Monday, 22 April 2013

Eleven Ubiquitous Words & Phrases that Hold Back the SharePoint™ Industry

There are lots of words that insidiously creep into our psyche and become fashionable from time to time and when used in context or in isolation do no harm at all and may inform, enlighten and indeed enliven any appropriate conversation. All industries tend to develop their own vocabulary for a variety of reasons, from exclusivity through to a need to narrate and describe. Due to the nature of the tech industry it is no surprise that new words and phrases develop regularly, some take hold and some do not.  However, some words and phrases unwittingly hold back an industry from its own potential growth and care is therefore well advised.

The following words and phrases are ubiquitous in their use not only in the SharePoint industry itself but beyond and all in some way can be said to be hindering rather than advancing the progression of the platform and its services to a wider market. Here is my rationale for some of the more obvious ones:

1. Intranet

What does the word ‘intranet’ say to you? Now what does it really say to you? For many business users ‘intranet’ speaks of a confused, out of date, badly constructed, impossible to navigate, out of touch, irrelevant, arcane, archaic, legacy investment which today cannot be trusted as authoritative. Therefore when you come to introduce a new intranet on SharePoint, for many, you are simply using the latest technology to replace something unpopular and repeat the problems of yesteryear. Intranet is not an obligatory term and neither does it adequately describe the power of SharePoint, so why use it at all?

2. T&M

T&M, more accurately termed Time and Materials describe the all-too-common approach by solution integrators to costing SharePoint solutions. More importantly T&M describes the frequent unwillingness by Partners to commit to a fixed price for a solution based primarily on the one-way argument that the client may change their mind and scope may vary. Worse is the argument that detailed requirements are unknown and therefore a fixed price is not plausible.

If one applied the same rationale to SAP or similar, one would be writing a blank cheque that could end up costing tens of millions of dollars and it comes as no surprise in the current global economic climate that client organisations are increasingly wary and weary of the constant surprise regarding SharePoint costs. After a decade of SharePoint installations and solution development, a large proportion of the more common solutions are well known in terms of cost and T&M is far less appropriate than ten years ago in many cases.

The future of packaged applications and cloud, SaaS services may well see the demise of wholesale use of the T&M model. If we cannot be clear to a global client market what things cost, or that services are expensive and not easy to budget for then be assured that engagements may be limited or difficult to attract.

3. Point solution

Point solutions have supported a global SharePoint industry for years. A point solution is a solution developed in isolation for a specific requirement and not linked to any other relational service. More commonly put, ‘tell us what you want and we will build it’. In part this occurred through a common misconception that SharePoint is best sold as a development platform. In turn single solutions required single disconnected projects and most corporate IT departments are based on a project-centric model.

Single projects largely fail to employ an economy of scale, budget or resource and are packaged as single entities that live for their own selfish reasons. Multiple disconnected projects on the same platform using one or (worse still) multiple vendors on the same platform quickly start to trip each other up and place a budget burden not on a business stakeholder group but on multiple single project sponsors.

It is the failure to take a business program approach to the platform that has meant that SharePoint to date has squandered an intrinsically valuable opportunity to establish itself at the heart of organisations for a wide range of interconnected enterprise services that themselves are mapped out using a business roadmap and blueprint like Salem™.

Ultimately the project centric approach has left SharePoint as being seen as unnecessarily  expensive, slow to develop, release and adopt and cumbersome. Far too many SharePoint implementations have run out of steam due to a lack of long term program budget planning, resource and role planning and business program alignment.

4. Developer

Let’s make it clear, I believe that SharePoint’s versatility is an extremely strong value proposition and the ability to develop an eternal number of business solutions makes SharePoint extremely valuable to every organisation. Consequently I am not against ‘development’ in any way, when warranted. The term ‘developer’ however has increasingly become equated to unmanageable expense, slow delivery, and bespoke services that are difficult to maintain, particularly with version upgrades.

Microsoft has demonstrated the issue clearly with its new SharePoint 2013 model where code does not interfere with the kernel and remains separate thus un-hindering clients from future core SharePoint platform upgrades.

