Microsoft prides itself on being a company that listens and responds to customers. To take advantage of that commitment, I decided to ask you, Microsoft's customers, whether the company's products are serving your needs, then connect you and your questions with the people responsible for those products. I hope that the results of our surveys and your concerns and questions will offer Microsoft insights that will help serve its customers, lead to better information about its products, and help you make more informed decisions.

Each month, I'll survey the readership of Windows IT Pro about a Microsoft technology or product, then talk to a Microsoft expert about that technology or product. In my Hey Microsoft! column, I'll report the results of the survey and the interview. A Web Interact! area will be associated with each column and will include the survey results, an audio recording of the interview, and opportunities for discussions with other readers and Microsoft representatives.

Do You Use SharePoint?
To kick off this column, I surveyed 438 readers to learn whether they're using Windows SharePoint Services (WSS—formerly SharePoint Team Services) or SharePoint Portal Server 2003 and why or why not. Figure 1 shows the results of the survey: Of the 228 respondents, 68.4 percent don't use any version of SharePoint.

I also asked readers what SharePoint-related questions and concerns they'd like to convey to Microsoft. Then, I shared the survey results and readers' questions with Erik Ryan, Microsoft product manager, Information Worker Product Management Group.

Benefits and Cost
Our survey revealed that customers have two key concerns about SharePoint: understanding its benefits and justifying the cost. Within those areas, the survey brought out three layers of concern:

  1. Our readers don't have a good understanding of how software can assist collaboration. As one survey participant asked, "What are the specific uses of SharePoint and how will it benefit my company?"
  2. Corporate management's concept of collaboration ends with file sharing and public folders. According to one reader, "Management cannot see any return on investment." Another said, "I need to demonstrate real savings this product can provide my company."
  3. End users aren't asking for collaboration solutions, and they need training after SharePoint is deployed. One respondent wanted to know "what the product actually does for the end user. How will this product benefit my company directly?" Another representative comment cited a "lack of training material. You cannot expect users to learn how to use SharePoint quickly. It will change people's working style, but without training, it will be nothing but a toy."

IT Pros
Many participants wanted to ask Microsoft some variation of the questions "What does SharePoint look like, and how does it work? What advantages would it give me over what we already use?" Lacking a clear understanding of the features and benefits associated with collaboration, several readers indicated that they find email, Exchange public folders, and file shares sufficient as collaboration tools.

Erik's response to those concerns was, "The notion of collaboration takes email and file shares to a whole new level. You can have a list of documents up on a WSS team site and you can give permission to x number of people. You can check out a document, make changes, check it back in. Another person can make edits, and you can look at the version history." He added, "More to the point, a workgroup wouldn't really organize itself around a file share, but you would organize yourself around a team site because you don't just have documents up there: You have discussions, lists, shared calendars, picture libraries. All these great things go much, much deeper than just simply sending email back and forth or posting a document on a file share."

Because people are getting by with solutions such as email and public folders, several respondents questioned how to justify the expense of a collaboration solution, and SharePoint's cost came up frequently. Some respondents had the mistaken notion that SharePoint Portal Server costs $30,000, and one reader asked, "Why does the full package cost so much?"

To clear up this misunderstanding, Erik explained that WSS is a free download if you have any edition of Windows Server 2003. If you want a solution that lets you combine all your WSS sites, you can purchase SharePoint Portal Server. "Basic SharePoint Portal Server costs $3999 plus $71 per client access license. That's a pretty reasonable cost." He pointed out that the $30,000 figure is for an optional extranet solution that lets non-employees of the organization access SharePoint. (You can also subscribe to a SharePoint hosting service; Web Table 1, http://www.windowsitpro.com, InstantDoc ID 42567, lists some services along with their cost and a summary of their features.)

