12 July 2009

Create a Support Program for your SharePoint Environment

A recent article in CIO Magazine provided some great content around the true cost of SharePointSocial software and portals expert, Peter Sejersen from J Boye, has expanded that discussion when he added a quick case study of a DIY SharePoint implementation at the municipality of Aalborg in Denmark.  However, one dimension of SharePoint that has not received a lot of attention is support.

In virtually every engagement we have with clients, the cost of supporting SharePoint comes up.   Clients want to better understand what it takes to “care and feed” for an enterprise SharePoint environment.  If you’re struggling with this same challenge, I’ve included some of the various support dimensions touched lightly in the CIO article and that may help you create your support program:

  • Monitoring
    Do you want to get the most value out of SharePoint?  Make sure you monitor the servers, the applications and ensure up-time.  During your implementation’s early stages, little attention will be paid if it’s unavailable.  Once the site has been around a while, you better ensure it’s running in top form.  Beyond that, you should really know if errors are being generated in the event logs, issues manifesting themselves in the SharePoint logs or if your content databases are getting to large.  This means that you must get serious about monitoring and look at more than just ping responses.  Microsoft has System Center Operations Manager, which provides a good tool for monitoring your environment.  You can also leverage a combination of event log monitors, perfmon or manual checks.  At Consejo, we developed a monitoring agent with Panopta and integrated it into our SharePoint Support offering.   Whatever approach you choose, make sure you have one.
  • Patch Management
    The SharePoint team releases patches with relative frequency.  They are sometimes in the form of a “hot fix” (an update the corrects a “small” feature or function within SharePoint), a roll-up (a collection of these hot fixes) or a service pack (the total collection of hot fixes plus updates not found in any hot fix).  Whatever the form, you need to have a program to apply them regularly, since you don’t necessarily want to update SharePoint the way you update the OS.  While you may have a program for applying fixes to your server and desktop OS, a lot of organizations fail to regularly implement SharePoint-specific fixes – some of which are required for working with certain OS and/or .NET framework patch levels.    The tricky bit about this element of  a support program is the number dependencies created by either custom or commercial add-ons; this means testing ahead of deployment.
  • Reusable Components
    Companies like Telerik and Infragistics have made a good business out of creating new controls or components that fill in functional gaps between what Microsoft provides in the .NET framework and what you may have to create for your application.  In the same way, consider creating an organization specific set of controls, components or SharePoint add-ons that you can reuse across your SharePoint applications.   Examples of this might be a “print Wiki” function that can be used with any wiki in SharePoint or SharePoint site archive function that backs up a SharePoint site before deleting it from a Site Collection.    More granular examples may be components that make it easy for developers to connect to your specific SAP implementation.  While your needs may be different, creating a collection of reusable components will help improve development quality and speed within your organization.
  • End-user Assistance/Help
    A lot of IT organizations tend to take the “build it and they will come” approach to SharePoint.  This approach suggests that IT organizations simply need to make a facility like SharePoint available; from there business users will “figure out” how to be more productive.  Unfortunately, most end users are unable to conceptualize how SharePoint can help them to be more productive as they tend to struggle with the basics like simply uploading documents or using search.  Instead, enterprises should create real training materials that translate SharePoint capabilities into tangible benefits in the context of the business.  This means demonstrating how users can be more productive in real situations using SharePoint to supplement or replace tools they already uses – like Word (just as an example).   When we deliver our Fast Track to SharePoint solution, we provide a license for the SoftwareFx Virtual Training Center for SharePoint (created by PortaLogiks) and embed them in the SharePoint application we create for our clients.   The materials give end users 30 second to 4 minute flash-based narrated videos on everything from uploading a document to a document library to customizing a page with SharePoint Designer.  Along with these materials, we typically recommend clients create application-specific help material that will further supplement the rather generic videos with specific information on their implementation.  In this way, business users don’t have to “imagine” how they can be more efficient -- they’re shown.   This will encourage use and help with adoption.
  • Be Serious about Adoption
    Another frequent topic of conversation is end user adoption.  Adoption describes how you get your business users to utilize the new intranet, extranet or internet site you’ve built on SharePoint.   There are no easy answers to help to spur adoption; each organization will need to create a specific program to fit their end-user community.  However, success of your SharePoint implementation will depend entirely on end user adoption.   If you’re interested in learning more, check out a blog entry by Bianca Wong at Prescient Digital Media on change management strategies to support intranet adoption.

Admittedly, creating your own support program will be specific to your organization.   It also likely you’re doing some related activities already, so adding SharePoint-specific elements to those existing programs should not burdensome.  However, consider the alternative costs if you avoid creating a disaster recovery program or skimp on training your users.

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