Why SharePoint training sometimes doesn’t deliver (and what to do about it)

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I was surprised to see the recent SharePoint Fatigue Syndrome post got some traction in the interweb. As it happened, that particular post was kicking around in an unfinished state for months. The thing is, its not the only “home truth” type of post that I have sitting in my “drafts” folder. I also have one on the state of the SharePoint training market. Given that I have a training announcement to make, I thought that I would combine them.

A day in the life…

We recently worked on a SharePoint upgrade project, where the previous developers did an excellent job overall. That is…if you judge them on the SharePoint governance metrics of writing clean and maintainable code, packaging it up properly, not hacking away at system files and actually writing documentation.

Unfortunately, although they did an excellent job through that lens, the actual solution, when judged on whether users found that it made their life easier, it was an epic fail. Users hated it with passion and like many solution that users hate, the system was soon relegated to being a little-used legacy platform where the maintenance costs now outweighed the benefits. The organisation had invested a couple-hundred thousand dollars on this solution and saw very little value for that money. Accordingly, they took their business elsewhere…to us. After a workshop, the client had one of those inverse “aha” moments when they realised that if they had taken a little more time to understand SharePoint, the custom solution would have never been developed in the first place.

This sort of example, to me, highlights where SharePoint governance goes so wrong. The care and diligence the developers exercised was necessary, but clearly not sufficient. No matter what the quality of the code, the unit testing regime and its packaging, at the end of the day a blueberry pie was baked and the client wanted an apple pie. The problem was not in the ingredients or the baking. The problem was that by the time they delivered the pie, it was clear that the wrong recipe was used. In the above case, the developer had omitted a whole raft of critical considerations in creating the solution – none of which were covered in developer training.

Necessary but not sufficient…

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When you think about it, the current approach to SharePoint training seems not to be about recipes, but all about ingredients. Trainees get shipped off to “boot camps” for an indoctrination of all of the ingredients in the cupboard (and SharePoint is a bloody big cupboard!). SharePoint features and components are examined in individual detail, usually with an accompanying exercise or lab to demonstrate competency in that particular component. Graduates then return with a huge list of ingredients, but still no skills in how to develop the right recipes.

What exacerbates this problem is that training is siloed across disciplines. As an example: An “IT Pro” bootcamp will go into meticulous detail about performance, scalability and design aspects. Any considerations around development, information architecture and user engagement are seen through the lens of the infrastructure nerd. (Ah – who am I kidding… user engagement in an IT pro bootcamp has never happened. Smile)

Now consider for a second, how we design SharePoint sites. These days, it is common for people to actively discourage designing SharePoint solutions based on organisational departmental boundaries. (By organisational departmental boundaries I mean Marketing, HR, IT etc.) Why is this design approach frowned upon? Proponents claim that it tends to perpetuate  the problem of information silos and doesn’t stand the test of time, given that organisations tend to restructure just when your information architecture masterpiece is ready for prime time. In fact, the research organisation Jackob Neilsen did a study and found that task based structures (characterised by “My…” and “I need to…”) endured better than organisational based structures. Quoting from them:

In our study, task-based structures often endured better than intranets organized departmentally. In our user testing of intranets, we’ve also found that task-based navigation tends to facilitate ease-of-learning. Thus, the benefits for IA durability are just one more argument in favor of adopting a task-based structure for your intranet.

So what I find ironically funny is the second sentence of the Jackob Neilsen quote: “Ease-of-learning.” I wonder what sort of learning they are talking about? Presumably something other than delivering a failed solution with some really nice programming governance behind it! Yet the way SharePoint training is designed and marketed actually compartmentalises SharePoint training into similar silos. The result? Students get a rose coloured view of the SharePoint world, based on their discipline. This is because, as Ackoff brilliantly put it,  “complexity is in the eye of the beholder – the other persons job always looks simple”.

By the way, what I am highlighting is not the fault of the trainers because at the end of the day, they respond to what they think the market wants. Sadly, what the market thinks it wants is often not what it needs.

