Monthly Archives: September 2015

SharePoint – a strategic platform for business productivity

It’s long past time for another blog, so here are some musings on using SharePoint (which I really rather like a lot).

What is SharePoint

SharePoint is a Microsoft platform technology, running on servers or in the cloud, which allows a large range of business solutions to be rapidly built, deployed and managed for any size of organisation.

It includes a large number of capabilities as standard focused on, in our view, 5 core business activities:

  • Content – it provides a means to store a very wide variety of information, including documents and files, webpages containing text and images, flexible lists of information and more. Advance content management features supplement this providing version control, approvals, publication schedules and expiry, information management policies and more.
  • Communication – it provides very powerful means for presenting content, with sophisticated methods for navigation, grouping and filtering of information, notifications and alerts via email, etc.
  • Collaboration – it includes worksites that group information, content and processes together and allow groups of users to interact with these and each other in real time. Advanced capabilities include things like multi-user editing which allow multiple people to edit the same document at the same time, eliminating the need to collaborate via email. It interacts with other collaboration technologies such as Microsoft Lync and provides tools such as active task lists, statuses etc.
  • People – SharePoint has built-in social features, user profiles, contact lists and a variety of tools to enable people to find each other, for each other’s activities and interact in ways not available without such technology.
  • Business process – the above capabilities are often combined with SharePoint’s electronic form capability and workflow capability to develop and manage sophisticated business processes.

Other important features include ubiquitous enterprise search, the ability to apply branding and rich user interface elements, connectivity with line of business systems, business intelligence capabilities and deep integration with other parts of the Microsoft stack, especially Microsoft Office.

SharePoint presents its features and the information it stores via any standards compliant browser; it is also able to integrate with the Windows file system so that document libraries appear to be almost the same as saving to the local hard drive or fileserver for end-users; it provides other rich capabilities directly to other applications in the Microsoft technology stack, including Microsoft Word, Outlook, Access, Dynamics CRM, Excel etc. as well as Office 365 specific features such as Delve, Yammer, Video Portal, Skype for Business and OneDrive for Business.

Structure

Most elements of SharePoint are grouped together within a hierarchy of “sites” within a “portal”, with each site grouping together sets of features (such as document libraries, custom lists, views of information, calendars, navigation and links) and providing secure, permissions-based access for groups of users. Behind-the-scenes it supports sophisticated information architecture concepts such site collections (which act as silos of content and users), site-wide metadata, taxonomies and managed terms, permission groups, content types (which grouped together metadata, security and document templates in order to define a class of document or content, e.g. a report type or a project initiation document), information management policies and other nuanced structures.

When thoughtfully architected, these different capabilities and the solutions developed using them form the basis for an enterprise intranet or other application that can transform the way an organisation operates. When fully adopted, benefits include paperless working, agile remote working in collaboration, single point of access to all organisational information and processes, and assured single version of the truth, rapid search and discovery of organisational knowledge, access to people, management processes and the ability to continue to develop streamlined solutions to emerging business needs.

As a platform, SharePoint is considered to be best in its class and is the most broadly capable technology platform available from any vendor. SharePoint and the Microsoft stack appear in the top right-hand portion of the Gartner Magic quadrant for most of the things SharePoint delivers. (https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=gartner+sharepoint&biw=1745&bih=862&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=73JjVLjSK7T57Abw3ICoCg&sqi=2&ved=0CFEQsAQ)

Common Business Solutions

Some typical business solutions that are commonly found running on SharePoint include:

  • department and team working areas, including shared information, document libraries and the ability to work simultaneously on documents.
  • corporate document and information stores
  • staff social areas
  • policy management and publication
  • project and programme management
  • corporate library
  • events management
  • meeting and boardroom management
  • newsletter publication and comms
  • corporate video, image and media management
  • staff directory and phonebook
  • personal working areas and storage
  • electronic form and workflow enabled processes

Implementing SharePoint

In many regards SharePoint is remarkably straightforward and flexible for developing solutions with; very many applications can be developed by simply selecting appropriate features such as lists and libraries, configuring them using metadata and views and aggregating these within a variety of functional sites within a portal. All this can be done by super-user staff (rather than a technical expert or developer) directly through the browser without the need for a separate development and environmental tools.

