePoint Shepherd brand of products I have some liberties in the way that I spend our marketing dollars. I’ve always made the number one priority community events. Most of the leaders know that I’m happy to send them books and DVDs to use as giveaways at their events. The community leaders that are within reasonable (and sometimes unreasonable) driving distance of my home base in Indianapolis know that I’ll drive to their event and deliver content whenever.

What I’ve noticed over the past few years is that there are fewer user’s groups meeting and those that are still meeting have noticed a steep decline in attendance. In fact, we’re sending roughly 15% of the care packages out today that we sent out just a few short years ago because the groups we’ve been talking to have either closed or have become non-responsive.

Let me let that sink in for a moment. If you had a user’s group four years ago there’s about a 1:8 chance the group is still operational. Oh, and if you didn’t have a group four years ago the odds are very long against you getting one started successfully. From my point of view this looks like a collapse of the offline community.

There are those who would say that Microsoft should do more to support the community. To them I’ll say “sure.” The problem is how? What should they do? What would be useful to the community? If you want to respond to me with real answers to these somewhat rhetorical questions, I’ll take them and get them to the right people at Microsoft.

What I know is that Microsoft hasn’t given up on communities – changes in the MVP program which I won’t go into detail here – recognize the power and need for local on-ground communities. It’s not that Microsoft isn’t interested. In my experience what’s missing is a roadmap for what to do that will be successful in driving the community forward.

So on the one side we know the challenge is that local groups are closing down and on the other side there are the conditions. What are the factors that are leading to the closures? For that I need to explain my perspective on SharePoint Users Groups and to talk about the challenges with Users Groups in general.

Types of SharePoint Users Groups

In truth as a planner for SharePoint User’s Groups both directly and indirectly as I helped others, I began to realize there were really three groups of users who were coming to the SharePoint meetings. The three groups are:

  • Infrastructure Specialists – These are the folks who are tasked with implementing and operating SharePoint. They’re interested in features and what they need to add-on to SharePoint to meet their user needs.
  • Developers – In general developers are .NET converts or prisoners to SharePoint development. They want to know how to develop solutions on SharePoint.
  • Users – This is a rather broad group but in essence it’s people who don’t fit into either of the other two groups. They aren’t responsible for the servers and they don’t know how to develop – or they aren’t being asked to develop in their organization. They’re trying to get something done and SharePoint just happens to be the tool.

I’ve seen groups that cater to only one of these groups and groups like the ones I’ve run that try to deliver content for everyone. We generally do this by managing our content schedule planning to target one group at each meeting meaning we’d cover everyone once a quarter.

There’s no one right or wrong way to do things in terms of targeting the users for your group. However, it’s important to recognize that there are really three groups of users who are sharing one structure.

Challenges with Users Groups

I’ve been supporting communities with user’s groups for more than 25 years. (See my post Running Users Groups for more.) What I’ve seen has been a radical change in how professionals engage. When I started user’s groups existed as an on-ground community when no virtual communities existed. Sure we had AOL and the Internet was present but communities really didn’t exist.

Over the years, virtual communities started to spring up through bulletin boards and these communities began to have some traction. However, very few of these communities took off. Few people got interested enough to create community out of this space.

As a sidebar, the MVP community grew out Microsoft’s forums. The first MVPs were the community leaders that would answer questions in these communities and eventually Microsoft recognized them. While the program has grown and changed since then, it’s genesis were in these early forums.

However, the early forums were so nascent and lacking in their features that most folks who had virtual communities still craved connecting with folks face-to-face. Thus during the first birth of virtual communities’ user’s groups remained a place to create community.

The classic anchor for a user’s group has been the technical presentation (and in many cases the pizza and giveaways). Someone who had done something interesting or had taken the time to develop expertise would stand in front of the group using a projector and would share what they knew. (I still remember when these were overhead projectors and LCD panels that you sat on top of them.)