I feel that the missing link – and most critical aspect of SharePoint training for practitioners – is not about how many ingredients you know, but how you go about creating those recipes. Yet SharePoint training overly focuses on what each ingredient does in isolation – whether a job discipline or a particular component. Whilst I fully accept that knowing the ingredients is a necessity, it is clearly not sufficient. This is an airbrushed version of reality, without due consideration of how ingredients combine in unique scenarios. Accordingly, this training does nothing to teach how to achieve shared understanding between practitioner and the eventual users who have to live with the legacy of what is delivered.

When you think about it, shared understanding is what makes or breaks SharePoint success because it is the pre-requisite to shared commitment to a solution. As demonstrated by the example of great code underpinning a crap solution, lack of shared understanding and commitment will always trump any other good work performed.

What to do about it…

SharePoint is a product that often requires adaptive change on the part of users. Learning the capabilities of the product is one thing – changing entrenched collaborative practice is another altogether. In case you haven’t noticed before, users tend not to be charmed by new, shiny features if they cannot see how it will make their jobs easier. (Nerdy knowledge workers like you and me easily get seduced by shiny things but our world view is seriously skewed compared to those who live on the coal face of organisations). Thus, the skills required to facilitate change and align various roles, require a different type of training course: one that integrates rather than compartmentalises. One that teaches how to synthesise the whole, rather than reductionise into the parts.

For such a course, no virtual machines are needed because there are no labs to demonstrate competence in some SharePoint component that will be out of date by SharePoint vNext. Instead, such a course needs to focus on the concepts, patterns and practices that are typically not seen in the IT practitioners toolkit (and for that matter, not seen in many complex mainstream IT/PM methodologies). The added bonus for such a course is that the skills and learning’s it provides are applicable beyond SharePoint and even beyond IT itself. While a typical SharePoint might give you mileage for the current version, a course like what I describe will give you tools that you can use anywhere, irrespective of the technology and project.

Does such a class exist? (Is that the longest post you have ever read to get to such a rhetorical question? Smile )

Of course it exists – I’ve been running it around the world for a couple of years now. It’s called the SharePoint Governance and Information Architecture Class (#SPGovIA) and it was a year in the making and comes with lots of goodies, such as a CD with a sample performance framework, governance plan, SharePoint ROI calculator (spreadsheet) and sample mind maps of Information Architecture. The class was originally designed for Microsoft New Zealand, on behalf of 3Grow for the Elite program that used to certify gold partners for serious SharePoint competence. Since then its been run in the UK, Netherlands, US, Australia and New Zealand. Next month I will run classes in Singapore and Hong Kong.

For my US readers, early next year I will be taking the course on the road, specifically Canada and the USA in Feb 2012. This course is not run often, because for me the US is a damn long way to travel and my time is tight these days! So I sincerely hope that if this sort of class sounds interesting to you, then you will consider being part of it. Michal Pisarek has already made an announcement for classes in Vancouver, and more details will be forthcoming for one or two US cities. I only have time for 2 classes in North America, so which city should it be?

For more detail on the class, head on over to www.spgovia.com. While there, click the Media link and watch the first half hour of the class. I look forward to seeing you there.

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Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

www.sevensigma.com.au

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SharePoint Fatigue Syndrome

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Hiya

I have been wrong about many things – I am happy to admit that. In SharePoint land, one of my bigger naive assumptions was that in early 2007, I figured I’d have maybe a 6 month head start before the rest of the industry began to learn from its initial SharePoint deployment mistakes and start delivering SharePoint “properly.” I thought that I’d better make hay while the sun shines, so to speak, as the market would tighten up as more players entered it.

Yet here we are, heading to the latter half of 2011 – some five years later. As I continue to go into organisations, whether in a SharePoint remedial capacity, or a training/architect capacity, I am still seeing the legacy of really poor SharePoint outcomes. Furthermore I am seeing other, frankly disturbing trends that leave me both concerned and pessimistic. I now have a label for this concern: “SharePoint Fatigue Syndrome.” SharePoint Fatigue Syndrome is hard to define, yet its effects are there for all to see. I suffer from it at times, and I am certain others do too. As an example, recently on the Perth SharePoint User Group on LinkedIn the following topic for discussion was raised:

Hi folks, as you already know we have a worrying skills shortage in SharePoint Development / Architecture in Perth and things are getting worse. It’s getting to the stage where companies have to suspend or worse still abandon their SharePoint projects due to lack of available talent. As the core of the SharePoint community in Perth your suggestions are vital towards finding real solutions to this growing problem. What can be done?

