Microsoft’s SharePoint 2010 is the hidden turbo injection behind Microsoft’s applications. It’s the secret weapon that’s sitting in the IT arsenal of most companies yet some don’t even know much about it.

Whatever your information management or collaboration challenges, the chances are SharePoint can help address them. And even better – if you have an enterprise agreement with Microsoft you are entitled to free consultancy to help you begin to put it to best use.

However, Microsoft’s collaboration software has such a wide range of uses and functions that deriving the best business value out of it requires a structured approach with experienced SharePoint consultants helping to determine business requirement and put together a business case.

Many organisations also have multiple instances of SharePoint at work already – or other pieces of software doing the job SharePoint could at a fraction of the cost. Bringing these disparate efforts together to make the most of economies of scale requires a degree of co-ordination, which is best facilitated by a third party.

SharePoint isn’t entirely all things to all people, but it can deliver many different benefits to enterprise businesses. One of the main pieces of functionality people associate SharePoint with is the ability to manage documents and handle their storage and retrieval. It has a sophisticated search capability allowing you to search for metatags and information contained within files.

Another piece is the ability to use the SharePoint environment to underpin an enterprise’s global intranet. Because it’s linked to the global address book of Outlook, it’s easy to set up team structures and microsites that reflect what people do and how they do it. Colleagues that are located around the country can belong to a common SharePoint group and use it as a means to collaborate, using workflow to share documentation, and creating bulletin boards to keep in touch.

That works well where there’s a strong feeling about collaboration and the need for disparate work groups to join a common communications platform. But for a legal firm, their use of SharePoint could be more around process and document management, ensuring document sign-off is done in the right order with the right people within the right timescales. For other businesses, such as an online e-tailer, SharePoint is seen more as a piece of middleware to glue order-taking systems to back-end billing systems.

Even then, this top line of functionality is only scratching the surface of what SharePoint is capable of. Microsoft itself divides its capabilities into six areas – site, composites, insights, communities, content and search. SharePoint 2010 contains significant enhancements around access, connectivity and performance management, as well as new developer functions that allow SharePoint consultants to more easily extend the product for customers.

Where’s the harm?

SharePoint’s blessing is in some cases also its curse – it’s always been so easy to use that different departments and business units will have gone off and created their own implementations. One major defence company we’ve worked with, for example, is a federated business with eight different independent business groups, which are again divided into sub business groups.

Each of those has a level of autonomy to develop their own systems – and they may have gathered business requirements from own organisation and brought in a SharePoint consultants to map out how they could put together a SharePoint environment to meet those requirements.

In that case, we spent a long time gathering the business requirements from each of those business units and distilling those into a business case that was submitted as a formal paper into the central function to then be supported by the business units.

You might ask where the harm is in everyone doing their own thing. Quite apart from the missed opportunity for those who have not yet discovered all the functionality of SharePoint, the main problem is that each of these different environments may not be adhering to corporate standards.

Most corporate organisations will tell you they have a policy about how they store information, where they store it and who has access to it. A defence contractor has highly confidential information, secret networks and different levels of document management processes. So that creates extra responsibilities around the information and how they share that internally. To a lesser extent any business has similar best practices and sensitive information around for example its financials, that are not for public consumption at any given moment in time.

By taking an approach that spans all of the businesses and gathers the requirements into the centre, they also deliver economies of scale in terms of writing interfaces and supporting the common functions that are genuinely required across each of the business groups.

A structured approach

Because the product is so diverse, SharePoint lends itself well to a requirements analysis process. If you were to start off with the product, start entering data and then say ‘what do we want to do with it?’ you would have to tag 30-40 possibilities in terms of knowledge sharing, document storage, workflow, collaboration or so on. Whereas, if you start by gathering business requirements at a higher level then you can drill into the known features at a later stage.

The process of discovering what’s required is actually quite generic. So whether you are a road builder or an e-tailer, we want to consult with the business and understand what you are trying to do. While the ultimate requirements could be very different you could capture them all in that first phase, then go through a number of subsequent stages, including a business analysis phase, scoping and shaping and understanding the core features of SharePoint, understanding which parts you might need to develop and which third party plug ins and tools you might want to bring in.

That’s all about leveraging your knowledge and skills to build up a picture that ultimately delivers the final outcome.

What might that business case then end up looking like? In the case of the defence contractor, the business case realisation was around optimising people and their extended effort in areas such as retrieval and storage of documentation. By implementing a process in SharePoint that would save minutes, seconds, or hours per person on a weekly basis, we could then multiply that by the number of people in the organisation and the amount of times they store and receive information.

This company generated a fiscal business case that was approved by a committee that sanctions those kind of business cases internally. We took a long time to fine tune it and rewrote it several times as more information became readily available but it was a significant saving in the end which mainly came from improving productivity.

In other examples, it’s more about making information readily available and information retrieval. With SharePoint’s powerful search engines that also leads to productivity gains. In the case of a global intranet with different workspaces and personalised areas, the real benefit comes from the fact that it integrates with the rest of the Microsoft platform.

It understands which colleagues belong to which particular groups, and at that point you can start to set up subgroups. You can also develop portals where you can aggregate information in different ways. There’s nothing particularly new in that but because it integrates with the platform and delivery technologies, you can do cool stuff – we get customers looking at self-serve portal as a means to stream new applications down to their desktop for example.

It’s such a compelling platform that it’s really about how innovative your thinking can be to use it to meet your challenges – the chances are whatever they are you can probably use SharePoint as a piece of middleware to help you get there.