Monday, September 19, 2011

Selecting the Right SharePoint Consulting Firm: Comparing Apples to Apples, or Apples to Oranges

Selecting the Right SharePoint Consulting Firm: Comparing Apples to Apples, or Apples to Oranges

By Errin O'Connor, Founder & CEO at EPC - September 19, 2011

Background on One of Many Similar Situations I Have Come Across in the Past 24 Months

As a disclaimer to this article, I do own a SharePoint consulting firm, EPC, and am writing this based on my opinion and those of CIOs and IT Directors that I have interacted with over the past 24 months.

In working with clients and gathering their business requirements as well as their detailed functional requirements as well as listening to their past experiences in working with SharePoint consultants on previous versions like MOSS 2007 or SPS 2003, or even SharePoint 2010, I continue to hear an opinion and small pattern for which I thought I should address.

As an example, a few months ago I was asked to assist in scoping out a full FileNet to SharePoint 2010 migration initiative. There was no existing metadata, the security of FileNet was quite old and not aligned with the business, and the users could not get off of FileNet and into SharePoint fast enough; a department within the firm had implemented their own small SharePoint 2010 implementation and a number of staffers in this company had seen its capabilities and wanted in, and wanted in yesterday.

Trying to be politically correct here as much as possible, a 15 day SharePoint Deployment Services engagement, for which EPC Group shies away from as we tend to not see the value in it for our Enterprise clients, was not going to resolve this Enterprise Content Management (ECM) initiative and there was several months of hard work ahead for not only the company but for which ever firm they selected to trust and engage with on this undertaking. To my surprise the CIO called me and said he had 5 quotes on his desk that ranged from $56,000 to $310,000. Lets just say for conversation sake, the SOW I developed was not on the cheaper side as myself and my team who worked on this proposal with me for sevearl days understood the level of effort, has gone back into Project Server and pulled out 3 similar project plans to verify tasks, etc. and in no way was any firm in the world going to accomplish this initiative for $56,000 or anything near that number. Its important the client understand what the SharePoint firm is delivering, what is the engagement model, what type of project management are they expecting, how much face to face knowledge transfer should they expect, etc... (As I could go on and on but i believe this is a point that many in the SharePoint arena to not like to address).

Note: Not a whole lot can be accomplished in a 15 day initiative, especially if you are looking for knowledge transfer, which I believe is the absolutely key to long-term SharePoint success.

The Clients Perspective

I don't envy the client situation when going out to select a SharePoint Consulting partner to take on this task and there can be the route for which they do their own due diligence and come up with a list of 3 or 4 of the top firms in the US with 300 or 400+ or more of these projects under their belt or depending on the organization, put out an RFP and let the masses try and prove their prowess or expertise. Personally I don't have huge preference when working with clients to win their business based on my firm EPC Group's past performance and reputation and I am probably speaking for several other SharePoint firms out there but I would also caution clients to truly look into who they are receiving quotes from...

When selecting a SharePoint Consulting firm\partner, consider the proposal’s numbers (cost) vs. the quality and experience of the delivery team. With the 20 or so firms that have been founded in the past 24-36 months which I track (along with the other firms in the US), many of them are trying to underbid the project to win it to build a past performance or reference base, but in many cases firms who have been in the SharePoint consulting arena for 10 years end up getting a follow-up call from the client asking for a health check and assessment as well as a quote for a new initiative as they found out they need to throw-out the past few months of work and start over due to the disaster they have just experienced.

This is sometimes due to the SharePoint roadmap that was never developed, the experience level of the consultants, possibly the "1099 subcontracted for this job consultants" this original firm hired when signing up for a account shortly after winning the project to hire a few "Senior SharePoint Consultants" that did not live up to the SharePoint Senior Architects \ Consultants for which they were “billed” at and pitched during the sales and project scoping process.

The Other "Big Vendors" in the Room

SharePoint is the most powerful and flexible enterprise solution who has taken on the past 800 pound giants and in its forth release (SharePoint 2010) as made EMC, OpenText, and others “call a bit of uncle, or there have been some board meetings in which the saying, “If you can’t beat em’, joint em’..” or "we have to open up our APIs to be SharePoint (seamlessly) friendly" just may have been uttered (my personal opinion of course).

Doing Due Diligence for Yourself and Your Firm When Selecting a Consulting Firm

It is critical that you look at not only certifications, experience, any beta testing or TAP program experience from those that were there at the pre-release, authoring of SharePoint publications, real-world experience, and those that talk about making mistakes and learning from them. Sometimes it important to not talk about SharePoint at all but listen to the business problem and ensure the consultants do not have blinders on and make it everything in the project just about SharePoint, SharePoint, SharePoint....

