How to Ensure User Adoption of SharePoint

By John Bartelink

This article is part of Wood Harbinger’s newsletter series.

In our last technology newsletter, my article “When Email Attacks and How to Fight Back,” introduced the benefits of reducing email with an information management system like Microsoft SharePoint. SharePoint implementations offer the opportunity to clean up and automate business processes that have silently wasted valuable staff time. These silent killers also create frustration and sap creative thought energy from the best and brightest on a team. Many companies, including the biggest, are on board with this idea—according to a 2012 survey by Rackspace, 78% of Fortune 500 companies use SharePoint.

SharePoint implementations are not without risk, however. The same survey found that about 33% of SharePoint users feel like they aren’t using SharePoint to its full potential. If SharePoint is such a powerful tool that can bring so much value to an organization, why do implementations fail to connect with users and provide maximum benefit? There are a few root causes of this disconnect but also tangible and achievable solutions to improve SharePoint user adoption.

Common Suspects in Failed SharePoint Implementations

The internet is littered with SharePoint horror stories[1] about SharePoint implementation failures and how to avoid a costly waste of resources and time. Most of these provide great information and point out some common pitfalls of SharePoint implementation, like:

  • Lack of early involvement from key people.
  • Lack of adequate resources to design and build out the system.
  • Lack of end-user training and support.

The Real Killers

These pitfalls will certainly derail a SharePoint implementation, but they are symptoms of more deeply rooted causes affecting SharePoint deployment and adoption. The real killers are:

  • Not really understanding the platform.
  • Not choosing the right initial implementation target(s).
  • Not anticipating the difficulty of change.

Before starting to design and implement SharePoint, key leaders must know what SharePoint can do. They must plan for how its capabilities will integrate with—and require change of—existing user processes. They must also anticipate the challenges of change and develop strategies to overcome them. Most importantly, they need to define and agree on what a “successful SharePoint implementation” means to their specific business and establish how success will be measured.

SharePoint is about People, Not Software

Even if the right people inside the organization are involved from day one, the implementation will likely fail if these key people do not really understand SharePoint. Watching videos or hearing a lecture is not, in my experience, enough to convey the full breadth of SharePoint’s real capabilities. Microsoft’s products website and promo video heralds SharePoint as “the new way to work together.” Fantastic! But what does that really mean in the context of day to day business? More importantly, what should that—and will that—mean in the context of your business’s day to day operations?

First and foremost, key leaders must embrace the fact that SharePoint is not an IT initiative. It is a strategic business initiative. They must have a clear understanding of SharePoint’s strengths from a business perspective prior to the design of the system to ensure that the most valuable and/or costly business processes can be targeted, re-envisioned, and deployed in a new way that strategically benefits the firm. They do not necessarily need to know how to program it—configuration and development should be conducted in response to business needs by a team of qualified SharePoint professionals.

Secondly, the people involved in the design of the system and the strategy for implementation must absorb the fact that SharePoint is much more than a document storage system with extra features for sorting, filtering, and version control. SharePoint is a platform more than it is any one thing. This platform allows people to interact with each other and information from multiple systems in completely new ways that can have tremendous positive impact on the business.

The Obvious Solution Isn’t Always the Best Solution

SharePoint’s most commonly recognized and utilized feature is the “Document Library,” which enables centralized curation and oversight of document content. This is a very powerful aspect of the software and is therefore often a prime target for both IT professionals and users all hoping it will magically and immediately solve critical knowledge sharing issues.

Beware, however, that this function, while extremely valuable and important, requires a comprehensive strategy and a meticulous design to work. SharePoint is a dynamic system with separate but synergistic features and functions that work best together to enable the full power of the solution. It is driven by behind-the-scenes processes that define how information is categorized and stored. Without enough up front planning, these processes cannot deliver a solution that is more efficient than what users already have in existing file shares.

A solution that is no more efficient than the existing process but requires change and retraining will anger users and thwart user adoption unless there is another tangible benefit that justifies the change. Worse yet, a solution that is less efficient than the existing process is no solution at all.

Taxonomy: the Smoking Gun

The key to an effective SharePoint Document Library is the taxonomy, or “information architecture,” of the site. It’s the categorization scheme that governs how documents are created, stored, and searched for. It replaces the familiar file structure of network drives, folders, subfolders, and document naming conventions with “managed metadata”—tags that describe the document—and arranges documents in a hierarchy that must be defined in advance and managed over time.

Instead of being left to their own devices and imaginations, taxonomy gives users a specific list of terms to use when creating or saving a file, which then allows these documents to be easily found by searching using these same terms. This measured display of content creates a common language across the firm, which decreases the time it takes to find content, eliminates duplication of content and data entry, and improves content quality.

Creating a taxonomy that works is a very significant component of a SharePoint design and implementation project because developing it requires input and compromise from knowledge managers across the organization. There are differences in how people create, name, store, and find documents; the point of a SharePoint Document Library is to streamline and standardize this. Document Libraries can be deployed and utilized without formalizing a taxonomy or implementing the managed metadata service, but just migrating files into SharePoint in their existing file structure bypasses the true power of the SharePoint system and will simply frustrate users. Why make them learn and use a new tool if the result is no different than the file share on a network that they have used their entire career?

