In the early days of SharePoint, installing a free version was fairly straight-forward and simple, and once in place, it would quickly catch on and spread across a single team, then expand between teams, and soon could be seen throughout the entire organization. In those early waves of growth, few paid much attention to the growing sprawl of sites and content. The focus was on allowing people to quickly and easily collaborate – and the administrative impacts of many of these early decisions was rarely considered. As a result, we saw “SharePoint sprawl” across the organization.

A great example of the problem of sprawl can be found within the housing sector in much of North America. As the economy grows and thrives, communities spring up and homes are built in every direction as land developers build as quickly as possible, preferring virgin land and densely-zoned lots over reclaimed land that often includes tearing down old structures, rezoning, and higher initial costs. While these developers may initially build within a broader master plan, their goal is to maximize profits through speed and volume.

The result of this kind of rapid growth is traffic gridlock, infrastructure issues, and an increasingly unhappy populace. As many city and county administrators well understand, fixing these infrastructure issues later, after populations have increased and problems have compounded, is far more expensive than had they been considered during initial planning and zoning.

Why Organizations Allow Sprawl

Within many organizations, employees have forced IT teams to take a reactive approach to technology. We demand IT provide us with more flexible options for collaboration, many times at the expense of structured collaboration and sound governance principles. Most employees just want to get their work done, and the thought of slowing down and submitting ourselves to what is often viewed as bureaucratic red tape seems counterproductive, thinking to ourselves, “We’re growing fast, so we need to be flexible and dynamic. We don’t need process or bureaucracy.”

Why is it that “fast and flexible” is viewed as mutually exclusive of “stable and scalable” when it comes to systems and repeatable processes?

Microsoft, Sharepoint Sprawl

What does sprawl look like in Microsoft 365?

Consider this example: An externally-facing corporate portal is open to customers, maintained by IT, with content owned by Marketing. Nothing inherently wrong with this scenario. But when several major customers contact a VP late Sunday night because a page link is broken or content is wrong, who gets the call? Not anyone on the Marketing team. No, it’s the people in IT Operations. Who is ultimately responsible for content and the portal? Marketing wants the ability to build sites and edit on the fly, and IT wants to ensure environments and features work before pushing them out in front of the customer.

Employees and managers want the flexibility and autonomy to serve their customers without having to jump through hoops. Sometimes all it takes is a one-day delay to lose a customer, so companies need to be responsive to win business, and to support their customers. The vast majority of IT organizations want nothing more than to deliver that flexibility and control to responsible end users – but they are also tasked with supporting the underlying infrastructure, whether they maintain that infrastructure on-premises or manage one or more hosted services on their end user’s behalf.

Governance is a Cultural Skill

Managing collaboration sprawl is as much about changing your company culture as it is about refining your processes. Mention the word “governance,” and people automatically assume that power is somehow being taken away from them. But there is shared ownership in a healthy governance strategy – and understanding that shared ownership is more of a cultural issue than a matter of documenting policies and procedures.

The problem here is not control of the content management system or the overall quality assurance process, but healthy communication between IT and end users, and a shared understanding of what is to be accomplished – both from an employee perspective (fast provisioning, autonomy, service-level agreements with IT) and an IT perspective (defined policies and procedures, agreed upon response times, change management model).

Good collaboration is definitely a cultural skill. The organizations who are best at collaboration are often those with mature cultures that have clearly defined change management models that facilitate understanding and execution.

The first step to every solution is always to sit down and discuss the requirements and come to a shared understanding — before any solution is proposed. After all, until you have a clear picture of the problem space, how can you be sure you’re solving the right problem?

Why do we experience sprawl?

  • Ease-of-use. As mentioned above, the leading driver is the user-friendliness and easy deployment of the technology. Software providers have made their tools intuitive and easy to learn, allowing employees to start creating and collaborating without fully understanding the downstream effects of poor content/data management.
  • Lack of feature awareness. Companies more-often-than-not build out new technology without piloting, and fail to fully understand what the technology can actually do, how it aligns (or doesn’t align) with company culture, or how to optimize the technology against the unique needs of the business.
  • Habits. People use the tools and business practices that they know and are familiar with. If new technology forces people outside of their comfort zones and requires any kind of learning curve, people will default back to the tools and processes (the bad habits) of their prior project, team, or company. This often includes using outside tools and services, which may not meet company security, compliance, and governance standards – and may introduce intellectual property risk.
  • Lack of governance. Within even the most healthy, collaborative organizations there are usually few rules into how the technology is used, or how it complies with security, compliance, and governance standards – largely because organizations often fail to accurately document, much less defend (and communicate) those standards.

One of the more dangerous aspects of sprawl is that organizations do not fully understand the business impacts. So…what are the impacts of sprawl?

  • Poor productivity. By definition, sprawl means that your data (your intellectual property) is spread across various sites and data silos. When data is not optimized, classified, and organized, it cannot be used effectively. When data is not used effectively, it impacts (reduces) discovery, collaboration, and innovation.
  • Security risk. You cannot manage what you cannot properly track and measure. Sprawl makes it difficult, if not impossible, for administrators to enforce company policies and procedures, opening up the organization to security and compliance risks. Mistakes in IP management (much less intentional mishandling) are often not found until after-the-fact, which is not a sustainable management model.
  • Decreased business value. Data that cannot be found in a timely manner, or found at all, loses its value over time. One of the major problems with sprawl is that data goes in easily enough, but cannot be surfaced, as needed, affecting the overall value of your collaboration platform, as well. What good is a system if you cannot find the right data at the right time?

Unfortunately, few organizations begin their planning process with sound governance policies. Instead, they are most likely to take action once the damage has been done. In my personal experience, most governance initiatives are launched after-the-fact, rather than at the start of a new technology deployment or when going through an overarching business transformation. Governance is cast aside in the name of “saving time” and reducing bureaucracy.

In my next article in this series, Managing Content Sprawl in Microsoft 365, I’ll share the most common ways that sprawl happens within Microsoft 365, and share some of the best practices for controlling sprawl and creating a governance-focused approach to data management. In that blog, I’ll go into detail on prevention mechanisms for reducing content sprawl and Sharepoint security and compliance management to prevent content sprawl.
Managing Content Sprawl in Microsoft 365

Register for my August 6 webinar to learn more – Ordering the Chaos: Combatting Teams and SharePoint Content Sprawl.

Christian Buckley (@buckleyplanet) is a Microsoft MVP and Regional Director, an author and collaboration expert, and the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm. You can find him online at www.buckleyplanet.com

 

Photo by Alexander Popov on Unsplash

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