The Strange and Wonderful Landscape of SharePoint

SharePoint: You either love to hate it or hate to love it. There are few—to no—software products that have ever inspired the kind of passionate discourse that the ubiquitous Microsoft platform has invoked. It's like religion and politics and sex all rolled up into one. Actually, come to think of it... well, never mind.

Despite the fact that something near 80% of all companies have some appearance of SharePoint in their organizations, it is far from a satisfactory relationship. AIIM, in its great "Digital Landfills" survey series ("Big Data—Extracting Value From Your Digital Landfills"), notes that 26% of users said that management of unstructured content in their organizations is "somewhat chaotic." Another 35% described their approach as "organized, but not well indexed or controlled." The report also points out that only "around a third feel their content is reasonably well managed." And, as my friend Brett Chalmers notes, the AIIM report reveals that the right kind of search technology is far from widespread: "Currently, unified data access across content repositories is a struggle... Only 20% have enterprise search or unified search capability across departmental content. Of these, 7% have extended search across the whole enterprise." Seven percent of 20%! That's statistically... none.

So it's not surprising that a cottage industry of SharePoint enhancement vendors has thrived. And is thriving. Mike Alsup of the Gimmal Group puts it this way: "SharePoint is a software development platform. Similar to many competing software development platforms, anything can be built in SharePoint. This does not mean that everything should be built in SharePoint. There are some things that SharePoint does really well, such as collaboration and knowledge management sites, and some things that require endless customization."

Lee Pender, writing in the blog Redmondmag.com, calls it the "might as well use it" syndrome. "One myth that needs debunking is the popular notion that companies are clamoring to buy SharePoint," he writes. "For the most part, that's not the case. Many companies only have SharePoint either because a workgroup or department set it up on its own or because they got it through Software Assurance or some other sort of licensing program that threw SharePoint in with the technology the firms actually wanted to buy."

Lee goes on to cite a couple sources: "Customers are [implementing SharePoint] because they own it," says Jason Masterman, general manager, portals and collaborations practice at Neudesic LLC, a SharePoint consultancy based in Irvine, CA. "It's not that they're doing research and choosing [SharePoint]. They're doing it because they own it."

Sean McDonough, a former SharePoint consultant and now chief SharePoint evangelist at Idera Inc., a Houston-based SharePoint tools provider, agrees. "Most people who implement SharePoint are not people going out and buying licenses for SharePoint just because they want SharePoint," he says. "They realize that they've already bought SharePoint and now can use it. Nine times out of 10 when I'd be going in doing a strategic consultation, it [was], ‘We apparently already own this, and we want to implement it.'"

Some of it is due to that magic Microsoft dust. As Mike Alsup puts it: "It is surprising how many management teams, both on the business and IT sides of organizations, expect SharePoint to become the standard for enterprise content and document and records management. Because of the incumbent SharePoint siblings—Microsoft Office, Exchange and Windows—management teams give SharePoint much more of the benefit of the doubt than they gave the competing ECM or EDM or WCM or BPM or RM products that provided similar functionality. You know a product is important when it is expected to triumph in areas where its current capabilities are not yet as competitive as they should be."

Ron Cameron, elsewhere in this white paper, notes the irony that I've detected when talking about SharePoint with the "ecosystem providers." I often ask, "If SharePoint is so great, what do we need you for?" To which there is usually a small laugh... sometime a nervous one. "Microsoft SharePoint has grown so fast and has become so ubiquitous that AIIM recently suggested it had become a common noun for content management, like Kleenex for tissue and Xerox for copying," writes Kevin. But, he goes on to note that even though SharePoint adoption rates have exceeded 65% (I say 80%, but what do I know?) across a variety of regions and industries, "Forrester Research states that more than half of all enterprises still maintain three or more ECM repositories. If SharePoint is so popular, why haven't more enterprises adopted it as their sole platform for enterprise content? Good question," concludes Kevin. And it IS a good question.

So what's the problem? There are several. One is sheer volume, and SharePoint was never designed to scale as high as it's being expected to. In Trevor Hellebuyck's article, he correctly points out that, "We have entered the era of ‘big content' and there is no end in sight to its rapid growth. Analyst estimates have pegged the total amount of content in 2020 to blow past 40 zettabytes (ZB)—a figure that is difficult for even the most seasoned IT professional to wrap their head around. Because SharePoint has evolved into the content management platform of choice, a majority of this content will be stored, managed and organized within your SharePoint environment." And that is somewhat disconcerting when you think about some of the challenges that a SharePoint deployment faces.

In addition to vast amounts of data, there's a cost factor that is often disguised by SharePoint. I agree with Jeremy Bentley, who points out the lack of easily definable value. "At a time when organizations across the globe face continued economic uncertainty, improving returns on investment by better leveraging information assets is essential," he writes. "The big challenge for the vast majority of enterprises is harnessing the information they have available and making it findable for the staff, partners, clients, investors, regulators and other stakeholders. The trouble is, sharing information and collaborating on projects is not always as simple as it first seems."

And then there's the sticky issue of plain old information management. With volume and variety comes complexity. Martin Garland addresses it as a metadata issue: "With unstructured data increasing at an average annual growth rate of 62%, search is inadequate and has made volumes of content unusable for applications, such as text analytics and collaboration...The crux of the problem has always been the inability to generate contextual metadata, either manually or automatically that results in intelligent metadata." Intelligent metadata, he explains, "is the output of automatically capturing conceptual metadata, and identifying relationships and context, enabling the proactive management of content through goal- and mission-aligned structures and workflows," he says. Then the zinger: "The inability to identify intelligent metadata from within content affects the entire lifecycle management of the asset."

Nobody is going to solve the SharePoint question today. In fact, I've been told that most of the SharePoint 2013 deployments won't even get off the ground until the year 2016. And who knows? By then, there may be a "SharePoint 2525" on the boards. It's a strange and convoluted situation, but it must be addressed. Read on to the following pages to see how many of the solutions providers are trying to do so. 

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