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Usefulness trumps features when SharePoint training

Persuading employees to embrace SharePoint can be a struggle. Training that emphasizes functionality over features can help.

Microsoft SharePoint bundles many problem-solving tools into one package, but getting employees to recognize the platform's potential is often a struggle.

Engineered to provide flexibility to meet business needs, common applications for SharePoint include facilitating collaboration, content management and building enterprise information portals. But SharePoint's versatility can prove a drawback when there's a disconnect between the business case for deployment and end users.

Laura Hoffman understands the difficulties of encouraging a department to use SharePoint. A former operations manager for a West Coast biotech firm, Hoffman's duties included ensuring that things ran smoothly for the science, business and research stakeholders in the company.

Tasked with providing workplace support for multiple departments at the global company, Hoffman hoped SharePoint would spur tighter collaboration and efficiency, but instead found many employees were slow to embrace key features of the platform.

I don't think I got a single person to actually use [our SharePoint collaboration site].
Laura Hoffmanoperations manager, a biotech firm

"I was involved with many efforts to improve collaboration at the company, but there was a lot of reticence to use an online collaboration tool," she said. "I created a SharePoint site for my group to post collaboration materials, with a discussion list where people could meet for online sessions and at the end of my term as project manager, I don't think I got a single person to actually use it."

Hoffman's challenge is not unique. In the recent AIIM report "Connecting and Optimizing SharePoint," only 11% of respondents termed their SharePoint deployments a success, with 59% saying they struggle to persuade employees to share and manage content in SharePoint.

Focus SharePoint training carefully

Deficiencies in planning and training were two of the most common reasons AIIM survey respondents gave for deployments that didn't meet expectations. Hoffman's company offered plenty of SharePoint training, but it was IT-focused. IT did a good job of explaining SharePoint's many features, but didn't provide clear reasons for why it was being deployed or how it could help in the workplace.

"The Achilles heel of the whole effort was the lack of an overarching description for what the tool could do," she said. "The IT people were so excited about the new functionality, they dove right into how employees could build that functionality rather than explaining how we could understand the tool and use it."

"I think if they had worked with the technically savvy people within the departments to build a couple of tools that were useful and needed, it would have been easier to pique their interest," she added.

Consultant Susan Hanley helps companies to improve SharePoint performance, and she said many underestimate the up-front planning, which in turn can undermine training.

"Most of the challenges I see stem from when people creating the initial solution didn't spend enough time understanding their users," she said. "You want to create a SharePoint solution that allows them to work as closely as possible to their comfort zone, so it's an enhancement and not just something else they need to do."

Refining the comfort zones of SharePoint users has come with the territory for Jim Adcock, who is director of enterprise development for Dynamic Systems, a Texas-based construction contractor. Adcock said many company users viewed SharePoint as a sort of file share server when he came onboard in 2013, saying much effort has been directed toward clarifying how the two tools differ.

"When users treat SharePoint like a file share, they do their own version control by making multiple copies of the same document, not knowing that SharePoint actually does version control under the hood," he said. "This can create a lot of SharePoint sprawl and people can end up working off the wrong version of a document."

"If you help them understand what SharePoint is and what it isn't, they can use the things that make SharePoint work well," he added.

SharePoint training and gurus

An ideal SharePoint configuration requires virtually no training for users -- but it's still a good idea to offer it, said Hanley.

"Many users are more comfortable if training is available," she said. "You can't really teach them everything there is to know about SharePoint up front, but you want them to be comfortable enough so that they'll want to learn more."

A major selling point of SharePoint is that it empowers non-IT professionals to build collaboration sites, workflows and intranet solutions. But SharePoint is not entirely user-friendly and many employees struggle learning to use it.

Hoffman's company envisioned a rollout where virtually every employee would be comfortable creating SharePoint sites to solve problems. The training focused largely on that aspect, which didn't really connect with the users.

"The IT people kept telling us during the rollout to play with SharePoint and build something, but a lot of people were not interested or they were terrified they were going to break it," she said.

With many employees holding back, Hoffman and other savvy users became unofficial SharePoint gurus, working with colleagues to demonstrate how the platform could be configured to solve specific problems. By collaborating to translate colleague pain points into SharePoint solutions, Hoffman said many of the platform's functions eventually caught on at the company.

"If you build it well, they will come," she said. "In many cases, you just have to prove that it's useful before folks are willing to consider changes with new technology."

Next Steps

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This was last published in May 2015

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What are your biggest challenges when SharePoint training?
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In a world where people are able to Dropbox and forget about it, tools that make it inordinately difficult to perform the tasks they need to or have to do too many steps to put things away will ultimately be met with indifference at best and outright non-compliance at worst. Focusing on essential workflows and getting those nailed down needs to be the top priority. Talk features *after* that has been established and proven.
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SharePoint is such an enormous, clunky solution. People just don't want to use it - at least that's been my experience. We do use it for our change control process, but it's so inefficient with lots of duplicated efforts. It's not entire the fault of SharePoint but using SharePoint does not make things easier.
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thanks for reading and commenting! It's interesting-- I just went to SPTech in Boston and a major theme I heard was that Microsoft is rolling out new tools in Office 365 to help facilitate lightweight collaboration, while leaving the heavy stuff for SharePoint. It will be interesting to see how that strategy plays out with users, when the rubber hits the road.
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