I’m currently part of a project to upgrade a SharePoint implementation to the 2010 version of the software, and incorporate a wider rollout of the system to allow more collaborative working across the organisation.  Apart from the usual angst regarding hardware and software requirement, the questions around responsible rollout of this have been huge.

This will be our first foray into widely accessible collaborative working tools, and this raises a number of issues around managing user training, user expectations, levels of support, etc.  It has also raised questions about information management, preventing the dreaded specter of SharePoint sprawl, and alike.

Much of the focus of discussions has been on development of content types, minimum levels of metadata in document libraries, etc.  Given our “traditional” technology stack and the way the organisation works, it seems that in the early stages of rollout the focus will be on collaborative working around document development, and implementation of more social features will be further down the road.  Ignoring for now the very interesting perspective that I read the other day about the document metaphor, and my own interest in driving the adoption of more social approaches to knowledge sharing/creation, it has to be recognised that this is a sensible step.  The culture shock of introducing even the more sober aspects of collaborative document development will be plenty to be going on with without the introduction of blogs, wikis, et al from the off!

So with that in mind, should the focus be on the management of information in the early stages of adoption, or allowing the user to make innovative use of what’s available?  Colleagues with a records management background are keen on treading carefully and establishing clear governance guidelines for the use of SharePoint.  This is a sensible (risk averse?) approach, as setting out clear guidelines about how the software should be used in relation to the existing technology stack prevents confusion amongst the user, and allows the management of expectations around all sorts of key areas such as roles and responsibilities of individuals/groups, provision of training, etc.  However, I don’t think that narrowing the parameters so the user has no room for experimentation is either workable or desirable.  Yes, information management has to be considered in the set up, but in a collaborative working platform the user must want to use what’s provided, or what’s the point?!  Straight-jacketing them with layers of bureaucracy won’t help them do their jobs more effectively.  And yet that is what I’m trying to achieve with this project – it’s a minimum requirement in my eyes.

I’m happy with the creation of user guidelines, managing expectations, and requiring certain levels of training and behaviour from users.  That way we all know where we stand.  To a certain extent the design of sites within the implementation should help to encourage “responsible” usage.   Once this understanding has been reached though, perhaps we need to take a step back and let the users make the most of what’s available to maximise their efforts for the firm.

Having written the above, and reading it back now, what strikes me about the whole information management  vs. user behaviour debate here is that it’s a matter of trust.  Do we trust colleagues to make responsible use of collaborative/social software to work smarter for the organisation or not?  This matter was crystalised for me today in an unrelated discussion around the use of instant messaging within a company.  The perceived risks of not capturing IM transactions in a structured way were raised, to which I was left wondering why, in that case, we don’t just ban telephones as well and allow only communication by email and snail mail!  Carrier pigeon, anyone? 😉

We are still at an early stage with this, and these discussions will continue.  So far my thinking is to provide a clear framework (in terms of information architecture and guidance for use) that allows users the freedom to work within it flexibly, in ways that suit them, make them more productive, and improve their end product.  We need to work towards putting the user at the heart of what we’re doing, rather than letting them watch on like a distant spectator from the bleachers.  Only by earning their trust and understanding will we maximise the benefits of the new technology and encourage responsible usage.