Tom Vander Wall Nails My Sharepoint Experience

Azul DeCobalto vs. Touchez LaSurfaceFor a number of years I have cringed every time one of my clients tells me that have or are planning to deploy Microsoft SharePoint as a collaborative platform. They say it is their “social media” deployment. SharePoint is many things, but it misses the critical element of social media which is networked connection between people and ideas, easy discoverability, makes visible and allows people to act on weak ties, and support for other network-like interactions rather than closed group performance.

I am not an IT manager, nor would I say my main competence is in portals and intranets. My focus is on what people DO with these tools, and very often I’ve seen people struggle with SharePoint.

Recently Tom Vander Wall has posted a really thoughtful blog post that says what I have experienced. SharePoint is a silo builder, not buster. (Thanks to someone in my Twitter network for Tweeting the link and I’m sorry I did not note who this was!!)

In SharePoint 2007: Gateway Drug to Enterprise Social Tools :: Personal InfoCloud, Tom quotes one of his informants:

“We went from 5 silos in our organization to hundreds in a month after deploying SharePoint”. They continue, “There is great information being shared and flowing into the system, but we don’t know it exists, nor can we easily share it, nor do much of anything with that information.” I heard this from an organization about 2 years ago in a private meeting and have been hearing near similar statements since. This is completely counter to the Enterprise 2.0 hopes and wishes they had for SharePoint. They were of the mindset that open sharing & having the organization and individuals benefit from a social platform.

Clearly, the challenges of any platform is not just the platform, but how and WHY it was used. Driving from real needs, not simply IT convenience or standards alone. But there is something critical here that is missing from a social interaction perspective. Horizontality.

Without extensive customization (and addition of external functionality), SharePoint requires you to dive into an area, then back out of it before you dive into another area. It is built on a tree-branching model. To maximize the power of networked interaction, you need a networked architecture. If you are trying to reify and support a hierarchical reporting and accountability model based on the org chart, SharePoint fits like a glove.

Our mental models and values permeate the very coding of the software we use. When people say technology is value neutral, I say people have values and people build software, therefore the software carries the imprint of the designers’ values. SharePoint is a perfect example.

If you read the excellent comments to Tom’s post, there is some great insight as to what Sharepoint is good for and some ideas about how and why it stumbles in other areas. One of Tom’s own replies stands out for me:

There is a lot of understanding of how social tools should work and need to work in enterprise (deeply based on how people interact with others and with interfaces) that must go on top of the technology platform. I have deep interest in that story and that understanding, as it is one I rarely see inside enterprise, but I see with in the makers of the social tool products.

The point I hear over and over from those trying SharePoint to accomplish enterprise 2.0 functionality (open social interaction, ease of use, ease of working in the flow, sharing collectively, aggregating in context, and eventually getting to collaboration) is not the platform on its own to do this without very deep pockets for development. Lockheed and Wachovia are the only big deployments I know that went down this path..

From a global perspective, there are some additional challenges which I brought up during a live webcast (recording of Part1) and web discussion (on Ning) that Tony Karrer hosted on SharePoint a few weeks ago. (If you are interested in some on-the ground conversations about SharePoint, dig around the Ning site):

  • SharePoint is not low-bandwidth friendly. Between page load times and the need to navigate up and down, people in low bandwidth areas struggle with SharePoint.
  • SharePoint does not have many offline options for those who have intermittent connectivity, but the tie in with MS Office can offer some opportunities for work-arounds.
  • For global organizations, IT tends to make the software choice without a lot of insight about field conditions and social interaction/working patterns AND are often lured to use any software offered to them free as an NGO. The false economy is the customization costs eat up any savings and then some for these organizations.
  • Global NGOs often do not have the support team to help with implementation and roll out, leaders rarely use the software themselves, setting poor examples and middle managers have little incentive for creating the culture change to adopt the tool. This is NOT a SharePoint problem, but it is a factor that increases the failure rate.
  • The organizations that have successfully implemented SharePoint have good connectivity, robust IT and support teams and usually have a strong content management (file sharing) practice. Not network collaboration.

See also on SharePoint

And related, a Maise Center report on learning platform adoption which has some interesting parallels!

Creative Commons License photo credit: d.billy

23 thoughts on “Tom Vander Wall Nails My Sharepoint Experience”

  1. All of the Sharepoint projects I’ve worked on have been based on a “technology first, design second” business process. When a designer walks into one of those, it’s often a bit like being handed lemons and looking for some ways to make lemonade.

    I think the big meta question is: why do people (e.g., business / enterprise) think that Sharepoint “as is” is going to meet their needs?

    Sharepoint is sold to people as a product that “as is” solves problems / enables social media / fosters collaboration, etc., in the enterprise. And, IMHO, people just don’t realize what they are getting themselves into when them commit to Sharepoint.

    So, almost by definition, many Sharepoint projects are poorly conceived–in the most dramatic reading, they are literally design to fail.

