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Don’t Be a Bull in the China Shop

A Brief History of SharePoint (From a Relative Newcomer’s Perspective)

Note: This article was originally posted to www.endusersharepoint.com.  I forgot to post it to my own blog 🙂

SharePoint has evolved a great deal since its early days as sort of an incubation technology at Microsoft –it’s evolved almost like a horror movie, where the mad scientist’s creation takes on a life of its own, breaking free of its creator’s expectations and rules.  The technical evolution is obvious – the WSS 3.0 object model is richer and more complex than WSS 2.0, which was itself an improvement over earlier versions.  The next version will no doubt show tremendous improvement over 3.0.  From an End User’s perspective, however, SharePoint’s evolution is even more significant.

In the early days, SharePoint didn’t offer much to End Users.  They would have their usual functionality requirements, work with IT to define them well and implement a solution.  IT would use SharePoint to solve the problem.  The product wasn’t very accessible to End Users.  I’ve thought threw a few analogies, but I decided to stick Venn Diagrams to show what I mean.  When Microsoft first released SharePoint to the world as a commercial offering, it followed a relatively traditional pattern of End User <-> IT relationship.  A lot of End Users, communicating and working with a very small number of It people to deliver solutions that solve business problems:

The overall problem domain for which SharePoint is a suitable delivery platform is small (especially compared to today’s SharePoint.  End Users and IT worked in a more classic arrangement with IT: define requirements to IT, wait for IT do their work behind the curtain and take delivery of the final product.

As SharePoint evolved to the 2.0 world (WSS 2.0 and SharePoint Portal Server), several things happened.  First, the “problem domain” increased in size.  By problem domain, I mean the kinds of business problems for which SharePoint could be a viable solution.  For instance, you wouldn’t think too hard about implementing a serious search solution in a SharePoint environment until SPS (and even then, it wasn’t as good as it needed to be).  At the same time, End Users have an unprecedented ability to not only define, but also implement their own solutions with little or no IT support. 

The 3.0 platform (WSS and MOSS) maintained and increased that momentum.  The problem domain is enormous as compared to the 2.0 platform.  Virtually every department in a company, ranging from manufacturing health and safety departments to marketing, from sales to quality control – they can find a good use for SharePoint (and it’s not a case of mashing a round peg into a square hole).  At the same time, the platform empowers even more End Users to implement their own business solutions.  I try to capture that with this diagram:

This has proven to be both a potent and frustrating mixture.  The 3.0 platform turns previously stable roles on their heads.  Suddenly, End Users are effectively judge, jury and executioner business analyst, application architect and developer for their own business solutions.  This gets to the heart of the problem I’m writing about.  But before I dive into that, let’s consider the elephant in the room.

Peering into the Crystal Ball

How will SharePoint 2010 affect this pattern?  Will it be incremental or revolutionary?  Will more, fewer or about the same number of End users find themselves empowered to build solutions in SharePoint 2010?  Will SharePoint 2010’s problem domain expand even further or will it just refine and streamline what it already offers in WSS 3.0 / MOSS?

There’s enough information “out there” to safely say that the general answer is:

  • The problem domain is going to dramatically expand. 
  • End Users will find themselves even more empowered than before.

The Venn Diagram would be larger than this page and cause some IT Pros and CxO’s to reach for their Pepto. 

I believe it’s going to be a tremendous opportunity for companies to do some truly transformational things. 

No Bulls in My China Shop!

This sounds great, but from my point of view as a SharePoint consultant and putting myself into the shoes of an IT manager, I see this vision.  I own a China shop with beautiful plates, crystal, etc (my SharePoint environment).  I’ve rented a space, I’ve purchased my inventory and laid it all out the way I like it.  I’m not quite ready to open, but in anticipation, I look at the door to see if my customers are lining up and I notice an actual bull out there.  I look more closely and I actually see two bulls and even a wolf.  Then I notice that there are some sheep.  Sheep are so bad, but are they maybe disguised wolves?  I don’t want bulls in my china shop!

It gets worse!  When I rented the space, I couldn’t believe how nice it was.  Wide and open, terrific amenities, very reasonable price.  However, now I’m realizing that the wide open spaces and the huge door is just perfectly sized for a bull to come wandering in and lay waste to my china.

I’m pushing this analogy too far, of course.  End Users are not bulls (most of them, anyway) and IT departments don’t (or surely should not) view their user community with that kind of suspicion.  However, there is this sort of perfect collision taking place already in the the 3.0 platform that I expect will only get worse in SP 2010.  SharePoint already empowers and encourages End Users to define and implement their own solutions.

That’s great and all, but the fact is that it’s still a very technical product and still calls for the kind of vigorous business requirements analysis, design and general planning and management that technical projects require to be successful.  These are not the kind of skills that a lot of End Users have in their bag of tricks, especially when the focus is on a technical product like SharePoint. 

I’ve given this a lot of thought over the last year or so and I don’t see any easy answer.  It really boils down to education and training.  I think that SP 2010 is going to change the game a bit and it’s going to play out differently and in slow motion as companies roll out their SP 2010 solutions over 2010 and beyond.  In order to succeed, End Users will need to transform themselves and get a little IT religion.  They’ll need to learn a little bit about proper requirements analysis.  They will need some design documentation that clearly identifies business process workflow, for instance.  They need to understand fundamental concepts like CRUD (create, update and delete), dev/test/qa/prod environments and how to use that infrastructure to properly deploy solutions that live a nice long time and bend (not break) in response to changes in an organization.

In the coming weeks, I plan to try and provide some of my own new ideas, as well as link to the great work done by many other authors (on www.endusersharepoint.com and elsewhere) so that interested End Users can learn that old time IT religion.  Keep tuned.

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