Is SharePoint Still Hot?

In a recent edition of the Redmond Report, Doug Barney asked whether SharePoint is still a big deal or whether the supposed popularity of the product is the result of ‘Microsoft’s cruelly efficient marketing machine’. With supposedly over 100 million licenses and dozens, if not hundreds of cool third party products and tools becoming available, it sometimes seems as if the SharePoint community is quieter than what it should be. So the following was my response to Doug.

You raise a very interesting question in your recent Redmond Report article. Two and a half years ago, we (Orange County Public Schools) jumped on the bandwagon to convert our web sites to SharePoint ( https://www.ocps.net ). As the 11th largest school district in the nation with over 180,000 students and 24,000 employees we dived full steam ahead with a vision and a grand team of 5 people. Never the less, we managed with the ‘help’ of a consultant company to roll out our Internet in 6 months while we learned the tool. Then during the next year with 4 people and without the consultant, we rolled out our intranet. And finally in the last year, with only 3 people and no consultant, we converted each and every one of our 165+ public facing Internet schools sites to SharePoint (actually the last two go live this week… YEA!!!!).

But did you notice? We have been losing staff because management does not have the money to support everything we may want. In fact we might consider ourselves luck to still be here with the beating the education industry has taken. But it is not just us in education. I’ve seen a lot of the enthusiasm wane in the last year. Maybe it’s the economy. Or maybe it is the SharePoint experts trying to make SharePoint sound harder to use than it really is.

What do I mean by that? Have you looked at the average SharePoint book at the bookstore? Almost all of these authors are out to show how smart they are and how much coding they can do to make SharePoint jump through hoops. Many people just getting started are overwhelmed and turned off. The problem is not that SharePoint can be extended to do wonderful things with some programming, but the point is more that SharePoint can do a lot of wonderful things without getting neck-deep in program code just to create sites, lists, or even many simpler workflows. After learning how to do the basics effectively and getting the most you can from out of the box features, then and only then should you look toward extending SharePoint’s capabilities with programming of either your own homebrew code or third party products. That in a nutshell is the beauty of the platform.

I tried a year and a half ago to publish a book on using SharePoint features out of the box, especially those features that integrate with Office 2007 that any Office Power user can take advantage of without writing a single line of code. The book was published through APRESS and failed miserably. In fact, I think I still sell more of my Visual FoxPro 5.0 book from QUE which is over 10 years old than APRESS sold of the SharePoint book. Why? Does the average office user think SharePoint is too difficult to use? Do the corporate tech owners (IT departments) limit the options that end-users can play with thus leaving users dissatisfied with a partially crippled and unusable product? Do most readers interpret SharePoint books to imply that you have to be a programming wizard to make anything work at all?

We also tried to get a SharePoint group started here in Orlando two years ago. It started fairly strong but dribbled out as speakers insisted on talking about complex programming manipulations of SharePoint that turned off the interest of many of the end user people who attended. Within a year, the group disbanded.

As an organization, we are now looking at rolling out collaboration sites. The biggest problem is getting people to understand how to use them. In a few early pilot cases, they quickly turned into ‘data dumps’ for all their department files with little to no organization to which they then complained that SharePoint is no better than file shares on a server. However, trying to get them to attend internal classes on how to use features like meetings, integration with Outlook and Word, tasks lists, wikis, discussion groups, and blogs for project notes, InfoPath forms and Excel Services has been met with a cold response that they do not have time to sit and learn all the fancy frills. Just give them a site and they will figure it out on their own. Sometimes they might even be able to spare 10 minutes for a quick introduction.

My team of 3 is overwhelmed and understaffed to change the direction of this battleship. I know of several other school districts with a similar plight. Some better off. Some worse off. However, I still firmly believe that until the average Office user learns how to integrate their daily activities in Office with SharePoint, SharePoint will not achieve its potential. We need to allow publishing of more articles and books on how to use SharePoint features out of the box in language that the average Office user (there are far more of those than programmers) can and will want to use.

Then again, maybe it is just the economy and no one wants to spend time building out the infrastructure needed to be efficient in the future unless it translates to immediate gains for this month’s bottom line.

Anyway, you asked for what we thought.