Keeping SharePoint from Becoming an Information Shantytown

SharePoint is a near-ubiquitous platform for content and document management. In order to get the most from the platform, it's important to manage design, deployment and operationalization intentionally.

Too often, SharePoint is considered as an out-of-the-box document management and collaboration tool. The SharePoint environment is installed by the IT organization and opened up for business users to begin using to support their program or process.

When less thought is given to understanding the detailed needs of audiences and processes, SharePoint becomes another environment with haphazard organizing principles, a lack of process discipline, poor content hygiene and, ultimately, an information environment that does not live up to expectations or potential.

What can be done differently, and how can managers avoid the traps and pitfalls that await them? There are a few lessons learned that, if applied, will make the SharePoint information experience valuable for the organization and meaningful for the user. SharePoint is deceptively simple. This simplicity lulls management into complacency when it comes to design and development. Because the principles are based on "the usual" content and document management best practices, the organization sometimes does not recognize what is unique about the environment or deployment lacks the rigor of more ambitious and complex information projects and programs.

It's easy to simply put up a site or two and let people store and share documents. However, as site content grows, it will become more and more challenging to locate content to support the needs of the user community. The problem grows steadily and insidiously. It's not obvious at first. Quality of information and the ability to find needed documents steadily declines over time. Search result quality degrades and content processes get progressively poorer. Over time, the gleaming, new information environment becomes a sprawling, rundown content shantytown.

How can you prevent this from happening? In the physical world, we need regulations, infrastructure, governance, enforcement of the laws and ordinances, sanitation, revenue collection to pay for it all and a means to listen to the people and make decisions about changes. If none of this is in place, growth is haphazard and chaotic, there are no services and the environment would be an unhappy place in which to live or work.

"Socialization and change management is extremely important. Starting with a clear vision of the benefit and desired end state will help people see the outcome and contribute to achievement of that end state."

If we want to torture the metaphor, we'd charter the city (roughly equivalent to a business case), put in zoning requirements, design standards and controls (analogous to defining content requirements and developing architectural standards), develop municipal infrastructure (get the servers up and running), collect maintenance duties and taxes (pay for operations and development), install a police force to monitor compliance (have content and standards compliance), employ sanitation workers (content curation and cleanup), hold town halls to hear about the needs of the inhabitants (governance and decision making) and continue to build out infrastructure and functionality as the needs and requirements grow (prioritization and ongoing resource allocation to meet the needs of the business).

I won't try to carry my metaphor any further than that, but you can see the very interesting analogies throughout the steps describing the process. (For a really interesting metaphor on the physical world and content and knowledge processes, pick up a copy of Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn.)

Here are the steps (sans city metaphor) to avoiding the haphazard and accidental SharePoint deployment:

Develop a business case and charter your project

The first step in the process is determining how far to go with content processes and information design. It may very well be appropriate to simply put up a collaboration site for users and let them collaborate away, defining organizing principles and naming conventions on-the-fly. This is likely not the case. Most organizations are deploying SharePoint to solve an information management problem that has arisen from letting the users do whatever they wanted to. The challenge is determining the nature of the problem and deciding how much organizational resourcing to devote to the solution.

SharePoint should be living within a content and information ecosystem. Providing the correct level of information management discipline and attention to defining site structure, functionality and process will depend on the value of content in the context of the business problem being addressed.

Content supports a process, and a process enables a business activity, goal or imperative. If the process is supporting a community of financial advisors with sales support materials and/or account management procedures, this content has a higher customer transactional value than internal collaboration around marketing strategy. Marketing strategy might be important, but it is not transactional in nature and the business operations do not depend on getting the correct content in people's hands.

Articulate the nature and value of content

This is part of the business case but at a finer degree of detail. We've established the need for intentional management of documents. Now the question is what documents and content we need to support the process, how they are created and how one would distinguish the specific documents that are required at each step in the process. The business case may be around improving customer service. What is the nature of content that specifically supports customers? It seems obvious, but this requires identifying audiences, defining audience tasks, determining if personas are required and mapping content to specific needs and contexts.

Define the life cycle of content

Who creates the content? Who approves it? What are the components, and can those components be derived from others and reused? How much is created on a weekly or monthly basis? How are documents assembled for different purposes? What are the downstream processes? What is the final disposition of content?

Define the structure of documents

I call this the "is-ess" and "about-ness". What is this thing, and what is it about? SharePoint has the ability to leverage content structure—the information model—in ways that will allow presentation of content to users in new and more useful ways that mimic the "mental model" of the user. The mental model is how users think about their problem and how they go about gathering information as they perform a task.

Define ownership and accountability

SharePoint, more than other platforms, requires clear ownership and accountability for site structures, element definition, content life cycle management and information policy and content tagging and curation. There are many ways to adjust and configure the environment, but these cannot happen on a whim. They need to be planned, agreed upon, executed and released. People need to be accountable at multiple levels.

Communication and socialization

Getting stakeholder participation for SharePoint is a challenge. Socialization and change management is extremely important since SharePoint requires a change in work processes and how people execute their day-to-day tasks. Whenever we change a process, we're changing people's work habits. As we all know, change is hard. Otherwise, it would be easy to stay with an exercise program or lose weight, quit smoking or do anything else that requires a change to our habits. Starting with a clear vision of the benefit and desired end state will help people see the outcome and contribute to achievement of that end state.

Keeping your information management environment clean, functional, up to date and effective in meeting the needs of the business requires focused effort on planning, design, implementation, ongoing cleanup and maintenance and strong leadership and change management throughout. By intentionally deploying SharePoint for document and content management, organizations will avoid the most common SharePoint pitfall: leaving the environment to happenstance and letting user content and information sprawl throughout a haphazard and confusing landscape.

This Articles was originally published on August 15, 2012 at

Meet the Author
Seth Earley

Seth Earley is the Founder & CEO of Earley Information Science and the author of the award winning book The AI-Powered Enterprise: Harness the Power of Ontologies to Make Your Business Smarter, Faster, and More Profitable. An expert with 20+ years experience in Knowledge Strategy, Data and Information Architecture, Search-based Applications and Information Findability solutions. He has worked with a diverse roster of Fortune 1000 companies helping them to achieve higher levels of operating performance.