by Patrick Bieser Sr., Founder, Northwoods Software Development, Inc.
March 4, 2014
Every few months someone asks us to compare SharePoint to a dedicated content management system such as Titan CMS.
A little background. Northwoods has used SharePoint since 2001. We support clients using SharePoint, have experience customizing SharePoint, and have a large team of in-house programmers and web designers with the skills needed for SharePoint integration -- including web design, web development and software engineering. We have a client base of 800 clients including 30 major corporations.
Since 2001 we have had the opportunity to observe SharePoint in the wild in companies of all sizes. Here's what we see:
Many big companies have installed SharePoint and have completed pilot projects. Some of these pilots have evolved into full SharePoint deployments for general use. Of these, a majority use SharePoint in its out-of-the-box (OTBS) form. A few have invested heavily in SharePoint and have large Intranets.
Most small / medium companies have considered SharePoint. (Microsoft does a good job of marketing it.)
Where SharePoint is successful it is most often used for basic file sharing and collaboration for small groups.
Where SharePoint is unsuccessful it is most often because it lacks buy-in. Further, users often dislike it strongly. SharePoint fails to reach a tipping point of usefulness relative to effort needed to master it. Users find it hard to use, hard to administer, hard to find stuff, and hard to update.
Sharepoint attempts to be the tool for all needs, but masters only a few. SharePoint is not good at Web Content Management, Forms Processing, Complex Workflows, and Data Management. Teams that attempt to do these task with SharePoint either begin searching for better tools after about a year, or they convince management to give them more money so they can brute force SharePoint into working.
We believe the reason for SharePoint's lack of success is because it is too complex to program and use. SharePoint violates Joel Spolsky's Laws of Leaky Abstractions.
When to Use SharePoint
Our impression has remained consistent over the years. SharePoint is a good fit if:
Your Intranet will be centered on document sharing or you have small groups who need to collaborate on documents
You have the budget and resources to train users to modify their work habits. SharePoint beyond the basics is not simple to use.
You have an annual budget of $60,000 to $200,000 per 200 employees to allocate to SharePoint support staff / consultants.
You understand the time, effort, and budget it will take to move beyond OTBS SharePoint, and have access to the programmers, trainers, and consultants needed to shape SharePoint into something more broadly useful.
When NOT to Use SharePoint
If you don't match the above criteria, your company should use different tools. There are many well written niche applications tailored for Web Content Management, Collaboration, Forms Processing, Complex Workflow, and Records Management. Many are far simpler to use than SharePoint. These programs can be made to interact with each other as needed.
Document collaboration, by its very nature, is most often done by small groups of people who already know each other. You don’t need big tools to do small collaborations. There are several free / low cost document collaboration tools that have taken root in the market to fill this niche.
Here are a few free document collaboration tools.
Google Docs allows you to collaborate on documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and forms if you have a Google account. It’s free, powerful, and easy to use.
BaseCamp from 37 Signals offers calendars, task lists, and project collaboration for a very modest price. It works well for large and small corporations at a fraction of the cost of SharePoint.
Microsoft Web Apps and Office 365 offers document collaboration features for less than the cost of SharePoint.
Titan CMS offers document management, version control, and lite collaboration features. If real-time collaboration is essential, Titan works seamlessly with any of the above including OTBS SharePoint implementations for small workgroups.
The SharePoint marketing strategy is taken from the playbook of tobacco companies.
The path to addiction is this: A developer goes to a Microsoft seminar and sees a nifty demo of SharePoint doing interesting things. These are not things that the developer does during the day, but she's heard others in his company talk about "collaboration" and "document sharing" so she figures she might be a hero if she finds a solution to these problems. So, she installs the "free" copy of SharePoint that came with his MSDN subscription and launches an OTBS Portal/Intranet a few days later. Out of the box, SharePoint does some neat stuff. It allows employees to access documents, calendars, and lists in ways they've never done before. "Look here, boss" the developer shouts, "an Intranet!" The boss is impressed. "All that in only two days! Amazing!" The boss wants more.
That's when the problems start, because to do anything "more" the company need to take its toe out of the water and jump into SharePoint head first. Before they know it months have gone by, and "more" is taking on a new meaning. Developers want more training. Users want more support. It becomes obvious that web designers and web architects are needed. (Developers are usually the last to see this problem). Then more programmers and consultants are needed to figure out how to make SharePoint do the stuff that you needed in the first place. The IT department wants more servers. Microsoft wants more user license fees.
Like a frog in a slowly boiling pot of water, no one knows when to jump out and say "Hold on a minute! Where are we going with this SharePoint thing?"
Microsoft gets companies hooked by giving it away. MSDN subscriptions, and free SharePoint User licenses thrown in as part of other license deals, are just a few of the methods used to get companies addicted to SharePoint. In the beginning, it all looks very cool, and everyone, especially the technical folks who did the first install can see the potential.
But it's potential with a steep and hidden cost.
