Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Why SharePoint is so important

It is always difficult to define the business case for a SharePoint implementation. For most organisations it does not have a direct return on investment but an indirect one through improved communication, collaboration and knowledge management. In addition to these core items, SharePoint can be leveraged for application type of functionality such as workflows and integration with other business applications and as such will function as a portal.

One of the key challenges with a tool like SharePoint is that you only achieve the benefits if the tool is correctly implemented AND that in addition behaviour of people in the organisation changes accordingly. So even if you have a good business case, it remains a significant challenge to realise the benefits.

Even though it is difficult to quantity the benefits, it is costly to achieve it and there is a risk that you don’t achieve it, I have a strong belief that SharePoint is in most cases of strategic importance for organisations – specifically in Australia.

Australia seems to have a productivity problem and as I learned from economists, employees in the United States have more capital equipment at their disposal than employees in Australia. This is one of the reasons why for example the US is a major producer of hardware and software and is much more innovative in their production of those types of goods.

The challenge for the business case is then the challenge to make the vision of how SharePoint can contribute and to make this visible to decision makers, who in most cases won’t be a key user of such a s system. The challenge is often already much closer to home. The CIO or IT manager might not have a clear detailed picture of how the tool will work in practical terms of day to day use.

You need to have a clear picture in your mind of how you can configure the tool and how people could or should use it. This goes into the details of how team sites will be setup, how the meta-data will be defined and used, the use of off-line capabilities and integration with MS Office to simplify storing documents in SharePoint and how the social capabilities can be used. Besides understanding how it could be used in ideal circumstances, you also need to understand the limitations of the tool and what will put people off and will make them avoid storing their information in the system. How will you transform the system into a strategic tool to create and manage knowledge that can be leveraged for productivity growth?

Knowledge management starts with gathering and recording knowledge that is obtained by individuals to assure that this knowledge is not lost. Subsequently the knowledge must effectively be used which relies on making this knowledge available in an effective way to the people in the organisation to be applied.

Traditionally the idea of capturing knowledge is for people to write a document. We see that many systems that are implemented to support this are geared towards managing documents and Intranet pages. It requires people to sit down, gather their thoughts write down the draft version, revise the formatting, store the document in a shared environment and inform people that the document is available. But once the initial newness of the document is over, we have the major challenge of using the information stored in the document in the future. How will you find the document in 12 month’s time and specifically how will people who do not even know that it exists find it when they need the relevant information? Will they have access to it?

If the information was considered important and central enough to the company’s operations, it might have been published in a central repository accessible via the Intranet. But if you do not only want to capture knowledge created as part of formalised processes but also want to capture insights of the day or week and if you consider the effort a person needs to go through to create and publish this information with little prospect of future use, you understand it is simply not happening. 

A first SharePoint implementation usually copies the same paradigm of knowledge management from a file system to a web based solution. (see also my blog post) This is not surprising since the paradigm shift is huge and it requires time to adjust, besides the fact that the technology promises a lot but realises only part of the promise. SharePoint is growing along with the ability of people to adopt the change - sometimes faster and sometimes slower. In order to build a business case for a SharePoint implementation it is necessary to understand what you can achieve with a current release and a current implementation project but also have a vision beyond the current release and where technology and user paradigms are growing towards to.

SharePoint originally was ahead of the game. Moving away from folder structures, local or shared drives and introducing meta-data was a huge step for many users. Social networking, mobile and cloud computing have shifted the way people think and work. Slowly a paradigm shift is taking place while SharePoint currently struggles to keep pace. The acquisition of Yammer by Microsoft can be seen as a positive prospect for the future of SharePoint.

Mobile and cloud computing have created situation that information can be created and accessed instantaneously anywhere anytime. The advantage is that you don’t need to sit on your desk for this. You can access the information when on the road, in a meeting with your colleagues or when visiting a client. This significantly improves the speed and quality of decision making. It also has the advantage of creation of information that can be done during short periods of down time.

With the emergence of social networking, people are more inclined to express their thoughts in written or visual form. Much knowledge, experience and insights comes in short bursts. If you wait for people to sit down and write a coherent story, much of these insights are lost, besides the fact that many people wouldn’t do it.

You could criticise these concepts and point to the risk that with opening up all these social concepts within the business context that only a lot of noise is created. However one should consider that what is noise to one person, is relevant information to another. It is my opinion that the most difficult part of knowledge management is to get the information out of people’s heads and captured on media so that it can be re-used. This does not mean that the other aspects of managing and using this information as knowledge are easy. Transforming all this noise in usable knowledge is the other major challenge.

The memory of an organisation is kept in a wide variety of artifacts such as electronic information and this can be in structure documents purposely written to divulge the knowledge but also in operational documents, systems, processes, status updates or blog posts. One person complaining to another about something going wrong can contain critical information. If this was only verbal, this insight and knowledge is easily lost. We all know that often the knowledge of a problem of opportunity existed but this information was not properly passed on to the relevant people who could take action. What if this little complaint in a status update or personal blog, would be picked up by an automated process and brought to the attention of people who focus on improvement? All this electronic “noise” that is created must be analysed, categorised and filtered and brought into a form that people can digest this to assist with their work.

Another aspect to consider is that knowledge, at least at a global scale, is growing exponentially. So if your competitor or the rest of the economy is accumulating knowledge in a more effective way than you do or you start later than the rest of doing so, the gap over time is only getting bigger (see also my blog post).
In order to be more effective in managing knowledge in an organisation, a paradigm shift needs to take place in the thinking of people while also technology will need to improve further.

