Do Your SharePoint
As recently as five years ago, the file server at Duluth-based architecture and engineering firm LHB, Inc., was “the wild, wild west.” Employees were creating folders upon folders upon folders; someone even uploaded hundreds of photos of a family trip to Greece. No one could find anything. Corporate IT Manager Charles Bouschor went in search of a document management system to bring order to the chaos.
What Bouschor found was far more than a document management system. It was Microsoft’s SharePoint collaboration software. SharePoint is a broad, sweeping application that integrates with Microsoft Office and includes tools for Web publishing, collaboration, database and report creation, and content organization and sharing. It can be used out of the box, or it can be heavily customized by an organization’s developers.
“We had two completely different types of people [who would be using the system],” Bouschor says. “The architects were saying, ‘Can we enter a phrase and find something?’ And the engineers were like, ‘We want it organized in these folders because it’s logical.’ I wondered if there was a product that would allow the right and left brains to play in the same sandbox. Then I started finding references to SharePoint. It was a document management system, but it also had a Google-type search—that free-flowing, index-everything-fourteen-ways-til-Sunday method of searching.”
So LHB installed the new application. Soon it became apparent that IT was going to depend on it just as heavily as any architect or engineer. “I use it every hour of every day,” Bouschor says. “The 18 different programs you’ve never heard of that I have for doing structural steel analysis? We use [SharePoint] to organize the licenses for those, and if we have a question about a program, we can just search for its name and SharePoint will give us every reference.”
After experimenting a bit, Bouschor’s team found that SharePoint could search for files based on the information in the margins of technical drawings: It was picking them up through optical character recognition. One weekend, one of the developers even set the search function to crawl the company’s project servers, which are not organized within SharePoint.
“Wham! Up came all the project information,” Bouschor marvels. “We kind of went, ‘Oh, my word, what have we done?’ But we realized we could now reach out and find the most obscure references to things.”
Who You Gonna Call?
SharePoint is so broad-based that there are probably few organizations that use all its capabilities. To some extent, every company, every department, creates the software it in its own image.
“We use SharePoint as a point of collaboration, as a point for running our projects,” says Rob Duchscher, senior vice president of information technology at Starkey Laboratories, Inc., an Eden Prairie medical device company. “Everything from issues and task lists to document storage and program announcements. People can sign up for alerts through it.”
Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy uses SharePoint to connect work groups that are spread across its locations in four different states. Vice President and CIO David Harkness says he thinks the application is especially useful for companies who work in multiple locations. But Xcel also uses the program externally, to collaborate with customers and vendors.
“We’ve got quite a few pilot programs around demand-side [energy] management and different ways that customers can save money,” he explains. “We have it set up so that customers can log on and share information about some of those pilot programs, and we can ask them, ‘Hey, how are things going? Have you tried this?’ and they can give us feedback on how well that worked for them.”
In the near future, Xcel hopes to expand its SharePoint use to create internal social media—sort of like a proprietary Facebook or LinkedIn. In addition, Harkness would like to use SharePoint to beef up the company directories. “The current directory just shows where people are located and tells you their phone number,” he says. “But we could build more information into it, if the employees care to share information about their skills. You could do a search for a particular type of expertise, and then submit a question to a person: ‘Hey, I read that you have a lot of knowledge about wind farms. Can I ask you a couple of questions about how they build those things?’”
Merrill Corporation, a St. Paul document processing and communication firm, is already using SharePoint as a reference system to locate expertise in its ranks. “We can look up who knows what, and who’s a project expert,” says Mike Thyken, vice president of information technology. “We can find, at least from an IT standpoint, who’s got knowledge of a system or project, or how things are done, or why things were done. It has become a really good reference system, but also a historical archive.”
The archival aspect of SharePoint can save time, Duchscher says. “If we know that we did something three years ago that was similar to what we’re doing now, we can look it up and see what we did and how long it took,” he says. “We keep all those projects archived. The ability to have a central repository that’s searchable has just been extremely valuable.”
The IT Crowd
If you ask 10 companies how onerous the administration of SharePoint is, you’ll get 10 different answers. It depends on how many rules IT puts into place, how many employees are using the system, to what extent the system is customized, and to what extent IT delegates the responsibility for updates.
Scott Glaser, SharePoint architect at Park Nicollet Health Services in St. Louis Park, takes a very individualized approach, helping people in various departments create mini-applications within SharePoint to meet their needs. “A lot of people call me because there is a business problem they are trying to solve,” he says. “Maybe it’s workflows, or ways to manage information, or places to put documents so they’re not on a file share. We don’t standardize it across the organization.”
Thyken finds the administration of SharePoint “relatively cumbersome” and says Merrill has a number of employees who are responsible for riding herd on the company’s SharePoint environments. There’s a webmaster, who has the global responsibility and who works with a steering committee. Then there are technical people in the IT department who do a lot of the admin. And in all of the departments that use SharePoint, there are “super-users” who are responsible for the way the program is put into action locally.
The more tightly a SharePoint environment is controlled, Thyken says, the more work IT has to do. “As an example, on our intranet site, where you’ve got some fairly structured information that you want to make available company-wide, you want to have a fairly high level of control as to what goes up there,” he says. “So we have a little steering committee that is in charge of the look and feel, and we have people in charge of who gets to move announcements and files, making things available on the intranet site. But on the team sites, it’s wide open, and people can do pretty much whatever they want. Those two are very different models.” Starkey has a similar structure: IT administers the back end, the servers, and the licenses; and key members of the company’s functional groups have various levels of permission so they can edit their respective department sites without having to consult anyone in IT.