However the very breath and flexibility introduces complexity and a depth of knowledge and experience in order to effectively plan and build solutions in an efficient and supportable way. There are many ways to make mistakes and while SharePoint itself is a resilient and forgiving environment, badly built solution will both fail to meet the business needs and disappoint or disenfranchise users.

Finding the right people?

When building sophisticated solutions it is best to start with someone who already has the skills and experience to deliver configured SharePoint applications; ideally they should have some knowledge of the solution that needs to be developed as this both exonerates the availability of the solution and minimises the risk of building it wrong. To this end it is often appropriate to engage a partner or highly experienced contractor, if they have existing experience. In order to ensure the solution is supportable in the long term it is also appropriate for knowledge transfer to the internal team to take place during the development. This way they understand it and can develop it further themselves without resort to 3rd parties.

It is also appropriate to develop the business analyst skills required to assess, triage and specify new solutions internally, as well as be able to provide guidance and support to users. Keeping the partner or contract on hand has value but it makes more sense to have internal skills backed up by external experts.

Making a plan

Of course it’s really important to plan your SharePoint project and specify the application trying to build. However SharePoint projects are not best suited, in my opinion, to pure waterfall project approaches and rigid specifications. Although you can get reasonable clarity on functionality and features required it’s difficult at the outset to define exactly how that will be achieved, or the user experience should be like and how best to mould the feature set to solve the problems or address the needs. SharePoint projects lend themselves to agile processes. There is much to be gained through iterative development with ongoing user input and evolutionary definition of the requirements. The simple reality is that the users really don’t know what they need in detail until I can see it and touch it, at which point they will think of new things that they want, change the things previously stated as requirements and rearrange the things that they see or have prioritised. The trick is to see this is a healthy activity and build it into your development plan. Fortunately SharePoint is largely very forgiving of this kind of development model, however there are still things you need to get right at the outset, such as defining the overall site structure and information architecture and really understanding the combination and quantity of lists and libraries required to store the different types of information and the relationships between them. Don’t be afraid to build a proof of concept and throw it away, but don’t be surprised if your proof of concept tries to involve itself into production environment. Know when to stop.

We also recommend trying very hard indeed to avoid writing any new code. It’s amazing how many business solutions can be solved simply by configuring the capabilities that SharePoint already has or, with a newer versions, by plugging in a SharePoint app or third-party technology. Custom development is fully supported in SharePoint that brings substantial issues around ongoing supportability and upgradability, often with little benefit.

Adopting SharePoint

There are a number of important activities to consider in order to drive success of the SharePoint implementation. These include seeking appropriate user input in the early stages, continuing to obtain user feedback for an extended period of time after deployment and being seen to act upon feedback, setting out a policy and set of standards for the way the solution is used, enabling a steering board to take decisions on the way intranet and the organisation should interact and, of course ensuring that users are appropriately trained.

Although SharePoint solutions are mostly intuitive to use the business processes that they model are often not; furthermore SharePoint introduces new capabilities which allow the adoption of new, more effective practices which users are likely to be unfamiliar with.

A good example is the replacement of familiar folder structures for storing documents with apparently flat document libraries containing hundreds or thousands of documents. The careful use of metadata allows this large quantity of documents to be presented in views that rapidly let the user find and focus on what they are looking for without having to trawl up and down to an arbitrary directory structure; this approach also eliminates the problems that are unavoidably associated with hierarchical taxonomies such as the case where a document could legitimately exist in more than one folder, or where people are excluded from accessing particular files because of their location and the permissions applied to folders.

Avoiding the old ways

A combination of training, policy, good practice guides and support our needed to transition users from the old ways of doing things to the new, more effective options. This is especially true in the early days of adoption in order to avoid users reverting to old habits or replicating poor structures that are difficult to later unpick. It is helpful to have a business analyst/evangelist who can actively promote the new ways of working through hands-on, day-to-day interaction with users in the early phase; this role also is instrumental in identifying undisclosed business needs and with confirming whether the decisions made on features and strategy are correct and effective. The role typically transitions to a more (no code) development focused one over this period of time.

Creating the new

One of the things we really like about SharePoint is a tendency to make people consider their existing processes. There is a reasonable view that if you don’t need to change things you don’t need to introduce a new technology. So conversely introducing a major platform like SharePoint should for things to change and not simply provide a new way of doing what you are already doing. If the introduction of a SharePoint solution doesn’t shake things up you probably shouldn’t do it!

