Tuesday, September 09, 2008

SharePoint for Production Applications?

First, imagine you run a claims department for a large insurance company, or the customer service center for a top-tier bank. Then imagine the many line of business and information systems your employees use every hour of every day to get their jobs done. Finally, consider how much better their productivity and job satisfaction could be if all of the information and resources they needed were presented within a single application environment. No more carpal tunnel syndrome inducing Alt-Tab maneuvers, mornings spent carefully arranging application windows in that early Windows style, or lengthy (dull) training on several very different applications.

I have spoken to many the leaders in many organizations, run by people that you are currently imagining you are, who have recognized the appeal of bringing together all the applications their people use into one place. The approaches that are taken vary, depending on the exact need, and which software industry analyst makes the most compelling pitch. Anything is possible, including enterprise portals, 'roll your own' SOA/EAI applications, consolidation to a single platform in the SAP R/3 style, and presentation with the line of custom applications built on document management and business process management suites. And without naming names, there are many examples of the different approaches becoming extremely successful, or becoming another annoying window on an already overcrowded screen.

SharePoint, accompanied by its enormous marketing budget can't fail to make it into the departments you are imagining you run. Its appeal of being cheap, easy and 'good enough' makes it an important option to be considered. So, ask yourself this:

  1. Does SharePoint offer enough value as a pretty configurable presentation mechanism / portal to make up for the fact that (in my experience) its just painfully slow to use?
  2. Does it provide the integrations you need with the many core systems and information systems you have in place to plug and play (how many BizTalk skills do you have in house)?
  3. Do the Web 2.0 style, collaborative team space capabilities of SharePoint provide application components that truly benefit your workers?
  4. Does your organization need another application layer of 'can do lots of stuff' that pays little attention to the value it offers to the business?

In some cases, the business leaders I have met could answer 'yes' to all of the above, and are starting to try out SharePoint in their environments. In other cases, other business leaders actually have a vision to address the root cause of the mosaic of applications their employees endure. They have asked themselves a different set of questions:

  1. Is there a way to show users just the information they need within the context of a single business application, not a series of segregated application portlets or panels?
  2. Is there a solution that can deliver work and guide users to complete the tasks I know need to be done, rather than having to train them to always remember what must be done next?
  3. Can the skilled knowledge workers have the flexibility to do what they need to do, without being limited by a production line workflow?
  4. Is there a solution that can provide the best of both worlds - a targeted business solution and a flexible platform which allows me to adapt to a changing business environment?

I personally don't think that there is any one answer. As the imagined business leader, you'll be balancing an operations/IT budget against a need to deliver business value in the shortest amount of time. Some organizations will make use of SharePoint where it fits their needs best. Others will try and force fit it into applications it doesn't do well.

As the business leader, I think you have an easy question to ask yourself. Does a software solution help you meet the objectives of the business (increase revenue, reduce expenditure, etc) with the better working practices that it offers, or alternatively just provide an attractive UI and collaboration functionality around your current working practices?

A post from the Improving New Account Opening blog

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