There was a theme the past couple weeks in the SharePoint blog-o-sphere reminding us that SharePoint is just a tool; collaboration, business processes, and the like need to be considered first. Then look at SharePoint if it fits. The posts came from people in the field that I respect very much, whose blogs I read regularly.


That said, I have to attach my own asterisk to this wisdom and provide a somewhat different viewpoint. While I find this philosophy a refreshing reminder (and best practice), I quickly revert back to my practical experience, which tells me the view is overly optimistic, bordering on utopic. And I say that in the most respectful way possible.


Of course you need to have your business processes ironed out before trying to SharePoint-ize them, but you absolutely need to know the functions, features, and limitations of the tool if you’re planning to use it outright. Plus, you’ll get the most bang for your buck if you’re acquainted with it.


Authors don’t “Word” for a living

Dave Rubinstein makes a fair point: “Writers working on a novel don’t get up each day and exclaim, ‘I can’t wait to use Word today,’ or grouse that ‘If only Word could write sentences for me, I’d use it more often.’ No, they understand Word is a way to get their thoughts down on the proverbial paper.”


But, these days, basically everyone in a professional setting knows what Word can and can’t do. They know it doesn’t do magical things.


Not true with SharePoint. Some people—let’s be real, a lot—still think it’s a source of black magic and can solve so many problems that it can’t.


Lack of knowledge hinders the utility of a tool. But, if you have a good sense of what it can and can't do, you can quickly and easily make life easier by putting the tool to work where it makes sense.


Know the tool, know the options

Think of it more like this: Forget the author exclaiming her excitement to “Word” today. Rather, you need to go grocery shopping. To get there, you don’t meet with a business analyst to spell out all of your transportation requirements on a whiteboard every time the cupboards are bare.


“Well, I need to be there in a respectable amount of time, I don’t want sore feet once I arrive, I need to be able to get many groceries home, I need to do it affordably, and I need to do it now.”


If you had done that the way BAs are supposed to do it, you would have to consider a range of solutions, starting from walking with a basket on your head all the way to R&D work to develop teleportation. Or, you know, whether you should purchase a jet to get you there. Owning a jet would be amazingly cool, but it’s likely not practical. Especially since let’s say the store, in this case, is only three miles (5 km) away.


No. In real life, you just get in your car and go. Your car is your tool.


And it’s just a tool, right? But you know it. You’re fully aware that you’re limited by

  1. Infrastructure: only so many available routes to take;
  2. Time: speed limits keep your velocity at bay;
  3. Maintenance: sometimes the car’s unavailable because you’re getting an oil change;
  4. Ownership issues: when you get a flat tire, you deal with it or pay someone to; and
  5. Costs: gas ain’t free!

But it’s something you know well enough to have a sense of ownership over your solution. You don’t depend on someone else to drive you there. You only call in a mechanic when necessary. You may even try to maintain it yourself with the help of the all-knowing Google. And you generally know its limits.


Same with SharePoint. If you know it well enough, you’re aware of how it can do incredible things for you if you make the most of its best features. But you also know its limitations, that it requires maintenance and sometimes isn’t available, and that it’s not omniscient. And you know enough to Google your problem yourself, just like you would if you want to know how to change the master slides in PowerPoint. Know what I mean?


The point is, you use your car to solve everyday problems. You don’t start with problems, analyze various transportation solutions, and maybe settle on using your car. Your car does a lot, it’s easy to use, and it’s there, waiting to be driven. Similarly, you don’t always need to start with a business problem or process, find multiple solutions, and maybe settle on SharePoint. Once you know SharePoint, seek out the solvable problems and… solve them.


How about some real-world examples:

  • Sick of sending email attachments? Hey, try SharePoint document libraries!
  • Overwhelmed by emails and IMs, and need a central place to communicate? Hey, try SharePoint Newsfeed or Yammer!
  • Can’t find anything in your shared drives? Hey, try saving in SharePoint and using search!
  • Want to share files with only certain individuals in an easy way? Hey, try a SharePoint team site!
  • Need a central place to overview next year’s benefits package? Hey, try a SharePoint library and web page for hosting!
  • Want to get feedback on your last presentation? Hey, try a SharePoint survey!
  • Need a way to reserve the conference room, a vehicle, or special tool? Hey, try a SharePoint calendar! (Or multiple!)
  • Want easy mobile access to your files? Hey, try SharePoint and OneDrive for Business!
  • The list goes on…

To be clear, if you're trying to apply SharePoint to a non-existent or totally screwed up business problem, you're gonna have a bad time. I'm not preaching otherwise, people.


Power to the people

With your car, the more you use it, the better you get to know it: “Oh, you can make a phone call over Bluetooth with the car? Sweet!” More options now available. Same with SharePoint: “Oh, you can have a calendar on your team site to keep track of when everyone’s out of the office? Sweet!” Institute it on the fly and see your team be more productive almost immediately.


And in most cases, SharePoint is a free tool to use internally in a workplace, just like that car of yours that’s sitting in the driveway. SharePoint’s likely been promoted as the solution for many problems, and in some cases ownership is really in the hands of users, not IT.


That last bit—ownership is really in the hands of users, not IT—is the way it should be, by the way. And as the citizen developer concept becomes a thing—and it definitely is getting there—people are solving their own problems, using the tools available. But to solve those problems, they need to know the tool.


It’s how I became an out-of-the-box power user: our old intranet was being shut down, SharePoint was now the only option. I played, did some trial and error, and discovered what SharePoint can do. I had never thought of putting my team’s documents, drawings, and stuff (dating back decades) to a central website, categorized by part, project, system, etc., before knowing those features existed.


Yes, I—gasp!—built a business solution based on available features in SharePoint, not the other way around.

I used SharePoint to solve a problem; I didn’t solve the problem philosophically then try to find a tool (SharePoint or otherwise) to make it so. In fact, I did it multiple times; over and over again. And this is where the realm of citizen developers is going. It’s quicker and more efficient than developing expensive custom solutions that require highly qualified folks to develop and maintain.


I used the tool to solve applicable problems. Just like today when I didn’t think twice about driving my car to work, the grocery store, and the gym. (Frankly, the thought of breaking my chopper out of its hangar just seemed like overkill.)


Charlotte Amalie


So, when I’ve got a business problem, I first try to think if SharePoint can solve it out of the box. Chances are it can probably do a lot for me. But when I need the big guns, I’ll consider a custom tool or third-party product. I’m not blinded by SharePoint, but I’m not wasting my time on something else when I know SharePoint will do.


Keep SharePoint in mind, just don’t be blinded by it

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