The taxonomy only works if the documents are tagged according to the scheme. Tagging hundreds of gigabytes of files, dealing with illegal characters in file names, and migrating it all into SharePoint can be mammoth projects that can strike fear into the hearts of people who do not yet understand the value of transitioning to SharePoint. But it must be done in order for a Document Library to provide optimal value.

Change is Hard

Let’s say the taxonomy has been successfully established and all documents properly tagged and migrated to SharePoint. Are we poised for instant implementation success? I’ll let you guess.

One of the most difficult challenges facing user adoption of SharePoint is failing to acknowledge that there are fundamental human behavioral changes that users need to make in order to gain the benefit of SharePoint’s capabilities. Users will have difficulties with the difference between using the file structure to which they’ve grown accustomed (or for the younger workforce, the structure they’ve always known) and working with documents in a SharePoint Document Library.

Then there are the other SharePoint features that don’t involve direct document interaction, like workflow automation, list-based information views, and data integration across multiple platforms. SharePoint can be used for processes such as tracking the steps of a process, assigning tasks to team members, notifying team members regarding assignment or status changes, recording the movements and revisions of documents within the system, and much more. It can also communicate with other data platforms: Microsoft Office, of course, but also accounting systems, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, and others.

Changing business processes and user work processes are not simple tasks. It takes time, the focused attention of management to guide and require process transition, and a tangible payoff to individuals and the business. Why go through the effort of change if there is no real benefit to doing so and no repercussions if you don’t?

Start Small and Build Up

Launching the Document Library is a worthy cause, but it takes time to make it work and for people to see its benefit. This lag time may lead to lost momentum in generating value awareness and then user adoption. It is possible that other processes exist that, when converted to a list-based system with an automated workflow in SharePoint, would help people realize the fundamental positive change SharePoint can bring to their work day. This understanding of value is absolutely critical to user adoption and the future success of the implementation.

Start with a Test Group

The solution to this challenge is to deploy a small pilot project, focused on a high-value process that specifically benefits the leadership of the firm. Identify a frequent and possibly frustrating task and show users how SharePoint can help them accomplish it more easily and efficiently. Target something that currently that takes users 20 minutes of tedious time to complete and needs to be done multiple times per day and show them how they can do it with SharePoint in 10 minutes. Take an existing process that consistently frustrates teams, due to inaccurate information or because it requires double entry of data in multiple systems or spreadsheets, and deploy a SharePoint feature that can ensure accurate and up-to-date data across multiple systems from a single point of entry. Successful implementations create solutions that people want to use because they actually save time and improve accuracy.

From this pilot project, leaders will be able to extrapolate and visualize how other existing business processes and workflows could—and should—be re-imagined, improved from a business perspective, and implemented in SharePoint. They can also make an early educated decision about whether the product is right for the firm before making a larger investment and identify who has the time and desire to lead the design, implementation, and change management project. Once leaders are committed and understand the value of SharePoint, they will be more likely to hold fast through the transition from existing processes and workflows to new ones that utilize SharePoint.

The Importance of User Interface

SharePoint is not perfect. There, I said it. SharePoint is good at a lot of things, but, as with all software systems, it has weaknesses. In my experience one of its major weaknesses is poor default user interface. People respond positively to user interface design that is appealing and well thought out; SharePoint out-of-the-box will not be appealing to most, if any, users. Fortunately, it is very flexible and can be made to look and work in a very aesthetically pleasing and functionally efficient way. This design challenge can make or break user adoption and is well worth the cost of having a professional if an internal graphics department is not a viable option.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

SharePoint’s weaknesses can be overcome with training, software programming, and patience. Rome wasn’t built in a day; SharePoint implementations should not try to solve every problem or inefficiency in the firm in the first release. SharePoint design and deployment is like a master planning project. First, key people must understand the platform before the design process begins and be able to communicate the dream in the early stages of design. Next, they must focus the first phases of the implementation effort on key, high-value areas that will enable users be more productive and accurate. From this starting ground, they can gradually build up overtime.

Spend the time to really anticipate and understand what challenges users will face and work hard to design a clean and user-friendly interface and an intuitive navigational structure. This approach will help make implementation more cost effective and adoption less overwhelming for people changing their habits to integrate SharePoint usage into their daily routine.

Defining SharePoint Success

Key leaders are directly involved with planning accounting system upgrades, the intricacies of real estate transactions, and the hiring of high-value employees; the design and planning of a SharePoint implementation is as potentially beneficial or risky to the firm as any of these endeavors.

A consultant or SharePoint development team can only envision solutions so far without the deep insight and contribution of key leaders. Business leaders who understand how SharePoint works and recognize the value in its ability to optimize firm operations will be more capable of communicating these things to their employees. They can convey why there is value, will be more likely to stand firm through the transition, and set the expectation of success and accountability necessary for SharePoint to take root and gain traction. They will also be willing to do themselves that which they expect others to do: use SharePoint to its full potential.


[1] Here’s a few:


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