Pardon the Abused Analogy

It’s summer and for me that always means DIY home improvement projects. That translates to short work weeks and limited blog fodder. I told myself “if I have nothing, I’ll write nothing,” but sometimes little things crawl into my head and seem important. This week’s DIY project produced just such a moment. Take a quick look at the three photos below.image

These are from three home improvement projects. The little support structure on the right was required to replace a badly worn outside faucet. It should have been replaced years ago, but having to work in the corner of the burner room, tucked uncomfortably between the oil tank and the main water supply, caused me to put it off as long as I could.

All three are photos of “platforms” – used to literally support the worker. In the early days of SharePoint, we were often quick to point out that “SharePoint isn’t a product, it’s a platform!” Yes it is, but just as all platforms are not the same, we are witnessing the fact that all SharePoints are not the same. Platforms, as those three pictures illustrate, need to be well-matched to the activity that they are supporting. image

At the risk of stretching this analogy to the breaking point, consider that the makeshift scaffold that I stood on while removing and rebuilding this complex bit of plumbing was an “on premises” platform. It was fixed, limited in functionality and accessible only by the “privileged” few or one in this case who were in the room with it. The platform on the left invokes a “cloud” mental image and fits that image quite well. It was flexible, scalable and was easily abandoned when no longer required. The middle platform is clearly (OK, not clearly) a hybrid model; perhaps the best of both worlds but suffering the limitations of each.

Just as none of these physical platforms could be used in all three home improvement projects, no one installation of SharePoint will be well suited to all of our business needs. In some cases, no version of SharePoint might be the right version. In fairness, you can substitute any other product name for SharePoint. As platforms evolve or change or de-evolve by shedding features we used to like, their appropriateness needs to be reevaluated. It can’t be as simple as saying “we use SharePoint so we’ll do what we have to do to continue using it.” Microsoft may like that, but I’m sure my boss wouldn’t.

Stop Using This Word

Every now and then, I slip the word “platform” into a training session; if my boss is in the room, I usually catch him rolling his eyes a bit. It is a Homer Simpson D’oh moment, because I hate the word, almost as much as he does. We (SharePoint folk) like to say “SharePoint isn’t a system, it’s a platform” – well, SharePoint isn’t a system, but calling it a platform doesn’t help people understand. Platform is a distance inspiring techie term that should never be uttered in public.

Platforms are something you work from; you don’t build things on platforms. Platforms are temporary, only as stable as the law requires them to be and include only the most primitive components necessary to get the job done. Walk by a construction site, look up at the planks laid across scaffolding, and ask yourself: “do I want to live there?” You build things on foundations, not platforms. But, SharePoint isn’t a foundation.

Webster’s does say that “platform” can also mean “OPERATING SYSTEM” (they put it in all caps, not me) but SharePoint isn’t an OS. Personally, I think an operating system is closer to a foundation than platform, but I guess I’ll defer to Merriam on that one. Webster’s also says platform can mean: “an organization’s beliefs” OK, now I’m thinking of political party platforms and the association I make is with “the things they say but never do” or “the things they say to appease people” or “the things they say that we really don’t understand” – seriously, why do we use this word?

The other word that gets tossed around in these situations is “Infrastructure.” I hate this word too but it does have its place. Infrastructure is “the large-scale public systems, services, and facilities of a country or region that are necessary for economic activity, including power and water supplies, public transportation, telecommunications, roads, and schools” – phew, that’s a mouthful. If we think about SharePoint in the context of infrastructure, SharePoint connects us to our network infrastructure; maybe SharePoint is a building.

If SharePoint were a building, it would be the empty building next to the highway ramp. The building would have connections to power lines, communications, water and sewers. It would have plenty of parking, attractive landscaping and it would be close to shopping. The space inside the building could be built out as retail, industrial, commercial or residential. The building would be empty but it would have walls, floors, plumbing, electrical, elevators, HVAC, etc. – the term to describe this would be ‘office space’. “Office Space” (the term, not the movie) is “the quarters in which a commercial, professional, or government organization carries out its activities” – that’s SharePoint! Then again, SharePoint could help with those TPS Reports too.

Yes, I know, “Office Space” is a stupid term. We cannot say “SharePoint is office space”, but we can say “think of SharePoint like office space.” The picture at the top was the space across the hall from our office about a month ago. The bottom picture is what that space looks like today. That’s what I want people to think I can do with SharePoint for them. I tried this out on a coworker today and he actually seemed to understand.