As someone who has used WSS and found it to be a great help for organizing and keeping track of a working group's efforts, I was disappointed with Microsoft's information about the product's value. Although Microsoft accurately describes what you can do with WSS, I don't think the company conveys how WSS can save users time and effort, nor does it concretely address how to measure time savings, costs, and Return on Investment (ROI). I looked for information on how customers could quantify SharePoint's value, and I didn't find an answer that would help me build a business justification.

Corporate Management
"How do I convince people that we need the software?" asked one participant. Another respondent eloquently summed up numerous comments: "The concept of collaboration software is very mystical and intimidating to managers who understand little about how Information Systems work. Ironically, in our rare IT strategy meetings, these same managers always bring up problems with the flow of information that can best be solved by products such as SharePoint. The best part is when I propose such a solution, the answer invariably revolves around cost and moving users into the culture of collaboration."

Such concerns tell me that Microsoft needs to provide criteria that IT pros can use to educate their management and build a business case for a SharePoint solution. Erik was able to point me to local Microsoft sales offices for information: "There are no immediate tools (at least available on the Web site), but if customers are serious about incorporating SharePoint Portal Services in their organization and they want to get in touch with one of our sales professionals, absolutely Microsoft can help start building that case." To get that help, Erik recommends that you contact your "local Microsoft district office. You can go to www.microsoft.com and locate your specific region or country for contact details."

Of course, contacting Microsoft is always a good way to get help, but our survey shows that IT pros don't have a way to demonstrate the value of collaboration. An online checklist or a formula for calculating ROI would let you do some initial assessment on your own.

In addition, Erik pointed out that one way for management to gain an understanding of SharePoint's business value is to learn about the benefits other companies have experienced. Erik referred to a user case study of Clean Water Services, a utility company in Oregon. "They had 500,000 documents and brought in both WSS and SharePoint Portal Server. They were able to centrally locate all documents in one place, and they saved $200,000 in storage costs. That's just one type of way that you save money. I think that speaks to the benefits of WSS and SharePoint Portal Server."

As this example points out, eliminating storage costs might be one contributor to ROI. If Microsoft provided a list of the ways that SharePoint could save customers money, IT pros could more easily demonstrate SharePoint's value to management.

End Users
Getting user buy-in for collaboration software is crucial. One person said, "Tell me how and what you designed into the product in order to get user buy-in in terms of ease of use. There are too many products that have a bazillion features that are rarely used or too hard to get to work; why is SharePoint different?" Another person requested that SharePoint's purchase price include user training.

Erik said "I will admit that this notion of collaboration does take a bit of getting used to, but once an employee starts understanding how collaboration works, it's very, very simple." He emphasized that the best way to demonstrate user value is to get SharePoint into your shop and let users see what it can do for them. Erik gave an example of grassroots demand driving rapid user adoption of SharePoint in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). "They went from 50 WSS users in 1 year to over 8000. That just shows that once people get the notion of collaboration, it moves pretty fast and people start to understand it quickly."

Of course, this rapid adoption implies that the FAA's IT staff was able to spend the time and resources necessary to plan and support the infrastructure that allowed such growth—no small feat. To be fair, however, Erik gave this example in response to a question about user buy-in.

Erik pointed out that you don't have to purchase the product to let users try it. "If people aren't ready to buy SharePoint, we offer a 30-day free trial up on www.sharepointtrial.com. You get five user accounts and 10MB of storage."

Does Microsoft Get It?
Microsoft sometimes takes for granted that it's giving you the information you need about new technologies. However, our survey shows that

  • Microsoft hasn't built a strong case for the benefits of collaboration software.
  • Many IT pros believe that existing technologies are filling collaboration needs.
  • Cost justification methods are required.
  • Users need more education and training than is available.

I tried to address these concerns by looking for answers on Microsoft's Web sites. But I found no explanations of collaboration or its benefits that provided compelling business reasons to adopt SharePoint. For example, I couldn't find a solid way to tell you why you need more than just email and file shares. In our survey, the weakness of Microsoft's case for deploying collaboration solutions surfaced in several requests for cost and feature comparison against other products and for customized information to show what collaboration means for your business.

