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SharePoint|The Reality Series 4: Benchmarks for success

What’s the only figure eclipsing the number of enterprises flirting with SharePoint 2010? According to a Global Intranet Trends 2009 report, it’s the 55 percent of organizations that already have SharePoint and the uncertainties it brings, including: no governance model for phasing in their build efforts, no reporting process for drawing the right lessons from the false starts of a stalled deployment, and doubts they can recover their original investment ... let alone generate new business value from SharePoint’s capacities as an enterprise content platform.

Application designers like Fenwick & West’s Mark Gerow don’t invest a whole lot in theories about who shares intellectual property (IP) and how to encourage intranet participation. “I need to make sure our folks are productive every day. It’s more guerilla SharePoint than the ivory tower,” Gerow says.

That kind of practicality has made Fenwick & West a leader in legal services to Silicon Valley-based high-tech firms as well as a technology provider in its own right. Gerow describes Fenwick as “the technology leader in e-discovery,” and cites Fenwick’s ability to act as its own service bureau, in-sourcing the complex and often costly task of conducting pre-trial deliberations.

Extranet design, usage and propagation are the other common threads running through Fenwick’s SharePoint deployment. It hosts 15,000 to 20,000 client-based extranets. The result is better service for clients at a fraction of cost—a seamless extension of opening a matter where attorneys simply flip “the extranet switch,” and a fully established site build ensues. A paralegal sends Gerow’s team a list of client-users. Additional savings accrue from the use of workflows and litigation-specific document templates. If it’s an ongoing relationship, clients can leverage the documentation and support tools regardless of case status.

According to Gerow, high-utilization clients help drive innovation. For instance, improvements to the templates can be instigated by the matter team when the metadata captured in a particular case provides a repeatable benefit. That requirement is key to containing costs: “Given our lean development team, we need to focus on customizations that benefit the largest number of clients and matters,” he says.

Measuring up

Documents are the IP assets that professional services firms like Fenwick produce for their clients. What about more tangible inventories? How can the business value of SharePoint be expressed for companies that sell products instead of expertise or services? It begins in the same place no matter where the payback ends—take the vision and turn it into something the average employee can understand and connect to his or her routine.

First of all, here’s what not to measure. According to Marc Anderson of Sympraxis Consulting, it’s not about documents. It’s about accomplishing goals in a better way and evidencing SharePoint as a catalyst. “It’s one thing to have a mission and a goal structure. It’s another thing to create a welcoming climate for breaking old habits,” says Anderson. “Some of this is sound engineering. Most of it is cultural.”

Storytelling is more powerful than setting mandates. Anecdotes count. Colleagues, otherwise siloed, reach out to each other—not to be social but to jumpstart a project. “Was SharePoint an enabler?” asks Anderson. “If they both say it was a factor, it counts.” That’s the first test. Next comes mapping those chance meetings to observable outcomes:

  • Is our documentation mapping to compliance efforts? What percent of our contracts are in SharePoint?
  • Our new hires have their own on-boarding page to brief them on where to go. Finally, those experiences are appropriated into clear, calculable benefits:
  • Are travel costs going down? Are we still getting the same work done? Are cycle times reduced?
  • Can we eat less bandwidth on our Exchange Server for storing must-have documents?

The roadblock to realizing gains isn’t about whether they’re needed or how to build them. It’s the doubts that arise about what the knowledge should be for new hires. It’s about documentation backlogs. It’s about roles and responsibilities for safeguarding a firm’s IP or complying with regulatory procedures. None of the sticking points are technology-driven.

Remote possibilities

One important metric worth minding is how well SharePoint-hosted content travels over local and wide area networks. According to Anderson, SharePoint does not have a good story to tell as a global software platform: “It can crawl long before it learns to walk over a global LAN or VPN,” cautions Anderson. SharePoint is not replicated all over the world. It lives behind the firewall and can bury a server on an underperforming network with a ballooning database. Documents are the common language of SharePoint, and SharePoint doesn’t make them any smaller.

High latency and low bandwidth are realities on many intranets. Clients can utilize WAN acceleration tools such as those from Riverbed and Blue Coat and/or place SharePoint farms locally within each area. Still, Errin O’Connor of Houston-based EPC Group says that network issues are at the root of why users stop using SharePoint.

Ironically it’s a simple thing to make SharePoint available through authentication through a secure IP address. The holdup comes from a misplaced insecurity about the crown jewels (access to SharePoint-hosted intellectual capital). The absurdity for Anderson is this: “Your firewall blocks Twitter and YouTube but everyone has a Blackberry. What did that accomplish? It takes longer for people to do their jobs!”

Power users

According to O’Connor, the key to recouping the SharePoint investment is your organization’s technical business communities, a.k.a. power users. “These are natural SharePoint proponents and will see through what they start,” he says. That tenacity is important because it blazes trails that lead back to the original deployment justification. “With SharePoint you’ve got the world’s largest Swiss army knife,” O’Connor adds. “There’s so much functionality a deployment team can get overwhelmed if they can’t lean on power users to produce test beds and establish priorities.”

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