Reaction to SharePoint from web professionals in UK higher education

Yesterday I gave a joint presentation in Sheffield on SharePoint in higher education to IWMW10 (an annual workshop for people running websites in UK higher education institutions). I was presenting with Pete Gilbert of the University of the West of England. There is no love for SharePoint amongst web professionals in higher education, which made the reaction to the talk very interesting (and in particular the Twitter backchannel under the hashtag IWMW10) .

Before I talk about the backchannel’s reaction, I’ll describe some conversations I had in the tea break immediately after the talk.

Pressure on web teams to use SharePoint as a content management system
Two people from two different universities came up separately to tell me the same story: they are running a web site, and they have experienced unwelcome pressure from their IT departments to use SharePoint as their web content management system (CMS):

  • One of the webmasters is working at an institution which has abandoned a selection process to choose a web content management system. Instead their IT department, in conjunction with the Marketing department, has decided to pick SharePoint as their web CMS, without involving the wide group of internal stakeholders that had been part of the abandoned selection process.
  • The other webmaster responded to similar pressure at their institution by dedicating time to finding out about SharePoint and successfully making the case that SharePoint was not the right Web CMS for them

Oxford University’s SharePoint implementation
Ian Senior from Oxford University updated me on their implementation of SharePoint as an internal collaboration system. SharePoint provides a great many configuration choices for owners of team sites. Oxford have sought to reduce this complexity by narrowing the scope of their implementation. They are concentrating on rolling out SharePoint to research teams, and to committees, and have devised template team sites tailored for those particular pieces of work.

Edinburgh Napier’s SharePoint implementation
David Telford from Edinburgh Napier University came up to discuss their SharePoint implementation. Napier are the nearest thing to a SharePoint flagship in UK higher education. They are running SharePoint for their external web site, their internal web site, as a student portal, and to provide collaboration sites for staff. This is supported by a team of four .Net developers. David says that on average two Universities a week come up to Edinburgh to see what they are doing with SharePoint. This creates a pressure on web teams in other institutions, as some of the visitors to Edinburgh Napier return to their own institutions expecting their web teams to replicate the Napier example, using SharePoint.

My position on SharePoint
The Twitter back channel during our talk was unanimously hostile to SharePoint, and gave some very valid criticisms of the product.

I am used to hostility to SharePoint, because my home milieu is the records management community, where most people dislike SharePoint profoundly. However people in the records management community are usually hungry to hear about SharePoint, whether that is because they wish to marshall arguments against it, or to find ways of mitigating the weak records management functionality in it. I got the impression at IWMW10 that there was hostility to there even being a session on SharePoint at the conference, which surprised me.

In the face of such a reaction it is hard not feel a pressure to take a position for or against the product. I have no interest in taking a position for or against SharePoint. My profession is as a trainer and consultant and my job is to help people understand complex phenomena so that they can make decisions about them. I talk about SharePoint because it is there. There are some moral issues in life you have to take a stand on, but I don’t see SharePoint as one of them. I have seen plenty of reasons to be cynical about the SharePoint phenomena, but also reasons to admire some of the things that fellow professionals have done with SharePoint.

Reasons to be cynical about SharePoint
I have seen an IT director bulldozing through SharePoint too quickly and without thought or preparation in order that he could add ‘rolled out SharePoint to an entire organisation’ on his CV. I have seen IT departments undermine established document management systems in organisations by simply signing enterprise agreements with Microsoft and rolling out or making available SharePoint team sites.

I agree with the person I spoke to last year who questioned the ethics of Microsoft promoting SharePoint 2007, which had no support for accessibility standards, for use as a web content management system in higher education.

In my own professional area, records management, Microsoft themselves have behaved cynically. They released SharePoint 2007 with records management functionality that was half-baked and not ready for use. Instead of admitting its inadequacies, they continued to claim that their product could be used for records management purposes. Microsoft contracted an external organisation to write some code that they did not support, and that would prove useful to no-one, purely in order to gain certification for SharePoint 2007 against the main US records management standard.