However, the world has changed. Today the communities which are available to folks are much richer than they ever were. However, I believe one of the stronger challenges to user’s groups isn’t the availability of virtual experiences, it’s the plethora of technical information available to anyone anytime. You simply don’t have to go to a physical users’ group meeting to get technical content.

Virtual Content and Communities

Sites like Slideshare.net make presentation slide decks available. Youtube.com has made getting video recordings of presentations easier too. Microsoft has recorded all of the sessions from most of its conferences and have made them available for free on Channel 9. If you’re looking for raw content the ability for you to get it is substantially different than it was even a few short years ago. Content delivery isn’t enough.

However, with on-ground communities there’s questions and answer sessions that allow you to ask questions about how the presentations apply to you. In the virtual world, there are now free virtual conferences that offer hours of content available along with questions and answer sessions at the end. These interactivity options aren’t the same as being face-to-face with the speaker but they can be nearly as good.

In truth communities like StackOverflow.com have made it easier to pass knowledge along in the community. You can vote up and down answers to get to conversation threads that help focus in on questions and the “best” answer. Google, Bing, and others have made searching for these threads easy and relevant. What you used to have to be present to hear is now recorded and answers prioritized for later rediscovery via search.

The result of all of these changes is that the anchor for the classical users group has eroded. There’s very little differential value to the off-line community from the point of view of content delivery.

Conditions for Closure

When you’re trying to figure out what’s leading to the closure of so many SharePoint user’s groups and the erosion of on-ground communities, you’ve got to look at the factors.

First, let’s look at the infrastructure folks who were told for about three years (2012-2015) that their services were no longer needed. You see Microsoft had a grand plan that everyone was going to go to Office 365 and it was going to be wonderful. By 2013, Microsoft was informed by many of its largest (and therefor important) customers that they would switch from Microsoft technologies before they would move everything to the cloud. The resulted in a softened message of do hybrid then move to cloud only and has settled (at least for the moment) that there will be a SharePoint in the future and Microsoft would love to have you on Office 365 when (and if) you’re ready.

However, the damage was done. Many SharePoint administrators got the message loud and clear that they weren’t wanted any longer and as a result they fled the world of SharePoint administration. Whether they fled at a greater or lesser rate than customers moved to Office 365 is a question but the simple fact is that fewer SharePoint administrators are still in the market. Thus we’re losing one of our audiences for SharePoint users groups but surely we’re doing OK with developers, right?

Well, SharePoint has had four software development models in just four years. We have our classic SharePoint “Full trust” development model. We had the SharePoint Sandbox introduced and then quickly deprecated. Next we had the Apps model which was forced to be renamed to Add-ins after the decision to add the Azure AD Apps model – which obviously only works in the cloud. (But I’m not even counting that one.) Now they’ve released the SharePoint Framework model as a new development model. Four models. Four years.

So there’s a lot to learn. That’s good. The bad news is that it has turned off many developers. They don’t want to keep following the rapid changes in the development models – because each new model comes with its own quirks, bugs, and limitations. Add to that, most of the newer models are models that are designed to leverage core HTML/JavaScript development skills and you realize that the big learning need for SharePoint developers isn’t SharePoint skills it’s HTML/JavaScript development skills.

Another side bar is that I know what the surveys say about developers and their ability to write JavaScript applications, however, I also know why those surveys are yielding results that can’t be trusted at face value. First, the sampling is of developers who are on the Internet – so they’re more likely to be Internet developers. Second, if I’m asked as any sort of web developer if I know JavaScript or I use JavaScript the answer’s going to be yes. Whether it’s two lines of script copied from Stack Overflow or whether I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of lines of code. So while the surveys say that there are lots of JavaScript developers, there are relatively few. I stood on stage at a Microsoft SharePoint Conference and offered to start the JavaScript Haters of America Club (JHAC) and there were many hands in the room raised to volunteer to join and a few who jokingly offered to create clubs in Europe.

It looks like with developers, we’re at strike two. But surely the end users will pull us through.