Use the rollout of the new application platform to explain to people how things are going to change, to overtly deal with their reservations and persuade them of the value of doing things differently. Understand adoption curve (diffusion of innovation) and be ready for pushback and the tension between early adopters and Luddites. Decide if this addresses a business critical activity that needs an overhaul, a tool for creating cultural change in your organisation, is a new strategic direction, or is just someone’s pet project. In three out of four of these cases you will need to push staff into adopting the change and abandoning the old ways quickly; and you have the luxury of being fairly uncompromising on this, after all it is their job to do it the way the business mandates. The new ways of doing things that SharePoint engenders are genuinely powerful, create new capabilities and solve problems for users (even if they didn’t realise that they had the problem). Just remember that by adopting this slightly new way of doing things it may be somebody else you’re mostly helping rather than yourself. I’d like to think that we worked in organisational cultures where this is perceived as a good thing.

Costs

There is a difference in cost based on whether an intranet is delivered on premise or in the cloud, plus of course variations depending on the number of users involved and the breadth and depth of the solution needed. As such it is very hard to give a specific cost, but it is possible to provide some guidance on what to expect.

On premise infrastructure

Assuming an organisation of less than about 5000 people, a resilient on premise SharePoint server farm probably consists of 4 servers. Below are some guideline costs for this; they aren’t supposed to be particularly accurate, but they can act as a guide.

Year 1 cost

Sharepoint Server- rack server £5000
Maintenance: Cooling, Backup Power, Racking etc. £1000
Windows Server Licence £300
Sharepoint Server Licence £2500
Admin 5-10% 5FTE £1500
Total – Per SharePoint Server £10,300
 
SQL Server- rack server £5000
Maintenance: Cooling, Backup Power, Racking etc. £1000
Windows Server Licence £300
SQL Server Licence £650
Admin 5-10% FTE £1500
Total – Per SQL Server £8,450
 

Year 2 and year 3 costs

Maintenance: Cooling, backup power, racking etc. £1000
Admin 5-10% FTE £1500
Total – Per server £2,500

So 3 year cost is about £15,300 per SharePoint Server and £13,500 per SQL Server

For a four server farm the 3 year cost is £57,600

Virtualisation may reduce this by as much as a 3rd

On top of this, CALs are £43 per user if you’re lucky enough to be in the public sector or nearer £70 otherwise. While this is not a subscription amount, they probably will need renewing or replacing every 3 years.

Office 365

Whichever license you select and however many users you have Office 365 gives all the infrastructure and server licensing for the equivalent of a high-performance, highly resilient server farm. You also get almost all of your admin covered.

E1 Licences 5 G Cloud are £2.74 per user per month – £32.88 per user per year, for a minimum of 5 users. Otherwise it is £5 p.u.p.m. for £60 per user per year

Comparing the value of Office 365 with on premise

The following is a handy comparison chart based on the above cost assumptions. Most attractive price is shown in green; highlighting that O365 is cost effective for smaller organisations. It does not take into account the cost of capital however. I’ve used the Public Sector pricing, so you should almost double the O365 numbers and add £2700/100 users for on premise (divided by the number of years you want to spread it over).

Cost per year* Total cost over 1, 3 and 5 years
On premise            
Years Amortised over: 1 3 5 1 3 5
No of Users
100  £ 41,800  £ 20,600  £ 16,360  £ 41,800  £ 61,800  £ 81,800
500  £ 59,000  £ 26,333  £ 19,800  £ 59,000  £ 79,000  £ 99,000
1000  £ 80,500  £ 33,500  £ 24,100  £ 80,500  £100,500  £120,500
5000  £252,500 £ 90,833  £ 58,500  £252,500  £272,500  £292,500
 
Office 365 (E1 licence)
Years Amortised over: 1 3 5 1 3 5
No of Users
100  £ 3,288  £ 3,288  £ 3,288  £ 3,288  £ 9,864  £ 16,440
500  £ 16,440  £ 16,440  £ 16,440  £ 16,440  £ 49,320  £ 82,200
1000  £ 32,880  £ 32,880  £ 32,880  £ 32,880  £ 98,640  £164,400
5000  £164,400  £164,400  £164,400  £164,400  £493,200  £822,000
 

* Assuming depreciation over 1, 3 or 5 years

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