Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Is SharePoint the right choice?

The recent interest in SharePoint shown by many areas of both public and private sector organizations has led to an increase in attempted solution development both within and contracted out to solution providers, both managed and ad-hock.

But is SharePoint the right choice?

Are the business processes you are interested in managing suitable for the SharePoint Environment? SharePoint is a highly configurable set of business support tools, but they do have a focus and certain things that it does very well.

SharePoint is considerably more configurable and flexible than most proprietary enterprise level solutions available, such as large scale financial or health systems. But it certainly isn't a replacement for any of these systems. You can expose specific areas of these systems through SharePoint to inform or participate in a business process, but SharePoint is not suited to the specific, enterprise level complexity that these systems have.

The other end of the solutioning scale involves custom development tailored to a specific business or organizational area, there is a great deal of control over interface and data management, the toolset is custom built to a specific set of requirements provided by the client. This type of solution development is appropriate for an organization with very specific needs and the ability to support large scale development. .NET being one flavour. It may be the only solution for a company with large scale highly specific data intensive needs.

SharePoint is a hybrid of these two approaches. It is certainly more flexible than most proprietary solutions, and contains toolsets and abilities that would be too labour intensive to reproduce using custom development.

This decreases the range of projects that are suitable for SharePoint right away, obviously highly complex systems such as accounting systems, transportation tracking systems, student information systems, and many others are not good candidates for SharePoint. And highly complex custom systems still require custom development.

So what is SharePoint good at? One big area of course is information management.

"living documents" are created, stored, and all updates and changes are managed and tracked, anything from HR policy documents to custom company templates. Automatic archiving, the retrieval of last versions and rolling back changes, all surrounding document management.

Of course, information isn't limited to documents, data coming from infopath forms, stored in SharePoint lists, can come from many sources. From vacation requests to issue tracking, from a client list exposed from your CRM through SharePoint to tracking attendees at a conference.

This information, in addition to the built in versioning and other tools, can also be routed and updated through the use of Workflows.

A vacation request system automatically informs appropriate approvers of new requests, tracks the progress of the request through the system, and provides information from time tracking or resource planning systems to ensure that there is sufficient vacation earned and that major projects or other organizational events have backup plans for missing employees.

The workflow integrates these tools together along with the office suite. So you can take a process formerly managed in excel, such as tracking orders or event contributors, import that information into SharePoint, and automate many of the processes surrounding that information. Informing the appropriate people that an order has come in, having that order tracked through to product completion gathering the appropriate information at each step along the way and allowing easy access to the overall status of all orders in the system.

More complex workflows can also manage processes such as:

- Course Development
- Thesis Tracking
- Case Tracking
- Collaborative Publication, such as multi-person legal documents

So information management means gathering, tracking and manipulating that information as it supports the associated business process from start through to completion. Informing the correct people at each stage, allowing reporting on the status of that information in the system.

If you job involves creating, updating, or approving information through a known process then SharePoint can probably help manage that process. Business Analysis, who typically collect information concerning data collection and management in a business process from clients or stakeholders, and document and organize that information into requirements, can manage that information very well in SharePoint. Many positions at an organization can benefit from those capabilities, from CEOs to project managers, from Business Development users to administrative assistants.

These core abilities of SharePoint are expanded greatly with some powerful data manipulation abilities such as excel services and performance point, to allow analysis of data and inform decision making. In combination with the other abilities also covered, you can see how the development of items such as quarterly reports could be made easier, quick access to company health data exposed through SharePoint, all documents that support that information stored and tracked in SharePoint, meeting schedules and attendees quickly available all in one place.

Other tools expand the abilities of SharePoint as well, from the comprehensive "my sites" social collaboration tools to blogging, discussion group and wiki tools, these tools can also support a business process or be dynamic content of their own.

Exposing all of that information and combining it with more typical web toolsets, such as wikis and blogs, allows the generation of dynamic content that can be both internally and externally exposed, CONTENT management is the other key ability of SharePoint. Some institutions have even used SharePoint as an online course delivery platform, it is certainly well suited to creating a web presence with non-complex out of the box access to many common web tools.

The range of tools and configuration options in SharePoint is vast, and the ability to custom code areas provides further flexibility. However, these abilities are still focused on business processes that can use the suit of tools provided by SharePoint, highly customized systems or customers that require specific interfaces or deep complex data schemas are not good candidates for SharePoint.

The core of professional analysis to determine suitability is a simple question:

How compatible is the current or proposed business process with the SharePoint Solution toolset?

Determining what the client or stakeholder needs are in detail, and seeing if the technical abilities of SharePoint can meet those needs, THAT is the first key stage to determining if SharePoint is the right choice.

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