With the introduction of Office 365 we had a whole new class of user opportunities open up. Small companies who could previously not afford to deploy their own server infrastructure could suddenly implement and use SharePoint. (In fact, Microsoft deprecated its Small Business Server offering pushing users to Office 365 instead.) One would think this would bring a whole new set of users who had never used SharePoint into the fold.

To some extent this is right. However, by and large users didn’t understand the similarities and differences between SharePoint on-premises and Office 365. In fact, in the app launcher it wasn’t even called SharePoint. It was called sites. That means that many of these new users who were on the platform didn’t really understand that they were. It’s hard to search for help for something that you can’t describe. It’s even more difficult to form a community around the nameless technology that you depend on to get your job done – if you’re smart enough to stop sending attachments.

The other issue that has become increasingly frustrating for users is the feature disparity – both positive and negative between SharePoint and Office 365. Users can read something online and realize that it doesn’t apply to them.

Add to these challenges the financial challenges of running a group and it’s not hard to see why so many groups have shut down.

Financial Considerations of a User’s Group

Generally speaking, running a user’s group isn’t that expensive. In truth the expenses are largely providing food and drinks for the attendees. Depending on the size of your group you may spend $100 to a few hundred dollars per meeting on food and drinks. Admittedly the food is most typically pizza but if the goal is the conversations and community the food is just a way to handle a need for folks. (Though I do sometimes joke that all people come for is the free meal.)

However, someone has to pay for the pizza and that means sponsorships. Every user’s group leader I’ve ever known has struggled with this. On the one hand the sponsors typically want to give a presentation or get a few minutes at the meeting for a commercial announcement. It’s a tough line to walk between providing value for the sponsors and pissing off the attendees. For the SharePoint User’s Group of Indiana, we asked our sponsors for very little, mentioned them at every meeting and in every communication and we worked with them for presentations when they made sense. They weren’t guaranteed a slot at one of the meetings but we generally tried to make that happen when it made sense for the attendees.

We were lucky in a sense. The market in Indianapolis is more friendly than larger markets. I could leverage relationships with most of the consulting companies in town who were doing SharePoint consulting and ask them for $500/yr and they would graciously help out. We met at the Microsoft office and it just worked.

In other markets the options were different which necessitated the pursuit of tool and software vendor sponsorship. The problem with this is that they almost always come with an expectation that the software vendor gets to pitch their SharePoint add-on. But a meeting with a vendor session is better than no meeting at all so many leaders accepted it. And to be fair, the vendors were aware of the delicate balance and in all but a very few cases delivered real value to the attendees whether or not they decided to purchase the vendor product.

However, in today’s world the choices are different. A wave of consolidation went through the vendors so there are fewer folks to ask for sponsorship on the vendor side and on the consulting side many organizations stopped promoting their SharePoint practices. A lack of promotion means a lack of funding sources. While they may still be doing some of that work, they’re not investing marketing dollars in it. While we still do a great deal of SharePoint and Office 365 consulting we’re finding ourselves in the minority.

The result, the ability of organizers to attract funding has become harder and therefore represents a greater barrier to those who want to keep the groups open.

The Path Forward

For the leadership of the SharePoint Users Group of Indiana, we officially put the group on hold. We didn’t know where we were going with the group – and still don’t. I’m personally conflicted because I miss the conversations that I had with the local community and at the same time I don’t know how to really get it back.

I realize that the process of content planning in our environment is too challenging. At the same time, the groups that I’ve seen that leave things open to discussion topics doesn’t seem right either. It seems like the format of the one-hour user’s group with technical training is gone. So what’s going to replace it?

We tried for a while in Indianapolis to do half-day workshops. The idea was that this is a type of content that the community needs but can’t get elsewhere. This represented its own challenges not the least of which was getting presenters who would commit to the work to put the workshop together and who had the facilitation skills to do it. On the other side was the attendees who needed to get a half-day away from their jobs to participate. Even when we found the speaker we often struggled to get the right amount of attendance.

