SPC11: When Should You Consider an Add-On or Third Party Solution for SharePoint?

Over the past couple of days I’ve chatted with dozens of visitors at the Bamboo booth here at SharePoint Conference 2011 in Anaheim.  One of the most common questions people seem to be asking themselves is “When is the right time to start looking at add-ons for SharePoint?”

There are a lot of ways to approach an answer, but I really like the simple decision making hierarchy that I heard from one of our visitors.  I don’t think this guy was trying to be clever or Platonian, he was just talking about the way he thinks.  His approach is frightfully simple, but I was a little surprised the order of his choices.

So, here’s the situation.  You’re in IT.  You’re answering the functional requests of end users and various departments.  There is something they want to do, preferably with SharePoint, but they don’t know how to achieve the functionality.  My booth visitor said that he considers his options in the following order.

  1. Is this something we can do with SharePoint “out-of-the-box”?  Duh!  We already have SharePoint, this extremely flexible platform that offers a million features and dozens of site templates.  If we get creative and do a little research on the Web, there is a really good chance that we can figure out a solution with SharePoint’s out-of-the-box capabilities.  Ok, maybe we’ll have to sacrifice a feature or two, compromise on a requirement, but if your end users want it fast and/or have limited budget for this new functionality, there’s probably a perfectly good way to do this with raw SharePoint.

  2. Is there an add-on or a third party solution available?  I was surprised to hear this option listed second.  I would have guessed that some kind of custom development would have been the next natural consideration.  What I’ve heard a lot from solution architects and SharePoint administrators is that awareness of SharePoint add-ons among end users is what drives demand for the functionality.  IT will then evaluate the solution and decide if it’s compatible with their architecture.  IT also gets pulled into deciding if the functionality promised a third-party solution genuinely delivers what the stakeholder wants.
  3. Custom development.  At least for this guy, custom development was the option of last resort.  He knew from experience that custom development could be time-consuming, expensive and a hassle for migration at some point in the future.  Again, I was pleasantly surprised to hear him acknowledge these issues.  I think the conventional wisdom is that IT always wants to build it themselves.  I know that back when I was a developer, I was always eager to tackle new functionality, and I was pretty good at selling business owners on the fact that I could give them exactly what they wanted.  If I built it, I could customize the solution with features specific to our organization, conveniences that were unique to the way our company operated.

Ok.  SharePoint “out-of-the-box”, third-party solution and if all else fails, we’ll build it ourselves.  That is ridiculously simple, but how do you go about it?

How do you figure out if you can do this with SharePoint “out-of-the-box”?  It’s not like there is a SharePoint instruction manual and you can flip to the index to view an exhaustive list of all possible solutions.  For most companies, it’s not realistic to call Microsoft and ask them.  How do you figure out what is possible and what is not?  Here are some ideas:

  • Lean on the SharePoint community.  One of the truly great things about SharePoint is that there really is a community of people who are willing to share information and help one another.  Get into the blogosphere, connect with SharePoint MVPs and put your questions out there.  Not sure where to start?  Search #sharepoint on Twitter and start connecting with the people out there.  You’ll be amazed how helpful and open people are across the SharePoint ecosystem.
  • Go to a conference like SharePoint 2011.  Attend a SharePoint Saturday or a local SharePoint user group.  Talk to people just like you who are facing the same demands for functionality. 
  • Look for proliferation of third-party tools.  If a Web search turns up more than 2 vendors for a particular SharePoint solution, the odds are pretty good that those third-party tools exist to fill a feature gap in SharePoint. 
  • Ask a vendor like Bamboo.  With over 70 individual Web Parts and solutions for SharePoint, there isn’t much that we can’t do.  But as much as we would like to sell you some software, we also enjoy telling people that the functionality they are after is possible with SharePoint “out-of-the-box”.  It’s more than worth our time to have a conversation with you and understand your requirements, even if the ultimate answer is that you don’t need us right now.

Other things to think about:

  • What is the opportunity cost to your business of not delivering the functionality your end users are requesting?
  • Who will support your solution once it’s in production?
  • Are you considering investing custom development in “solved problems”?  Why would you ever ask your own developers to write a calendar control or create cascading drop-down menus?  These things are complicated, and they’ve already been done.  Save your limited development resources for truly unique functionality.
  • How will you migrate this solution?  Can you move it from MOSS to SharePoint 2010?  Can you take it to “the Cloud” or Office 365?

If these questions resonate with you, I highly recommend that you check out this free white paper from Bamboo:  Build vs. Buy – Solution Frameworks for SharePoint

Or, if you happen to be here at SharePoint Conference 2011.  Come booth #339 and visit us in person.  We’d love to talk to you about your needs.


Read our complete coverage of Microsoft SharePoint Conference 2011.

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