Microsoft has been responsive to my requests for information and eager to address the needs that this survey brought to light. When asked whether our survey had provided any insights, Erik responded, "Yes, we learned something valuable and very much appreciate all of the readers who provided their feedback and insight. One thing that resonated was that some readers said they don't necessarily understand why they need SharePoint products and technologies, which tells us that we need to do an even better job of explaining all the benefits that come from using SharePoint. Based on feedback from customers who are already using these products, we know they are receiving tremendous benefit, from not only cost and time savings but from an information- and process-consolidation standpoint as well."

I look forward to seeing specific details on what those benefits are and how potential customers can demonstrate that they'll receive similar value. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your feedback on the questions this column raises. Please email me with your thoughts and any suggestions for future topics you'd like me to cover.

Web Table 1: SharePoint Service Providers
Service Provider Plan Name Monthly Charge Storage Space Other Features
724Hosting
866-740-6163
http://www.724hosting.com
SharePoint Basic $24.95 for 5 users 20MB Free setup, own domain name, 5GB/month data transfer, 5 POP email accounts
SharePoint Pro $44.95 for 30 users 175MB Free setup, own domain name, 20GB/month data transfer, 30 POP email accounts
Adhost 888-234-6781 http://www.adhost.com SharePoint Team Services $39.95 for 20 users, $25 one- time setup fee 150MB 10GB/month data transfer, 10 POP email accounts
Alentus 877-922-9903 http://www.alentus.com SharePoint Services Pro $34.95 for 40 users 200MB
Microsoft SQL Server/500MB Web
12GB/month data transfer $2.50/month for 10 additional users
SharePoint Services Enterprise $69.96 for 100 users 500MB SQL Server/1GB Web 30GB/month data transfer $2.50/month for 10 additional users
Apptix On-Demand 703-948-2500 800-962-9329 http://www.sharepointsite.com Bronze $39.95 for 25 users 50MB All Aptix plans: $9.95/month for personalized URL, $5/month for five additional users, $10/month for 25MB additional storage
Silver $59.95 for 75 users 100MB
Gold $99.95 for 150 users 250MB
ASP-One 312-263-4005 or 800-800-2556 http://www.asp-one.com SharePoint Services $39.95 for 40 users 200MB
AtFreeWeb 626-307-0876 http://www.atfreeweb.com SharePoint Team Services $24.95 for 20 users 200MB 20 POP3 email accounts
bCentral 866-223-6872 http://www.bcentral.com Introductory Monthly Subscription $19.95 for 20 users 50MB $5/month for five additional users, $9.95/month for 25MB additional storage
Standard Monthly Subscription $39.95 for 30 users 200MB
SharePoint Experts 866-443-9737 http://www.sharepointexperts.com Bronze $39.95 for unlimited users 60MB 20GB/month data transfer
Silver $59.95 for unlimited users 120MB 40GB/month data transfer
Gold $99.95 for unlimited users 300MB 60GB/month data transfer
VIA NET.WORKS 800-749-1706 http://www.vianetworks.net SharePoint Services 3150 $39.99 for 25 users plus $50 one-time setup fee 50MB 2.5GB/month data transfer
SharePoint Services 3250 $79.99 for 75 users plus $50 one-time setup fee 150MB 10GB/month data transfer
SharePoint Services 3300 $129.99 for 150 users plus $50 one-time setup fee 300MB 20GB/month data transfer
Webhostingetc.net 877-811-8383 http://www.webhostingetc.net SP Basic $28.95 for 10 users plus $50 one-time setup fee 100MB 300MB/month data transfer, 10 POP accounts
SP Advanced $48.95 for 30 users plus $50 one-time setup fee 200MB 6000MB/month data transfer, 30 POP accounts

Corrections to this Article:

  • The correct InstantDoc ID for this article is 43567. We apologize for any inconvenience our printing error has caused.