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SharePoint upgrade requires sharp focus on planning, user preparation

Users and consultants alike point to focusing SharePoint upgrade efforts by planning carefully and preparing end users for all the latest features.

Now that SharePoint 2013 is on the shelves, preparing end users to handle all the new features added to the collaboration software is a must for ensuring a successful move to the latest version. And that requires heavy amounts of up-front planning by IT and collaboration teams, according to consultants and administrators experienced with a SharePoint upgrade.

Upgrading to the new version has its advantages. With SharePoint 2013, companies can expect a significantly improved user experience, said Mark Gilbert, lead SharePoint analyst at research and consulting company Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

"SharePoint has been criticized -- people will talk about sites as being very 'SharePoint-y' and not [offering] a flexible, rich user experience," he said. But the enhancements in SharePoint 2013 include a better user interface, additional social networking features such as microblogging and activity streams, and more functional mobile capabilities using HTML5, Gilbert added.

The richer social networking functionality enables end users to tag other users, making it easier to reference discussions in the collaboration platform, said Jennifer Mason, a SharePoint consultant at Rackspace US Inc.'s SharePoint911 unit in Maineville, Ohio. SharePoint 2013 also offers an easy-to-use button for sharing content with peers, she said.

The latest release includes other features as well -- for example, Mason cited an option that lets users preview a document before opening it by simply hovering over its icon with a mouse. "As releases go, [SharePoint 2013] is more interactive, with [support for] different devices and ways to access content," she said.

Prepare users for the changes

Because of all the new features, though, IT and collaboration managers in charge of upgrades should anticipate a lot of planning before getting started, said Sharon Weaver, knowledge management technology director at Black & Veatch, an engineering and construction company in Overland Park, Kan. Weaver helped usher in an upgrade from SharePoint 2007 to SharePoint 2010 at the company.

As with SharePoint 2013, the 2010 release significantly expanded the available features in the software. "When you're looking at 2010," Weaver said, "the biggest thing is that it has a lot of options." The key to managing a successful SharePoint upgrade, she added, is to examine the new version carefully and determine how it will be used internally and how the governance model will work.

"It's vital that the IT management understands what the needs of the organization are before rolling out full functionality," agreed John Schaefer, senior manager of digital content at Black & Veatch. Because of all the capabilities and tools built into SharePoint, rolling out unneeded functions to the business will be a big waste of time, he said.

In particular, IT managers and SharePoint administrators need to make sure that end users are ready for the changes, whether an upgrade is to SharePoint 2010 or 2013.

"Communicate how you're moving [to the new platform] and what the value is for them," said Jason Parks, a principal at Higgins & Parks LLC, a Web design and marketing services firm in Buffalo, N.Y. Parks, a former national practice director for a global IT consultancy, suggested starting the upgrade with a kick-off meeting laying out the purpose, timeline and other details. He said the upgrade leader should also explain the responsibilities of the IT department and various business units typically called upon to assist with migrating required content to the new version.

At Houston-based oil and gas company Linn Energy LLC, the upgrade team documented changes for users well before a SharePoint upgrade to 2010. "The best thing we did to prepare the users was communicating with them and making sure that they understood the new features," said Erich Braentner, a supervisor at Linn.

Another organization that upgraded to SharePoint 2010 is the Regional Municipality of Niagara, a group of 12 towns and cities in southern Ontario that is testing SharePoint 2013. "There's not a lot of hard training required [as part of a SharePoint upgrade]," said Paul Di Felice, associate director of IT consulting and analysis for the regional body. But he added that IT staff and SharePoint admins should be available for questions, comments and even rants throughout the transition and afterward, so that users will feel like their needs are being met.

"Just letting people vent, question and learn is a big deal in terms of adoption," Di Felice said. "A small [problem] will grow if you're not there to deal with it."

Document your infrastructure

A company's technology infrastructure also needs to be prepared for upgrading to a new version of SharePoint, and as part of that process, it's important to document the existing features and services in a SharePoint environment as well as the new ones that will be deployed in the upgrade, said Brad Shannon, an application services engineer at eGroup, a technology consultancy in Mount Pleasant, S.C.

More about SharePoint upgrades and its collaboration capabilities

Learn how to make sure SharePoint backup steps work to preserve critical information

Watch a video of SharePoint users talking about the Yammer social integration

Find out about new apps and a simplified user interface in SharePoint 2013

Read a Q&A about deployment plans with SharePoint governance guru Susan Hanley

"If you don't know what you have in your environment, you're going to find out the hard way," Shannon said, explaining that the more detailed the documentation of the current environment is, the better an organization can prepare for the SharePoint upgrade.

Companies should also start with a clean SharePoint farm, Shannon advised. "That means you don't have anything on the farm you don't need," he said. Sometimes SharePoint systems will include items used for testing purposes that were never fully deployed or removed. Leaving them in place can create more work for SharePoint administrators, Shannon said.

Above all, make sure the business knows what it wants before an upgrade and build that into your plans, said Black & Veatch's Weaver. Trying to go back and make changes later on is difficult after workers have adopted new processes, she said. "So if you're trying to reorganize [your SharePoint environment], be clear about the structure, architecture, scalability and support going forward. Set it up the way you want to grow in the next couple of years."

About the author
Christine Parizo is a freelance writer specializing in business and technology. She focuses on feature articles for a variety of technology and business-focused publications, as well as case studies and white papers. She's based in West Springfield, Mass. Email her at

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