There are still SharePoint Saturday events across the world but they’re happening less and less. From some of the organizers that I’ve spoken with finding the funding to do these events has proven more and more challenging over the years. This is as the software vendors have pulled back from these events because they continued to struggle to show the value.

The Weather Forecast

I’ve never been a fan of weather forecasters. Historically accuracy was about even with the odds of a professional baseball player hitting a ball. (Roughly 1:3). However, I find that we’ve all got the desire to know what’s going to happen. What does the future hold? I don’t know. However, I’d like your help. I’ve created a survey that I’d love for you to help by filling out. Once I get enough responses I’ll gather them up and post a follow up to this that explains the results. Can you help find a path forward for our community?

The Survey is at: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/HR8SP89

The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users, Instructor Led Training

For years now we’ve licensed instructor led training for SharePoint through our SharePoint Shepherd brand. Included in that training is some framing information that puts SharePoint’s value in context. This information helps folks understand what SharePoint can do and how it can help organizations accomplish their goals. For some of our customers we recorded module 1 so that they could optimize their employees’ time and they wouldn’t have to worry about finding time to teach it.

Today I’m releasing the first part of that module that we recorded on You Tube, so that anyone that wants to help their users and business leaders understand how SharePoint can be valuable can do that at no charge.

Of course, we’re always here to help you be successful with your SharePoint adoption, whether that’s end user training, adoption and engagement training and support, helping you deploy the infrastructure, or developing solutions that are built on top of SharePoint.

Enjoy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0inzfbprTE

Quote of the Day Web Part for SharePoint and Office 365

A client of mine wanted a quote of the day web part on their Intranet – with two twists. First, they’re on Office 365, so they had to use something out of the box. No custom code. Second, they wanted the quote to be pretty – that means having an image.

After some work I located a feed from TheySaidSo. Their images feed is available at http://feeds.feedburner.com/theysaidso/images. All I needed to do was plug this into the SharePoint RSS Viewer and set a few options.

I set the feed limit to 1 and checked the box to show both the feed title and description (see below).

When I did this, I got the image from the feed. I decided to do a few enhancements to the XSLT that the web part uses to display the image, and ultimately ended up with what you see here:

The image and the text of the quote are provided by the feed. Pretty cool and pretty easy.

If you want my .Webpart file so you can import this into your SharePoint environment, it’s available here (it’s in the ZIP file).

If you don’t know how to use a .webpart file, you might want to check out The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users.

Metadata Navigation, Access Denied, Office 365, and the Custom Script Setting

With a client recently I was surprised to get an access denied message when trying to convert global navigation for their site collection over to managed navigation. (This is an option that’s available when publishing is enabled in a site collection.) I was surprised because I was an administrator for the service, the site collection, and the term store. I had every permission that I could possibly have and yet I received an access denied.

With the help of Microsoft support we found the culprit. In Office 365 there’s an option to control custom script and whether users can be prevented from custom scripts. Turning this option on has a long list of limitations – things that don’t work in SharePoint after you’ve turned the option on – however metadata navigation not working isn’t one of them. This setting is in the ¡SharePoint administration portal:

When I reset the setting to “Allow” and waited for 24 hours, the metadata navigation worked just fine.

Creating an Employee Birthday Calendar with SharePoint

There are times when SharePoint allows you to do things super quick and easy. If you’re in a small organization and you’re looking to create an employee birthday calendar, it’s easy. You add the person to a calendar and set a recurring event for every year. The problem with this is that as your organization grows and you get to a few hundred people, SharePoint will suddenly start generating an error when users go to the list. This is an unfortunate side effect of how recurring events are processed.

With several of our clients facing this issue we built a new approach to managing birthday calendars that works at any scale from the two person and a dog organization to organizations with hundreds of thousands of employees. We put together a guide to how to Create an Employee Birthday Calendar – which can also be used for employee anniversaries or anything else where you need events to recur on a repeating interval.

