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Companies wrestle with the SharePoint usability gap

SharePoint adoption continues to dominate as an enterprise content management system -- despite the fact that users often struggle to use it.

When workers get up in the morning, they are rarely enthused about navigating to a Microsoft SharePoint portal...

to manage documents. They might need a second cup of coffee before they tag files for easy retrieval later. Navigating SharePoint can be a labyrinthian experience, even for IT-savvy users.

But Microsoft's lock on the business productivity applications in Microsoft Office extends to SharePoint as well. Many enterprises make their peace with SharePoint, despite the fact that it "doesn't "excel in any particular area when compared with best-of-breed, single-purpose products," as Jeffrey Mann, a Gartner, Inc. research vice president, noted at the 2013 Gartner Symposium/ITxpo.

If this seems like a contradictory picture of SharePoint's role in the enterprise content management (ECM) market, consider these numbers. According to AIIM's report "SharePoint Watch 2013: Clouding the Issues," 57% of 600-plus respondents said they use SharePoint as their primary ECM system, and nearly one-third said it's their only ECM application. But according to Protiviti's 2014 IT Priorities Survey, nearly half of all organizations rely on IT to deploy, configure and launch SharePoint, as well as train business users. It's a usability gap, of sorts: SharePoint is well-entrenched among companies' workflows, but often a cumbersome way to work.

"I love SharePoint's calendar feature. But when you get into working in documents constantly, SharePoint's cumbersome compared with other solutions," said Dustin Bolander, VP of technology at Technology Pointe, Inc., a technology consultancy in Austin, Texas. Technology Point implements SharePoint, but Bolander said that for traditional ECM functions, he prefers other tools, such as the up-and-comer in the ECM market, M-Files.

The on-premises and cloud-based M-Files doesn't require much administrative babysitting to categorize, upload and retrieve files. "With SharePoint, you still have to manually organize it," Bolander said. "With M-Files, I don't have to build the structure or metadata. You just tag it, and it knows where to go for all the different people and ways to view it."

When SharePoint is good enough -- sort of

For Cliffs Natural Resources, based in Cleveland, employees are accustomed to the SharePoint application and interface. Until recently, SharePoint was the default management application. It uses the application for its intranet and internal documents like HR as well as for its externally facing websites. The global company, which mines iron ore and coal, now has a project under way to migrate many of its files from SharePoint to Hyland Software's OnBase ECM system. The company is running up against storage limits as well as SharePoint governance issues.

"Our SharePoint was at a breaking point," said Bob Weisert, senior OnBase administrator. "Our main Web app is 350 Gig, which exceeds any SQL Server best practices. We're trying to get to the point where we understand what's in there and what belongs where."

Many enterprises make their peace with SharePoint, despite the fact that it doesn't excel in any particular area.

But it's a catch-22 of sorts. While the company is trying to determine what is in these files and who "owns" them, it has to wade through years of SharePoint sprawl and bring order to chaos.

"[SharePoint] became a dumping ground," said Patricia Kackley, manager of enterprise content at Cliff Natural Resources. "There is no governance, no controls." SharePoint sprawl is often rife among companies using SharePoint, in which documents reside in far-flung, hard-to-identify locations, with little governance or ownership of those files. According to a 2014 study by Docurated of more than 100 organizations, 60% said that content was growing at a rate of a least 100% per year, contributing to SharePoint sprawl.

Moreover, OnBase presents the opportunity to improve some work processes without disrupting workers' current practices. Weisert and Kackley will spend the next year purging SharePoint files, moving others to OnBase and setting up application programming interfaces (APIs) that link to files that actually reside in OnBase. As a result, the 3,000 active users accustomed to working in SharePoint can access files through a familiar API, Weisert said.

"Printing work orders can be more easily categorized and managed in OnBase," Kackley said, "and workers can search for invoices based on various criteria, including purchase order number, invoice number and so on." But workers can also access files in SharePoint -- if that is the interface they are accustomed to.

"We try to build an interface that users can live in. Here, people live in SharePoint," she added. "So we give them portals or views and try to make that business solution as seamless to their everyday behavior."

[SharePoint] became a dumping ground.
Patricia Kackleymanager of enterprise content, Cliff Natural Resources

Cliffs is on SharePoint 2010, so it also needs to migrate to SharePoint 2013. But it won't do so until it gets its house in order on file governance. Weisert said that it's problematic to have users so accustomed to SharePoint because they have enough knowledge to perpetuate the sprawl but don't have the governance training to rein it in.

"One of the biggest challenges is taking the keys away from the castle that users have had all these years," Weisert said.

"We have to put controls around it," Kackley affirmed.

Why search is a sticking point

And while other companies use SharePoint, they acknowledge it involves heavy lifting to keep it well-maintained. If users don't know how to apply appropriate metadata to tag and organize content, SharePoint can easily become the quagmire that Cliffs Natural Resources is now contending with.

Sam Fields, VP of operations at Netrepid, a provider of colocation, infrastructure and application hosting services in Harrisburg, Pa., said that his company uses SharePoint because of its core document management and collaboration capabilities.

"It excels at bringing all your content into one place, where everyone is viewing the most updated version at any given time," he said. The centralization of files, an audit trail and collaborative capabilities are table stakes for ECM applications like SharePoint.

But Fields said that features like search and metadata categorization complicate usability. "I haven't always gotten the most power out of [SharePoint search]," Fields said. "Search works, but you need to tag it with metadata correctly."

Ultimately, SharePoint isn't a set-it-and-forget it application, which is why users can buck using it or use shadow systems instead. SharePoint needs constant care and feeding. Thorough tagging and correct categorization require user training -- and also understanding how the organization's business works in order to help map the SharePoint architecture correctly.

Certain tasks require intimate knowledge of the business and can't be outsourced either. "This is one of the challenges you run into when [consultants] introduce SharePoint into an organization," Netrepid's Fields said. "We can't categorize for you."

Next Steps

The trouble migrating with SharePoint

Avoiding SharePoint 2013 search missteps

SharePoint eDiscovery Center mines Exchange data

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How have enterprise search capabilities improved with SharePoint 2013? What challenges remain?
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Its document preview allows the user to peruse the contents of a document without necessarily opening it. The tool includes a built-in FAST search. Furthermore, it has Visual Filters that enable the user to settle on specific results. Content Search Web Part is a new feature that enables the search active sites. However, the design cannot surpass the static limits. Besides, the configurable limits are exceeded to meet specific needs.
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