IT Management Blog: my thoughts about putting the "i" in IT

System implementations that must fail: MS SharePoint

Sometimes you have those systems of which the first implementation always need to fail. From experience and what I read from other organizations, typically CRM and enterprise Intranet (including document management such as with MS SharePoint) implementations suffer from this.

Fail is a bit of a harsh word for it because if you look at the characteristics of those projects, realistically you know that success will only come in subsequent phases. Though I do belief that if you do everything right first time, success can be achieved in the first round.

So how come that there are so many (perceived) failures?

The systems and projects I refer to have some common characteristics that make it difficult to get it perfect in the first attempt.

First of all they are shared systems for the enterprise and not for a single department. It means that there are many stakeholders and that the system is to be used by virtually everyone in the organisation. There is not one single business owner but many. You will end up with a steering committee where each member will be an expert in the subject as well. Even if your project team might have all the right insights and have the right plan for success, the steering committee might want to send you in the wrong direction. Your plan will be modified and the delicately constructed approach falls apart like a card house.

This, given you were able to come to such a plan in the first place. In scenarios where your team members also become end users, you run into the challenge of having a team full of business owners and subject matter experts.

Specifically with something like SharePoint everyone is an expert when it comes down to requirements, design, usability and change management. Even your expensive consultants might not be too much of a help. The tool has many great new features but it would make a too large a culture and even intellectual challenge to implement it according to the theoretical ideal design as the tool prescribes it. You need to be cautious to implement a solution as a software vendor sees the world. Your consultants probably tell you to go all the way, but due to the big paradigm shift I don’t think it is wise to take too many steps at once.

When using SharePoint for managing documents and you want to enforce the recording of a certain set of meta data for compliance purposes you are bound to make life difficult for your end users.  People need to perform tasks in the system for which there is no direct benefit for them. This is a general recurring theme with many enterprise systems where people need to administer information where they can't immediately see how and where it will be used. You will get resistance and as a minimum you will find that people are slack with respect to the quality of the data.

Systems like SharePoint where you mix a new paradigm to managing documents and files with improved collaboration, require a significant change in the thinking and behaviour of people. As I described in a previous post about my friend who for the first time got in contact with a PC and MS DOS, this can be challenge. I see many people still struggling with concepts such as versioning and check-in/check-out, not unlike my mother still struggling with the basics of her windows XP.

I found that no matter how long you wait until the technology has matured you will always feel disappointed with some set of lacking features during your first implementation.

When I first saw a demo of SharePoint in 2001 I got really excited and ran a pilot project. We found that the tool did not live up to the expectation and put it to the side. When in 2008 I thought the product had matured enough and we decided to go ahead with the implementation, I found that many aspects are still cumbersome. For example moving attachments out of email into SharePoint and vice versa in combination with enforcing meta data does not go smoothly. Third party solutions are available and the 2010 release promises improvements, but the fact remains that basic office integration is in the 2007 release not a finished product.

Collaboration is probably one the reasons you will have selected SharePoint. The 2007 release promised much on the subject but functionality for things like wikis an blogs is still primitive. In a context where uptake of the system goes difficult you might better wait with implementing those features until you are ready to implement the new release.

Besides the intellectual challenge of working with a new system, there is the cultural challenge. Sharing your data with others requires a different mindset. When I realised that it would be easier to grant the legal team access to my contract folders, I noticed within myself some resistance. It took me a few days before I actually did it. But taking the next step and giving full ownership of all my IT contracts to the legal team is something haven’t got around to yet.

Besides the issue of identifying whether your contract documents better sit with your project documentation or in a site of the legal team, it raises a few more questions. Specifically in relation to retention of the data on the longer term, different teams look at the data from a different perspective. The one team might easier decide to archive or destroy documents than the other. It might not be that you want to keep it all, but there are always some documents that you would like to retain for historical purposes. A proper archiving solution, usually one of the reasons to implement a Document Management system in the first place, should give people peace of mind on that subject but the fact remains that working together and trusting each other does not come easily.

All four characteristics regarding project management, design, end user adoption and maturity of the technology make it difficult to get your implementation right the first time.

Even if you are aware of all this and count on some stormy waters, put a lot of effort in stakeholder management, make your managers aware that it requires a lot of stamina and plan your change management in detail, the message that the benefit is for the organisation as a whole and that this can only be achieved on the long haul gets diluted over time in the waves of frustration.

The solution to this is to continue preaching the rationale behind the system, accept a few blows and keep pushing the project forward against the wind. Continue to implement improvements and continue with handholding staff using the system. The combination of getting used to the system, learning to think in new concepts and continuous improvement of the functionality will gradually improve the user experience and slowly make that the system gets accepted. That is the point that you will finally start reaping the benefits and can start introducing new concepts in terms of collaboration.

It simply is not easy to implement these type of systems. The stakeholders quite often all have a valid point and there are many paths to come to an envisaged end result. And what this end result will be is not easy to model beforehand. Usually you know what it is or could be once you have gone through the first implementation phase. That’s why I don’t want to go to hard on everyone involved and just see the failure more as perceived failure. People have different expectations and we cannot really see in each other’s heads what those are. Human kind is all about making progress and if you can prove that you made progress according to the original plan (but maybe not according to unwritten expectations), you should be proud of having taken that big step.

It is a big step because you have laid the foundation for the organisation to come to a new level of working and brought people to work and think on a different level of abstraction. A document is not just a file, but is data with history and versions, with different levels of access for different people and with different meta data which mean that over time different actions will be performed on that data. It is not easy to constantly have these aspects in the back of your mind each time you touch the document or talk about the document with others.

In the first instance much of these changes have no direct benefit to the users. Only when you can transform this into true collaboration they will experience the benefits. Social media concepts will help to transform this world of collaboration and this is already happening.