So what is this paradigm shift that needs to take place?

There are many aspects to knowledge management within an organisation but there are three core processes from systems perspective: gathering, managing and using.

The paradigm shift that needs to take place will contain the following elements:
  • Less silo thinking and more openness with respect to information
  • Less thinking in terms of location (folders) and more in terms of how information is used when creating and storing information
  • Moderate corporate wide internal communication less and allow people to express themselves more freely
  • Making it a routine for all staff in the organisation to capture insights and make this available to a wider group
  • Understand that active governance and management is required to change noise into valuable knowledge
  • Understand that modern fast paced technology provides opportunities for necessary productivity growth – that they are not just nice to have but are of strategic importance

Reducing the silo thinking is a first step. Much information in SharePoint implementations is locked into team sites to which others don’t have access. I suggest thinking carefully if you really need to protect this information. Why not give read access to everybody in the organisation by default and only restrict this for selected pieces of information?

But why do we need to so many team sites? Consider reducing the number of team sites and use meta-data to group documents and information. It is easy to create multiple libraries or web-pages all within the same site. As soon as you see that people make copies of a document within SharePoint system you have an indication that you can optimise the design. Team sites are in my opinion, from document management perspective, just a super folder. Changing sites and folders into meta-data increases collaboration and improves efficiency.

Take as an example the documents you create during an IT project that is also required later for ongoing support. Not all project documentation has relevance post project closure but some have. A support team wants to have access from system perspective and not project perspective. So what happens in many cases is that relevant project documentation is copied to a data structure required for support. An alternative approach would be to use meta-data in the first instance. During the project team, the initial filter will be via the “project name” while post project, the support team will filter by “system name”.

But you should expand this consideration across the organisation. In a larger organisation you will have different business units or offices and within those offices people covering a variety of professional disciplines. Team sites will be setup according to the natural hierarchy but say an electrical engineer in London might just as well be interested in information created on the subject in Sydney. A search, a filter or an alert on a specific subject across the organisation can bring this Sydney based information to the employee in London.

The above can only be achieved if meta-data is effectively captured. However documents and other information will only be stored in the system if it is easy to do. You need to remove all barriers for people to contribute their information. This will rely on the technology provided such as integration of SharePoint with MS Office, allowing the use of the information through off-line and mobile capabilities and reducing the total number of steps involved. Capturing meta-data requires extra steps. To reduce the amount of meta-data that people need to enter, you can consider automation tools that derive meta-data from the content and the context.

I can strongly recommend you to look into a tools from Recommind to automatically add meta-data to your information through its self learning engine.

If you have made it easy for people to contribute information, you need to remove the non-technical barriers. Many documents are created as part of the normal work process. But much knowledge is lost because it is not captured in writing. People complain usually about inefficiencies or identify options for improvement. Too often many of their suggestions are lost in an email between one or two people. Allowing people to capture this information more freely in a blog post, wiki or list of ideas allows you easily to collect this information when you take an initiative to make improvements. A culture change is required to allow for open communication.

If this has been achieved, you will find that you can make it a routine for people to capture their insights and knowledge on a weekly or even daily basis. Once you have achieved that, you will see that your knowledge base will grow exponentially and from pure document management perspective, you will see that people will store their documents in the system by default. No more storing on the desktop, shared drive or “My Documents” - and a significant reduction of Email as the document repository.

There is however another critical factor that is required before people will actively contribute knowledge to the system and that is that it needs to be used. People will need to see the benefit. The information needs to be easily accessible and there needs to be a value for the audience.

If much more information is available to people and people create much more information, you will need to start managing the noise. A simple search returns so many results that you might not find the information you were looking for. The meta-data in combination with free and canned search features becomes critical. Canned searches are in first instance the views that will replace site and folder structures to provide a browse capability (to certain extend similar as the folders). In second instance they can function as subscriptions and alerts.

In order to achieve optimal use of meta-data you will need to design this on a system wide level to make sure your London based engineer will be alerted to a new piece of information made available in a team site in Sydney. You might find that SharePoint in its current form has its limitations and you would want to use added technology such as those form Recommind (http://www.recommind.com/) for automatic generation of meta-data and the provision or powerful contextual search and browse capabilities.

The governance of the whole system should not be underestimated. It requires active management to manage the sites, meta-data and the quality of information which needs be done in close relationship with the technical support team to constantly improve and adjust to the needs in an agile fashion. In addition, you would want to setup knowledge centres where people actively follow information created to combine, structure and transform it so knowledge is generated that is directly applicable. For example, you can have collected many pieces of information about a certain subject and you need someone to combine this into a single coherent piece of text. The internal scientific writer and process improver.

So how do you explain the benefits of a SharePoint implementation?

On the one hand you aim at efficiency improvement. But it will remain difficult to translate a 2 to 5 minutes time saving per person per day for finding information into a dollar value. You won’t actually save this money but it will go into productivity improvement.

Or what is the value of actually finding the right information that you before would not be able to find? It could lead to a million dollar deal, but how do you know that you would otherwise not be able to win this? Or if you would have avoided a major manufacturing disaster? If you have statisticians in your organisation you might want to ask them for advice to quantify these benefits.

Another benefit is that you give your people better tools to do their work. This makes people happier and therefore more productive. It also assists with reducing dissatisfaction and reduces the chance that qualified people leave for greener pastures. If you give people second grade tools, you will end up with second grade people and a second grade organisation.

In the end, you create an asset and you need to deal with this similarly as you deal with many other assets in your organisation.

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