Prior to the release of SharePoint 2007 most IT departments were not interested in what content management their organisation used, or which collaboration or document management system was chosen. The relevant professionals in those areas (web teams, knowledge managers, records managers) would normally be able to take the lead on that. As soon as Microsoft, with its established relationship with IT departments, issued an enterprise content management system of their own in the form of SharePoint, you began to get IT departments promoting SharePoint. The fact that SharePoint client licences are available to IT departments bundled up with Window, Exchange and Office effectively pulls the rug from under the feet of professionals wanting to chose an alternative system.

There is a legitimate debate about whether or not SharePoint can be regarded as free. You still have to pay for servers, for server licences, for SQL server licences, and if you want to use it for an externally facing web site or extranet you have to pay for an external connectivity licence. And of course you are paying for the bundle itself in the form of the Microsoft Campus Agreement or Enterprise Agreement. But the fact remains that is perceived as free or very cheap by organisations who would be signing that agreement with Microsoft anyway.

Reasons to admire things that people are doing with SharePoint
Despite my cynicism about some of the actions of some IT departments in relation to SharePoint, I also find some uses of SharePoint interesting and even inspiring. I admire implementations like those at Imperial College and of Pete Gilbert at UWE. They both started small with SharePoint, built up knowledge of the product, and offered it as a solution where teams have come to them with a particular need or problem. These implementations have tended to concentrate on SharePoint for internal collaboration, rather than SharePoint as a web site. I also admire David and his team at Edinburgh Napier and their pride in the fact that they have made a tool, that many find difficult to use, fit the needs of their institution.

What I am admiring here is not SharePoint as a tool. It is the professionalism of people like Pete at UWE, David and his colleagues at Edinburgh Napier, and of the team at Imperial. This professionalism manifests itself in their efforts to get to know SharePoint, and in their disinterested and honest advice to colleagues on the circumstances in which SharePoint would be (and would not be) useful to them. That professionalism would be equally admirable if Napier were using Plone as a web content management system, or if Pete at UWE was rolling out Lotus Notes.

That professionalism and care is a million miles away from an IT department choosing SharePoint for the sake of it, which is a practice I deplore.

8 thoughts on “Reaction to SharePoint from web professionals in UK higher education

  1. Hi James,

    It was great to meet you at IWMW, and this is an interesting post.

    As you’ll have seen, I was one of the people posting on the twitter backchannel – and I was’t that complimentary about Sharepoint I’m afraid.

    I definitely take the point about the fact that just be ‘being there’ Sharepoint becomes something IT managers should pay attention to – as I think you said in the talk, at somepoint it is highly likely someone will say “can’t sharepoint do that” – and the perception that it is ‘free’ means that there may well be pressure to use it even if it isn’t the best solution.

    My experience of Sharepoint is as an end-user really – in one of the implementations you highlight – Imperial College, London. At Imperial I worked in the Library, and I first used Sharepoint when I was involved in a project that ran across IT and the Library. Essentially we just used it to share documents – which worked OK.

    Later, we started to use Sharepoint in the library for team collaborations – for discussion forum, sharing documentation, communicating etc. It was really at this point I started to dislike the tool – both as a local administrator and as a user. As someone trying to configure a team site to achieve what I wanted, things that I knew I could have achieved in a matter of minutes in another platform literally took me hours on Sharepoint. As an end user, the user interface was definitely ‘clunky’ and the whole experience was extremely frustrating. This has left me with a jaded view of the product to say the least.

    However, despite this I do think that Sharepoint has some strengths and possible ‘wins’ for the organisation – it may well be the easiest way you have of introducing version management on documents, and introducing better organisation to document stores – perhaps this isn’t how UWE have implemented it, but I thought it was a shame that this wasn’t covered at all. The other thing was that I think it would have helped to see what had been achieved at UWE or other places. As you made clear, Sharepoint is a huge product, and can be styled and configured in many ways – it would have been great to see something that challenged the preconceptions I had with me from my previous experience with the product – and to talk about (as Pete covered to some extent) how much effort and what skills were needed to get there.

    There is no doubt the session stimulated debate! Thanks 🙂

  2. The twitter backchannel went too far- people got a bit carried away with their bashing. Well done for taking it in stride.

    danah boyd suffered a really extreme back channel incident last year and wrote about it: http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2009/11/24/spectacle_at_we.html
    It’s well worth a read.

