Play to Its Strengths
My next tip for success with SharePoint is a deceptively simple one. While accepting that SharePoint has its weaknesses, success accrues from deliberately playing to the application’s many strengths. Well d’uh, I hear some of you say. Bear with me – my point is acceptable I think, because many deployments I’ve seen simply don’t do this. They do the obvious – for example, “we’ve installed Team Sites for collaboration” or “we’ve rolled out SharePoint for document management” – but usually they haven’t moved far beyond this and found ways to leverage the platform’s strengths to truly make SharePoint a great fit for their environment.
So what are these strengths? Well, they’ll differ from place to place: what’s a product strength to one SharePoint manager might leave the next indifferent. My list of SharePoint’s best attributes may not be yours but, having got that qualification out of the way, here’s what I think are some of its greatest assets.
My absolute favourite feature of SharePoint has always been, might just always be, Lists. They are incredible. IMHO, they can offer a great deal of value-add in many business information scenarios.
SharePoint Lists are…
List Views are…
- Highly effective for filtering and ‘explaining’ information by displaying data for specific audience groups (no development skills required!)
- Underused in many deployments
Just the other day, I had yet another conversation with a SharePoint business administrator who used folders in a List for good reason (Records Management) but was ignorant of her ability to display, filter and sort items independently of the folder. Having been shown the simple checkbox in the View configuration screen, “Best of both worlds!” she enthused.
Since Lists are very similar to Excel, and most organisations I’ve worked with appear to just about run on Excel, I’m not sure why it can be so hard for SharePoint administrators to translate the List concept into business usage – and value – in practice. I’ve always found that putting in a bit of up-front effort to resolve common business issues by building a simple List solution or two is an extremely powerful way of demonstrating SharePoint’s business value. And of encouraging staff to think laterally about exploiting Lists for their own circumstances. Here are some very simple examples that have worked well for clients in the past:
- Enterprise Acronyms & Glossary – what organisation doesn’t have a plethora of arcane acronyms and terms that confound new starters, contractors and even long term staff who work across multiple business units? This List solution is so easy it’s laughable, but it works. Create a custom List, rename the Title column to Term or Acronym, and add a text column for Definition. Allow all staff to add to the List and encourage everyone to do so (optionally adjust the List settings so they can only edit their own entries and/or enable Content Approval by a List manager if you want to quality control entries, check for duplicates, etc). I also usually add Categories – a ‘choice’ column – for business department or function. This way, terms can be sorted into groups such as HR or IT or Finance Acronyms. Create a view for each Category and you can link directly to that from the unit’s intranet site – IT Acronyms, Finance Acronyms, etc. Every department contributes to an enterprise glossary while feeling like they’re maintaining and promoting their own.
- Frequently Asked Questions – A variation on the Acronyms list, with Question and Answer columns instead of Term and Definition. I usually create a List template for FAQs and deploy it per SharePoint site as applicable, rather than building a single, enterprise-wide FAQs site. Just find it works better that way from an ownership and maintenance perspective. Depending on the organisational culture, I enable Ratings, so end users can rate the FAQs and hopefully encourage the content owners to continually improve the answers provided to end users.
Why a List, not a content-rich page? Because in my experience, most business people find it easier to add or edit a single item in a List (once they’ve been shown how) rather than add content to a Wiki or a table or bulleted list on a Publishing page. And because the power of Views make filtering of FAQs by topic or function so easy (see previous bullet point).
- Preferred Suppliers – For one client, I took multiple Word documents about the company’s many preferred suppliers, maintained by Procurement in a file store, and pulled the content into a single List. Columns included the obvious, like: Supplier Description, Contact details, brief Terms of supply or use, Website URL, internal Relationship Manager, etc. But to make it look and feel more like their Word documents and ease the transition from old to new, I also included a column for Picture so they could include a Supplier’s logo/image, and I made the default View Style = Preview Pane. As the user rolled over the list of Suppliers at left, a full page view of each supplier’s details appeared at the right. They loved it and, happily, found staff awareness and use of preferred suppliers improved greatly. We did it all again a few weeks later for providers of their various Employee Benefits…
- Staff / Office Phone Lists – For another client, a modicum of customisation was employed to pull data from the User Profiles into a SharePoint List. I was then able to slice ’n’ dice the List with a number of useful Views, e.g. staff listed by Department, by Office – even by Role. Employees could open the List in datasheet view and export it to Excel for further manipulation and printing. Various offices had required their Receptionists to laboriously construct and maintain Word directories of local staff. So we created office Views which included staff photos, using the Boxed Style – it looked so similar to the Word booklet, they were happy to dispense with the manual overhead, and appreciated all the extra functionality – and currency – the online solution delivered.
- Online Request ‘Form’ – Lists can even masquerade as Online Request Forms if you haven’t got InfoPath or your SharePoint Designer skills are rudimentary. It’s a very simple workaround for simple scenarios. I’ve used it on a number of jobs to capture user ‘requests’ to have a new Team Site provisioned. I’ve also employed this solution as an RSVP tool to capture responses to an internal event, and even as a form for ‘Staff Suggestions’ where anonymity was not required. Set up a List with columns to collect the data you need to capture in your request form. Configure permissions so that all users are able to add to the list, and adjust the List settings so each user can only edit (and view, optionally) his/her own entries. Place a link to the ‘Request Form’ on the page, being a link to the List’s ‘add new item’ URL. When the end user clicks on the link, they’ll be taken directly to the empty form, ready for completion. Ensure whoever is managing the request sets up an Alert on the List to be notified of any new entries.
