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11/15/2013
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Microsoft SharePoint: 7 Ways To Achieve More

SharePoint is used by most of the Fortune 500 -- so why do we still hate it so much? Here's how to make Microsoft's intranet platform work better for you.



20 Great Ideas To Steal In 2013
20 Great Ideas To Steal In 2013
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Among major enterprise technology products, Microsoft's SharePoint is something of a Catch 22. On one hand, surveys routinely conclude that around 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies use the platform. But despite widespread adoption, surveys also find a lot of dissatisfaction; according to two Forrester reports released last month, between 50 percent and 60 percent of SharePoint users dislike it.

This dissonance is striking. Microsoft Excel and Word, for example, are even more ubiquitous than SharePoint but neither suffers the same widespread criticism. Yes, some claim that Google Apps and other competitors are good enough to be used in place of Office products -- and if you have specific needs, they might be. But even among these dissenters, you'd be hard-pressed to find many who deny Excel and Word offer superior features and more wide-ranging applications.  

But despite a huge user base, SharePoint doesn't command this kind of support from customers. What gives?

[What can Yammer do for your business? Read Is Yammer-SharePoint Integrate Right For You?]

To a degree, the product gets its reputation because it can be hard to use, not just for regular workers but also for the developers who write custom code for their employers' SharePoint deployments. But Microsoft has made the product more user friendly over time, with SharePoint 2013 being a notable step forward. This shifts some emphasis to inadequate planning by customers.

One of SharePoint's biggest strengths is that it's extremely malleable; it can be a social collaboration platform, a portal for shared resources, a launch pad for enterprise apps, the backbone for websites, and much more. But this flexibility can cause problems; because SharePoint needs to be shaped, it doesn't just "work" out-of-box. It's a collection of tools that can help businesses execute a plan -- but there has to be a plan in the first place.

How can your business get the most out of SharePoint? Here are seven tips to consider.

1. SharePoint deployments require careful planning.
Before actually installing SharePoint, businesses must first negotiate a number of obstacles -- and those who cut corners often pay the price later. SharePoint works with a lot of other products, such as Windows, SQL databases, and Active Directory. As IT prepares infrastructure and provisions accounts, it needs to ensure that any resources tangent to SharePoint are operating correctly.

But that's only part of the challenge. SharePoint is valuable largely because it organizes and displays information in ways that help employees be more productive and collaborative. But this only works if companies sweat the details on certain tasks, such as defining site taxonomies.

According to recent survey data from research firm Forrester, fewer than half of SharePoint customers have had a positive deployment experience. Some 39 percent of survey respondents reported difficulty with custom code, and almost 30 percent experienced management and security problems.

And these are just the tip of the iceberg. Will all SharePoint sites across the company intranet need to maintain the same look and feel? How can this be implemented without affecting the user experience? Has the company planned employee training to avoid common pain points? The questions and decisions are numerous, but careful strategizing can be the difference between a successful SharePoint deployment and one that underwhelms.

2. Yammer is becoming a bigger part of the SharePoint end-user experience.
"Enterprise social" has been a buzz phrase over the last year, and Microsoft has been transparent in its intention to make Yammer a leader in this space by integrating it into SharePoint. The company began making good on some of its promises this fall, with additions such as the ability to initiate Yammer conversations from within SharePoint documents.

This progression is significant. In an August report titled "Is Yammer + SharePoint Right For You?" Forrester analyst Rob Koplowitz wrote that Yammer will become the front-facing tool, with SharePoint providing document management on the back end. Many end-users have had a rocky relationship with SharePoint, so this evolution will be something to watch.

The report found 53 percent of users have no plans to adopt Yammer, but a quarter of the group said they've resisted SharePoint because they aren't ready for enterprise social in general. Only 23 percent of these respondents said they are using a competing solution instead. It's also notable that though social and mobile go hand-in-hand in many ways, Forrester data shows that SharePoint's mobile capabilities, a major aspect of SharePoint 2013, are not currently a priority for many businesses.

