Making SharePoint the Tip of the Arrow

"If the business says ‘go,' you go. You figure out ways to make it happen." That's Mary Leigh Mackie, director of product marketing at AvePoint. She is underscoring the current trending in the world of Microsoft's SharePoint platform, particularly (but not exclusively) as it applies to content management. Her point: If it has to work, you make it work.

She is referring to the customization capabilities of the ubiquitous platform, which is currently deployed in just about every business, in one form or another, that you can shake a stick at.

"There have always been these ‘SharePoint capability wheels' ... at first there were sites, and communities and collaboration, but content was also one of those capabilities they were fishing early. SharePoint has always been positioned by Microsoft and the ecosystem of partners as something you're encouraged to tailor to fit your purposes," she says. In other words, it's got capabilities, but what's more important is what you DO with those capabilities to help your organization.

The turning point for SharePoint was the release of the "2010" version. (The 2013 version is now available, and has been for a while, but we'll talk about the so-called migration to that version in a minute.)

SharePoint 2010 made the platform a little more easily tailored to content management, says Mary Leigh. "2010 introduced content types, metadata, navigation, document sets, all kinds of stuff that made it a lot more attractive as a content management system. And the improvements in BLOB storage helps, too. So Microsoft has taken steps to encourage the ability to store content in SharePoint. Plus," she adds, "they keep adding capabilities, such as social communication. I mean, that's how we communicate now, so why wouldn't they add that sexy factor?"

Much of the widely praised improvement and enhancement of  SharePoint 2010 had to do with improving storage capabilities and other fundamentally underpinning things. And those were good things. But, as Mary Leigh points out, "many of the improvements in 2013 are focused on the user experience. Improving social interaction. How to find each other. How to find experts. How to be members of communities... those things make it even more attractive to the business side of things," she says.

Which made me start to wonder. Did Microsoft plan it that way, or did they sort of go with the flow of how people used it, and adjust accordingly? For that answer I went to Theresa Kollath, senior director of product management for content management solutions at ASG Software. "Sure, at first, it was just a collaboration platform," she says. "But I'd be surprised if they didn't have a long-term plan all along. Remember, Microsoft was part of the CMIS OASIS standards committee... I don't think they would have been involved in that had it not been part of a vision with regard to some product, and with the lack of anything else, that product was probably SharePoint. There was a method to the madness. But," she laughed, "it would have been really fun to have been in those early meetings!

"Mary Leigh is right," added Theresa quickly. "If the need is there, people will figure out a way to meet it. Even with the most rigidly created solutions, people will find ways to use them to get their jobs done." That is SharePoint on a plate, if you ask me.

It's kind of amazing how creative people can be when they have a tool in one hand, and a problem in the other, I think. And I'm not talking about the "when a hammer is your only tool, everything looks like a nail" cliché. It's more like: "I have a limited amount of time to solve this problem; I will apply anything I have available to me to solve it." SP meets that challenge dead on.

Adoption is Messy

However, another way of saying that is that people find workarounds. "Yeah, but people are creative," says Theresa. "I think of it as more like tinkering with a car... whoever thought that you could jerryrig some kind of aftermarket gas canister to make your car run faster. But you can! SharePoint is just like that. You can retrofit a gas canister or whatever and make it do incredible things."

But is it happening fast enough for you?, I ask. "I can't give you a percent number. People are moving cautiously, for sure. Even though Microsoft has made significant improvements with regard to shredded storage (an attempt to overcome 2010's nasty binary large object, or BLOB, storage shortcomings) and remote storage, folks are still testing and re-testing."

Mary Leigh agrees, but acknowledges that the reality is that they are taking measured steps. Her view is that there will commonly be a "hybrid" approach. "People are being careful. 2010 was a huge step in the ability to build customer business solutions,"  she says. In other words, it took a lot of work. "And if those business solutions are still being successful and serving the purpose, especially in the ‘higher' business areas, then those people might keep those on 2010 for a while."

Kind of an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" attitude, I suppose. But the less crucial apps, like TeamSites and MySites, will probably go ahead with 2013. My read: 2010 and 2013 will coexist for some time to come. "If it comes down to a decision whether to recode a whole new business application that's working fine, then why bother? Let's get to the improved parts of 2013, like social and TeamSite, and leave the customized solutions where they are until there's a strong justification to move them," advises Mary Leigh.

And there may be. Some people ARE going all the way, by moving to the cloud, for example... there are all kinds of options. One of the sources for hesitation to moving to 2013 is the planning process...when do you want it to happen? Where do we want the data to be hosted? Are we satisfied with a cloud option or not? These are not trivial questions, and the migration from a currently happy experience with SharePoint to a possibly difficult remains a major factor.

Theresa adds, "There will be more hybridization between versions of SharePoint than there will be between SharePoint and other technologies. There is coding and programming that is compatible with both versions. It does, however, depend on how much customization you've already done, how many third-party add-ons you've already adopted."

So, it might or might not happen. Or it might happen a little. Not a simple situation, Read on for more.  

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