SharePoint: Not the Social Answer

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I’ve been an avid reader of the Sam Lawrence vs Lawrence Liu discussions on social software. Sam is the Chief Marketing Officer at my present employer, Jive Software. Lawrence is the Senior Technical Product Manager for SharePoint technologies at Microsoft. I thought I would take the time to post my thoughts after using SharePoint for several years to aid in the debate.

Getting users to understand and adopt social software can be hard in general, but SharePoint has so many options and options within options that users are literally scared of using it. I saw the glazed-over stare of users time and time again when they attempted to use SharePoint. Generally, users would have a specific idea in mind and would attempt to click around hoping the answer would appear. This resulted in one of two things: they would give up or the very persistent would ask IT to walk them through it.

For example, one of the managers at my previous employer wanted to “have a web page where sales folks could find and share information about partners”. He tried to implement some things on his own and by the time he called me for help, he had repeat a cycle of “I don’t get it” to “a ha!” to “wait, I don’t get it” several times. Should he use a blog, wiki, document library, web page widget, or perhaps a custom data sheet?

The good news is that he already understood how blogs, wikis and document libraries worked. The custom data sheet blew his head clean off with complexity however. He looked into the other options while I pointed out certain aspects of each to him. He was indecisive… which one of these best fit what he was trying to do? The answer was not clear has each option had merit, but all weren’t quite what he wanted and didn’t seem collaborative enough.

He was dead right. He had 50 choices about how to store the information, but they were all very similar to each other and none of them offered real collaboration. Sure, he could enable version control and edit partner information with sales that way, but what he really wanted was to collaborate about the partners and take the collected information and share it with everyone. The bottom line is that SharePoint just can’t do this in a seamless way.

All of the parts of SharePoint exist within their own bubbles so-to-speak. You can have a discussion, but it has nothing to do with your wiki. You can edit a document with 5 people, but you can’t really collaborate that way – who made the last edit? More importantly, why did they make the last edit?

The confusion around how to fit SharePoint into the many business needs became an epidemic. SharePoint literally became the highest source of helpdesk requests in the company. The majority of these requests where of the “how do I” nature. People weren’t getting it.

When we migrated from SharePoint 2003 to 2007, the primary reason was in the hopes that usability improvements would help users adopt it’s use. To ensure maximum success, we created many documents, send emails with tips, and moved all IT and HR information to SharePoint to “force” users to use it regularly, if only for that information. The hope was that if they could get used to using it for everyday stuff like benefits information, w-2′s, IT FAQs, etc., they would start to feel comfortable enough to use it for their own needs as well. I even started a regular blog with my IT peers that was regularly read by most of the company.

It didn’t work. People were reading stuff on SharePoint, but they weren’t collaborating at all. I resorted to the ultimate in trickery… pizza. I sent out a lunch meeting invite to the entire company. “Come and eat pizza and I will show you the magic of SharePoint!” was how the subject line read.

85 people showed up to watch my demonstration while they ate delicious Pizza Schmizza. I specifically presented real world uses of SharePoint that applied to the company. I had a very polite, attentive, and engaged audience. They asked many questions and most stayed an extra 30 minutes so they could get their questions answered. It was clear that they really wanted to use it! They were hungry to collaborate! My presentation ended in heartfelt thanks and applause.

I had a gathering of about 15 people (mostly department managers) that hung around to chat with me about their specific needs. I answered as many questions as I could and offered to personally give everyone 2 hours of my time to personally help them setup SharePoint to meet their needs. In other words, all they had to do was share their vision with me and I would do all of the setup for them!

The next month was very busy for me, needless to say. Things were looking up as I was setting up dozens of spaces and helping people leverage the system.

You know what we had in the end? A freakin’ glorified file server.

We had thousands of word and excel documents in many different SharePoint sites. We also had a few folks who converted their shared excel docs into custom data sets within SharePoint. Excel in a web browser. Cool, but not exactly the social storm I was hoping for.

  • Discussions? Zero.
  • Team blogs? One (just IT).
  • Personal blogs? Zero.
  • Personal sites setup? About a 12 out of 325+ employees, mostly IT.

After about a year after the migration to 2007, all we had was files stored inconveniently in a SQL database. Sure, they were easier to see, sort, and use in many ways. But damnit, people were supposed to be collaborating. Where were the team interactions? Where were the people working together within SharePoint?

I didn’t ever see collaborate happen with SharePoint and helpdesk requests kept coming… people just couldn’t get passed some sort of barrier with it.

When I came to Jive, my eyes were opened on what collaboration is. Employees were really working together and producing results all within Clearspace. Before the day was out, I had blogged, discussed several topics with many different departments, and created several documents… all before I had spent 8 hours at my new work-home.

