Thinking SharePoint (and listen to your mother!)

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Note: Special thanks to Andrew Jolly for his excellent ideas and feedback

I have to say, SharePoint is one of the most misunderstood products that Microsoft have ever released. The misunderstanding extends from executive management who signed the budget approval to put it in, to the geeks who actually put it in for us, and all the way to us end-users who are expected to find nirvana in its magical world of sites, lists, libraries, workflows and the like.

Misunderstanding creates confusion, and confusion leads to bad implementations, expectations unmet, teams deflated and the word “SharePoint” being spoken only in whispers in-case you’re overheard by the many ears of the corporate immune mechanism.

The outcome of this series is to give the reader an appreciation of a more human look at SharePoint. Therefore I will not be exhaustively examining every feature within SharePoint, but instead to take a high level look at some of the key SharePoint concepts and then try and put them into an organisational context. To get the best out of SharePoint requires forethought and soul searching. Despite the obvious temptation, diving straight in can be a little like wearing a Backstreet Boys t-shirt at a Metallica concert – you may live to regret that decision…

.. but you can hardly blame Metallica can you?

Article Pre-requisites

This series has been aimed at a broad cross section of the user base. If your circumstances match any of the following scenarios, then the material may be for you.

  • you have had SharePoint pushed at you by an overzealous IT department and you are wondering what the fuss is all about
  • you are a member of the overzealous IT department, a true believer and wonder why the masses don’t get it
  • you are a senior executive who’s computer literacy extends to the on-button of your laptop but your IT Manager tells you this “SharePoint” thing may be good for the organisation
  • your organisation is doing one of those heavily promoted organisational change frameworks with a fancy slogan, t-shirts and mouse-mats. SharePoint is touted as a key component
  • you find the myriad of documentation, blogs, and online references to be too intimidating or nerdy for your taste
  • SharePoint is deployed, you have been sent on a 2 day feature-fest training course but little real progress has been made since then.

For those not yet convinced

If you do not consider yourself a SharePoint true believer, then good on you! You are probably half way to a successful deployment already. It is not a panacea and it will not bring about world peace. It has massive potential – no doubt about it, but the propensity to fail is higher than you might expect. (For more on that topic see this series I wrote a little while back)

SharePoint has a myriad of features and ways to approach solving common business problems. Whether you are a senior manager, team lead or team member, chances are you can find a way to improve or optimise some aspect of your work using SharePoint. You can find plenty of great articles on to introduce you to the product, solve common problems and learn from others. But at the end of the day, SharePoint is a tool and all tools are supposed to come with a safety manual to prevent misuse and accidental injury.

So to continue the above metaphor, the only way you would get out of the Metallica concert alive with the Backstreet Boys t-shirt would be to shout the bar and buy a lot of beers!

In this series, I hope to teach you which t-shirt to wear at a metal gig, as well as how and when to buy those beers when you get it wrong!

How Microsoft software products are normally delivered

SharePoint represents a change for users as well as IT people. Previously, when say, the latest MSOffice suite was deployed to a company, users had little say. If you were lucky, you would get sent off to some training, and then left to your own devices. But that was cool – its MSOffice. We have all used it, and using a new version isn’t really a major hindrance to producing Word, Excel or PowerPoint documents. Give it a day or two and you are pretty much back in business.

But SharePoint – that’s a whole different story. Not only do you need to be trained in how the product works, you need time to take it all in. You almost certainly need to also change the way you think about certain aspects to your work and you will almost certainly not get it right the first time. Thus, for some of you (likely all who are reading this article) will relish the opportunity to use some of the features to improve your productivity. However, many others will resist it and take a long time to come around.

What makes SharePoint such an interesting product is that the pro and anti crowds will have to accommodate each other if a SharePoint project is to really succeed. That is the tough bit!

40 years of folders

In 1965 an operating system called Multics was developed for mainframe computers. It wasn’t exactly a rampaging success back then. But hey, PC’s hadn’t been invented either and back then, “The Sound of Music” was everyone’s idea of a night out at the movies. Thus it wasn’t exactly dotcom times.

But it was here, where the first “Hierarchical file system” was developed.

“Hierarchical what the…” You exclaim?

You know it as folders, subfolders or directories and for over 40 years, the concept has essentially been unchanged. For most people, folders and subfolders have been your only option for categorising and collaborating on files.

I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when the Multics guys wrote the specification for the hierarchical file system. Since it’s the sixties, I’m sure that’s it happened something like this…

Engineer 1 (smoking a joint of weed) “Dude, imagine if we could like… put a filing cabinet in the computer man…”

Passes joint to Engineer 2 who takes a drag and laughs uncontrollably for ten minutes

Engineer 2: Whoa man, your freaking me out! – let’s order some pizza”

Listen to your mother (and clean up your room already)!

We adults are complete hypocrites. As kids, we were told relentlessly by our mothers to clean our rooms. We tell our children to clean up their rooms too, yet the shared file system in the typical workplace is messier than even the most rebellious teenager’s poster covered, mouldy sock smelling abode.

The corporate file system is like a giant play-area for adults, which has not been cleaned in years. In fact, whenever there is a suggestion to ‘clean up’ the play-area, the adult equivalent of “oh mum do I have to?” is heard down the corridors.

Why is it that people don’t like to put their toys away? As you mother said, “if you leave them lying around they will get broken, and may be accidently thrown out”.

Anybody who has ever worked for an organisation of more than 1 person will know the joy (not!) of trying to find that all important critical file. You know darn well it’s there somewhere, but do you think you can find it? Then you go to the trouble to recreate your work, only to find that someone changed permissions and you no longer see it.

The inefficiencies caused by the messy play area are pretty significant, not only on your individual stress levels, but at a departmental and organisational level too. Often files go missing, or the wrong versions are used. Multiple copies abound, and everyone seems to have an in-built reflex to file and name things slightly differently to everyone else. I’ve seen this cost big money too, an example being hundreds of thousands of dollars lost when a fixed price contract used a cost estimate based on the wrong specification. Ouch!

The Ikea effect

Forget the marketing fluff and the seemingly endless array of features on SharePoint slide decks. For most people SharePoint will be about sites, lists, libraries, forms and workflow. In subsequent articles I will talk about these as these concepts are really important, but if there is one theme I want to leave you with.

These new features are like going from a wooden toybox like this…


…to a fully decked out Ikea playroom like this


It might look pretty, and smell new and fresh at the start. But the moral of the story is this. You might have a fancier storage system with additional bells and whistles, but you still need to put your toys away and agree with everyone else where things should go! Furthermore, The IKEA guy who installs it all for you might make some suggestions, but at the end of the day, he isn’t going to be able to definitively tell you where things go and you wouldn’t listen to him anyhow as they are your toys.

So in the next post I’ll dig a little deeper into putting our toys away properly.

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

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6 Responses to Thinking SharePoint (and listen to your mother!)

  1. Pingback: CleverWorkarounds » Thinking SharePoint Part 2 - The "Unconsciously Incompetent" Ikea Mecca

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  3. Pingback: CleverWorkarounds » Thinking SharePoint Part 4 - Lessons from Kung Fu Panda

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  5. Jeff Green says:

    Enjoyable reading, well written. My God it is all starting to make sense, so where to from here?

  6. I really enjoy reading on this internet site , it has excellent blog posts.

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