Considering the general pervasiveness of SharePoint it’s interesting that I get asked more often now than ever, “what is SharePoint?, what does SharePoint do?, and why should I get behind it?”
It is not an easy question because I don’t have a short answer. To be honest, I think it’s contextual. No matter what, I hesitate to launch into a description of what SharePoint CAN do. I know a meaningful answer to someone who is a current user depends not only on the version of the product, but also the vision, expertise and governance (or lack thereof) of those who performed the SharePoint installation.
In almost every case what users want to know is not, “what does SharePoint do?” But, “why doesn’t SharePoint do much of anything (in my environment?)” Further conversation with most people who ask this question inevitably paints a picture I am all too familiar with – Information Architecture has been ignored, and almost everything that makes SharePoint cool and helpful to an end user has been locked down by well-intentioned but over-zealous controls. The end result is just another file share, albeit one that is improved by sophisticated search.
So, what do I say? It depends on the circumstances but I usually turn the question back by finding out “what do you think it is?” or “what do you want to do with it?” The first question gives me more information on where the person is coming from (what have they heard?) while the second usually gives me a good way to provide some genuine help.
If the person is able to make decisions and changes, I might answer that SharePoint is a sophisticated and powerful means of bringing order to unstructured information. It includes the ability to automate the identification, retention, routing, organization and aggregation of content, as well as securing it. SharePoint (depending on the version and the license) has DLP, eDiscovery and Rights Management capabilities that can really make your company’s life better.
If the person is simply frustrated by the limitations they have encountered within their specific environment, I can offer solution suggestions because there are always many ways to accomplish your goals within SharePoint – and usually ways which will work within or around restrictions that might exist. In any case, I want to make SharePoint your friend, because that is what it should be.
Also, when we talk about what SharePoint is today we must remember that ‘today’ is a moving target. For example, many of the new tools within SharePoint, particularly online, are dedicated to bringing content to you, instead of making you find it (Office Graph, Sway, Delve, and groups come to mind) thus simplifying some of the goals of Information Architecture. Also, SharePoint configuration in the cloud is largely handled by Microsoft which means the errors and omissions, which are the bane of on premise installations, are no longer an issue. (That being said it is more than a little confusing that SharePoint as a separate entity is becoming obfuscated.)