    I remain a sharepoint-skeptic as I’ve only heard good things about it from people deploying it. Users of it seem to be neutral or loath it. Of course, this could be because people only *realise* they are using sharepoint when it’s badly set up. Perhaps there’s some instances out there set up so well people don’t even notice them.

  3. Nice summary…

    I watched (some of) your session remotely – I think the video stream disappeared part way thru.

    From reading the twitter stream, I sensed something of a view that you were on stage to ‘promote’ the use of SharePoint (which I assumed was not the case). I don’t know if this assumption came from things you and Pete said, or if it just arose from the fact that you were doing the session at all.

    Trouble is… all MS products have become such a religious issue that it is very difficult to find a way of talking about them neutrally. If you stand up and say anything that isn’t explicitly negative then the implication is that you must be some kind of a zealot 🙂

    Speaking personally, I accept that I find it almost impossible to be neutral about MS… that’s my weakness – is there some kind of self-help group I can join? It’s so much easier, and more fun, to simply say “it’s all shit”. And, of course, 99 times out of 100 that turns out to be the correct view anyway! 🙂

    When we funded you and Northumbria to undertake the SharePoint study last year I had to gag myself – not literally obviously… but it came close.

    I accept when you say that people’s “professionalism manifests itself in their efforts to get to know SharePoint” – at least, the professional (desperately wanting to be neutral) bit of me accepts that. Then the religious bit kicks in and reminds me that “it’s all shit”. 🙂

    There was a comment on Twitter about the two of you (perhaps Pete mainly) not showing enough practical hands-on examples of what can be built with SharePoint. I wasn’t there but that does sound like a valid criticism. Of course, if you had done that, the anti-SP part of the crowd (i.e. everyone!) would have just seen it as more reason to think that you were only there to promote it 😦

  4. I think you are right there is no love of SharePoint among HE web managers – I was at the presentation and taking part in the back channel twitter feed (@webpackets). I experienced it for myself – though your image of an elephant provided the ammunition.

    I think this is, as you pointed out, due to ‘top down’ implementations that as web managers we are tasked to deliver. Microsoft promise that it will be the panacea to all University problems ranging from staff not collaborating to poor communication – SharePoint simply can’t do that – there will always be a ‘human factor’. If people don’t collaborate or communicate well, software won’t do anything to solve that.

    However, when the projects don’t deliver what Microsoft promised in this slick presentation to the board, all hell is let loose and the web managers / project team ‘carry the can’. I would suggest its these scars that engender most of resentment in this audience.

    As I said at the time, my problems are with its usability and accessibility. These are my areas of expertise and interest – otherwise I’m fairly system agnostic. As long as it does the job well and focuses the user on the content rather than the system, that’s fine with me. However, this is where I personally find SharePoint fails miserably. It isn’t intuitive to use for my developers let alone the end user (I should qualify my experience is with SharePoint 2007 and not 2010). In trying to do everything it makes tasks over complicated and bloated, which in turn makes it expensive to develop for and maintain – both in the cost of skilled developers and in the time spent working with it / supporting its editors. I often find myself saying “I could do that really easily with the cms, but I’m not sure about SharePoint” Perhaps that is just a reflection of my lack of knowledge with SharePoint, or maybe its an accurate reflection of the maturity of the dedicated CMS market.

    From my team’s perspective they constantly have more work to do than they are resourced for and seem to resent the time it takes to develop for SharePoint when they know they could do it in less time and with fewer frustrations in other software.

    So to conclude this essay of a comment – I think the IWMW participants are involved in these kind of technologies every day, they see good and bad in lots of software – there is no one perfect solution.

    Perhaps we are just all idealists who want to provide / work with software that works well, is easy to develop for, support and maintain and most importantly isn’t referred to by an end user as ‘clunky’

  5. I’m going to be honest: I was looking forward to your talk. I’ve never used SharePoint before but there is talk about us getting it/using it at St Andrews which until recently has very much been a Sun/*nix house so I was very keen to hear about your experiences of using SharePoint.