How the hell was this possible? What’s the major driver of success here? It was easy to use. Unlike SharePoint, clicking around and experimenting for results yields success.

SharePoint is a Mack truck. Clearspace is a jet-powered party bus with leather seats. Sure, SharePoint will get your stuff there. Clearspace will get *you* there.

Sometime in the near future, I’ll post about the IT administration side of SharePoint in more detail. In fact, I’ve got a title already: “SharePoint: Not the IT Answer”

21 Responses to “SharePoint: Not the Social Answer”

  1. Chris McGrath Says:

    Great post, Jim. It’s often difficult to explain what’s wrong with SharePoint, because quantitatively speaking, it has it all. It’s the immeasurable stuff that makes it suck. You described that well — I’ll be passing this link around when we get ThoughtFarmer vs. SharePoint inquiries.

  2. jimgoings Says:

    I like your phrasing “quantitatively speaking, it has it all. It’s the immeasurable stuff that makes it suck.”

    I’m not sure what wasn’t clicking with the users, but now that I’ve used Clearspace for a few months, I can see that in it’s present form, SharePoint can’t be the collaboration and social answer people want.

  3. Word of Mouth Mike Says:

    Thanks for succinct overview of what are some of the difficulties of using Sharepoint.

    The problem is that back in 1987, a CPM machine with no hard disc running Supercalc 2 was the business. Lotus did it better and arguably Microsoft’s usability labs improved on what was a productivity tool for individuals working on numeric data.

    Word did pretty much the same for documents but neither of these products could ever be considered as knowledge sharing systems. Access came close but Microsoft chose to sacrifice it to it’s goal to beat Oracle in the corporate database market.

    Fortunately the rest of the world discovered the Web around this time but Microsoft realised it was making a shed load of money selling Excel and Word to people who were more concerned about not getting sacked than sharing data.

    How could they hang on to this market and pretend that they were migrating their customers to the brave new world of collaboration – Sharepoint is born!

  4. Gia Lyons Says:

    Excellent post. My faves:

    “Getting users to understand and adopt social software can be hard in general, but SharePoint has so many options and options within options that users are literally scared of using it.”


    “SharePoint is a Mack truck. Clearspace is a jet-powered party bus with leather seats. Sure, SharePoint will get your stuff there. Clearspace will get *you* there.”

    I have a big problem with any solution that gives users too many options. Like I said on Sam’s blog (, out-of-the-box usability for specifically scoped activities is the prime directive today.

  5. Insider’s tale of woe about SharePoint user adoption « Connected Says:

    [...] SharePoint: Not the Social Answer — Jim Goings. [...]

  6. Robert Says:

    I enjoyed the post and am concerned the company is going down the path of Sharepoint.

    However, what you focus on is just one portion of Enterprise Content Management. Colloboration, Social Communication.

    My question is how does Sharepoint compare as an ECM solution as a whole. Which incorporates Records, Management, Workflow, Colloboration, Portals, Search, etc….

    As ECM Solutions as a whole do not do everything well. You could look at Vignette, Stellent, Documentum, etc and find areas in which their product suite is lacking. However, the adoption rate of Sharepoint and the supposed ease of use tends to blind some people.

    If you could comment it would be greatly appreciated…

  7. Jim Goings Says:

    That’s a big subject Robert. I’d say that SharePoint isn’t the leader at any one area of ECM. It’s document management is inferior to documentum, is collaboration is inferior to almost all others in the social space, etc.

    Search is probably a strong point as it can search the content of documents on your file server, but it’s finicky and needs attentive hands to work well in medium to complex environments.

    Workflow is ok for basic stuff like approvals, but falls way short of the capabilities of something like TeamTrack from Serena Software.

    SharePoint is easy to use on the surface… once you need to do more with it and start to use some of it’s most useful features (custom lists, workflow, etc) non-technical end users will be at a complete loss. I know – I tried to train them over and over.

  8. My bookmarks for September 2nd Says:

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  9. Snapcomms Says:

    I’ve been after some insight like this for a few months. This really helps us position a simple, user friendly alternative. Thanks!

  10. links for 2008-09-23 « Sarvesh’s Blog Says:

    [...] SharePoint: Not the Social Answer — Jim Goings (tags: sharepoint moss2007) [...]

  11. John Says:

    Bravo, Jim. I am in the position of evangelizing for SharePoint — and I don’t even like it very much.