Management is the art of making decisions with insufficient information. Management's decision to allow SharePoint to grow and spread is too often made without an awareness of how SharePoint will become an expensive and ineffective solution to a small subset of the problems Intranet should solve. There is no way for management to see the looming expenses -- servers, licenses, trainers, consultants, programmers, and ultimately lots of unhappy end users who are burdened with the hard-to-use information-architecture-challenged designer's-nightmare that SharePoint often evolves into.
You blink and a year has gone by and it's too late. The company has an expensive addiction. SharePoint needs to be fed. Like all addictions, it is hard to see that you are in trouble, and even harder to admit to the mistake and get help.
There are exceptions I'm sure. I have not personally seen any but I know they're out there. Nielsen Norman writes about award-winning Intranets based on SharePoint. Big corporations with large budgets can and have done amazing things starting with a SharePoint base. But a large budget and a large and talented staff are the secret ingredients, not SharePoint.
Small Groups are the SharePoint sweet spot
SharePoint in small doses can be a good thing. It works well for workgroup file sharing and collaboration with the right training and support. It also works well as a dashboard or as a small document centric Intranet. "Small" is the key. Problems start when organizations without big budgets attempt to use SharePoint to solve problems outside the small boxes where SharePoint excels.
We have seen numerous large companies where SharePoint intranets are largely abandon and unused. The reasons? Information is hard to find. Navigation is confusing. Takes too much time / too hard to update. Search doesn't work. It's faster to not use the intranet. (The site is ugly). Inconsistent page layouts are confusing. No buy-in from other departments. No support team. No training. Poor support from management. No governance structure.
All are solvable problems. But, how much will it cost to solve in SharePoint vs. using other tools better suited for big Intranets.
SharePoint for Web Sites
Can you use SharePoint for a public web site? Sure - you can even find some in the wild. But there's not many, and the ones that I have seen have all been highly customized.
According to an IDC survey in July 2009 of 262 American corporate IT users, just 8% of respondents said they were using SharePoint for their pulbic web sites.
Here's an analogy: Excel is a great spreadsheet. It does just about everything you could ask a spreadsheet program to do - quickly, conveniently, and intuitively. Excel, however, is not a good accounting system. Yes, it *can* handle many accounting tasks, but it has few of the rudimentary features found in programs that focus on accounting such as Quickbooks or Dynamics GP.
SharePoint can be bent and tortured into supporting public websites, but it is as clear as Lake Michigan after Zebra Mussels that a dedicated CMS system is a far, far better solution.
SharePoint is a good product for small groups doing document collaboration and sharing. That's where SharePoint has the most success.
SharePoint is a poor product for maintaining content on public web sites or intranets.
Independent Reviews and Articles
Here is a collection of independent articles we have found that discuss the pros and cons of SharePoint. If you know of an article to add to this collection -- pro or con -- please add them to the "comments" form at the bottom of this article.
Article: SharePoint confidential: Why users say SharePoint sucks
If you type “SharePoint sucks” into Google today, you’ll get 290,000 results, with sites listing reasons upon reasons why—one guy came up with 50 reasons.
Article: SharePoint sucks revisited
Michael’s Techbox, 9/4/2013
What exactly is SharePoint, A CMS? A DMS? An intranet? An application framework? A workflow system? A task list? A database? Or a wiki? SharePoint rather than being 1 product, is more like a collection of haphazardly slotted together mini apps. In short, everything is there, which looks great on paper, but each component lacks quality.
Article: SharePoint Antidote Anyone?
Huffington Post, 5/1/2012
Raise your hand if you're frustrated, sickened or being slowly driven insane by SharePoint.
Article: Is Microsoft's SharePoint Unstoppable, or mostly smoke and mirrors?
Computer World, 10/19/2009
Discussion of whether there are as many SharePoint users as Microsoft claims.
Article: Microsoft SharePoint Popularity Comes with Issues
Network World: 7/1/2008
This article on Network World offers an honest discussion of Sharepoint's problems, holes, warts and other issues that come with SharePoint installations in corporate environments.
Article: SharePoint Falls Short in Content Management
Network World: 4/27/2007
SharePoint does a poor job managing Web content, leading to bad code, difficulties implementing complex navigation, and big challenges with multiple languages. Many reasons why SharePoint has problems with Content Management.
Article: Why SharePoint Portal Server is Terrible
Real World Software Development: 9/8/2007
Review of SharePoint from the perspective of an independent software developer. He lists his many frustrations and criticisms trying to make SharePoint do tasks to meet client needs.
Article: Response to Why SharePoint Portal is Terrible
Fear and Loathing: 10/15/2007
A Microsoft MVP affirms some of the problems with SharePoint and offers an alternative viewpoint that not everything listed as "bad" in SharePoint is necessarily so.
A Small Pitch
If you're frustrated with SharePoint:
call Northwoods (414-914-9100), or
offer comments at the bottom of this article, or
check out Titan CMS (look at our portfolio of Intranets).
Our Content Management System (Titan CMS) has been used by over 800 clients to create intranets, extranets, and public web sites.