Note: This classic post has always been one of my most popular. The user experience details and the recommended customization approaches have changed a bit, but most of the article still holds true, even though it was written several years (and SharePoint versions) ago. I'm including it here for your "enlightenment".
SharePoint is big. Really big. So big, in fact, that it is very hard, some might say impossible, for any one person to fully comprehend. Now, I wouldn't go quite that far, but I will say that many people approach SharePoint in much the same way as the blind men approached the elephant.
What? You haven't heard the parable of the blind men and the elephant? Well, sit back and relax, while I digress a moment…
Once upon a time (don't they all begin this way?) Anyway, once upon a time, there was a group of blind men traveling down the path to enlightenment when they encountered an elephant and his trainer. The elephant was totally blocking the road, so the trainer said to the men, "Please wait, while I move my elephant out of your way."
"We have never met an elephant before," the men said. "May we touch it so that we may know what an elephant is?"
"Of course!" The trainer said, and the men approached the elephant.
The men reached forward as they walked, and each spoke to the others according to what they perceived.
The first man walked into the side of the elephant, felt up, and down, and side to side and exclaimed "I have encountered a wall. An elephant is a large, warm wall!"
The second man had walked up to the elephant's leg. He said "Are you crazy? This is no wall, but round, and sturdy, like a tree trunk, or a pillar. An elephant is a kind of tree!"
The third had encountered the trunk and said "You are both wrong. An elephant is a large serpent, like a python, but without bones!"
The fourth, who had felt the elephant's ear, believed it to be a piece of canvas, while the fifth was equally convinced by his encounter with the tail that an elephant was a brush for cleaning things better left unmentioned in a family blog.
The blind men argued with each other, each believing that his view of the elephant was the correct one. They were about to come to blows when the trainer, who was also very wise intervened: "Gentlemen, please, you are each right, in your own way, but also all of you are totally wrong. An elephant is neither wall, nor tree, nor serpent, or even bottle brush. It is a vast creature of many parts, some of which resemble the familiar things you have perceived. But to truly understand the elephant you must expand your perception, and approach not just the piece you are familiar with, but the entire animal."
With that, the trainer had moved the elephant from the path of the blind men, who had just taken another major step on their journey toward enlightenment.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled blog post…
What you see when you first approach SharePoint will vary considerably depending upon your experience and what you expect to find. You might, as a network administrator, first see SharePoint as a stand-alone application. And you would be right. SharePoint provides a great "out-of-box" experience, with tools for file sharing, team collaboration and communication, project management, all wrapped up with easy distributed administration functions.
As a business analyst, you might say "Wow! Look at the all of the tools I have to aggregate knowledge and business intelligence" You see SharePoint as an integration portal, able to give you windows into data scattered throughout your organization through search, through the BDC, or even Forms and Excel Services. And again, you would be right.
As a software developer, you might see SharePoint as a rich application platform. Almost like an extension of the .NET framework, with its own API, an extensive object model, built-in modularity, and extensibility. Also correct!
SharePoint is all of those things. And more. But to treat SharePoint simply as an application, or BI aggregator, or development platform is missing the "Point". What if I told you that you could, in your integration portal, add connections between your views and information already within SharePoint so you can filter results dynamically, customize the look, enter in new information, and notify your team of changes, all without writing a line of code? Or by adding a little custom code behind the scenes, alter the experience to the point where you might never know you were using SharePoint? This is all possible, just shifting your mind set.
As an administrator, look at the SharePoint API and object model to see what you can do with just a little programming (e.g. my previous blog entry regarding "The SharePoint Nobody Sees")
As an analyst, don't just look at how SharePoint can connect to your data, but how you can connect the pieces of a page together to coax even more intelligence from your knowledge.
As a developer, familiarize yourself, not just with the object model, or the web service API, but with the front-end customizations that are available before you even open Visual Studio. Web part connections, Data web parts, and the WPSC are just waiting to do your bidding!
Like the elephant in the story, SharePoint is a beast of many parts that each can, at first glance, look complete. But to truly understand it, you must venture outside your comfort zone, and see how the parts connect and relate. Only then can you say "I have seen the elephant!"