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Getting more from SharePoint- Part 2 Improving user adoption

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In the first installment of this series in the June 2016 issue, I discussed structure and configuration, including terminology and architecture as well as the value of third-party, preconfigured tools. In this installment, I will address user fluency and adoption. The third installment will cover content hygiene and governance.

Many organizations that have used SharePoint (and the cloud version of Office 365) have gone through phases of deployment, development and upgrades without leveraging common practices around information architecture and usability. The platform has been considered more of a utility than an intentionally designed enterprise tool. In some cases, a well-intentioned IT department holds user requirements sessions, only to implement the technical features without truly understanding core principles of usability. In other situations, a particular process will be enabled and user tested with good design principles but employing the “build it and they will come” rollout plan. In other words, let users just start using the application. In rare cases, organizations do get those elements right but then after the deployment is completed, there is no organizational design to maintain the application, continue to train users and update design and functionality as user needs change.

No wonder many users of SharePoint are jaded and long for a well-designed, maintained, highly functional application with well-organized information and search that gives them what they need when they need it. They blame the technology rather than the way that technology has been configured and managed.

The challenge is that everyone wants everything to be “user friendly” and “intuitive”—they want tools that help them do their jobs without requiring that they jump through hoops to upload and access information. If the application is awkward and poorly designed, users are loath to spend the time to learn how to get the most from applications. However, even when the tools are sophisticated and well designed, fluency is still necessary to leverage them effectively.

Unfortunately, many people are turned off to SharePoint from prior negative experiences. When adoption is poor, it is difficult for an organization to get the critical mass needed to achieve the correct collaboration density—where the knowledge flows are producing real value and triggering virtuous cycles of participation and contribution. So moving to a new platform, rather than solving core issues, seems to be the preferred approach that many organizations take, though that will lead to a recurrence of the core challenges. It is best to get to the root of the problems and address them; that requires making the case for appropriate funding.

Three reasons whySharePoint does not get sufficient resourcing

User adoption requires a thoughtful, intentional approach to a number of areas, but that entails funding and organizational resources. It is important to understand why getting sufficient funding is challenging, so that proponents can be prepared with approaches for dealing with those organizational mindsets.

Under-appreciation of the complexity of processes. Most organizations don’t understand the workflows and handoffs that happen in day-to-day operations. Much of that activity is hidden from users. They don’t know what the person to whom they provide information does with it or who the downstream users are. Enterprises have a great deal of hidden complexity that is just part of the way people do their jobs and part of enterprise habits and processes. Because the complexity is hidden, inefficiencies are not obvious and ways to improve processes are not explored until something drastic happens. Only then does the organization focus on a particular set of processes to find a better way. When a platform is launched into poorly understood processes with few requirements and users must fend for themselves, the result will be some self-organization accompanied by a large amount of chaos.

Unwillingness to invest in design. Design is expensive, and without a clear ROI, there is little incentive to invest. Because the collaboration processes that SharePoint supports are not clearly defined or easily measured, there is typically no single owner of a specific process that is being enabled. Therefore, the motivation for spending time and money on a solution is lacking. It does not take a great deal of work to define a measurable process, take baselines and forecast the impact of improvements, but most organizations simply look at the tool and collaboration as a cost without attributing specific measurable benefits. Only when the pain becomes unbearable and widespread is a broad investment in information findability undertaken. Because the problems of disorganized content are so vast and widespread, enterprise-scale solutions such as search platforms are considered the best approach. Unfortunately, those approaches are deployed as technology installs rather than as applications for which requirements need to be gathered.

Insufficient understanding of the need for post-project funding. Deployments are considered one-time events, but any long-term project has long-term costs, and SharePoint installations are no exception. After the attention is refocused on the next initiative, new users may not be given the support and training that they need, and as a result, they use only a small fraction of capabilities.

User acceptance testing versus user acceptance

Even with a perfectly configured application and designs that are user-tested, validated, refined, tested some more and validated again, there is no guarantee that the application will be adopted and embraced. Taking an intentional approach to SharePoint requirements and design (which entails leveraging design patterns, developing an appropriate taxonomy to inform customization and company-specific configuration and validating with users based on their specific user cases and scenarios) will go a long way toward increasing the likelihood of adoption. However, even with user acceptance testing (having users attempt to perform work tasks using the intended design), users may not accept the SharePoint application at the department or enterprise level. Why is that so? The reasons for a lack of user acceptance break down into numerous categories ranging from lack of user involvement in the development process to inadequate content. Here are some ways to maximize the chances for success:

Involve users in the development process. Socialization should be part of a project from the beginning and continue throughout the life of the initiative. In many cases, however, users don’t have a voice in the design decisions and are not sufficiently kept in the loop through ongoing communications from leadership.

Create realistic expectations for how “intuitive” the application can be. No matter how “user friendly” an application is, it may never be completely intuitive to all. The nature of work processes and the information to support those processes can be complex. The jobs themselves may not be “user friendly”—can you imagine telling your boss that your job is not user friendly and asking them to make it more intuitive? I don’t think so—work is hard, which is why they call it work. The nature of the task might require understanding terminology that is not part of everyone’s vocabulary. If the job itself requires training and skill development, the information may also require a degree of socialization. Some applications can be very complex, and SharePoint has its own intricacies.

Allow users time to develop a mental model. When learning to use an application of any sort, users need time to grasp the big picture and become fluent in the details. This means that users must be shown the details over time—as opposed to in a one-shot training. Doing that at the scale of any enterprise requires planning and development of just-in-time learning that people can move through to get the big picture and can access in the context of their work processes. Products such as WalkMe ( can help accelerate that process. Help content needs to be componentized so that it can be surfaced in multiple user contexts.

Provide users with the consistency they need. A consistent taxonomy and information architecture will help improve usability in the first place but also increase the “learnability” of an application. Once users learn about one part of an information structure, they can more quickly understand and internalize other areas if the same terminology is used.

Update functionality often enough to keep up with changes in user requirements. No information environment is static, so ongoing feedback that drives new functionality and capabilities is required. Because SharePoint is an evergreen service (i.e., having automated, self-updating capabilities), it is important to keep users updated on features in each new release. SharePoint initiatives are developed with more of a focus on the project and less on the long term. Without updates to functionality, continued testing and adjustments, the delta between what users need and what the application provides will get larger and lead to greater dissatisfaction.

Provide high-quality content. A SharePoint deployment should begin with value for the user. That means populating repositories with curated, tagged quality content that they will find valuable. Too often there is a “lift-and-load” migration in which poorly organized content filled with ROT (redundant, outdated and trivial) is presented to the user in a new environment. No matter how good the design is, the content will not be viable if it does not meet the users’ work requirements, and it will not be accessible if it is not tagged and organized.

Offer users an easy way to contribute content. Another barrier to acceptance is an onerous process for posting information. Too many metadata fields, long lists of choices or fields that don’t apply to the content will keep people from posting. The process for uploading content should be as painless as possible. Frequently the best answer is machine-assisted tagging where an auto-classifier tuned to the content and taxonomies appropriate for the process presents the user with suggested values, and the user either accepts them or selects a different value.

Establish a robust governance process. SharePoint lives in an ecosystem that is continually changing. There are multiple upstream and downstream processes, and resources need to be allocated with a view to the larger picture of the information environment. SharePoint owners and sponsors must make decisions in that context as well as within the context of the SharePoint environment. Therefore, they should have a seat at the table in the enterprise information governance decisions and the institution of controls, standards and compliance processes all the way down to the level of content repositories. If sites and content do not have ownership, they will quickly become outdated. If policy decisions are made without compliance mechanisms, they will not be implemented.

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