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Caveman user adoption strategies

By Eric Eaton
Updated October 15, 2023

Caveman.jpgI’ve been doing some speaking lately on the topic of user adoption. It’s an important subject, not least of which because so many times we, as an industry, get it wrong. We either ignore it (build it and they will come) or treat it like a project (training classes will be complete by August 1). In my experience, neither of those things work. Success is not rocket science, though. There are many books and posts out there that discuss adoption from more conceptual perspectives related to vision, communications, and human behavioral changes. Those discussions are certainly valid, but I plan to tackle the topic from a more functional perspective and discuss strategies and activities as they apply to the team behind the platform.

User adoption is not an accident... it’s the result of effort, expertise, and strategic simplicity.

User adoption is not a project... it must be an ongoing service.

{{cta('e5c6357d-1ffb-4338-83b3-092aa9be7669','justifycenter')}}I’ve been a SharePoint expert for over 15 years. Over that time, I have used a wide variety of techniques to help whomever I was working with get more 'bang for their buck'. I've written governance policies, built solutions, worked support ticket queues, done 1:1 coaching, written and taught tutorials and classes, ran migrations, and probably 1,000 other things. However, my recent tenure at Visa was an opportunity to be more purely focused on user adoption than before, and with an entire company population as the audience. That opportunity turned into a remarkable case study for me in how to promote user adoption.

I was hired as a software engineer with the intent that my time would be spent mostly on development and support requests. However, I was given the latitude to focus on proactive steps that might make a difference for users in general. As we began to see positive results, my time quickly became less and less focused on traditional support or developer activities, and more on helping the organization get hooked on the platform and be successful with it. I was able to pivot from doing one-off efforts, to progressively plan and execute a package of services that as a whole had a tremendous impact on how and where SharePoint was used within the company.

I built a small team focused on actually helping people and becoming a bridge between the users and the admin team. We worked under a few guiding principles that were very simple. Now, looking back, it was ultimately a very basic formula that made us successful – so simple I've now started to call it...

The 4 Caveman Tenets of User Adoption

  1. Simple governance policies with a clear purpose
    Someone has to advocate for the end user. If governance is done from only the admin team’s perspective – you’ll create a lot of limitations and friction for the users, and they will go elsewhere.

  2. Simple adoption metrics
    I’m not talking about Google Analytics, Cardiolog, or some other tool for tracking simple web traffic. The story for collaboration sites can be told much more effectively with a couple of simpler metrics like number of site collections and unique site owners. I'll share more ideas here in a later post.

  3. Simple solutions to real-life business problems that face large audiences
    Every organization has processes and tools that everyone universally hates. Identify a couple of those and find a simple way to reduce the pain using SharePoint and / or Office 365. (Hint, some of these processes probably already belong to you anyway…)

  4. Help that is… actually helpful
    What a weird concept, am I right? This is the most important one, though. Even if you mess up everything else, if you nail this one – it covers a multitude of sins in the other three. Whether it's help materials or help services, make them easily consumable, effective, and - helpful.

Wait... that's it?

Yeah, that’s it. No smoke and mirrors. Nothing up my sleeve. We focused on those four principles, and based all of our decisions and user adoption activities on them. You'd be amazed how many times our instincts make things more complicated for the user. It requires a deliberate choice to focus and refocus on strategic simplicity according to these 4 areas. (In my next few posts, I’ll start explaining in more detail what I mean by ‘user adoption activities’, and how they match up to those 4 caveman tenets. Before I get down in the weeds though, I think it's important we finish looking at the big picture.) The results at Visa were dramatic. Our SharePoint adoption numbers grew by over 400%.

If this is so simple, then why do we as an industry seem to struggle with it so often? There are probably a thousand reasons, but a couple of big ones come to mind.

We have a tendency to look at things from the IT perspective instead of the user perspective.

Our teams get so busy fixing problems and building things that we don’t have
consistent time to spend helping users be successful.

To get around these core problems – you really need to have someone in your team that is dedicated to user adoption activities and focused on being that bridge between the users and the admin team. This person should be technical, but user friendly. Their role will include things like advocating, evangelizing, teaching, coaching, building, and simplifying.

Be aware, that there is a very real and direct correlation between the level of focus in this role and your overall adoption rate. You must fight the urge to pull this person(s) back into other tasks. The more they get pulled back into traditional admin and project activities – the less time they have to help others, and the less effective they can be seeing things from the users’ point of view. It's human nature. The more burden we ourselves are carrying, the less we typically see the burdens of others. The results are undeniable. As soon as you allow the adoption activities to taper off, your adoption curve begins to drop as well. I've seen this time after time, and at Visa we had enough structure in place around our activities and metrics that we could even measure it.

This type of role is doable using internal employees, if it is defined and respected by the team and its management. However, I’ve also seen workloads, politics, competing priorities, and org changes wreak havoc on an employee's ability to stay focused on what's important. An external resource is many times easier to keep separate from those influences, and may also have broader exposure to best practices and ever-changing features and tools in the ecosystem. At Visa, I eventually built a team comprised of bothinternal employees and external contractors to deliver user adoption activities, so that external availability and focus were combined with internal accountability and ownership. It was a powerful combination.

UAaaS (as if we didn't have enough 'aaS's)

Now I'm on the other side of the internal / external boundary. I'm building an adoption services subscription model to make it easy for other organizations to implement ‘User Adoption as a Service’. The concept is to provide 1) a coach who has broad expertise in a user-friendly package, 2) a loosely structured framework with a predictable schedule of user adoption activities, and 3) a block of unstructured hours used to supplement that framework in a way that is tailored to the environment and needs of the company. It's a low overhead / high return way to bring in the expertise that your users need to grow their skills and that you need to grow your adoption.

How are you addressing the user adoption needs at your organization? What strategies have you found challenging or effective? Put some time on my calendar and I will walk through through the caveman user adoption scorecard. 




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