Harkness says this ability to delegate makes SharePoint a time-saver for his department, despite the administrative burden. “From an IT perspective, we definitely support the infrastructure. We keep the servers up and running and things like that,” he says. “But one of the things that SharePoint allows you to do is step out of some of the governance roles. For example, one of the big uses that we have for SharePoint is for file sharing between organizations. Previously, we used to do that with a shared drive and some sort of file server kind of capability, and that always required IT to ask the business users what kind of protections they needed and who should have access. IT would have to manually go in and change the security on a particular file. Now, the business can actually do it themselves.”
Bouschor also finds that training needs are reduced, if for no other reason than Microsoft’s sheer ubiquity. “When you can get a product that is from Microsoft, it will schedule meetings in Outlook,” he points out. “So boom, they instantly know how to do it. Word processing—how are you going to edit this stuff? Oh, it opens into Word. We all know how to use Word. Those synergies are huge. You can add a new piece, and users will know how to use it.”
Dollars to Donuts
Of course, no application is perfect—and certainly not one that aspires to do as many things as SharePoint does. Glaser, for his part, would like to see better Web content management (although he says it’s getting better with every release). Bouschor would like to see SharePoint handle a broader range of file types. Some users feel that the workflow management in SharePoint is not quite granular enough (although, again, they say it keeps improving every time a new version comes out). Both Starkey and Merrill have solved this issue by overlaying a third-party application called K2, which works within SharePoint to give users finer control and process automation.
Despite the system’s imperfections, it’s this workflow management that Thyken says is the biggest success at Merrill. “Our electronic data discovery business uses it to track files and information and jobs that customers have us working on,” he says. “Typically, when a company is involved in a case, they’ll have to dump their e-mail system to someone in order to do discovery on it. So we take those [e-mails] and we do a lot of processing and we make it available back to them in a format that they can use for discovery. There are a whole bunch of steps that have to happen. We use SharePoint and K2 to track the job flow.”
Despite efficiencies like these, it’s not always easy to demonstrate return on investment with SharePoint. A company that already spends money on a Web portal, a document management system, and a collaboration application will probably be able to demonstrate a reduction in costs if it replaces all of these things with a single product. But for companies that are investing in document management and collaboration capabilities for the first time, the ROI can be harder to pin down.
“Knowledge management is one of those things where there are very few hard dollars tied to it,” Thyken says. “You almost have to go on faith. I guess the one thing that I really look at is just adoption and use. It gets heavy adoption and heavy use. So the users of the system must feel that there’s value; otherwise they wouldn’t be using it.”
Harkness concurs that it is extremely difficult to ascribe a monetary benefit to the application. “You say, ‘How much money are we saving because people can communicate and collaborate more easily with one another?’ It’s not like you’re automating any functions. You’re just allowing people to communicate better. But I think it’s one of those things where once employees start to use it, and once they find how easy it is to communicate with each other and keep up to date, they feel that it just makes their lives better.”
Using SharePoint: About five years.
Adoption: All departments. SharePoint is where employees store all their projects and reference documents.
Business case: LHB’s corporate IT manager, Charles Bouschor, says collaboration software is critical from a business continuity standpoint, because it organizes information and is both secure and searchable. Before SharePoint, he says, every department had its own ad hoc file structure, and chaos reigned. “It came to a head about five years ago, when the CEO asked someone to find some information on P-Share [the company’s catch-all flat file folder],” Bouschor recalls. “And the person said, ‘You can’t find anything there. It’s just a disaster.’”
Park Nicollet Health Services
Using SharePoint: More than five years.
Adoption: IT and some large project groups use it heavily, but other departments don’t seem to have a use for it. However, there are some internal blogs based in SharePoint that are accessed by the whole organization.
Business case: “The easiest one to quantify is the ability to replace some expensive Google search appliances with SharePoint,” says Park Nicollet’s SharePoint architect Scott Glaser. “We use it for an enterprise search within the organization.”
Using SharePoint: Eight or nine years.
Adoption: Enterprise-wide. Merrill uses SharePoint to house its intranet and its individual department sites, and for job tracking in its electronic data discovery business.
Business case: “Where we’ve used it for workflow, it had a very good payback,” says Mike Thyken, vice president of information technology. “There was better tracking. We were able to feed all the metrics into our billing systems faster, and we actually stripped a month out of our billing cycle. That, of course, has some really good financial benefits.”
Using SharePoint: About five years.
Adoption: It’s more or less optional, and some departments use it more than others. But it is the standard application that Xcel offers to work groups looking for file-sharing or collaboration capabilities.
Business case: Vice President and CIO David Harkness says the vice president of Xcel’s customer care organization uses SharePoint to improve service levels by presenting dashboards of performance statistics and real-time notifications, enabling better communications among the more than 1,000 employees in customer service.
Using SharePoint: About eight years. It started as a grassroots effort in the software engineering group, despite IT’s protestations; eventually it was codified throughout the organization.
Adoption: Total. SharePoint is used, in one form or another, in all the company’s functional groups, from R&D to marketing to the leadership team.
Business case: For Rob Duchscher, Starkey’s senior vice president of information technology, the biggest benefit is SharePoint’s ability to serve as a historic record and as a repository of information for all the company’s departments and programs. It both saves time and protects against data loss. “If I need to know something about a program that’s going to be released in three or four months, I can hit the program site and find out,” he says. “When we used to store everything on a flat file [system on a server], it would get stored, you couldn’t find it, it would get lost, and then somebody would delete it.”