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Getting more from SharePoint Part 1
Using “intranet in a box” preconfigured offerings
to get more from SharePoint, Office 365, Delve, Planner, OneDrive, Video and Power BI

This article appears in the issue June 2016 [Volume 25, Issue 6]
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A common refrain from SharePoint users is “I can’t find anything.” There are ways to mitigate that problem, but usability and architecture experts have to face the facts of typical business circumstances—often, the “correct” approach to SharePoint deployments is not something the business wants to invest in. That does not mean all hope is lost—that we abandon best practices and let users complain or merely install quick fixes. Tools and approaches are available to help move the needle on SharePoint solution effectiveness even when only minimal resources are available, as well as solutions that help make up for past (knowledge management) sins.

Barriers to SharePoint productivity

The reasons people don’t get the most from SharePoint (and the cloud version in Office 365—I will use “SharePoint” to include both on premise and cloud installations) fall into a few broad areas: structure and configuration, including terminology and architecture; user fluency and adoption; and content hygiene, governance and maintainability. The answer is not a new search engine that provides a Google-like experience or a new design or deployment. The biggest challenge is haphazard deployment with more of a focus on standing the platform up and “checking the box” than thoughtfully considering user requirements. Third-party methods and tools can help overcome many of those challenges.

Structure and configuration

SharePoint administrators and super users create various architectural and design elements: the site collections, sites, libraries, folders, lists, content types, columns and terms. Those comprise the user experience when surfaced in pages and through web parts (the windows into content and data contained in libraries, lists and even external data sources). Terms are used for populating lists of values for identifying the “is-ness” and “about-ness” of content, i.e., its essential nature and various descriptors of the content. What is this document? It is a policy. What is it about? It is about maternity leave. The about-ness can be in the form of a topic, process, industry or other characteristic of a document. A policy document can be about a particular topic, for instance, personal time off. If you had one hundred documents in a pile, the name of that pile is the “is-ness.” If you then separated that into multiple piles to tell them apart, that would be the “about-ness.”

When a comprehensive strategy is not applied for defining those structures, sites can be created haphazardly to meet a short-lived need and then abandoned, or departments and groups can create duplicate sites, leading to a proliferation of content. Without coordination, an information management strategy and a defined methodology, the same thing can happen with all of the other elements. Libraries containing confusing folder structures and content types with poorly architected metadata structures will proliferate. Taxonomies become long lists of overly granular terms with ambiguous or overly broad concepts. That leads to poor user adoption and an inability to correctly tag and store documents in the first place—which also has a negative effect on search. With that kind of a confused mess underlying the organization’s knowledge, no search engine will be able to function correctly, and users will be left with frustration, duplication of effort and friction impeding all of the knowledge flows in the enterprise.

Design patterns and common processes

One approach is to begin with processes that every organization requires, such as document tracking and versioning, project management, basic collaboration, task tracking and so on. Those common processes lead to common design patterns. To some degree, SharePoint already has many of those capabilities out of the box, but only at a basic level. They are designed to be applicable to all industries and, therefore, do not have specific terminology or nuanced content models and workflows. SharePoint (and its associated components including Delve, Planner, OneDrive, Video and Power BI) is still a platform on which to configure, build and integrate applications rather than being a complete, user-ready environment. Out-of-the-box functionality in SharePoint includes the elements common to all verticals, but those elements are limited since they are foundational. Those foundational platform capabilities are meant to be extended.

That said, many SharePoint consultancies have found that after they have developed custom environments for several customers in a particular field, design patterns common to a class of customer begin to emerge. Professional services firms, for example, are very document-centric, while technology organizations may be project-intensive. A good example of a document centric approach is the Matter Center for law firms—microsoft.com/en-us/legal/productivity/mattercenter.aspx. One way to save time and accelerate deployment is to look for services firms that have developed applications for similar organizations or, at the very least, organizations in adjacent markets. Those firms can save time by filling in the gaps around scenario-specific requirements and look for distinctions that are unique to your organization rather than defining everything from scratch.

Solution example, enter the intranet in a box (IIB) vendor

With the advent of Office 365 and advances in SharePoint capabilities, greater power is now in the hands of organizations that wish to deploy collaboration and knowledge sharing environments. The challenge is that unlocking those capabilities requires traversing a significant technical and organizational learning curve, and most organizations go through painful experiences and make costly mistakes. In some cases, those experiences cause the culture to reject the platform out of hand, causing a repeating pattern of deploying another technology rather than catalyzing learning from the root cause issues for the failure. Rather than repeating that pattern, organizations can take the path of a semi-custom solution offered by the right IIB vendor.

Many choices of subscription-based solutions are now available with core capabilities built on top of the SharePoint and Office 365 foundation. Most of those players have configured essential functionality and templatized their solution, which is bundled with requirements and final set of services offering. That approach greatly reduces the time to value and can get organizations up and running with customized SharePoint applications relatively quickly. Some of those companies are consultancies with a starting framework for a particular vertical or application, and others are true product companies with minimal services or services offered through partners. Some are on premise and cloud, while some are cloud only. I will refer collectively to those vendors as “IIB” (intranet in a box) vendors.

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