Microsoft SharePoint works well out of the box for document management, simple workflows and Web portals—that is, basic collaborative functions. However, many companies would like to expand their SharePoint implementations to serve important business automation needs, such as a help desk, asset tracking, customer support, employee services, advanced document management, and others.
This makes good sense because SharePoint provides a familiar interface, full integration with Microsoft Office, and ease of use. Most important, it is cost-effective to leverage the existing investment in Microsoft technologies to provide more value and functionality to the organization.
When expanding the use of SharePoint, the question is whether it is better to use a SharePoint “template” and have your team work on customizing and developing it, or to go with a full-fledged application from a vendor with a known reputation who will provide ongoing support and upgrades as well as installation and configuration assistance.
Templates are tempting because the initial cash outlay is lower, and getting approval is easier than with a true application. However, the costs quickly mount in programming hours, trial and error, bug fixes, and implementation expenses. Custom programming projects can rack up weeks and possibly months of work hours. Because user needs are often not clear at the onset, the project could result in subpar workarounds and compromises that make it hard to reach the initial goals.
Development based on a template requires internal SharePoint programmers to be available for coding, testing and implementation. Once the application is in use, these programmers need to provide support, bug fixes, upgrades and modifications. A common scenario is that the users’ needs change, but the programmers have moved on to other projects. There is also the problem of upgrades to the underlying platform, such as moving from SharePoint 2010 to 2013.
An application vendor will have a program that has been tested and is in use in many locations. The experience of working with numerous organizations is built into the applications. Implementation usually goes smoothly. The vendor will provide support and upgrades, as well as adapt the program for newer versions of SharePoint. Training and user manuals are available.
Because the application has to meet the needs of many organizations, a large degree of flexibility is built in; often, the program can be customized and modified using utilities that come with it. The application programmers are available for more in-depth customization and also to resolve any issues particular to an organization’s environment.
Before you move in either direction, make sure the business side of the house is on your team from the start. Create an outline of whom the application will serve and who will be using it. Sort through the “must-haves” versus the “nice-to-haves.” Write a spec and do some basic math. How many work hours is this really going to take? When do you need it up and running? Consider testing and revisions. Consider ongoing maintenance and bug fixes. Are you staffed for this?
Doing your homework will define the project and make it easier to tackle regardless of which way you proceed.
Scott Restivo is founder and CEO of Crow Canyon Software, a 15‐year old software development and IT services company based in northern California. Crow Canyon delivers applications and custom solutions on the Microsoft SharePoint, Office, and Exchange Server platforms. For more information, visit the website at www.crowcanyonsoftware.com.