    Except that I realised very early on in your presentation that I was also very keen to *see* what you had done with SharePoint. It was me who tweeted on the Twitter back-channel:

    “Can’t help feeling they’ve missed a huge opportunity to wow! us about SharePoint rather than show a grey sketch of an elephant. #iwmw10 #p8”

    I’m aware that there can be quite an anti-Microsoft feeling with some folks — I’m not one of those, Microsoft have released some great applications that I use day-in day-out e.g. Windows 7, Outlook 2007, OneNote 2007, Visio 2007 — but maybe that’s one reason to try harder and to really wow! the audience to win them over.

    I’m going to be honest, I found your presentation hard to listen for so long without supporting visuals.

    You were talking about something that I have no experience of, have no idea what it looks like or is truly capable. Supporting visuals would have been a huge help for me. I’m a visual kind of guy. I need diagrams. I need mind-maps. I need to read it for myself.

    I understood the significance of the elephant image but I really wanted to *see* more.

    That’s what I was disappointed about, to be honest. It wasn’t about SharePoint itself — like I said, I was keen to learn, open to be wowed! I’m sorry to say that I think you missed an opportunity.

    Gareth

  6. Gareth makes an interesting point. I asked our IT dept. (which I’m a member of) if they could set me up a blank sharepoint site so I could get to grips with its strengths, quirks etc.

    I was told that there wasn’t a case for it and I needed to come back with a spec. for what site I needed. The head shaped dent on my wall got a little deeper that day.

    I suspect that much of the issue with sharepoint is that it’s misconfigured, but I always hear the word in the same sentence as “forced”.

    From what I hear, we are looking at Sharepoint2010 for running our ‘research environment’. It’s got one huge fan, amongst the planners who is very optimistic about the improvements in the 2010 release… And writing this comment has just given me an idea… I’ll ask our local enthusiast to give me some demos to try and win me over!

  7. Hi, I was also at your talk and was also a little disappointed about the presentation, I’m not sure if you had a host of other slides and more uses of SharePoint that it would have made a difference to the comments, but felt it did lack a bit for what the audience was looking for.

    I feel that we started to talk about change in HE at the start of the conference and how we may be reduced as a group if we didn’t move forward and look at new opportunities, but you were met with complete disarray even when the fact was told to the group that 90% of HE institutions are using SharePoint in some way! Now if someone told me this for some other product that I was not using (MS or not) I would do my hardest to go and check it out and make sure I was not left out.

    I feel that the group were not seeing the opportunities to learn a new skill set; using SharePoint does not mean that you will not do the work you are doing just now or lose the skill set, but may mean you get to do more of it as SharePoint can cut down on the development times on some of the more mundane work you need to do if you know what you are doing.

    SharePoint can’t do everything or can it?, it’s not a relation database and can’t really be used for this purpose in a easy way so you just need to know the limits, not so much of what it can and can’t do, as I think it can do most things, not always in a straightforward way at times, but you need to know the product so you can decide on the best development tool for the request you have been given.

    We try to think about SharePoint first for development then if it’s going to be hard or take too long to develop then we look at the next tool. We connect to SharePoint from other systems; we use it to support other systems that can’t hold the data we need as we can access the data easy through web services for example and I’m not sure a lot of the other CMS’s can do this that well.

    I had a person come to me with a document that compared SharePoint with a couple of other products and they had a graphic that showed that SharePoint could not do xyz.., we managed to get them into us and showed them that SharePoint could do 85% of the tasks they said it could not! So they had a complete misunderstand of what it could do and feel this is what is getting over to most of the group.

    Now I’m one of the developers at
    Edinburgh Napier which means I’m a bit biased and do have .Net skills which is really a must for SharePoint if you want to work with this product, did we still have a big learning curve to get to where we are with SharePoint even with the .Net skills beforehand, YES and I think I’ve only touched the surface with parts of the product, has it been worth it, I think so!, but someone said “easy to develop” but If development was that easy then everyone would be doing it! , software development for the web has changed and it’s left be hide the people who have been playing with the technologies as it has become a real development environment now.

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