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3 Reasons SharePoint Governance Plans Fail

Ben Welden Ben Welden  |  
Sep 11, 2018
If you’ve been around the SharePoint world for a while, you’re probably familiar with the basic premise of governance: manage the ways that users create, store, and consume content to keep SharePoint from resembling a series of junk drawers.
Recognition of the need for governance became commonplace around the time SharePoint 2010 was released. Many organizations that planned to upgrade to 2010 from an earlier version found themselves grappling with issues stemming from a total lack of centralized control over what users were allowed to do with the system. 
Among the problems were site hierarchies that no longer made sense, tangled webs of permissions that broke navigational pathways, and libraries upon libraries of orphaned content. Many organizations turned to consulting firms for advice, much of which came in the form of governance plans consisting of tens and sometimes hundreds of pages.

Most governance plans have failed

Eight years later, I think it’s time we acknowledge that governance plans as we know them have largely failed. I keep hearing from organizations in the process of (or soon to be) migrating to Office 365 or SharePoint 2016 that, when asked whether a governance plan has been implemented, have admitted that it was attempted but that the level of policy prescribed by the plan could not be practically maintained.
Ironically, such plans have been relegated to the proverbial junk drawers that they were intended to thwart. Nobody references or maintains them. And yet, it has also been my experience that many consultants are still touting the value of these governance plans and are still delivering hundreds of pages to their clients.
Before I go any further, let me be clear that my objective is not to disparage the idea of the governance plan entirely; there is value in its basic premise. However, I do believe that there are some key problems (outlined below) with the ways that governance plans are typically prepared and implemented.

3 common reasons governance plans break down


1. Ignored content classifications

Governance often requires users to determine the classification of content they have yet to create. This is done by withholding the ability to create new containers (sites, libraries, etc.) unless the user selects a classification which dictates retention policies, security capabilities, and other configurations.
In practice, many users over time will begin to ignore the classification that was originally chosen and simply make use of the container for its features. This is because users are 1) generally bad at predicting how content may evolve, and 2) more interested in features that facilitate getting work done than content curation and classification for which there is no obvious or immediate need.

2. Unrealistic expectations of user involvement

Governance also requires that users across the organization become (and stay) involved in governance councils, champion programs, and other practices that are not part of their job description. 
This requirement is fundamentally flawed because it assumes that 1) users will involve themselves voluntarily without formal modification to the responsibilities of their jobs, and 2) such users will be able to exercise meaningful influence over the work habits of others. Most governance plans call for the involvement of upper level managers, but those who do volunteer their time are disproportionately non-management employees (i.e. those without the authority to directly influence others’ use of the system).

3. Tools (not business drivers) overturning information structures

Typical governance approaches are now being challenged by Microsoft’s own offerings. Applications like Groups and Teams and the general nature of SharePoint Online turns the notion of hierarchical information structures, often a staple of governance plans, on end. While a governance plan should acknowledge the capabilities and limitations of the system being leveraged, it is ultimately more important to reflect business policy that is not assumptive of the use of any particular system. System change should not be the catalyst for policy change – business drivers should be.

Governance success hinges on treating users as customers

The few issues described above certainly do not constitute an exhaustive list, but the point I want to make by highlighting these is that governance generally focuses too much on sticks and not enough on carrots. That is, restrictions on what is allowed to be done with the system and how content is to be managed dominate the communication targeted at users. Furthermore, the mechanisms of policy enforcement are often unrealistic or unsustainable. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that much of SharePoint’s capabilities and limitations directly influence the development of governance.
The problems introduced by governance are at best fatiguing and at worst discouraging, driving some users to rogue IT systems to avoid the red tape. Additionally, overemphasis on policy is reflective of outdated practices in which IT is positioned solely as a cost center to the overall business rather than as a strategic partner.
To make a SharePoint (or any information management) system deployment successful, IT should develop and operate it as a service and treat users as customers. This means focusing on value propositions (carrots) first and governance policies (sticks) second.
In my next post, I will expand on the value of re-framing governance within the context of service management and offer some strategies for doing so.


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