Of SharePoint and the Swiss Army Knife: Six Observations

By Christian Finn (@cfinn)

This week is a little unusual: it is SharePoint week here on the WebCenter blog. Traditional marketing theory says you never give your competition exposure; we, however, live in the real world, and love it or hate it, many of you have to use, run, or customize SharePoint as part of your jobs. So, I thought I’d kick the week off by discussing the use of an actual Swiss Army knife and comparing that too how organizations use SharePoint and see what can be learned. Later this week, Howard Beader and Trevor Niblock will show you how and why to break out of the SharePoint Shell. And we have some fun SharePoint  Shell videos and more to share this week as well.

Microsoft SharePoint has long been called, by many, the “IT Swiss Army knife.” Swiss Army knives, of course, are those pocket knives that feature little tools—such as screwdrivers, scissors, can openers, corkscrews, etc., in addition to blades. SO I figured I would compare the two and see what insights came to mind. After all, I come into this comparison with strong credentials: on the one hand, I spent over twelve years at Microsoft, several of them product managing or selling SharePoint, and almost all of them using it; and on the other, last spring I bought my ten year old son a Swiss Army knife and observed him with it on a long multi-day camping trip. So I know whereof I speak!

1. My first observation is that, if a Swiss Army knife is the only tool you have, it can be pretty darn useful. The same is true of SharePoint, and this has been one of the factors in SharePoint’s growth. Compared to a file share, SharePoint has some real value.

2. My second observation is that one would rarely prefer to use a Swiss Army knife when a better tool of the same type is at hand. For example, if you are standing in a stream fishing and need to cut some line, it is very handy. But if you needed to cut some wrapping paper for a gift, while you could use your Swiss Army knife, you’d really rather have full size scissors. The same is also true of SharePoint: I can try to manage all my enterprise content with it, or use it to build my website, but it isn’t really the full size, best of breed tool for those jobs.

3. My third observation is that there are times when the Swiss Army knife just doesn’t work for the problem at hand. For example, when my son’s group needed to anchor the tent on hard ground with stakes, feet or rocks work when the knife’s tools just don’t. And yes, the same is true for SharePoint. You can build a website with it, but you can’t use it to manage your web marketing campaign. If you want to use social tools in your organization, you’ll find that SharePoint’s inherently document-centric design—and its lack of support for a true activity stream—will have you purchasing third party tools for the job.

4. Fourth, some of the tools on a Swiss Army knife you’d prefer not to have in some users’ hands. For example, my son has no need for a corkscrew as a fifth grader. And if he did come across a bottle of wine, I’d rather he didn’t have a way to open it. Likewise, the bundle that is SharePoint includes lots of tools and features which one might rather some users didn’t have at their disposal. Lists, for example, will allow sales people to manage contacts and sales opportunities in SharePoint; but it would be better for everyone if they used a proper CRM package instead.

5. Fifth, both Swiss Army knives and SharePoint require governance—and plenty of it. My son cut himself twice with his knife, despite training, precautions, and supervision. If your organization uses SharePoint—how often have you encountered the equivalent—such as not being able to find a file you know is stored in there; or having to wade through hundreds or thousands of no longer used team sites to find the right one?

6. My sixth and final observation is one where Swiss Army knives and SharePoint diverge. Owning a Swiss Army knife doesn’t discourage you from owning other, proper tools. It’s great for camping trips and outings where you don’t want to carry a lot and aren’t sure what situations you may encounter. But a Swiss Army knife doesn’t replace a real set of tools for daily use, and no one would ever think it could.

SharePoint, however, sometimes does have exactly this effect on IT departments. Adopting SharePoint as a platform, rather than as a tool, tends to cause IT to view SharePoint as the first, and often only, allowed solution to a problem. Because SharePoint is a Swiss Army knife, and not a complete toolbox, this often ends badly.

And it isn’t that outright failure is always (or even often) the result; it is minimal success. People end up using sub-optimal solutions because they appear easy to implement at first; and IT departments find themselves continually investing to increase the degree of success by adding features and capabilities through custom development and third party tools. All of that adds to the cost equation for SharePoint, and sometimes can lead to a backlash: no customization is allowed, because it may interfere with upgrades.

And at that point, you are locked in to using only the SharePoint Swiss Army knife to solve your problems. When that happens, I hope you’re fishing—and calling your WebCenter rep.


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