This is a scenario I run into frequently as part of my professional life. An organization decides to purchase SharePoint, and make it available to their user base throughout the organization. The software is purchased, IT installs the software and ensures it is running, various managers and units within the organization are provided sites for their usage, and they are given “site owner” permissions in order to allow them to select and configure the tools.
Other than keeping the software running, no official SharePoint support is given, and the sites and tools developed using the SharePoint toolset grow in a completely organic way, with some users embracing the technology and creating multiple sites and process management areas, the majority of users focussing on common and familiar tools, such as document repositories, and some sites and areas remain dormant, not used at all. The initial success of the installation is high as end users feel empowered to create the sites and tools they need for their specific purposes.
When some organizations first install SharePoint, they view its management as similar to other installed applications, such as Microsoft Office, an Account Tracking system, a Case Management System, or a Library system. Where the responsibility of IT or the server admin with the SharePoint installation is to deploy it and keep it functioning. They then struggle to keep control of requests, cannot keep up with end user questions around custom configuration, they are in a consistent reactive mode as opposed to pre-planning, having processes, responsibilities and plans in place to handle the needs of the end users and organization.
As there is no overall guidance or structure to how the tools should be used, and no processes put in place to restrict the ability of end users, toolset choice, sites, navigation, and usage is highly dependent on the individual site owners and their teams. This leads to inconsistencies across the SharePoint installation as each independent area is entirely self-directed.
Users begin to express frustration, inconsistency in navigation between sites leads to trouble finding important information, misunderstanding of document libraries and how they function lead to, at best, unreliable search results, and, at worst, exposed private documents to areas of the organization that should not have access. Users, misunderstanding security, break permissions for their sites to create their own groups, but do not have the knowledge nor the planning to ensure the groups accurately control permissions or the processes in place to ensure those groups stay current as staff move or change responsibilities.
The very thing that made SharePoint a strong toolset choice in the first place, the ability of the end user to self-manage and self-create their own process support tools within the sites they have control over, (no need to involve IT in selecting and configuring tools) becomes part of the problem. IT staff do not have availability for full scale SharePoint support since it wasn’t planned for, end users on their own develop inconsistent, and, in some cases partially non-functional, toolsets and sites to support their processes.
How do we counter this? How do we allow our organization to fully leverage SharePoint and see some of the great efficiencies that can result from managing various processes from start to end within a single unified platform? How do we build on the local successes achieved by site owners in supporting their own business processes within SharePoint? The answer lies in Governance.
What is SharePoint?
Before we look at Governance, we first need to understand what SharePoint is.
The majority of users I encounter that express frustration with SharePoint end up blaming the platform for what was built with it. SharePoint is a very sophisticated set of business support tools that allow extensive custom configuration to your own purposes. It is also “just” that. It is a toolkit. It’s not the end product. The success or failure of a supported business process, a department’s site, an entire organizations SharePoint installation, is based on what you are able to build with it, rather than the native abilities within the toolset itself.
As SharePoint’s true value is in what you can build with it; this will require expertise, planning and experience to leverage. You can have the finest tools in place to build whatever you need, but without the processes in place to manage that building, without the expertise to create those solutions, you end up with a sub-standard product. For a successful long term strategy with SharePoint, you not only need the product, you need a strategy for its organizational usage and the expertise in place to support it. You need governance.
Governance, at its highest level, is putting in processes and support systems that support the development, configuration and expansion of SharePoint throughout your organization. The governance plan you have can differ greatly from other organizations in its specifics, but in general, all organizations undergoing governance are looking to take SharePoint beyond the random abilities of individual site owners, and the lack of coordination between sites, to a coordinated and planned installation that allows users quick and easy access to the information and tools they need.
Governance anticipates the needs of the organization, and customizes the SharePoint platform to support those needs, focussing resources, planning, and training on those areas identified as high priority.
Governance goes beyond delivering individual solutions and looks at the potential benefits of SharePoint organization wide.
As an example, some of the early benefits my clients see from SharePoint come from InfoPath and Workflow based systems, such as Vacation Request or Expense Claim form systems. A company with an eye for governance will not look at these systems as individuals, but as a small portion of a potentially much larger system. They understand that once they develop a single InfoPath system, they can save templates, processes, interfaces and approaches from that system to apply to another, to not only speed up development of new solutions, but also allow, through the use of a universal approach, organization wide ability to maintain those solutions as the approach is researched, known, documented and universal. Governing the development of these systems allows this to occur.