The guide is in the style of the SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide – that is that it’s built with instructional design tenants in place and is designed to be easy to follow – but it is substantially longer than any of our 121 tasks that end users want to do. If you like the guide on how to Create an Employee Birthday Calendar, we’d love for you to check out some of the other resources that we have available.

It’s Live: SharePoint Full Trust Development on Lynda.com

I’ve been training developers how to develop for Microsoft SharePoint for more than 10 years now. I’ve been honored to participate in the development of courses, exams, and best practice guidance for SharePoint development numerous times. I can’t count the number of developers I’ve trained, guided, and mentored.

I distilled the SharePoint full trust development training into a brand new Lynda.com course called Developing SharePoint Full Trust Solutions for SharePoint 2013. It teaches everything that you need to know to develop for on-premises SharePoint deployments. Most of my corporate clients are still developing full-trust solutions and haven’t shifted over to the Apps model – now called the Add-Ins model for SharePoint. That’s why this first course is about the kind of development most corporate developers need to learn.

If you’re looking for a way to learn SharePoint development – or even if you’re just looking to know how to do something specific like extract a file from SharePoint or manage a long running operation – I believe this is a course you need to watch.

I’m looking forward to hearing what you liked most about the course.

SharePoint as a User Enablement Platform

My friend Andrew Connell recently posted that SharePoint shouldn’t be thought of as a development platform. Instead he encouraged developers to see it as a service. In short he’s suggesting that you consume it like a service from the outside. In this way you minimize the number of dependencies on the platform and create better options for long term supportability. I won’t dive into his points for a developer here. Instead, I’ll say that he’s saying that we need to be inside or outside of an application. Reading a bit into the conversation I saw the idea that we don’t need integration and I realized that this has been one of the key benefits of SharePoint for some time – and it’s something the platform is losing.

It Starts With Access

I first started in publishing by editing and writing chapters for books on Paradox and Access. I’ve still got the plaques that they gave me when I completed the work. Back then Paradox and Access were competing for the end-user database market. Microsoft’s breadth eventually caused Access to move forward as the database for end users. It was – and is – a great data manipulation platform. Recently I sent a mailing to the people who I’ve connected with on LinkedIn. Only one problem, I sent it to an outdated list. The solution was to get a new list from LinkedIn and use Access to build a list of changed email addresses. I did that and sent messages to the people that I missed. It took just a few minutes and solved a problem that would have been difficult any other way.

Over the years Access has fallen out of favor as a way to create solutions. Some of that is the market growing up. Some of that is the influence of the web. Some of that are well deserved criticisms of Access for corruption – which they resolved too late for too many customers. However, what Access allowed you to do – and what it continues to allow you to do to create end-user solutions is powerful. As a result I still run into organizations which have Access databases which play important and sometimes critical roles in the operation of the organization – no matter what size the organization is. Many of my IT brethren bemoan being surprised that mission critical solutions are built on access. I join them in my initial frustration – then quickly move to gratitude that someone else was creating solutions that were helpful to the business.

The power of Access lies in two key respects. First, Access connects to lots of data sources from CSVs to Excel documents and from SQL databases to SharePoint. It’s an engine for data processing. Second, Access allows users with relatively little skill to create user interfaces that other users can use.

The Meaning of Adoption

I’ve often spoken about how I really hate talks about adoption. I think that this is an awful way to think about things. Adoption feels like you’re trying to force people to use a technology that they don’t want to use. I tend to think more about engagement – how to get people fully engaged in the platform. Engagement means getting people to create solutions on my platform – like the users did with Access. If you can get just a few people engaged in building solutions then the problem of adoption goes away. A few key solutions means that a large portion of the organization will use the platform so they can use the solutions those few engaged users created.

Engagement isn’t about pushing people to a platform. Engagement is about pulling people into the fold and making them effective. It’s supporting the users that are building solutions that aren’t sanctioned as IT projects. It’s about providing guidance instead of doing things for the users and their departments. Fundamentally an engagement approach is aligned with how innovations are adopted.