Now I know that this problem is not just limited to Perth. There are consistently reports online that speak of SharePoint people being in demand. So you would think that in a “hot” sector like SharePoint, where the industry is crying out for talent, that the rate of attrition would not outpace the uptake of new talent. After all – money talks, right? If you are a .NET developer with half a brain, there is serious money to be made in SharePoint development land. On top of that, there is the collective realisation in the marketplace that actually talking to people about how SharePoint could make their lives easier, leads to better outcomes. Hence the emergence of this notion of a “SharePoint Architect” with a more varied skill-set that just tech or dev. This role has further been legitimised by entire conferences now just catering to the business this end of the market (I am thinking the Share conferences here).

So, we have all of this newfound collective wisdom spreading through the community via various channels, in terms of the skills and roles required in SharePoint circa 2011 and beyond. We have the fat pay-packets being commanded as a result of demand for these skills. So, with that in mind, why is the attrition rate growing?

As an example, I know personally, several exceptional SharePoint practitioners who are no longer in SharePoint. I’ve also had various quiet conversations with many SharePoint practitioners, right up to SharePoint MCM’s, who vent their various frustrations on how difficult it is to get truly lasting SharePoint solutions in their clients and organisations. I’ve reflected on the various reasons I have come to the conclusion that SharePoint is just plain tiring. As a result, people are burning themselves out.

7 causes of SharePoint Fatigue Syndrome…

Burnout, in case you are not aware, is actually a lack of emotional attachment to what you are doing.  Quoting about.com:

The term “burnout” is a relatively new term, first coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger, in his book, “Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement.” He originally defined ‘burnout’ as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.

SharePoint Fatigue Syndrome is SharePoint manifested burnout. The symptoms include feeling physically and emotionally drained, difficulty maintaining optimism and energy levels, feeling that you have less to give as the burden of work seems overwhelming. Sound familiar?

So why does SharePoint work run this risk? I see 7 major reasons.

1: Cost pressure leading to overwork

First up, the lure of the big dollar is a double edged sword. Not long ago I shared a beer with a SharePoint developer who’s work I respect greatly, yet I can’t afford to hire. This is because the percentage of chargeable hours he would need to work just so I can break even, is very high. This puts me (the employer) under pressure and at risk. As a result, I need to ensure that my newly minted SharePoint employee is productive from day 1 and I need him to work a lot of hours. But here is the irony. When I had my beer with this developer, the conversation started with him lamenting to me that he is already pulling ridiculous hours (60 to 80 per week). He was looking for a job with less hours and yet more money. This is simply not sustainable, both for employer and employee. The more you chase one (work hours vs. money), the more you lose the other it seems.

2: Structures that force an inappropriate problem solving paradigm (and wicked problems of course)

Then there is the broader problem where structure influences behaviour. As a basic example: from the developers’ perspective, they have to put up with sales guys who promise the world, and project managers who then make their life hell and force them to cut corners delivering the impossible. Project managers find out that their beloved work breakdown structure gets chopped and changed when their pain-in-the-ass developers whine that they can’t make the schedule. As I have stated many times previously, SharePoint project are likely to have wicked problem aspects to them. The structures that work well to deliver tame problems, such as Exchange, a VOIP system or a network upgrade, are much less effective for SharePoint projects. While organisations persist with approaches that consistently fail to deliver good outcomes, and don’t look at the structural issues, the attrition rate will continue. There is only so much that someone can take putting up with these sorts of stresses.

