SharePoint Governance (again) – is it time for a new “G” word or just an expanded definition?

Guidance - the new “G” word for SharePoint

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Last month, I participated in a lively Twitter chat about SharePoint governance. The discussion, hosted by Quest Software, Inc. and led by Chris McNulty, Chris Beckett and me seemed at times to be contentious, but actually, I think everyone participating seemed to be in violent agreement. The “governance” word is definitely misunderstood – even though everyone seems to agree that it’s one of the most important success factors for a SharePoint deployment. It’s a bit like the story of the blind men and the elephant – everyone has a different perspective.

With most controversial topics, I try not to get hung up on definitions if we all agree on the outcome. I think that when it comes to “governance,” there may actually be a lot of outcomes – most all good, by the way – but just like the blind men and the elephant, the outcome may depend on your perspective – and some outcomes are more narrowly focused than others. This past week, I attended a local AIIM meeting in Washington, DC to listen to a presentation called “Enterprise-wide SharePoint Governance” by representatives from a large security-focused US Federal agency. I was really excited to hear exactly how this organization approaches the governance challenge with SharePoint. Turns out, their definition of governance is exclusively focused on records management, which to me is just an element of the “information governance” dimension of governance. It’s not what I would define as “Enterprise-wide SharePoint Governance.” When I asked about another dimension of governance – the part that provides guidance for solution owners about how to configure their SharePoint solutions to ensure that they achieve and continue to achieve business goals – I was greeted with a confused look and the response, “We don’t care about that, that is IT’s responsibility.” To use the “G” word to describe only one aspect of SharePoint governance is an example of why things are so confusing in this space.

I like how Ant Clay of 21apps introduces an extended concept of governance for SharePoint with 5 pillars that he describes in a delightful video that I encourage you to watch. Ant’s take on governance is that it really is about a broad context – one of “steering” the organization towards desired business outcomes. His 5 pillars are Business Technology Alignment, Information Governance, Project Governance, IT Assurance, and Continuous Improvement. I quite agree with all of his pillars, but they are actually the foundations of success for building and sustaining high value SharePoint solutions – broader than what we typically think of as governance. (This, by the way, is Ant’s point – he thinks that most people have a way too myopic view of governance. Honestly, I think he’s right.) I’m totally OK with calling these pillars governance, because I’m all for anything that helps drive business success – and you absolutely must have a plan for all 5 pillars to ensure success. In fact, Business Technology Alignment, Project Governance and Continuous Improvement are what I typically call the “do not pass go, do not collect $200” showstoppers for anyone playing the SharePoint game. If you aren’t doing the first pillar, you really can’t even start to have what is typically included in the governance conversation. If you are not doing Project Governance, then you probably have an IT problem that extends far beyond SharePoint – and you need to fix it for all projects, not just those that are SharePoint-based. If you are not doing Continuous Improvement, you should probably be looking for a new job.

If you think of governance in the broadest possible context as Ant does, I think his pillars are spot on. Records management, though critically important, is one aspect of one pillar. It is not the only important part of SharePoint governance or even the only part of information governance. What makes any discussion of governance challenging is that not only is it a challenge to define what governance is, but you also have to figure out how you are going to communicate and enforce it – and that’s where answers like “it’s not my job” really make me nervous. Of course it’s your job – it’s EVERYONE’s job!

Governance clearly means different things to pretty much everyone in the organization – and maybe even to us SharePoint consultants, though I suspect that just like the Twitter chat, we are all really in violent agreement. Inspired by our Twitter chat and Ant’s pillars as well as what I see in practice, here is my evolving take on the “G” word. SharePoint projects need to embrace all of Ant’s pillars – they are not optional. They are critical to success. But I find it easier to talk about SharePoint governance as something slightly narrower and including these key dimensions:

  • Keeping the trains running on time (Infrastructure, or what Ant calls I.T., Assurance): Whatever you want to call it, there is an element of the “G” word that is totally in the realm of the technology infrastructure team. Governance in this context means taking care of the “back end” – ensuring that backup and recovery plans are implemented (and tested), managing capacity planning for the solution (which includes understanding solution content, geographic distribution of the user base, and how solutions are used in a business context), ensuring performance, maintaining service level agreements, applying software patches and upgrades, etc. Adding SharePoint to the mix of technology platforms in an organization may add a new element to this function, but good IT departments are already doing this for other infrastructure applications. There are certainly SharePoint-specific responsibilities that IT has to worry about, but this is their job and from the perspective of the business user, it should just happen auto-magically. Most IT shops I’ve worked with are pretty good at this because when they aren’t, the mistakes are so obvious that the people responsible aren’t around very long.
  • Ensuring that information in all its forms is adding business value (Information Assurance or Information Governance): Information governance is about the process of managing content – reviewing it, disposing of it, securing it, making note of when it is a record and ensuring that records management processes are followed. You should not be inventing information governance for SharePoint – your organization most likely already has an information governance plan. The SharePoint aspect of this is to ensure that the policies are communicated, applied and enforced in the context of your SharePoint content. I’m not saying this is easy, but SharePoint and its third-party “friends” have some good features to help with this – provided that you take advantage of them. Security is a really big part information assurance and I think the security plan for your site and your content is one of the most important areas of solution planning. Managing permissions is complicated – because business is messy – and this is a good area in which to invest in one of the several good third-party tools on the market to help manage and automate the review of permissions on your SharePoint site.
  • Providing guidance to empowered “end users”: Making governance “stick” is about education and support – ensuring that the people empowered with specific roles and responsibilities have the training and appropriate guidance to ensure that they can accomplish their business goals efficiently and effectively. (Ant puts the “guidance” element in his Continuous Improvement pillar. I’m glad that it’s there, but I vote for giving it a pillar of its own!) Where ever possible, guidance should be built into site templates. For example, this could mean creating standard document library templates that already include enterprise metadata to make it “painfully easy” for site owners to understand how to leverage pre-defined metadata to help make their content more “findable.” And, it means providing a training roadmap for new users that teaches them key SharePoint concepts just at the moment when they need to learn about it – and no sooner. There are often entire departments or teams dedicated to IT and information assurance but rarely enough (or any) focus on providing users with the more important “G” word – GUIDANCE – about how to get the most value from the investments they have made in SharePoint. My favorite outcome of last month’s Twitter chat was adding Guidance as a new (and critical) “G” word in the discussion of SharePoint governance.

In the next few weeks, I’m going to be spending a lot of time sharing my take on SharePoint governance. I hope you’ll come join me at:

  • SHARE in Atlanta from April 23-25, 2012, where you can also catch up with Ant Clay and participate in an entire day (Tuesday) focused on SharePoint governance
  • TEC 2012 in San Diego from April 29-May 1, 2012, where I’ll be leading a 2-part workshop in which I will share detailed outlines and templates to facilitate having the conversations necessary to establish a SharePoint governance plan
  • SharePoint Summit in Toronto from May 14-16, 2012
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