Everett Rogers wrote Diffusion of Innovations to discuss his research on how people become engaged with innovations. He found there are five factors that lead to adoption: trialability, lack of complexity, observability, relative advantage, and compatibility with the current way of doing things. If these factors are present then whatever it is – whether it’s a farming technique or steel axe heads – will be diffused and thereby accepted by a culture.

The rub here is that one of these pillars is relative advantage. In short does the solution provide advantages to the user they didn’t have with their existing approach. This is where SharePoint offered advantages at a platform level – and at a compositing level – which other solutions didn’t have.

The Web and Recycle Bins

When SharePoint first started the web was in adolescence. We had been building web sites for a few years but very few of them had much interactivity. Organizations were getting started with ASP and realizing that having interactive web sites were powerful. At the same time we were struggling to cope with the flood of files coming in from our users. Network file shares were weighted down with content that no one really knew how to organize. SharePoint promised version control. SharePoint promised web access to our content and those were things that had a great relative advantage to what we were doing.

Shortly after SharePoint 2001 we got SharePoint 2003 and we moved from ASP to ASP.NET. When we did we started to be able to take advantages of the platform including the ability to composite things together better. By SharePoint 2007 we had a platform with a recycle bin, master pages, delegate controls, web part connections, and much of the core infrastructure that we have today – and this is when SharePoint hit its stride.

Suddenly there were enough things in the platform that users could build their own solutions. They could composite – that is they could build from the pieces that were provided – to create customized solutions that solved real business problems. We could use RSS and alerts to monitor changes in the system. We could connect a data source from one vendor to a visualization from another vendor. We could make screens that would show detail by allowing the selection of a record in one web part to impact what was displayed in another web part.

Kaleidoscope of User Solution

First there were the Thrilling Thirty pre-made solutions from Microsoft. Next came the Fab 40. Microsoft was building templates for the most common things that their users were doing with the platform. While these templates had their own rather serious issues, they helped users see what was possible with SharePoint by building templates based on the out of the box functionality. Users for their part started to create templates for their organization.

Every imaginable kind of solution was dreamed up. Some of them were created as templates to be easily replicateable. Some were just recipes that users would do over and over again as they moved from one problem to the next. Whether it was a project management site, a defect tracking site, or a customer management site, users were creating solutions and building the recipes to spread their solutions across the organization and across organizations.

The Slow Decline

I started a list of the technologies that have slowly been falling out of favor with the SharePoint team. I found that everything from built in site definitions, to forms solutions, to RSS, and beyond were all being crushed under the weight of progress. Some of my favorite features, like Web Part Connections are nearly impossible to work with these days due to bugs in the behavior of the user interface.

As we continue to see important but poorly understood features disappear, we’ll have to struggle to maintain SharePoint as a user enablement platform.

What is SharePoint is the Wrong Question!

If you do SharePoint for a living you’ve learned to dread the question that follows telling someone what you do. Pretty universally, that question is “What is SharePoint?” If it’s your full-time job – or even a part of your job – you feel that you should be able to answer that question in 30 seconds or less. However, it’s not that simple. It’s not that simple because what SharePoint is doesn’t tell the person what SharePoint is to them.

I can – and do – describe SharePoint as a web-based platform for building communication and collaboration solutions. In doing so, I might as well be speaking in a foreign language. It doesn’t make any more sense to you than it would for me to try to explain email to Thomas Edison. He’s a smart guy – but he’s not likely to understand what solutions email enables in people’s lives in the context of his world.

Analogies

Analogies are the lens through which we learn something new. We look at how SharePoint is like and is not like what we already have, so that it can be made to make sense. To that end, I’d like to share two analogies and compare them. The first, prefabricated houses, helps to convey the speed at which we can build solutions to problems in SharePoint and the second, the building blocks analogy, helps to demonstrate the flexibility that we have to leverage components.

Prefabricated Houses

If you buy a prefabricated house, you know, for the most part, what you’re going to get. The basic plans are set. The walls are shipped in on a truck. They were made at a factory miles away. When the parts get on site they’re connected together and, rather rapidly, you end up with a house.

