Everyone has heard the story about the blind men and the elephant: one touches the trunk, one grabs the tail, and another feels the side of the giant pachyderm. All three have a different experience, and all three are technically correct. An elephant is all the things they individually experienced—and more.

Such is the case with SharePoint, arguably one of the most versatile and multi-functional platforms to ever emerge from Microsoft. SharePoint can (and is) accurately described as a collaboration tool, a document repository, a content management system, and a vehicle for developing and maintaining internal and externally-facing websites. It’s also a social media tool, with blogs, forums, and other community-friendly features.

Despite the success and ubiquity of SharePoint, it can be a major drain on IT resources if it isn’t deployed with a clear strategy and business-friendly goals in mind. Perhaps more than any other Microsoft product, SharePoint needs business and IT decision makers to fully understand why they’re moving to SharePoint before the actual deployment process begins.

I’ve personally been involved in projects that used SharePoint as an externally-facing website publishing system, and the shortcomings and drawbacks of that deployment didn’t make it an optimal solution for what is was being used for. After talking to dozens of administrators and users of SharePoint over the past few years, SharePoint deployments that succeed—and by succeed, I mean achieve the larger goals of the organization, achieve a recognizable return on investment, and are widely-embraced by users—seem to have several things in common. We’ve all seen SharePoint installations that never live up to their full potential, but I’d argue those that do tend to have three characteristics. They’re deployed with a well-articulated, actionable strategy that meets business goals; the stakeholders focused on the why of deploying SharePoint and not just the how; and use and adoption of the SharePoint roll-out was supported by lots of training and buy-in from upper management. I’ll describe each of these three characteristics in more detail below.

  1. Have a Clear Strategy. SharePoint guru Joel Oleson once told me that deploying SharePoint was like reading through one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books: You have hundreds of decisions to make during deployment, and some can’t be undone by the equivalent to flipping back to an earlier page. It’s important to get with all the important stakeholders in your organization—IT, HR, legal, sales, marketing, etc.—and mutually agree on what your SharePoint deployment will and will not be used for. Doing all your homework and getting agreement between stakeholders may take some time, but that advice will reap significant long-term rewards. I’ve personally seen and heard about SharePoint deployments that go nowhere, mainly because no one in the organization articulated a clear, well-defined strategy of why SharePoint was needed and why it was being adopted.
  2.  Focus on the Why, not the How. Once you have a SharePoint deployment and usage strategy in place, your role as a business decision maker or senior IT leader is to help your IT staff communicate why SharePoint is being adopted to the users of your organization. If users don’t get this information they may individually make up their own reasons why they should use SharePoint, which could be at odds with the larger goals of your organization.
  3. Training, Training, and Executive Investment. We’ve all seen SharePoint installations that meet the aforementioned criteria but fail where it matters the most: At the user level. SharePoint is an amazing tool, but is next to worthless if your users don’t have the training they need to use the platform properly. Some aspects of SharePoint aren’t very intuitive, and a user that could dive into using the latest version of Windows or Office without skipping a beat could find themselves drowning in SharePoint. Document check-in and check-out is a vital part of using SharePoint as a document management and collaboration tool, but far too many users have never been instructed how to properly use it. Senior IT executives and other business stakeholders should lead by example by being the first to embrace SharePoint and use it for its intended purpose. If the CEO is editing group business documents using proper check-in/check-out procedures, I guarantee that the rest of the organization will be motivated to learn that function as well.

Have you already embraced SharePoint in a big way in your own organization? Have any big-picture SharePoint tips or strategies to share? Send your advice and suggestions to me via email at jeff.james@penton.com, and/or follow me on Twitter @jeffjames3.