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Most organizations start SharePoint portal projects with ambitious visions of increased employee engagement, productivity, and innovation. To make these visions come true you need a strategy. Strategy is the link between visions and reality…the plan for turning corporate goals into real behavior changes.
Clearly, portals exist to help you and your organization achieve business objectives and create desirable organizational outcomes. Through a combination of effective information design and content, useful collaborative and transactional features, and the skilled use of the portal by employees across the organization, value is created. The organization performs better in some tangible way when staff uses the portal, from cost savings and productivity improvements, to enhanced responsiveness to rapid market changes, to a sense of camaraderie amongst staff members who see themselves and their peers reflected in their technology.
Why else would you purchase one? Well, the answer to that question can vary from, "Because my boss told me to," to, "We had some capital we needed to spend this fiscal quarter," to, "Our old portal was awful." Sometimes individuals and organizations don't possess the best answer to the question, "Why?"
Let's first begin by asking the question, "What's the relationship between your organization's goals, your portal, and you?"
Portals are made of computer code. They are designed and programmed by people who believe that through the skillful assembly of features and capabilities experienced through an intuitive interface, the users of portals (you and your co-workers) will be more likely to perform certain actions than others.
It's a simple idea, and one that deserves a little unpacking before we get much further. After all, your portal strategy, however ambiguous or well defined it may be at this point, is about how your portal can make your organization better.
Software code possesses what some theorists of software call technicity, which simply means that technology makes things happen in conjunction with people. You often hear people muse about technology as neutral or inert, saying, "It's just a tool." But, in reality, as sociologist and theorist of technology Susan Leigh Star once wrote, "A thing becomes a tool in practice." Separating the use of the tool from the tool itself seems arbitrary and nonsensical when you dig a bit deeper.
For example, portal code possesses a lot of technicity. It can get a lot of things done for and with people:
So while portal code can do all of these things in conjunction with its users, just because you have a portal doesn't mean these things will happen. Portals aren't deterministic. In other words, you can't guarantee the organizational outcome of a particular feature or piece of content by the fact that it exists on the portal.
Technicity is related to another word used in the design of portals: affordance. An affordance is a property of an object that makes possible a certain behavior, but does not necessarily determine it.
For example, a chair affords sitting. It also affords being used in a pro wrestling match as an effective way to defeat your opponent. A book affords reading. It also affords raising the height of your computer monitor on your desk.
So instead of believing that portals determine or guarantee outcomes, we believe that just like organizations themselves, portals are dispositional; employees will be disposed to behave in certain ways, using the portal to their advantage or to their disadvantage (or both). Staff will have an inclination or tendency to behave in a particular way, and that fact, combined with the disposition of the portal (its affordances and technicity, and how you've chosen to deploy them) will make actions, relationships, ways of organizing, modes of learning, collaboration, and communication either easier to accomplish or harder.
If there's one thing to remember from this section, it's this: while a portal is a technical feat of computer engineering—in essence a very fancy machine—it's not predictable the way a jet engine is. Because of the presence of hundreds or thousands of very unpredictable human beings (your co-workers), their dispositions, and their daily usage of the portal, your portal has more in common with a complex ecosystem like a coastal rainforest than it does with a jet engine.
Bottom-line: your strategy must reflect that complexity.
It's all very fine and dandy to describe theories of technology, but you're probably asking, "Uh, I have a portal to launch, remember? How does any of this help me? I need people to use this thing and for results to happen."
So just because you didn't buy a machine that can guarantee organizational outcomes 100 percent of the time, doesn't mean you should to throw your hands in the air and give up on the idea of making an impact by using SharePoint portals—far from it.
Your organization likely has some kind of stated, explicit objectives that relate to what it's trying to do in the marketplace, how to best serve its customers, and how to compete. You know, your big-S Corporate Strategy. Maybe it's enshrined in a Strategic Plan with a series of corporate objectives widely known and shared through PowerPoint decks and briefings across your organization. It's a mixture of why your organization exists, what it needs to do to fulfill its purpose, how it's going to do that and by when.
Ultimately, your portal's purpose is to support that big-S Strategy. And it's your job to align your portal with the big-S.
For example, if your company possesses an objective like "improve organizational effectiveness to achieve performance excellence", then your job is to ask yourself a question that frames the challenge: "How can the portal help us reach our objective of organizational effectiveness? What can we do to ensure we achieve our performance excellence goals?"
Depending on how your big-S Strategy was written and how specific it gets on how objectives will be achieved, your portal may even be referenced by name. Congratulations, you're on the radar of your leadership team! The portal is an important vehicle for change, innovation, and productivity.
So one of the key tasks in determining a small-s portal strategy, a clear statement of why the portal exists, is aligning with the big-S Corporate Strategy. But there's an unanswered question at this point "What is a portal good at doing and how can I align those capabilities to help meet those objectives?
Portals are a general-purpose class of software, good at doing a lot of things. If you spend enough time looking at all of the things they do, you'll likely start to see some patterns emerging. And if you spend two decades studying, designing, and working with them, like SimpleSharePoint's team has, then you'll come up with the definitive list of five purposes that portals fulfill:
Hopefully the fog is lifting and you have a better sense than when you started as to how you're going to tackle the question of the portal. Not only do you have a sense of the solution, you also know what problems you're solving. As you start to gain traction and momentum in your portal project, you'll continue to encounter some common portal issues that will shape and influence your journey:
The second part of the post can be found here.
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