The benefits of a prefabricated house are that it’s generally cheaper and the quality is generally better because of the benefits of having good control and consistency in a factory. They also improve the time-to-completion. However, there’s generally less flexibility in the overall design, and relatively fewer ways to customize the home at a structural level.

SharePoint is built on the web, via templates, and provides a relatively consistent experience. Oversimplifying for a moment, everything in SharePoint is a list, library, or a web part. (I’m purposefully ignoring Microsoft’s newer names now for simplicity.) A web part is a way to visualize information or do something on a page. A list contains items and a library contains folders and files. The beauty of SharePoint is that it’s a set of predefined and tested components that can be put together. This makes it quick to set up and relatively low in cost.

Like a prefabricated house, there are some things in SharePoint which are set. You’re going to have SharePoint sites and they will contain various lists, libraries, and pages. The pages will have content and web parts. These are the basic building blocks. You get to control the final look and feel – like you would in a prefabricated home – but the structure is relatively fixed.

Out of the box, SharePoint has templates for search centers, team (collaboration) sites, and more. These are “ready to use” immediately after taking SharePoint “out of the box.” Like the prefabricated house, SharePoint can be available to use rather rapidly because of these predefined and tested components.

Building Blocks

I love Lego® building blocks. They’re great fun, plus I’ve had the pleasure to speak with some folks from their corporate offices over the years and I’m simply impressed. The beauty of Lego building blocks is that you can do almost anything with them. You can make houses, castles, cars, and hundreds of other things. These items are all based on a relatively small number of different kinds of building blocks. The magic of the Lego system isn’t the blocks themselves, but rather how they’re put together.

Some of the Lego kits are set up so that you have a single set of instructions about how to create the object on the box. Others are set up so that you can build several different objects with the same kit. These ship with the three or four sets of instructions necessary to build the different objects described in the kit. However, you don’t have to make what’s on the box. You can make anything you desire out of the blocks that you have.

SharePoint is similar in that you can build the kinds of things that are on the box. There are a set of instructions (templates) which can be used to quickly create pre-designed solutions. However, you don’t HAVE to make what’s on the box.

Of course, you can buy other Lego kits and get some of the less-common blocks that might not have come with your kit. You can do similar things by buying web parts or solutions specifically for SharePoint. You simply add to your starter kit with the new things that you want. Because you can buy from other kits – and in the case of SharePoint, create your own compatible blocks, what you can achieve is relatively limitless.

Comparing Analogies

I use this pair of analogies because it is the simplest way I know to answer the great challenge of describing SharePoint. On the one hand, you get utility, practically out of the box. You get quick templates for common needs and can get up and running quickly. On the other side of the fence, you get a platform for building solutions – with some assembly required. Both are true of SharePoint.

I should say that Microsoft has called the new development model Apps – then renamed them to Add-Ins. They have App Parts which are like web parts except using the new development model. Lists and libraries that you’ve added to your sites are now called Apps too in a move that I’m convinced was designed to just confuse people. Despite the musical name game SharePoint is built on sites, pages, lists and libraries, and web parts – no matter what we choose to call them.

It’s not about SharePoint

But this isn’t a blog post about how difficult it is to describe SharePoint. It’s a calling to ask a different question. Instead of “What is SharePoint?” the question should be, “Why do I care about SharePoint?”

Here the question changes because the important point isn’t what SharePoint is – but rather it’s about what SharePoint can do for the organization – and that’s why you care about SharePoint in an organization. It’s not the fancy features. It’s not about the extensibility. It’s about what you can do to build real business solutions that are impactful.

So what can you do with SharePoint? The answer is almost anything. Whether you should or not may be a different story but you can create all sorts of solutions with SharePoint. It can solve problems as diverse as project management to customer relationship management to document and records management.

In this is the key – I care about SharePoint in so much as I can use it to create solutions. To create solutions I have to have a framework for understanding it – and I need the ability to understand how to use it.