  12. Bob Says:

    Nicely written, and to the point. My users also just “don’t get it” when it comes to SharePoint. I think mostly because it’s just too technical/complex for them. If you don’t have an IT mindset, then it can be very hard to pickup. Basically, our IT dept has to setup everything and explain everything on SharePoint, the users just can’t figure it out. They can just about handle word and excel. Additionally, they don’t come to work to learn a new MS technology, they aren’t interested in setting up wikis etc. Why should they be? MS needs to get a grip on what can be expected from your average non-technical office employee. (Large firm of lawyers, marketing, and sales staff in my case).

  13. Simon Carswell Says:

    Great post, Jim, thanks. Seems a lot of companies are walking zombie-like towards a Sharepoint implementation, even though there are better solutions available. I’ve made a couple of posts, too, on the subject:

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  15. Daniel Piche Says:

    We’ve been told to put our documents into a SharePoint repository for this contract we’re on in a government IT agency. Process and efficiency are definitely two of my highest values so you can imagine that the complete failure in usability of Sharepoint regarding even it’s most basic functions of editing and saving files has been driving me to the edge. They brought in a guy to manually move many many thousands of files into it. (yes, individual meta-tagging and checkin) I’m surprised his brain still functions. And now to the main reason I’m posting this message…

    I just walked by my co-worker after reading this article and getting a refill of my water mug when I heard “awe, no” (he’s British, so throw some accent onto that for the full experience). Of course, he was trying to put something into SharePoint and something (bad) happened. I said “Do you need a hug? Have you lost a document you were trying to put into SharePoint?” He seemed a bit dejected. I walked away leaving him to his SharePoint misery, at which point he said “No, but I’m shortly loosing the will to live.”. And I was then precipitated to the floor choking on my water and spiting it all over the floor.

    Hope our experience is in line with others across the globe. Our thoughts go out to you all…

  16. Jive Clearspace First Impressions « Impulse Blogging Says:

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  17. Gunnar Langeland Says:

    Very good article!

    From an IT perspective (managing servers, migrations, development etc.), Sharepoint (for me at least), has turned into a nightmare!

    Never have I used an IT “platform” where you have to uninstall the product to change e.g. Authentication mode (Integration with Active Directory or not).

    Never have I had my hands on something where you spend 80% of your time trying to find work arounds.

    Users (and project leaders) expect that Sharepoint can do anything, cause that is what they have been told. How did Microsoft determine that running an application that uses Post back and JScript, instead of actually using pure .NET programming, could turn out to become a good performance tool for coolaboration??

    Then you have all the additional services you can plug into Sharepoint, and it is all “out of the box”.. Microsoft is right, it is out of the box, but it feels like a Jason & Freddy jack-in-a-box nightmare… Try implementing Search Server Express and Reporting services on WSS 3 (existing installation). If you do not read ALL the fine print of the 300+ pages of documentation you can get, you’r up for a BIG surprice (so are all your users, and your backup and restore guys..)

    Databases.. the best thing since sliced bred and and the remote control… Sharepoint totally rely on databases, even renders it’s web pages out of the database (??), but what ever happened to all the great things you can do on e.g SQL server? Triggers, stored procedures, a relational database for data integrity and efficient data gathering,++++? I can not believe my eyes when I see the structure of Sharepoint, who came up with the idea that lists as they call it, placed and scatered in all thinkable sites and sub sites, was a better way of organizing your data, than a relational database? Did they ever try to create a couple reports that where a bit more complicated than pulling data out of one list?

    I don’t know what Microsoft tried to do with Sharepoint, but some where along the line, it all went wrong.

    Sharepoint is a good idea, but that’s all. If I where the product manager of Microsoft, I would recall all licenses of Sharepoint, appologize to the market and said: “We’ll do better next time”.

    I know IT people in large organizations that utilize Sharepoint, and it has created more problems and misunderstandings than it has resolved.

    I know one guy (and I know people in 20+ contries that work with IT), that can handle all the needed aspects of running and developing Sharepoint. The list of knowledge you must have to develop and maintain this application, without stepping on a “land mine” is huge! This means you will have to have more IT personnel to end up with something that in the end, will not resolve anything. Cost goes up, frustration goes up, and resolutions does not exist.

    Instead of Sharepoint, build custom applications for the processes you can not cover with “out of the shelf” software, and instead put up a couple wiki pages, and a good search engine along with a good document handling system. Yes, you will end up with more than one application, but at least you will not end up with cahos.

  18. Insider’s tale of woe about SharePoint user adoption » Connected Says:

    [...] SharePoint: Not the Social Answer — Jim Goings. [...]

  19. Tomasz Modelski Says:

    Thanks for good article & all others for valuable comments.
    I’m currently working in WSS/MOSS ’07 area (advanced custom forms etc) and ….. i don’t now why our project is a nightmare.

    It’s good to have a clear sight on things.
    I gathered some of ‘anti-Sharepoint’ posts on my blog, please visit:

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