Why SharePoint can’t solve your Challenges for Managing Operational Documentation
SharePoint is often the first solution that comes to mind when companies are looking for ways to manage their documentation. And rightfully so, considering that SharePoint really isn’t a single product but a highly versatile platform that allows you to build all sorts of things on top of it.
There are numerous articles on the pros and cons of using SharePoint as a company’s sole information- and collaboration platform and I’m not about to add yet another one to the collection. Instead, I’d like to focus on aspects that are likely to be relevant for organizations operating in highly regulated industries and where distribution of reliable (and often time critical) information is of the essence.
With that in mind, let me break down some of SharePoint’s main USPs and why they may fall short of meeting the requirements for industries that face the above mentioned challenges.
In principle and as it pertains to information management, SharePoint can almost certainly accommodate your needs. More often than not however, it requires a considerable amount of custom development to end up with a system that reflects your organization’s specific setup. But it can be done, given that you get the appropriate resources to make it happen.
After successful customization, you need to maintain and update your tailor made solution. This adds another layer of complexity to your system, as additional plugins and / or updates may break your customizations and compromise continuity.
Besides the financial implications (i.e. unpredictable costs for continued development), these aspects are certainly worth considering whenever your organization simply can’t afford any disruptions to operational information flow whatsoever.
To state the obvious: Yes, SharePoint also serves as a central storage repository for your files. And as long as the organizational structure is of sound quality, it shouldn’t take too long for anyone to find what they rely on.
Unfortunately, defined best practices and workflows tend to break down over time (it may take years, but chances are that it will happen). People start cutting corners. Some documents aren’t up to date, others misplaced. Permissions aren’t set correctly within a given hierarchy, either making it impossible for you to locate the relevant information by using SharePoint’s search functionality which, at that point, might return countless results that are mostly irrelevant to your initial query instead.
It’s worth stating that none of that is SharePoint’s fault per se. And if you’re just using it for storing generic correspondence, sales material and the like, it may not be a major issue to begin with. But if you aim to create a knowledge base that ensures that critical procedures are both accurate and readily available, you may want to consider a dedicated solution instead.
SharePoint has countless options for managing your documents: It allows you to manage access rights by setting permissions and defining group privileges on pretty much any level within a given hierarchy. Files can be checked out, thereby ensuring that a given document isn’t edited in parallel by several persons. If you turn on SharePoint’s versioning feature, it will track changes and generate a new version every time a document is edited. You can even add document-specific metadata and workflows, as well as accommodate your compliance requirements to a certain extent (e.g. set data retention policy, records management and data loss prevention).
And once again, that might be good enough for managing most of your documents. But what about information that is rather unforgiving? Such as the actual content within complex operation manuals for example, that may have to adhere to strict government regulations, communicate crucial procedures to employees and so on? SharePoint doesn’t provide you with many options on the actual content and that might be its major weakness if you’re looking for a system that promotes both transparency and efficiency.
Consider this example: An Airline might have extensive operation manuals (OM) featuring content targeted to several audiences. Such an OM may further include information related to regulations and / or manufacturer manuals. The Airline may strive for a solution that supports the following capabilities that SharePoint does not provide:
- Dynamic content filtering: Limit the content of an OM to what’s relevant for a specific role and mission.
- Initiate workflow based on an external trigger: E.g. when a change in regulation occurs that potentially requires amending the OM’s corresponding content. Or when content from a manufacturer’s manual undergoes changes that are related to information contained in the OM.
These functionalities can only be provided for by dedicated solutions that support advanced configuration of actual content within a given document. Hence, a solution that is capable of transforming content into discrete units of information (let’s call them information modules) that allow for further refinement (e.g. role tagging, linking to external databases or other documentation).
Meanwhile, the ability to configure such information modules brings about even more positive implications for managing and distributing sensitive documentation, including but not limited to these benefits:
- Reference content: Instead of physical duplication, content can be referenced between documents. A change to a particular information module will therefore automatically affect all documents where the information is contained, thereby avoiding conflicting information that may otherwise occur from outdated duplicates.
- Workflows configurable down to the information module level.
- Role-specific revision updates: Only communicate changes that have an impact on someone’s role and mission.
And again: SharePoint won’t be able to do any of that. If you happen to work in a highly regulated industry (e.g. aviation) where accountable managers potentially face severe legal consequences if regulations are violated or not adhered to, one surely appreciates any support that a system can provide in order to ensure compliance at all times (e.g. automatic workflow initiation based on an external trigger, such as a change in content-related regulations).
I’ve eluded to this before: One of SharePoint’s main advantages is the platform’s versatility and near endless capabilities. It’s unfortunately also one of its main disadvantages, when it comes to training purposes. Remember when I indicated that things tend to become messy over time? From my experience, it has a lot to do with a lack of training for users that belong either to a SharePoint owners- or members group.
SharePoint owners normally have full control over a given scope (e.g. on a SharePoint site level, for a specific library, etc.) and are able to set access permission for others. They must be trained extensively (including their deputies!) on SharePoint’s key functionalities (e.g. site- and library permissions, versioning control, etc.) to ensure consistency over time. Far too often, members of this user group don’t fully understand SharePoint’s key concepts and contribute to the evolving chaos, for example by setting user permissions on the wrong hierarchy level, moving files from a library that is under versioning control to one that isn’t (tracked changes and history is deleted) and so on.
Based on my humble experience, a day of hands-on class room training is the bare minimum for these users,- recurrent trainings highly recommended!
Users belonging to the members group should at least be introduced to your company’s best practices and these should be continuously reinforced to mitigate impending chaos. You may think I’m exaggerating, but allow me to ask: How many times have you copied a document from SharePoint onto your desktop, e-mailed a file to a colleague to circumvent permission issues or copied a file to amend it instead of using the already existing one that might have been under version control?
A lack of training and discipline will almost certainly yield unfavorable results that you may not be willing to accept. Especially for operational content that may be vital to your company’s long term success.
A dedicated solution on the other hand, will aim to limit its functionalities to mitigate these risks and to ensure that users don’t have another choice but to rigidly follow internal procedures at all times.
SharePoint is an all-purpose solution with near unlimited versatility. However, extensive customization may lead to unexpected behavior in the long run, potentially jeopardizing the seamless availability of indispensable information. SharePoint’s document management capabilities are fabulous as long as users are properly trained and strictly adhere to defined processes,- but it does lack the necessary focus that would have an above average impact on facilitating your revision- and distribution procedures for your most essential documentation. Or in other words: Impactful features rather crucial to an organization’s effort to ensure both transparency and compliance, simply aren’t available in SharePoint.
Whereas a solution built for the purpose of managing complex documentation actively promotes transparency by offering features such as role based filtering and revision updates. It deliberately supports compliance by providing automated, content-specific workflows (e.g. whenever corresponding regulations change) and means to explicitly avoid conflicting information that may occur due to outdated duplicates across multiple documents.
In summary: A solution built for the purpose of managing complex documentation will lead to more efficient cost control and more predictable results. Most importantly however, it will allow for efficient and reliable management of critical information without ifs and buts,- and that might be all your accountable managers need to know.