For those new to SharePoint, it is important that you understand that there is no such thing as a homogenous SharePoint deployment. No two SharePoint environments are the same – sort of like a fingerprint. We all have fingerprints, and at a macro-level our fingertips all look similar, but as you zoom in close, you very quickly pick up the nuances that make each of them unique.
That’s certainly true with SharePoint. You can follow the directions for an out-of-the-box deployment, use all of the default settings, and each installation will look about the same – on the surface. But even in the most vanilla of installations, there are nuances because of:
- The hardware you’re using
- The network you run on
- Whether it’s on-premise or hosted
- How your system is configured
- How you set up your content databases, content types, taxonomy
- How you set up your governance, distributed controls and administration, organized your users
In essence – if you actually use your environment, then it will quickly move away from the vanilla and become unique to your organization. Customize and deploy web parts and other solutions, or integrate a line of business application, and you’ll move even further away from the vanilla example in the SharePoint documentation.
You’ve probably heard it stated that SharePoint is a platform, not a product, which means it is highly configurable and extensible. Many customers purchase SharePoint because they want to utilize its core, out-of-the-box functionality (collaboration, content management, security, search, etc.), but their end result may look nothing like the generic SharePoint sites in the documentation (for some examples, take a look at Febreze, and also Pilgrim).
At my company (an ISV), we receive many questions from our customers about their environments that are difficult for us to answer. For one, we focus entirely on products – not services. While we have fantastic customer support, we have consulting partners that we work with to help our customers build solid platforms, repeatable processes, and follow best practices for using SharePoint. Second, without looking at their environment, we may not be able to reproduce an error. That’s why a support call to any product company begins with an inventory or environmental questions, to understand as much about your environment as possible before attempting to solve the problem. Many times it is determined that the issue has nothing to do with the product, but with the customer’s environment, and we work with a customer to walk them through their system changes. It could be related to:
- Permissions issues
- Configuration changes
- Features missing
- Links deleted or changed
- Hardware (environmental) changes
- Or maybe even the dreaded "User Error"
Considering the list of nuances above, just remember that while SharePoint is an amazing platform that allows you to create very powerful solutions with very little technical skill (and even more solutions if you know what you’re doing), it is also a very complex tool. When presenting at conferences, there are always questions from the audience that simply don’t have a single (or an easy) answer. It is because of the complexity of the platform, and the vast number of deployment scenarios that could cause that specific issue. While the expert may give you the impression that he or she is eluding a specific answer, or not being genuine, the fact is that in most cases it just depends.
When you look at SharePoint through the lens of a platform, not a shrink-wrapped product with a set number of clearly defined features, you’ll understand that many of the answers depend on several factors, some of which I’ve outlined here. It is near impossible to answer most of the questions definitively (certainly while standing on a stage, in front of an audience).
Don’t get discouraged by this complexity. Again, SharePoint offers a powerful platform with rich features and capability. With a little bit of training, and following established best-practices, you can solve many of your business problems. Just keep asking questions, tap into the great SharePoint community, and remember to test. Before you know it, you’ll know SharePoint like the back of your hand. Or your fingerprint.