3: Technical complexity

SharePoint’s technical complexity plays a part too. No-one person understands the product in its entirety. The closest person I know is Spence and ages ago on twitter he remarked that even within Microsoft no-one understood it all. As a result, it is simply too easy to make a costly mistake via an untested assumption. (I thought the user profile service was tough – until I did federated claims authentication and multitenancy that is). The utter myriad of features, design options and their even greater number of caveats, mean that one can make a simple design mistake that causes the entire logical edifice of an information architecture to come crashing down. Many have experienced the feeling of having to tell someone that the project time and cost is about to blow out because nobody realised that, say,  Managed Metadata has a bunch of issues that precludes its use in many circumstances. Accordingly, SharePoint architects learn pretty quickly that it is hard to answer a definite “yes” to many questions, because to do so would require a question worded like a contractual clause, to ensure it is framed with appropriate caveats. Even then, consultants would know that lingering feeling in the back of their mind that they might have missed an assumption. This brings me onto…

4: Pace of change

This is BIG…and becoming more acute. Remember the saying ‘The only certainties in life are death and taxes?’ Outside of that, the future is always unpredictable.

In between SharePoint 2003 and SharePoint 2007, the wave of Web 2.0 and social networking broke, forever changing how we collaborate and work with information online (and some of those effects are still to be felt). Microsoft, like any smart organisation, responds to the sentiment of its client base. Microsoft also, like most mature organisations, tends to hedge its bets in terms of marketplace strategy in which it tries to get in on the act with the cool kids, yet tries not to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Just look at Windows 8’s new interface, tablets, app stores and the cloud.

But that is one facet. Change happens in many forms and at many scales. For example, at a project level, it may mean a key team member leaves the organisation suddenly (SharePoint fatigue no doubt). At a global and organisational level, events like the odd global financial crisis force organisations to change strategic focus very quickly indeed.

I don’t know about you, but when Windows 8 was announced recently I was not excited (in fact I was not excited by SharePoint 2010 either). I thought to myself “So soon? I am still figuring out the current platform!”

As an example of the effect of pace of change, consider all the Government 2.0 initiatives around the world. Collaboration is in-vogue baby, so information should be free and government agencies should engage with the community. While that’s nice and all, there is the world of compliance, security and records management that takes a very different view. So, we end up with market forces that push against each other in combination with vendors hedging strategy of being all things to all people. It’s little wonder that SharePoint projects become very complex very fast.

By the way, it is worthwhile checking out what Bill Brantley in this post sums up the whole government 2.0 issue when he said:

What exactly is the nature of the Gov 2.0 challenge? This question was inspired by Andrew Krzmarzick’s post (What Gov 2.0 Needs Now: Managers, Money and Models) and Christina Morrison’s post (What is Gov 2.0? A survey of Government IT pros) on the recent GovLoop survey about Gov 2.0. As Andrew and Christina argued, the survey demonstrates many differing perspectives on Gov 2.0 in terms of what it actually means and how to implement Gov 2.0. To me, this suggests that Gov 2.0 is the classic wicked problem

5: SharePoint Entropy

One of my clients (who you will meet in my book when it’s published), once said to me “All good ideas eventually deteriorate into hard work.” This is a nice way to lead into the concept of SharePoint entropy, which in some ways is the inevitable outcome from the first four symptoms. The easiest way to understand entropy is to watch this awesome TV series called the “Wonders of The Universe.” In that show, the concept of entropy was discussed and for me made a lot of intrinsic sense. Without getting into the detail, entropy is the notion that over time things move from an organised to less organised state. Rather than have me waste your time trying to explain it in prose, let’s listen to the show in question. (Don’t skip the video – this is important!)

Now what does this has to do with SharePoint fatigue? Gordon Whyte saw what I am getting at with his post on entropy within organisations, especially in relation to change management.

