Reading over Alex Pearce's post regarding the BETT '09 conference in London this week reminded me of something that's been on my mind for a while. One of the most common complaints that I hear after an organization has adopted SharePoint is "We built it but nobody is using it". This can be a big problem if a large investment was made to deploy MOSS/WSS and the user base doesn't adopt it - the ROI in this situation is terrible, the consultant often gets unfairly blamed and it can cause the project sponsors to lose credibility with regards to future projects.
I struggled with this on some early deployments way back in the Portal Server 2003 days until I realized that people weren't deliberately avoiding my shiny new creation, they simply didn't have any driving need to learn something new. After all, what they had been doing for all those years was working just fine (whether it really was or not is debatable - they thought it was working and didn't see any need to change it). Even in cases where we had a defined business need for a new portal deployment, we still had to do a lot of work to get people to use it.
The fact is, people are busy and believe they don't have the time or mental bandwidth to learn a new way of doing things, even when the new method promises to deliver great benefits. We all fall into certain patterns of behavior and getting us to change is very difficult; even more so when we don't immediately recognize the potential benefits. Worse, if the new way of doing things is drastically different from the old way of doing things (such as automating previously manual processes) our natural passive apathy can turn into active resistance - we just refuse to do it on principle alone. This doesn't bode well for a fancy new system that the company has invested big money into and has high hopes for its success.
To combat this situation, I developed a few simple guidelines that I discuss with clients as early in the planning stage as possible. Once I started doing this, the adoption rates skyrocketed and user satisfaction improved accordingly. So here they are, in no particular order:
1. The Portal Giveth and the Portal Taketh Away
This is by far my favorite strategy for driving user adoption. Suppose you have a small application that isn't quite mission critical but is used by just about everyone in the company - perhaps a utility that allows employees to track their used and remaining vacation time or a form to request paid time off. Make this application a centerpiece of the new portal and when it goes live TAKE THE OLD ONE AWAY. That's right, you either go to the portal to use it or you don't use it at all. And don't link to it directly - make users go to the home page and select it from a list of options or a menu. That way, people have to visit the portal and get used to how it works - at least enough to use the application that they're interested in. Keep giving and taking away applications for the first six months until people get used to going to the portal first to find what they're after.
It sounds a bit heavy-handed but in my experience it is extremely effective in getting users to adopt the new platform. In one large corporate deployment we maintained over 80% daily usability throughout the company well into the first year of the deployment by using this technique. Sure, some people will grumble and complain, but stick with it and you'll see the payoff in short order.
2. Promote, Promote, Promote
When a company makes a significant investment in a new product they almost universally combine the launch with a big marketing push. It doesn't do any good to have the cure to cancer if nobody knows about it. Movie studios and record labels have this down cold - heck, for years they've been able to convince us to buy bad products just by drowning us in positive press. Why should the launch of an internal product be any different?
It usually takes months to get a new SharePoint deployment off the ground. If you give yourself enough of a head start, you can begin promoting the portal before the software is even installed. Devise a marketing campaign just as if you were launching a new product to your external customers - send out emails, print flyers, put up a snazzy "Coming Soon" landing page, whatever you can come up with. Give the users a sneak peek into the functionality of the portal with weekly updates and targeted communications. The level of user enthusiasm is directly proportional to the amount of time and effort you invest in generating excitement and anticipation.
When the portal does go live, keep people engaged by offering contests and prizes. Yes, I know it sounds silly but it works. One thing that is often overlooked is the human component; put up a weekly profile of a random employee with their picture and brief bio and you'll be amazed how many people hit the server on Monday morning to see if their name is up in lights (or pixels, in this case) that week. The best part is, this sort of thing doesn't cost much and you can do it anytime, even if the portal has been up for a while. Breathe some new life into it by getting creative and connecting with your users in new ways.
3. Listen to the Users
I know, this sounds obvious but I'm always amazed when I encounter a project team who has put all their effort and energy into designing a solution to meet vaguely defined executive goals without ever engaging the people who have to use the product on a day-to-day basis. In fact, if you really want to get people involved, don't just solicit ideas for features - select a representative from each affected department and give them a voice on the planning committee. That gives them skin in the game and makes them accountable for selling the portal to their constituents. You'll be amazed how much free promotion comes from Suzy in Accounting who insists on telling everybody who will listen that it was her idea to use a purple instead of blue on the home page. Be careful to balance expectations when users get involved, as they often have no idea the scope of work required to fulfill their desires and, when given a bit of free reign, will soon have the portal brewing coffee, parking cars and delivering lunch to everyone's desk. Noble goals, to be sure, but not really key business objectives.
Of course, every deployment is different and what has worked for me might not work for you. But if you follow the basic guidelines above and make a sincere effort to engage users in a new portal deployment you might be surprised how much better the adoption rate will be. If nothing else, it sure beats the "Build it and they might come" approach.