1. What defines a Senior SharePoint Architect \ Consultant vs. a consultant who has been subcontracted to work on 1 or 2 deployments?

2. Remember that just because a consulting firm may have the product vendor "or something similar" in their name, that doesn’t mean they necessarily know what they are doing or have the rock stars at the table to successfully complete your project (yes, even if they want to bid twice as much as the others who proposed a statement of work or hourly rate, etc.).

State of SharePoint

A large number SharePoint firms have been founded in the past 2-3 years (as I mentioned above) and at least 5 seasoned firm I know of have been purchased in the past 18-24 months by larger firms. I have been asked at conferences, "what about outsourcing SharePoint development and using a few information architects to control the face time"? Outsourcing SharePoint development overseas doesn’t not work on a large scale unless you have months and months to near 'fingerprint in stone' every single possible detail (business and functional requirement). If a change is needed, it will take several weeks to turn around, update, and receive it back to implement in your dev farm to test. You must ensure all your development environments are synchronized. Your developers must have experience in 2007 as well as 2010 to ensure you understand the issues in upgrading because SharePoint 15 is coming out sometime in 2014. (Note: we may get a sneak peak from the SharePoint product team in the very near future).

The External "Cloud" versus your own Internal "Private" Cloud

In my opinion, and with concerns of the recent outages of several of the large clouds, companies who must connect to external business data or have developed custom applications in house (web parts, workflows, master pages, using the BCS, etc.) are not going to jump on the bandwagon of an external cloud in the near future (especially with the negative press of day or two long outages) but rather implement and “Internal or Private Cloud” (no matter how many other expert bloggers may work for or own Cloud Computing organizations, again this is my opinion from sitting with prominent CIOs from the private and government sector). I believe there is value to the cloud for SMB type businesses but Fortune 500\1000 and major Government organizations need 24/7, 365 uptime and the ability to manage custom code, connect to external data sources, federate security seamlessly, and a whole lot more, and do it yesterday.

SharePoint Trainers vs. Consultants
Trainers who blog are not always experts in, “in the trenches” consulting and you may get a robotic or rehearsed answer; ensure the blogs and experts you follow are actual consultants who have sat in “war rooms” hours on end to whiteboard and solve real world problems where there are budgetary and political considerations as well as timelines, resources, and peoples jobs from the client on the line.

3rd Party Vendors \ ISVs

There are a large number of SharePoint 3rd party solutions (ISVs) who offer amazing solutions that can help you to lower your internal maintenance costs and almost act like another full-time employee (FTE) for your firm. On the other hand, ensure you are only buying what you need as some ISVs have moved to the model of bundling up their entire suite of products that not only cause a massive footprint on your servers but also cause you to possibly spend budget that you do not need to spend.

A Recent Area of Concern - Internal Politics and SharePoint 2010's Massive Functionality

Internal politics can absolutely be the death of a project and the firm you select must be able to tell you the hard truth about this and you should take it in stride. I have witnessed the application (SharePoint) teams literally fighting tooth and nail with the development, legal, or legacy solutions (Portal, ECM, etc.) and vice versa. SharePoint Server 2010 has an unbelievable amount of functionality (i.e. ECM\ERM, Portal, Collaboration, Social\Professional Networking, Business Intelligence, etc.). It is bound to cause political issues and find some people concerned about job security with their legacy systems.

SharePoint Licensing

Microsoft is adding 20,000 new users a day or 7+ million new users a year (for the past 5 years) so resolving issues and understanding SharePoint’s capabilities to provide ROI to your firm is in your best interest.

The-SharePoint 2010 "Magical Mystery Tour"

By Errin O'Connor, Founder & CEO at EPC - September 08, 2011

The Perceptions vs. Reality of I.T. and New Technologies

When discussing with a client who is considering or beginning the process of rolling out SharePoint 2010, I sometimes feel like a broken record in saying, “yes, it can accomplish that” or “it can be implemented to replace this or that system” but in reality these are all true statements. I read an interesting article the other day regarding Facebook and its comparison to corporate technologies and SharePoint in particular.

Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server (SPS) 2003 (2 full SharePoint releases ago) had My Site (social) capabilities but it was before its time and management, legal, compliance, and CIOs were rightfully concerned and doing their due diligence in seeing how this new feature, along with others, such as blogs and wikis would positively or negatively affect their organization. Many of these organizations with these concerns thou also relied on file shares and antiquated HTML or custom .asp Intranets and good enough was better than the risk perceived.

