SharePoint for the (very) small business (Part 1)

SharePoint for a small business? Isn’t that overkill?
As the (former) owner of a small precast stair manufacturing company with all of a dozen computer users, I’d like to share some of the ways we successfully used SharePoint (specifically MOSS) to run our business. A little case study, if you will.

Why SharePoint?

Most of the blog posts, articles and speaker presentations I have seen deal with SharePoint implementations of hundreds or even thousands of users. But a very small company has several characteristics which make it also well suited to take advantage of much of what SharePoint has to offer. To start, a small business has a limited number of team members who must work well together to achieve the goals of the business; hence collaboration is inherent and is not a barrier to adoption of a collaboration platform. A small business also is (or had better be) very agile in its ability to quickly try new ways of doing things IF the new things can be seen to quickly and directly benefit the business…

Why SharePoint?

…Because an unfortunate additional characteristic of a small business is its lack of time and money to devote to IT projects. In the case of my company, I was the co-owner, head of finance, head of human resources, and constituted the entire IT department; I think that scenario is pretty common in a very small company. But although resources are limited, there are still business information needs which must be met, quickly and efficiently. A business such as this can’t afford to spend tens of thousands on full-blown ERP or other information systems, so an easily customizable & scalable platform such as SharePoint just fits the bill.

As a small business with very limited financial resources, we took full advantage of many of the free, or nearly so, SharePoint resources available. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather represents the resources that I personally found to be essential:

Start with the “big win”

I’ll describe below some of the ways in which we were able to leverage SharePoint to improve our team members’ ability to do their jobs.
The first, and most essential, thing we did with SharePoint — the thing that got me so excited about SharePoint when I first learned about it at a user group meeting several years ago — was to bring disparate information regarding our custom manufacturing projects into one readily accessible location. We had several essential Excel spreadsheets regarding different aspects and statuses of our projects, maintained by different people, and containing different (but obviously related) information. We used an Access database to track bids, and we updated Word documents manually each week to communicate bid and job information to the managers and employees.

By creating a few custom lists (but primarily a “Jobs” list), we were able to bring all of the important information about bids and jobs into a single repository to which everyone had access, and which could be viewed in any way that was required. We were able to fairly quickly eliminate the use of the tracking spreadsheets and the report documents, by requiring everyone to make their project updates in SharePoint only, and to use SharePoint views to report on-screen at operations meetings. Everyone very soon saw the advantage in having up-to-the-minute information on all current work (usually around 30 projects) at their fingertips. Over time, people thought of more and more bits of job information that would be great to have access to in SharePoint, so our list grew and spawned other lists such as Customers, Architects, Change Orders, etc. More and more views were created on that same data, such as a Poster we could print and post in the lunchroom for the plant workers, various bid analysis views (including one that fed an Excel PivotChart), and a view for the drafters to track the status of their work.

Part 2 of this post will give some additional examples of how we “ran our business” on SharePoint…

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