For far too long the recruitment industry, together with portions of the SharePoint industry have been guilty of perpetuating the myth that if you are implementing SharePoint you must begin by employing a team of developers. Therefore from the very outset clients have taken a view that it is impossible to make any headway with SharePoint without developing using skilled developers.

You can imagine their surprise therefore when client organisations have later discovered out-of-the box services they had not been shown previously and therefore realised that there were many less costly opportunities to make early headway. Therefore whilst there is absolutely nothing wrong with the role of the SharePoint developer it has largely been the misuse of the role of the developer in the overall SharePoint strategic program that has upset many clients and made them wary of further development investment. 

5. Extranet

Similar to Intranet but leading to even more confusion, 'extranet' is largely a technology term that has little obvious business meaning behind it as it is not one of common parlance. Essentially people in an organisation wish to collaborate and share with people outside the organisation identified by name, that’s not so hard to explain and is common in terms of requirement. The word extranet is symbolic more than anything else of the major problem still facing organisations. 
In many respects the word 'extranet' represents the larger techno-centric argument that nothing can be explained in plain English when it can instead have a term that no one finds easy to comprehend. It is as if technology is buried deep in the psyche of science fiction where abstraction is a necessity and deliberate through choice to the exclusion of the masses.

6. Social

'Social' is the word du jour and a word that is increasingly being over-used and misinterpreted as well as being incorporated into phraseology such as the even more diverse ‘enterprise social’, ‘social enterprise’ or even ‘social collaboration’. Let’s make a bold statement here, in the context of business there is nothing truly social about social technology in the workplace, but instead and far more importantly what social really means is ‘applied social networking techniques’. This means that rather than using software to announce how much beer you drank last night, you are using the services found in the common social network platforms reassigned for business subjects. Gartner backs up the issue by demonstrating that only 10% of 'social collaboration' scenarios achieve a degree of success.

Be in no doubt that many business directors request that social tools are switched off, that they distract workers from daily tasks and offer difficult governance for overstretched HR departments. This is no different to the slow embrace of instant messaging a decade or more ago. 'Social' for them is something that happens after work, not during work hours. Therefore the tech industry needs to decide and agree what ‘social’ actually means in the context of business and work. Rather than scaring organisations, use appropriate terminology that attracts and enhances an organisation instead of presenting technology that may not be, in many instances, interpreted as business appropriate.

 7. Partner

The word ‘partner’ is extremely common in the Microsoft ecosystem and something that is passed through to the end customer. Partnering is of course a very worthy objective and one that many aspire too.  Partnering with anyone is of course very difficult to achieve well whether with an individual or indeed a large corporation and therefore grand statements such as ‘our mission statement is to partner 110% with all our clients’ is largely meaningless. Most ‘partners’ are in fact effective deliverers of SharePoint solutions for which they get paid specifically for their time and effort and which is indeed exactly what most clients want.

Partnering takes the deliverer to an entirely different level of business relationship which requires sharing, including the sharing of risk, closeness and embrace of distinct corporate cultures which in practice most solution delivery companies find very difficult or costly to achieve. Therefore the word ‘partner’ comes to mean something akin to over-promising in a way that undermines the value proposition of the intrinsic relationship itself.

Due to the fact that many clients have failed to find true partnership from their solution integrators then it may be far more appropriate to make the statement that one is an expert SharePoint solution integrator than an expert SharePoint partner and not define a relationship that will never really materialise.

 8. Governance

Probably the most misused and much-maligned term in the SharePoint industry and one that continues to cause debate to rage to this day. Do you mean technical governance, business governance, administrative governance, product governance, what? Governance simply means the ‘act of governing’ and in which case the act of governing of SharePoint is performed by its stakeholders and business sponsor, beyond this there are many other ‘acts of governing’ required to be performed in various ways and to various degrees by various parties en route to SharePoint success.

However because the SharePoint industry continues to squabble as to what governance means and which software company owns the ‘right’ to the term governance, so the client audience is left cold, detached and disinterested. For many client organisations governance sounds like a complex turn off that in turn ensures that SharePoint itself appears difficult to embrace.