This counters the challenge of many SharePoint installations where an individual approach of site owners, usually due to lack of guidance, may lead to customizations or other configuration that is specific to that site only, and therefore hard to maintain, or hard for users unfamiliar with the site to use.
A high level approach goes beyond unifying the way individual systems are developed and implemented however. It also allows the development of solutions that touch many areas of your enterprise, such as an employee on-boarding/off boarding process, where the entire process, from the original job posting and description, through resume management and review, interview, hiring decision, involved groups informed of new employee (Security, IT for new accounts/groups, Library, Training, Human Resources) through to the end of the employees hire is managed in SharePoint. Each stage is fully track-able; each party responsible for each element of the hiring process is automatically informed. Overall system management is done using dashboards that allow site owners to monitor and maintain the system without involving IT.
This multi-departmental collaboration on a business process simply doesn’t occur with organic or unmanaged growth. And it is one area where the improvements in efficiency that are gained through SharePoint are significant, over 50% less time than managing the same process than using the previous approach. An efficient system can end up saving the equivalent of multiple full time individual salaries in measured time savings.
Governance provides a high level universal approach to your SharePoint installation so that navigation, document handling, security, form and workflow systems, reporting, and multiple other areas all use a standard organization wide approach.
This universal approach allows users familiar with one area of your SharePoint installation to easily navigate and interact with unfamiliar areas; it simplifies maintenance and ensures security is being correctly applied, so that information integrity is not compromised. A universal approach to Form based systems means that once users become familiar with the usage and maintenance of one system, they can easily use newly developed systems based on the same templates, as process and interface are similar. And users familiar with the maintenance of one system will understand and more easily be able to maintain others. No more isolated systems that only one specialized user can maintain.
Governance allows SharePoint to move beyond disparate approaches, tough variable navigation, unreliable searches and individual approaches to an optimized experience where the end user spends less time attempting to learn the technology and find information to more time using it to increase the efficiency and track ability of the processes they are responsible for.
Move beyond organic SharePoint growth, with only specific local benefits to an optimized environment where the focus is on organization wide business process support improvement. Truly benefit from the many advantages the SharePoint platform can provide and see real and measurable improvements in the efficiency of the supported business processes.
Effective governance, once implemented, allows you to focus on your business, the needs of your organization, rather than the technology required to track and manage that information.
There are three key elements to any effective governance strategy. Without any of these elements, the overall approach will not succeed, and you will only see partial success over organic growth. Let’s look at each of these three elements in detail.
Full Time Long Term Farm Administrator
The first key to effectively managing a SharePoint installation in an organization of 200 or more regular users is the hiring or training of a full time SharePoint farm administrator. Unlike many other commercially installed applications, SharePoint requires the constant monitoring, request gatekeeping, and analysis necessary to respond to the needs of the user base. This means monitoring security, site usage and reporting to ensure they are set up to organizational standards and do not expose information to groups that should not have access. It means assessing and optimizing the search experience, ensuring that end users can easily find the information they are looking for. They ensure custom developed applications are safe and have been tested using known processes before deployment to production. They deploy and monitor these custom developed applications and ensure they continue to function after patches and other upgrades to the overall system. And they create and apply permissions to new site areas before allowing individual users to customize those sites to their needs.
This is just a small portion of the potential tasks a SharePoint administrator may have, the specifics are highly dependent on each organization. But regardless of individual organizational needs, the scope and complexity of any SharePoint installation supporting a reasonably large user base (200+) is a full time commitment.
A long term commitment to a farm administrator is also essential, as aligning your SharePoint platform and toolset with your specific organizational needs is a long term project that continually evolves as it goes, and really never ends. The amount of time needed to take an experienced farm administrator and get them familiar with the intricacies of your institutional processes, responsibilities, and other integrating technologies is considerable. And the SharePoint farm needs to constantly be in a state of assessment and adaptation to keep up with changing needs. A 3 month engagement from an external resource is simply not sufficient.
A full time, internal dedicated SharePoint farm administrator is the first key in effective governance of any medium sized or larger SharePoint installation.
High Level Long Term Planning
Far before templates can be determined, navigation schemes developed, and tools configured, high level analysis of the current organizations needs has to occur. This analysis can be phased, where a specific area of need is focussed on and developed before another or, a coordinated approach where a number of areas are developed in conjunction with each other.
