Challenge: SharePoint and NGOs/NonProfits -go or no go?

challenge quoteMy March post on SharePoint Tom Vander Wall Nails My Sharepoint Experience continues to get hits in a way few of my hundreds of blog posts ever have. Hmmm… Something is a ‘cooking.

In the past week three separate conversations have come up about the challenges of using SharePoint as an organizational intranet or portal in international NGOs. (I presume this applies to US non profits as well, but oddly, I have heard of far fewer use cases.) In each case there have been the following factors where the organization:

  • was a beneficiary of free or low cost SharePoint software
  • did little to no assessment of their own needs and contexts
  • had (are) used shared folders in the past as their main “collaboration” approach
  • identified “collaboration” as a reason for implementing SharePoint
  • did not have sufficient culture/leadership/process elements in place for the adoption.

And the implementations struggle…

So I keep telling myself, should I just say “NO” when an organization asks me to get involved in their SharePoint project? Are the silos and folder metaphors and the organizations that choose them too antithetical to my understanding of collaboration? Am I really missing something about the use of SharePoint and it’s related products?

I think it is time to throw down a gauntlet. Or propose a challenge. I HATE seeing the social and finacial capital lost on failed SharePoint installs. There has to be a more productive path. SO let’s figure it out.

This challenge open to any NGO/NPO/Consultant working with SharePoint and anyone from Microsoft and their vendors who want to play.If you or someone you know might be interested, point them here.

Here’s the goal: Let’s look at these challenges and failures and figure out if…

  • There is a way to make SharePoint work as a collaboration platform (as opposed to a content repository). This includes technology and process.
  • And if not, articulate why and share that with Microsoft SharePoint developers (and I hope they won’t just tell use we are misguided or want something that is indeed, not useful. I’ve heard that before with respect to Microsoft Live meeting shortcomings…)

Post a comment if you want to play and a little bit about you. NPO/NGO folks, I’m particularly interested in people responsible not just for the tech support of SharePoint in your org, but for fostering and evaluating its use. InĀ  a week, we’ll see who wants to play and we’ll figure out how to get the conversation going.

It is time to fish or cut bait and I want to FISH!

5 thoughts on “Challenge: SharePoint and NGOs/NonProfits -go or no go?”

  1. SharePoint has a split personality. On one hand, it’s designed to create websites for sharing information. On the other, it’s designed to create buckets for storing Office documents. And it’s real flaws, IMHO, are in it’s lack of restraint relative to Office documents–to its enthusiasm for the idea that information generally belongs in separate and disconnected buckets.

    People follow the information, in this context – they go into the separate buckets with their information. And, “collaboration” can hardly grow beyond “sharing” within those buckets.

    Further, SharePoint implementations start-out being all about “bucket management” rather than about the shared / common interface for collaboration – and so the broad collaborative opportunities are not really a feature of SharePoint out of the box.

    On top of this, the Office influence is altogether reflected in the SharePoint user interface and interaction design, which are burdened with feature-itis. Again, instead of having an open interface to build from, one is starting from a bucket making machine that one is forced to figure out how to strip down–into looking something more about people and their connections to each other and their information.

    The best uses of SharePoint, in my experience, have been when everything is stripped down to the point that the Office-side of the personality is almost negligible. What people see then is a website (or an intranet of multiple websites) with interconnected people and information. Yes, you can also share Office documents, but that is realized to be an attribute of collaboration happening via the web, rather than the structure that supports only sharing within buckets.


    So, many companies do not have a core competency in moving away from Office documents to webs of information. SharePoint can help bridge between these modes, by supporting both Office and web interactions. But, SharePoint, as a bucket machine, totally reinforces dependency on Office and gets in the way of organizations really experimenting with creating webs and interacting through them directly.

    For an organization that wants to use SharePoint for “collaboration,” I would say that they absolutely must gain (e.g., through 3rd party support) competency for moving away from Office documents AS THE BASIS for the SharePoint implementation. In other words, SharePoint can make things better only if it you have some people dedicated to making sure it’s not allowed to make things worse! IMHO, that’s the viewpoint that needs to be pervasive amongst people working on a SharePoint roll-out.

  2. That last bit is GOLD, Jay. This layer of a bucket tool in an already siloed organization is the deadly combo. You have given a great framing on how to “hop out!”

  3. One other thing I wanted to add:

    Collaboration sometimes gets interpreted to mean “sharing information,” as if it’s primarily task-based. But, I find it more useful to think about collaboration as a very positive opportunity around a variety of tasks that can loosely and generally be described as: Communication and Connection.

    So, what’s great about the web is the way it allows people to communicate and connect–with each other, with information. People collaborate via the web in and through their communicating and connecting.

    But, the focus of SharePoint’s features are NOT communication and connection. SharePoint, out of the box, doesn’t give you much help if you want to use it for communication and connection.

    So, the primary effort needed to transform SharePoint into a useful collaboration platform is to make features that are all about communication and connection–and to make those features overshadow all of the functional stuff that SharePoint gives you out of the box.

    This can be done with SharePoint as it is today–but it involves intensive customization (on a technical level) and an intensive human effort (e.g., dedicated staff) to demonstrate and teach others to use these communicating and connecting potentials. Also, with regards to silo issues, one must work extra hard to make these things communicate and connect across all of the separate sites in any one SharePoint implementation.

    Even the features of SharePoint that are best suited to communication and collaboration with a single workgroup (e.g., the forum, blog, and wiki-like features) aren’t well implemented when compared with standalone tools in widespread use on the web. And, a lot of the human effort in making SharePoint useful goes into working around limitation in these out of the box features–specifically in training them to act like they more about communication and connection than they would, by default.

  4. The problems with sharepoint and other overengineered ‘groupware’ tools go far beyond non-profits. Asking whether these tools can become collaboration tools instead of content management tools is a great question, even though the answer is almost assuredly no. The challenge is that Microsoft, Lotus and the rest of the groupware gang know nothing about collaboration, and that even tools designed for collaboration (e.g. screen-sharing tools) force us into unnatural behaviours instead of adapting to the ways we collaborate. Alas, the best commercial collaboration tool out there remains the telephone.

  5. Jay’s points about SharePoint not being a collaboration tool out of the box and reinforcing the dependency on Office are true and perfectly in line with Microsoft business practice and strategy to lock in every customer (or users) to its closed platforms. Even if I used SharePoint only in its early years (at that time I had to stop using it due to the number of issues I found trying to implement it an intranet solution) I would probably find no benefits, aside from the absolute integration with other Microsoft tools, in using it versus the available free or open source tools (like those listed at or enabling collaboration out of the box better than SharePoint does, especially for NGOs and Non Profit organizations.
    In any case, to chose the right tools, I think that the best starting point is always the kind of collaboration processes and related use cases (or user stories) you want to support.

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