- Software / Applications Catalogue – A comprehensive List was created for one client’s IT department, to manage details of their myriad IT applications and authorized software.
Learn more about 2010 Lists on the Microsoft SharePoint Help & How To site: start with this great overview http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/sharepoint-server-help/introduction-to-lists-HA101782476.aspx and a number of introductory videos, commencing here: http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/sharepoint-server-help/sharepoint-lists-i-an-introduction-RZ101820091.aspx
Little tip – it can be hard for end users to orientate themselves quickly in different List views so, for every List and every View I create, I like to modify the web part’s appearance, in order to make a meaningful title visible on the page. Step by step instructions here…
My enthusiasm for the following out of the box is a little more qualified, but still quite high:
As an information management specialist who spends her working life thinking about content structure, usability, findability (what a word), etc, I really like this impressive new feature of the 2010 version for so many reasons.
As always, you can find extensive detail from Microsoft, though I think Chris O’Brien’s overview is a great introduction to the subject: http://www.sharepointnutsandbolts.com/2009/12/managed-metadata-in-sharepoint-2010-key.html See also: http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/sharepoint-server-help/introduction-to-managed-metadata-in-sharepoint-server-2010-HA101859256.aspx and don’t forget the Managed Metadata and Taxonomy Resource Center: http://technet.microsoft.com/en-au/sharepoint/ff924923.aspx
Sadly, there are a few gotchas with Managed Metadata in the context of some other SharePoint features. Thanks Paul Culmsee for such a good write-up there’s no point doing anything but cross-referencing his findings: http://www.cleverworkarounds.com/2010/10/28/un-managed-metadata-a-couple-of-gotchas/ Michal Pisarek has also collated several other issues to be mindful of in this great article: https://www.nothingbutsharepoint.com/sites/eusp/Pages/Managed-Metadata-Column-Limitations.aspx
At this point in time therefore, I think you need to carefully choose to exploit managed metadata or not, depending on the priority and value you attach to InfoPath forms and/or offline access in your SharePoint deployment, both now and in future. If neither is on your radar now, or in the near to medium term, then I’d definitely advocate leveraging Managed Metadata to help classify and retrieve enterprise content (while hoping Microsoft addresses the underlying problem in future service packs or versions, or someone blogs on a brilliant workaround).
Process Automation – SharePoint Workflows
There are many proven examples of basic processes automated in SharePoint that reduce handling time, streamline and simplify business workflows and create efficiencies. The loquacious Bjørn Furuknap provides a simple, accessible overview of SharePoint workflow creation options here: http://blog.furuknap.net/sharepoint-workflow-what-you-need-to-know
While the out of the box workflows in SharePoint Foundation or SharePoint Server may not be extraordinary, they’re perfectly useful in many basic business scenarios – like, for example, routing a document to your manager for authorisation. Start here: http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/sharepoint-server-help/CH010372671.aspx and here: http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/sharepoint-designer-help/understand-approval-workflows-in-sharepoint-2010-HA101857172.aspx?CTT=1 I also like this clearly presented, and very clearly enunciated, 11 minute video overview from lynda.com: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KzXtp996ciA
Using SharePoint Designer 2010 or Visual Studio, or even a third party workflow solution, you can extend SharePoint’s inbuilt workflows and create highly ‘custom’ automated processes that fit seamlessly into your organisation.
- Financial Approvals – an InfoPath form collects requisite information from the requestor and routes the online form through the organisation’s authorization stage gates, optionally collecting additional information along the way, and capturing digital signatures. It can be rejected and automatically returned, with reasons, to the requestor if key information is missing, or if the business case doesn’t stack up. The same approach has also been used in the context of Travel and Leave Requests.
- Performance Appraisals – an InfoPath form with an employee’s achievements and goals is routed between the employee and his/her manager to capture their comments and feedback and set new goals, in line with the organisation’s established appraisal process. Ultimately signatures of agreement are captured and a record filed for reference next year.
- Provisioning New SharePoint Sites – WonderLaura, aka Laura Rogers, shares her nifty solution for automating the approval and creation of a new SharePoint site here: http://sharepoint911.com/blogs/laura/Lists/Posts/Post.aspx?ID=126
Why yes, there’s a Resource Center! Albeit not for the faint-hearted.
You can also make a good start with the SharePoint Designer 2010 Help & How To articles at http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/sharepoint-designer-help/CH010373544.aspx
The Drop Off library and the Content Organiser, which I’m currently exploring with a technical colleague for a client, is great in the right context.
The 2010 enhanced Records Management feature set is a huge improvement over 2007.
I really like the Calendar Overlay – that is, the ability to ‘overlay’ one calendar with colour coded events from up to 10 others. It’s a great way to bring multiple business units’ calendars together in one master ‘enterprise calendar’.
I could go on and on, but you get the point I’m sure.
I’m keen to hear your views and, better still, examples of what comprises a SharePoint strength in your workplace … Go on, add a comment…
- Straight out of the box, there are many features, functions and options to exploit in SharePoint, which can take many deployments from ordinary to useful.
- Take the time to investigate these strengths, so you can build the ‘killer’ solution that will help your business understand the promise of its SharePoint investment early, and derive value quickly.