This includes looking at current systems, and identifying those that transfer well to the SharePoint technology. And not just translating those systems to a newer technology, but also doing an assessment of the current system, what is working well. What isn’t? There is not nearly as much value in using SharePoint to simply replicate current systems as there is in being prepared to optimize and change a process for the better, allowing simpler interface and workflow, enabled through SharePoint. This holds true for sites to be migrated from prior versions as well. The assessment needs to include experts in both the current systems usage and ability (most likely internal employees) as well as experts in SharePoint technology, such as Architects and SharePoint Specialists in other areas (Branding, Records Management, Business Intelligence, Migrations, Custom code based development, etc.).
While internal resources can be used to describe current systems and some of the challenges they include, most likely, an external partner will need to be hired for governance planning and execution support. This partner can assist in the planning and execution of a governance model, including setting realistic milestones and coordinating the various components of the plan.
Even if you plan to approach governance on a large scale and to roll out multiple solution elements simultaneously, such as branding using master pages, form and workflow systems, and document management within a short period of time, I would still look for a long term commitment from your SharePoint partner, definitely nothing less than a year, as governance is going to have to necessarily evolve and focus on unanticipated areas as usage increases and the real value of SharePoint starts to be realized. It also takes a good deal of time and effort to understand your organizations specific needs and how they can be supported by SharePoint, you want a long term commitment from supporting partners so that the business knowledge they develop can continue to be leveraged over time without having to re-teach new experts your system and approaches.
A long term partner in developing and maintaining strong governance is necessary in any organization that does not wish to make significant investment in currently scarce individual expert SharePoint resources. A company that can provide this support long term also has the ability to provide expertise as it is needed, a SharePoint Records Management expert is valuable indeed, but is only required in certain phases of governance planning and execution. The overall Architect should remain as consistent as possible throughout governance planning and execution, other experts should be brought in as needed by your SharePoint partner.
High level long term planning with an expert partner will result in a long term maintainable SharePoint strategy that can adapt to user needs as necessary, and prevent and counter many of the challenges described with organic growth.
Another area that is consistently overlooked when doing long term governance planning is the training of the end users of the system, as well as site administrators and anyone else involved in the creation and upkeep of custom developed sites and solutions.
SharePoint is fairly unique in that it allows end users to develop and evolve reasonably complete business support solutions without involvement of IT staff. This means the technical resource availability issue that occurs with all other types of custom solution development (.net, java, open source) does not occur with SharePoint, as the end users are enabled to do so much more.
However, as with any set of tools, training in how to use those tools and develop technical support for your environment is essential. You may have a highly experienced farm administrator at the helm of your SharePoint farm, a well designed and implemented governance strategy, but if the end users are unable to use the templates, processes and tools you have put in place to support them, the effort is wasted.
Training should not be the “out of the box” generic training provided by multiple SharePoint training providers, it should be focussed on your specific needs and environment. A training partner should be willing to look into and understand your governance plans in detail, and provide expert recommendations on what and how to train end users and site owners in the technology. They should be willing to adapt and modify the materials being presented to your environment, and train your users on site using your custom configuration.
Training is a key element of governance strategy as it enables the execution of all of that careful planning and strategy you have already engaged in. SharePoint is all about empowering the end users to develop their own sites and toolsets. Having them understand in detail both the technology they are working with and their roles and responsibilities within the governance plan are critical to successful long term SharePoint use.
Third Party Tools and Governance
I am not going to go into real detail here about third party tools, except to say that there are some specific third party tools that can assist in the technical components of the governance process, tools that can perform tasks across sites, site collections, and farms considerably more efficiently than the toolset that comes standard with SharePoint, such as SharePoint Central Administration and the SharePoint client itself.
These tools definitely don’t replace expertise, but they can increase the efficiency of farm administrators and other experts on governance tasks, in some cases significantly. I will be reviewing one such tool later in this blog.
The larger the installation, the more value such toolsets may have. I leave it up to my clients to determine if the final cost of a third party tool represents good value to them by clearly defining the benefits that tool can provide, and letting them make the final determination.
SharePoint is a powerful and highly adaptable portal toolset that can allow the simple creation and maintenance of business support solutions by the users who are closest to those processes, the end users. While this will occur after initial deployment and during organic growth, it quickly runs into technical, expertise and planning barriers as its usage grows.
Truly leveraging SharePoint’s toolset and seeing the efficiencies it can provide enterprise wide requires expertise, planning, resources and training. A governance plan can coordinate and develop these necessary elements to allow successful enterprise wide adoption of SharePoint, and a long term commitment from a partner, in coordination with your farm administrator, along with a well-planned training effort, will result in long term success in all of your SharePoint developed and hosted systems.