    Practically, I think the biggest limitation of Sharepoint is that it creates websites that are conceptually “locked down” in specific ways–i.e., limits that are absent if one starts building a website from scratch. You get some features, like Office and Exchange integration, in exchange for those limits. But those limits are real barriers that have to be confronted. And, ideally they would be fully confronted way *before* a commitment to Sharepoint is made, because they are a big part of what your enterprise is marrying itself to, in intranet / information management / social collaboration terms.

  2. Nancy —

    Experience above are similar to mine. In August 2007 I summarized the nine questions I’d posted to the SharePoint support forums– as they hadn’t been answered in months. Or years now. What I thought would be easy (from a Drupal perspective) was complicated or just not supported with MOSS.

    I did end up finding some local SharePoint consultants to commiserate with, though.


  3. Sigh..

    Sounds a lot like a continuation to the SAP runs [organization X] (and not the other way around as it’s of course presented in the marketing pitches) paradigm.

    Which leaves me wondering: What will it take for (i) MS to learn out and (ii) enterprise IT people not to fall into the crap .. trap?

  4. Completely recognizable from my experiences with Sharepoint in different situations. Sharepoint is completely document/info-item focussed, and ignores any human relationships between users of that information at the same time. That is, it seems, the basic design paradigm. And nothing can come of that which even remotely resembles social media. I’ve been advising clients to stay away from Sharepoint because of it.

    (As to SAP, which was mentioned in the comments. Yes it is much the same way. Though SAP at its core has a niche where it functions well, which is in pure bookkeeping. Rolling out that book keepers approach to all your processes is the fundamental flaw of SAP and businesses who use it. I’ve seen so much examples where people’s main task was finding out ways to fit reality into the SAP forms in a way that satisfied the system, but no longer resembled in any way what happened in the organization. And then managers basing their decisions on the ‘factual’ and ‘quantified’ SAP output. Ouch.)

  5. I was glad to see Ian Morrish’s replies. He is a SharePoint expert, but as a user I’m grateful for what it does give us. In a later post Steve Barth is quoted for a pearl of wisdom that I like: anthropology first, technology second. SP is the technology; it’ll do especially for those of us who will never get other resources. The much more intricate issues are the anthropological ones.

    In any case, bless Nancy for inciting such a discussion.

  6. Wow, this has turned out to be a popular post. First, thanks to all of you for your comments. And like TJ, I appreciate the links, Ian. Clearly there are successful applications and stewardship of SharePoint – and particularly where organizations have played to the product’s strengths. The Pfizer example appears to be focused on content management rather than collaboration. I was particularly interested in their content valuation process, which is a step too many miss, moving from a shared folder dumping ground to a SharePoint dumping ground. Yes, indeed “anthropology first, technology second” (Barth)

    I have not seen the offline options you listed and I plan to follow up. Groove has proven in the past not to run well on older computers, but I have not field tested the newer versions. Groove seems to have also fallen off the radar screen. I don’t hear MSFT talking about it and last I heard it was being subsumed into MS Office. If this is true, it is a worry since Groove really had some of the best offline functionality I’d used, but still had some huge synching issues when members of a team did not log on for a while. The whole “limited bandwidth” and collaboration tools is a complex mix as well. It is older computers, poor connectivity, electricity, etc.

    Jon Husband has forwarded this post to a SharePoint person at Microsoft. I’ve also had a VERY brief conversation with someone from Microsoft’s “Unlimited Potential” project about the challenges. It seems like it would be productive to put heads together because many NPOs are selecting SharePoint. It would be great if they had a chance to succeed.

  7. Sounds like Microsoft needs to re-read David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous, particularly the part that says you don’t have to label and file everything when you can find it with a search. Just have decent meta-data or “tags.” David compares the old and new as (1) leaves on a tree and (2) leaves in a pile. The problem with (1) is that many things belong in multiple categories. (2) enables you to look at things and their relationships to other things.

    (2) is organic, messy, human. (1) is mechanical, pre-determined, and artificially neat.

    SharePoint forsakes effectiveness for efficiency.

    Of course, I still have yet to forgive them for “cutting off Netscape’s air supply.”


  8. Umm, must we bring up the taxonomy wars?
    I haven’t read Weinberger’s book, but I’ve heard him speak on taxonomy before, and just trash it. The response from librarians was essentially: really, are these issues something new?

    Most professional information architects & librarians suggest a mix of controlled vocabulary and open tagging. Drupal’s taxonomy module does.

    One snag with MOSS is that each sub-site defines its own taxonomy, so from day 1 you end up with silos. There may be a way to avoid this, but I have no idea how.

  9. Jon, my intention was not to engage in taxonomy wars but rather to bring another metaphor to the table. While I heartily recommend Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous because it’s not only packed with insight but also well written, perhaps I should have drawn upon the title of his previous work, Small Pieces, Loosely Joined. Also, I’m referring to connections to people, not data.

  10. I know a bit about the SocialText plugin for Sharepoint (I provided some early encouragement in 2004 to SocialText to create this plugin). The short of it is: if you already use SharePoint and want to get into more advanced wiki features, and your enterprise might allow you to use SocialText, then you definitely should check-out their plugin.

    That said, I am not 100% current about how the latest versions of SharePoint and SocialText work together. I am sure someone at SocialText can give you the full picture.

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