 9. SharePoint

This is probably the most difficult word of them all and one that causes the most issues. We have had SharePoint Portal Services, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server, Windows SharePoint Services, SharePoint Foundation Services, SharePoint Online and finally SharePoint, phew!  So they finally agreed on the word SharePoint as a brand identity and just when it was safe to come out and face the music in point 11 its not SharePoint anymore, now its the cloud and Office 365. Are you thinking what I am thinking?!

The issue isn’t with the word 'SharePoint' as a brand name, though its  recent agreed naming convention does make things easier to progress its identity in the long term (see point 11 though). No the issue is with how one describes SharePoint, what is it? You can describe Excel as a spreadsheet you can describe PowerPoint as a presentation-maker and you could describe Word as a word processor to keep things simple. If you can’t describe something to your mother in 60 seconds what hope do we really have?

The issue with the word SharePoint is that it does not have a single identity and indeed has so many identities that it suffers from a form of extreme schizophrenia where it can be one thing to one person and something completely different to another. Yet at its core, SharePoint contains a set of common features and services that every organization can and should benefit from.

It is due to the fact that over  decade later, whilst the global SharePoint industry still refuses to agree on a simple way to describe its platform that it struggles to demonstrate real business value with ease and why other platforms and services continue to make ground. There may come a tipping point where, however great SharePoint is, client organisations simply start to move in a different direction.

 10. Requirements Gathering

‘Requirements gathering’ is a phrase that sends the fear of God into the heart of many potential clients and yet one used by the majority of solution integrators, it is a phrase that sets out a process of finding out in detail what the client wants incorporated into a specific solution. The problem is that many organisations simply aren’t sure what they want, or of the detail that must be defined within a solution.

The thought that clients need to undergo weeks of relatively expensive, business-impacting requirements-gathering workshops is off-putting to the extent that many organisations are now actively seeking shrink-wrapped solutions (latterly known as Apps) that take away the arduous process of discussing in fine detail the opinions and requirements that will lead to a final cost proposal. Ask a client if they will forego an exact service match for one that is fast to deliver, requires no requirements-gathering but only meets 70% of understood criteria and many will absolutely say yes please.

The world is quickly moving on and the inference that anything built on SharePoint requires a long-winded requirements-gathering process that can be costly, time-consuming, politically troublesome and difficult to finalise can lead to early disaffection by stakeholders that they then refuse to repeat. Many organisations have stated that their technology partners should provide clear thought-leadership by demonstrating what many other organisations have already achieved thus removing the requirements gathering hurdle.

 11. Office 365 (or 'Cloud')

An odd choice you might think and a topic that is currently flavour of the year, the SharePoint transition to the cloud. The problem is that the brand name Office 365 dilutes SharePoint, hides its presence and appears to suggest SharePoint is something far less than it really is, something slightly inconsequential, light and ad hoc. There is an inference that SharePoint Online requires far less thought, due diligence, structure, strategy and planning to adopt now that it is ready made but indeed the requirement for business aligned strategy for SharePoint does not change whether it be onsite or online. Office 365 does not take away much of the strategic requirements found with on premise SharePoint implementations. 

More worryingly still is the idea that this dilution of SharePoint may be deliberate to move by those who have never grasped what it actually is and have had no strategy for it. There have indeed been suggestions in some articles that Office 365 heralds the end of SharePoint and its parts will become independent services in the cloud.

Could you imagine SAP as being part of an Office suite or any other enterprise product for that matter? No, neither can I. As SharePoint is an extensive and powerful enterprise platform, placing it within a package offering and taking away its primary name thus taking away its independent identity is itself something that may stifle its long term growth. Add Yammer into the mix in Office 365 and one can see how the cloud branding can cause real issues for an increasingly bewildered corporate consumer market.

These are only some of the many words I could have chosen for this article but the tech industry continues to define itself largely by being distant and distinct from the businesses it services through its fashionable and all too often abstract use of vocabulary. In the time we now live in, the ability to be succinct, clear, and drive real business value quickly is a high priority for many organisations and it is for this reason that the words and phrases that the SharePoint industry chooses to engage with and define itself by, may well define whether it remains in the dictionary a decade from now.

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