What is the future of SharePoint for businesses and IT professionals?

There’s a lot of interest in the future of SharePoint these days.

What direction is Microsoft taking the product? How much should I customize it? Should I upgrade to SharePoint 2016?

These are the kinds of questions businesses, IT professionals, and SharePoint product companies are asking.

We can make guesses all we want, but in the end, it’s helpful to look at actual data.

Note: If any of the charts in this article fail to display, try refreshing the page. The charts are embedded from Google, and sometimes their service has glitches where the charts appear empty.

The Big Picture

Let’s start by examining SharePoint search trends on Google from 2009 to the present day.

Right away, this gives us a few useful insights:

  1. SharePoint 2013 was only half as popular at its peak as SharePoint 2010 was.
  2. SharePoint Online and SharePoint 2016 are slow and steady at this point. No major upticks.
  3. SharePoint Online and 2016 never saw the initial spike in popularity that 2013 and 2010 saw.

Of course, this begs the question:

“Why did SharePoint 2016 and SharePoint Online not see the same initial rise in popularity as 2010 and 2013? What’s changed? And what does that mean for the future of SharePoint?”

To answer that, let’s look at some more search trend data from Google.

This time, our data set focuses on terms that gauge interest in SharePoint — both from a business and a technology perspective.

As the chart shows, interest in SharePoint has steadily declined since 2009.

Now at first glance, it might be tempting to say:

Wait a minute! Microsoft has downplayed the SharePoint “brand” since integrating it with Office 365. Now Microsoft talks in terms of groups, team sites, and collaboration. Is that playing a role here?

Absolutely. But you know what, it’s not the whole story.

SharePoint Adoption is Still a Challenge

To put the declining interest in context, let’s look at some findings from a 2016 report published by AIIM (the society for information management professionals):

  • 11% of organizations have reached a plateau in terms of SharePoint adoption. 22% say their SharePoint adoption is facing challenges from the user community.
  • More than 25% of respondents say they are still using SharePoint 2010 with 41% saying they are using SharePoint 2013 as their primary live version. At this time, only 2% say they are live with SharePoint 2016 and 19% with SharePoint Online (Office 365).
  • 40% of organizations say their SharePoint implementation was not a success. Inadequate user training (67%), hard to use (66%), and lack of senior management support (64%) are cited as reasons for SharePoint projects stalling or failing.
  • Revitalization of their SharePoint project through user training is a priority for 58% of organizations.
  • When it comes to cloud use, 31% of organizations are using SharePoint Online. When asked about issues or concerns with using a cloud or hybrid SharePoint solution, 58% feel security is an issue, while 53% feel control over what is managed in the cloud is an issue.

Google search trends seem to confirm the AIIM report findings as well.

UX (User Experience) and Cloud Security have both put pressure on SharePoint in recent years with the push for digital transformation in business.

And given that users turn to solutions like Box for Business when SharePoint doesn’t get the job done, it’s no surprise that Shadow IT is trending upward as well.

Our Conclusions About The Future of SharePoint

Taking all of this data into account, along with our experiences implementing SharePoint solutions for clients, we’ve arrived at a few conclusions about the future of SharePoint.

Excitement about SharePoint has Plateaued

Some companies are indeed upgrading to SharePoint 2016, and some are migrating to Office 365 or adopting hybrid cloud/on-premise solutions.

However, those indicators don’t mean much because they essentially boil down to “keeping current on our technology” and “re-platforming to the cloud for the cost savings.” Neither is necessarily strategic in nature. They’ll keep you from falling behind but won’t necessarily help you get ahead.

What we’re definitely not seeing in the data, though, is the huge “let’s jump on the latest version of SharePoint craze” that we used to see.

Part of that is because of the product itself. SharePoint 2010 was a huge improvement over the 2007 version, and SharePoint 2013 was a big improvement over 2010.

But SharePoint 2016 frankly isn’t that exciting compared to 2013, and the fact that Microsoft now offers SharePoint Online in the cloud means SharePoint on-premise will always feel slightly behind the latest-and-greatest version of SharePoint that’s out there. Psychologically, people don’t like to feel behind, even slightly, because it means someone else is ahead.

Microsoft’s attempt to address that is through feature packs where the latest SharePoint Online features can be downloaded to your on-premise installation, but those are only released periodically. For businesses who don’t absolutely have to maintain an on-premise installation, the more compelling option will clearly be the cloud.

Excitement about Good User Experiences is Building

As you saw in the AIIM report findings earlier, adoption is still the biggest challenge facing SharePoint today.

It’s no surprise why. SharePoint was pushed for years by IT people, and most IT people don’t understand how business users view technology. IT people and executives thought the answer was “SharePoint training,” which obviously didn’t solve the problem since the problem still exists.

The better solution is empowering users to do more and creating experiences that draw them to the platform.

That means as a business, you have opportunities to increase your worker satisfaction by delivering better experiences and letting users do more on their own with self-service solutions.

SharePoint Online is making that easier, especially with Microsoft rolling out the new modern interfaces around site navigation, list management, and page editing. The whole reason they’re doing that is to deliver a better experience, which in turns makes users more curious to see what they can do with the platform. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle (in a good way).

The Road Ahead

Developers: As a developer, you’ll still have opportunities to build solutions like workflows and web parts. Those types of customizations will never go away. But with Microsoft controlling the platform, your solutions should focus more on empowering users to get work done while delivering a pleasant experience. That means the days of slapping SharePoint Designer workflows together where users start crying about the non-intuitive emails and task forms are coming to an end. It’s your job to build better experiences around those core capabilities. If you haven’t started already, you should also be leveling-up your client-side coding skills and looking at the new SharePoint Framework.

IT Pros: If your skillset is more on the “IT pro” side of the SharePoint equation (installation, configuration, and management), you’ve still got a future at companies with on-premise SharePoint or with cloud service providers offering managed services around SharePoint. However, the pool of opportunities there is admittedly much smaller than in the past (back in the days when most companies had on-premise SharePoint). Unless you’re close to retirement or working for a cloud services provider, it’s probably time to consider broadening your skillset.

SharePoint Product Companies: If your core business is developing and selling SharePoint apps or products, you need to be very careful going forward. The reason is with Microsoft controlling more of the platform, there’s no reason they can’t copy your offering and do it themselves. Think of Kevin O’Leary from Shark Tank. What makes your offering proprietary and will keep Microsoft from crushing you like a cockroach? Microsoft is even creating new ways for end users to build rich, custom forms, so form-building add-ons are already in jeopardy unless you’ve got a solid differentiator.

Decision Makers / Executives: Microsoft has been changing the narrative around SharePoint lately to focus on team sites as the primary workload. As a business, you should take a cue from Microsoft when considering how you’ll use and customize SharePoint going forward. It’s probably not wise to spend a lot of resources customizing other workloads that won’t translate well to the cloud or be supported in the future. (Just look at Access Services, which is no longer recommended for apps and databases.)

The wisest investments will likely be around the team site and workflow stories, allowing users to work better together on projects and automate processes (either for efficiency, oversight, or both). And in particular, any investments made in those areas should focus on empowering users and delivering excellent experiences. Focusing in those areas will likely deliver the greatest ROI around SharePoint going forward.

Remember, people aren’t excited about the platform anymore. They’re excited about working how they want, when they want, the way they want. That’s what you need to invest in and deliver.