3. Just because SharePoint has many uses doesn't mean you should use it for everything.
SharePoint can do a lot, but that doesn't mean all its functions are equally useful for all customers. Corridor Company CEO Russ Edelman wrote in InformationWeek earlier this year that companies were learning SharePoint's merits and limitations. Many found it great for public-facing websites, contract life cycle management, case management, human resource portals, and similar tasks, he said, but others ran into walls that required workarounds. If SharePoint isn't an ideal inventory management tool, it can still serve as the portal into a more robust system, Edelman said.

This point underscores the importance of planning. By examining use cases in which SharePoint excels or struggles, businesses can better understand how the product's limitations and potential apply to their specific needs.



4. If you're a current SharePoint 2010 user, SharePoint 2013 offers major enhancements.
SharePoint Server 2010 is the most commonly deployed version of the product; as of last summer, Forrester said almost 80 percent of SharePoint users were running Server 2010. But SharePoint Server 2013 and SharePoint Online combined for 31 percent of users at the time, so Microsoft is doing a decent job moving customers to its newest platforms, even if some deployments aren't yet company-wide. More than 65 percent said they planned to use SharePoint Server 2013 in the next 12 months, and another 28 percent said they plan to use SharePoint Online.

What is Microsoft offering to move customers along? SharePoint 2013 steps fully into the cloud, which will be a big factor for some companies (see below). But it offers a variety of enhancements. They include: improved people-finding, activity-tracking and search capabilities; push notifications, HTML 5 support and other additions aimed at mobile users; support for third-party design software, SEO tags that don't require coding, and other tweaks to make SharePoint sites easier for non-developers; and the introduction of an app marketplace, which could help companies mitigate pains with custom code as they get their SharePoint systems up and running.

5. How you use SharePoint depends on your attitude toward the cloud. Using SharePoint in the cloud could lower infrastructure costs and improve agility, but for many businesses, the cloud can't match the security of on-premises, bare-metal servers. This attitude is still in flux, with many businesses finding a happy medium in hybrid clouds.

SharePoint customers who are ready and willing to embrace cloud technologies will find that Microsoft's newest versions are more in keeping with their goals. That said, Forrester found that nearly three in 10 SharePoint customers do not consider cloud deployments an option -- another reminder that the product is not a "one size fits all" solution that all customers can use in similar ways.

6. You might need to round out SharePoint with third-party solutions. Although SharePoint contains a variety of built-in tools, some are difficult to use or not complete enough to meet all needs. For these, a variety of third-party add-ons have developed over the years, with SharePoint 2013's app marketplace opening the concept to new possibilities.

If one company acquires another, the purchasing party might need to integrate content from the purchased company's SharePoint and Active Directory data into its own systems. Rather than handling this manually, the company could employ a third-party abstraction layer via a product such as Radiant Logic's RadiantOne, which is advertised as a way to bring disparate data sources under a common naming structure, and thus to simplify organization and authentication.

Forrester survey data indicates that products from Nintex, NewsGator Technologies, AvePoint, Bamboo Solutions, Dell/Quest, and K2 are among the most commonly used third-party options for SharePoint.

7. Don't forget about alternatives.
Widely used as SharePoint is, it's not the only way to build corporate intranets, give employees access to documents, or foster collaboration. Many companies used competing projects, if not in place of SharePoint then as a complement.

In fact, Forrester's data indicates that only about half of SharePoint users are using SharePoint exclusively. DropBox is the SharePoint competitor to which businesses most often turn. Others such as Jive, Google Drive Box, and IBM Connections have also gained fans.

IT leaders must know the trade-offs they face to get NoSQL's scalability, flexibility and cost savings. Also in the When NoSQL Makes Sense issue of InformationWeek: Oregon's experience building an Obamacare exchange. (Free registration required.)

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