For example, when we build a car we take raw materials such as metal, leather, plastic and glass and arrange them in a highly organised way to make a car. But if we then leave that car for long enough the metal will rust, the glass will become brittle and break and the leather will dry out and turn to dust. If the car is left for a very long time it will eventually disappear altogether. This thought left me wondering about the nature of organisations. If a progression from order to chaos is the natural order of the universe, then is this same pressure present in organisations and, perhaps more importantly, what is the optimum position for an organisation between the extremes of rigid inflexibility (low entropy) and complete chaos (high entropy)? This question is not as crazy as it might at first appear”

Gordon has nailed the issue in his post. Any SharePoint solution that has a low entropic nature requires more energy and effort to maintain that order and control. Complex SharePoint solutions often have complex governance wrapped around them. Governance that is process and structure centric by definition, has low entropy and accordingly, needs higher effort to maintain over time. In fact, if you do not maintain that effort and energy, then any SharePoint solution will usually disintegrate back into the sort of information management chaos that gave rise to SharePoint in the first place!  Rather like the sandcastle in the video.

By the way, I feel that email and file shares are high entropy solutions – all failed SharePoint projects lead back to these tools because they require less structure to maintain (in the short term).

In short, if SharePoint is implemented with low entropy, more energy is needed to maintain it. Remove the energy and very quickly, things become chaotic again. Governance approaches that are not cognisant of this will never stand the test of time. The question then becomes whether people feel that the end in mind is worth the perceived extra effort that is being asked of them.

6. Social complexity

Social complexity is also somewhat of a result of the first five symptoms. Most organisations have a blame culture. If they didn’t, then people wouldn’t spend so much time trying to position themselves for blame avoidance. Social complexity is the result of turf wars, ideological smackdowns and all of the other sort of things that result in the cliché of “the silos” where people are not talking to each-other in organisations. SharePoint exacerbates social complexity for two main reasons.

Firstly, because it is a collaboration tool, it actually requires some collaboration to put it in! This is often easier said than done. Secondly, because it is a pervasive and disruptive technology, it almost always clashes with an established tool, process or practice where proponents aren’t willing to change. In fact, they may not even recognise that there is a problem to solve – especially when SharePoint has been thrust upon them. (In an old post, I wrote about the notion of memeplexes and the ideological immune mechanisms that they create and why it is so hard to get shared understanding across departmental boundaries in organisations. Memetic smackdowns are the result).

The long and the short of social complexity is that there is only so much stress people can take. We all seem to have a pathological need to seek order and safety, rather then remain in a stressful situation. Once social complexity bites, the merry-go-round of staff attrition really starts to bite…

7. Meaning over motivation…

Now if I haven’t completely depressed you, let me offer you a perverse glimmer of light. For those of us who understand the preceding 6 fatigue symptoms, recognise them for what they are and take steps to mitigating them, there is one other symptom that contributes to SharePoint Fatigue Syndrome. This is the trickiest of all – and I am a somewhat willing victim of it.

I have spent a lot of time learning techniques to help address the symptoms I outlined here and as it turns out, these skills are universally applicable, whether in SharePoint, IT or beyond IT. For years now, I have metaphorically had one foot out of the SharePoint world door and the other foot into the world of construction, health and management sectors. Hell…I have written what I think is the first business book ever by a SharePoint person that is a non SharePoint and non IT. I also have clients with SharePoint deployments who do not know me as a SharePoint person at all, but only as a sensemaker (and for that I am grateful.)

The point is this: While the investment in these skills enables me to counter the effects of SharePoint fatigue syndrome, it is also inexorably pulling me away from SharePoint work. It seems that once you crack this nut a little, your skills are in demand across the entire problem solving spectrum. Right now this is my coping mechanism for SharePoint Fatigue Syndrome – I get to step away from SharePoint for periods and work on something else. Eventually…inevitably…I will also be one of those attrition statistics.

Conclusion:

The problem is that SharePoint Fatigue Syndrome is a negatively reinforcing cycle. As evidenced by the SharePoint attrition rate, money isn’t that great a motivator. If it was, then the void of skilled resources would have been filled by now. Paying more money might give you a short term gain, but in the long term is not going to address my seven causes of SharePoint Fatigue Syndrome.

I will leave this admittedly negative sounding post with the key to breaking this cycle. While you can attend my SharePoint Governance and Information Architecture class or Issue Mapping Class to learn many ways, the video below says it all. I encourage you to watch and reflect on it, because it’s the same key point to understanding how to do effective user engagement.

 

Thanks for reading

 

Paul Culmsee

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