There are some organizations that have taken SharePoint 2007 and SharePoint 2010’s (social) professional networking capabilities (My Sites) and practically stood them on their head in doing some real work (i.e. allocating budget and resources) with huge ROI. SharePoint 2010’s capabilities bring your staff together to increase productivity, provide knowledge bases, open discussion areas to larger groups, while providing this in a secure environment is beyond powerful.

What is the difference between someone sending out an inappropriate email to a person or group of people or someone posting something possibly inappropriate on their My Site? Yes, they are both against company policy and should be removed and the issue dealt with accordingly.

My advice and urging is for organizations to step outside their comfort zone and invest in using SharePoint’s features (as you probably already own the licenses) and look at its Web Content Management, Document Management, Business Intelligence, Intranet, and Professional Networking capabilities.

There is no doubt that organizations have pulled back the reins on investing time and effort on the utilization of a new technology and have turned their focus on their existing technologies, keeping the status quo, and staying in between the lines. I had a conversation with an organization’s Director of I.T. last month and he told me, “If you compare what we used to spend (effort and budget) on innovation 8 to 10 years ago compared to now, it’s completely night and day.” He went on to say, “Our organization spends 10% of what it used to on innovation and it seems to be some fear of the unknown that is driving this.”

The I.T. Department within organizations is not the anti-sales department but an enabler to help you and your staff increase productivity, decrease wasted time on searching or finding content, protecting the organization from litigation, and making sure you have the tools to make your job easier.

Scenarios to Consider

This could be an area of conversation that could go on for hours, but I wanted to give a list of a few examples of what clients have approached EPC Group with in the past 4 months to kickoff this scenarios topic.

1.We have a LiveLink system and our users can’t stand to use the LiveLink interface and they love SharePoint’s easy to use interface so they end up just storing documents in SharePoint and that is not “our system of record.” Can we front-end LiveLink with SharePoint until our OpenText license expires?

2.We have a massive file share system where I am sure there are a ton of duplication as well as applications, large files, possible databases, and data that we are not sure what to do with… how can we migrate this successfully into SharePoint?

3.We want to roll-out SharePoint 2010 to a few departments and integrate it via Single Sign-on with the major LOB systems in those departments. How best can we do this without affecting future upgrades or patches that Microsoft releases on SharePoint 2010?

4.We want to implement SharePoint Server 2010 Enterprise as our ECM solution but do not know where to start or have a retention schedule, what should we do?

5.We have to be 508 compliant in SharePoint, what solutions are out there and how do we do this the right way the first time as there is no room for error?

6.We want to upgrade SharePoint 2007 to 2010 but have done major customization and also have developed custom .NET KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) in 2007 and want to now use PerformancePoint, what is the best approach?

7.Should we use some external cloud service or should we implement our own solution in-house? What are the pros and cons of that long term?

I sincerely enjoy my interactions with clients looking to implement SharePoint 2010 and there are best practices and past performance projects to show to all 7 questions above and SharePoint 2010 can meet all of these needs.

The major issues with a lot of the areas of concern tend to be political or a lack of ownership within the organization to drop the hammer and say this is the way it’s going to be. SharePoint initiatives are most successful with executive sponsorship or that visionary\maverick who is willing to drive and embrace change.

Items That Are Coming Down the Pipe – Like it or Not

To maintain a competitive advantage, most companies are going to have to embrace new technology and start getting prepared for Tablets, Mobile Device access, and truly implementing a records retention policy along with a system of record (ECM/ERM) that is fully searchable and high performing. Microsoft has purchased Skype and one can only wonder what they have up their sleeves with this as well as developed their new Lync Unified Communication solution.

Facebook, Netflix, self-check outs, on-demand cable shows, iTunes, and others things have changed the culture of what people, being your user base, expect. Your company may or may not have the budget right now to purchase new licenses or revamp your technology until 2012 or later but there are still options out there to prepare such as SharePoint Foundation 2010, Skype, getting off your file shares, and implementing strategies.

These strategies should consist of your organization’s IT Roadmap (including SharePoint) as well as an Enterprise Governance Strategy (including SharePoint and how you are going to deal with Mobility).

The last item I wanted to touch on is eDiscovery, as we live in a litigious world and being prepared and making that investment to be prepared may turn out to save you a great deal in the future. That equates to implementing a records management strategy in your organization and identifying “what is a record.” Also think about how best email is being managed and what are your technical options around streamlining your organizations technology.