Wednesday, June 30, 2010

SharePoint Pillar: Communities

In this post of the “Pillars of SharePoint” series, I aim to help you make sense of SharePoint’s Communities feature area. SharePoint is often referred to as the “Facebook for the enterprise” to the dismay of some. The idea of calling it that is to relate the features of SharePoint in terms that people understand by comparing it to a product they may have used already. Facebook is actually a novel concept – even though the application of the concept may leave a little to be desired (courtesy of loose governance controls and the often fallible human nature). Be that as it may, what a great platform for describing yourself, sharing experiences, finding similar interests among acquaintances and reaching out (if you so choose) to encourage those that are in your circle of influence! That may be the most rosy description of Facebook ever! Seems like a good time to relate it to SharePoint…

Microsoft’s product page for SharePoint’s Communities feature touts two things: My Profile and Tags. My Profile is useful for learning about your co-workers, including: “biographies, job titles, location, contact information, interests and skills, and previous projects.” That does not sound so bad, does it? In fact, it sounds very useful to me. In an age where conducting business is plastered in time constraints, travel and a remote workforce, it is important to be as efficient as possible when connecting people, skills and projects. SharePoint has made that a reality. It has essentially combined your company’s employee directory, with your skills inventory and employee resumes. Not to mention that you can receive automatic updates when any of this information changes, such as contact information, job titles and responsibilities. And to answer the obvious question: yes, you can choose which alerts you wish to receive. In fact, your SharePoint administrator can disable alerts that you consider unimportant so that your users cannot subscribe to them. That is an example of SharePoint providing controls to assist in your governance process.

One of my favorite features of SharePoint Server 2010 is the Tags feature. To me it is so valuable to be able to mark a document for future reference, but to be able to share those marked documents with my colleagues and for them to be able to share documents with me is invaluable. This can always be accomplished with email, of course, but tagging is so much more efficient in terms of bandwidth, organization and search. Tagging essentially allows people in the organization to classify documents using words and phrases that are meaningful to them and/or their workgroups, or using predefined words and phrases established by a SharePoint administrator. In addition to tagging, one may comment on documents and other artifacts.

I should also mention that Office Web Applications, which plug right in to SharePoint, give you the ability to perform multi-person, real-time editing of the exact same document! And then there are the long-time Communities features of SharePoint, such as: blogs, wikis, discussion boards, meeting workspaces, slide libraries and so forth. So as you can see, calling SharePoint “Facebook for the enterprise” is underselling it. In my opinion, SharePoint is now the collaborative enterprise standard to which all other similar products will be compared.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

SharePoint Pillar: Sites

The first feature area I want to explore in my Introducing the Six Pillars of SharePoint series is the Sites feature area. In SharePoint Foundation 2010, Microsoft has provided some rudimentary capabilities for maintaining content in SharePoint – for intranets, extranets and public web sites. SharePoint Designer 2010 (available as a free download) adds some functionality in terms of designing, creating and managing pages. However, if you want a more feature rich web content management system, you may want to consider purchasing SharePoint Server 2010 Standard Edition or Enterprise Edition.

Some of the additional features you receive in the Standard and Enterprise editions include:

  • A mature publishing infrastructure
  • Ability to customize page layouts
  • Additional workflows for content approval
  • More user-friendly controls for your content editors
  • Ability to publish content to additional SharePoint farm(s)
  • Ability to target content to specific audiences

Some would argue that SharePoint is not a full-fledged web content management system, but I disagree with that sentiment. It is true that a fair amount of customization may need to be done to suit your needs, but for some companies what is provided out of the box is sufficient. It is by design that Microsoft allows you to customize the publishing features. In fact, I have never worked with a pure content management system that did not require a degree of customization. With SharePoint, you get content management and then some. You may indeed find that the content management in SharePoint is not for you. It is ok to use SharePoint for its other capabilities while not taking advantage of the Sites features.

I do want to address one thing regarding the look and feel of SharePoint. Many companies speak of “branding” their pages so they will “not look like SharePoint.” This stems from the idea that SharePoint has a typical look and feel that is simplistic and overused. Many companies choose to keep the out of the box look and feel. In addition, many SharePoint experts have public sites that retain the default look and feel. I would like to suggest that if the default look and feel does not work for you, then do not use it. That may mean you purchase a template from one of the many providers that create templates for SharePoint. But what you should not do is try to make your design fit inside of the SharePoint framework. In other words, start from scratch rather than trying to modify one of the default templates. Take a page that you created and add SharePoint controls to it. You will find it is more flexible than you imagined once you get the hang of it.

Another thing to consider is that SharePoint is a platform that is service oriented. So if you have an existing intranet – maybe even one that resides on a different platform – you can take advantage of RSS feeds, web services and so forth to pull content from SharePoint’s repository for display on your existing site. This is often used as a transitional solution where a company wants to move to the SharePoint platform for content management but is not ready to roll out the user interface to the masses just yet, however, it is also acceptable as a long term solution in certain cases.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Introducing the Six Pillars of SharePoint

The six pillars of SharePoint (also known as the SharePoint “feature pie” or “feature wheel”) were first introduced in SharePoint 2007. Back then, Microsoft touted collaboration, portal, search, content management, business forms and business intelligence all centered around SharePoint’s “platform services.” Beginning in SharePoint 2010, the feature areas, or “pillars”, have been rebranded in an attempt to better relate to our business psyche. The new pillars are: sites, communities, content, search, insights and composites. While the new terminology does seem to have less of a technical bent to it, I would not necessarily say that it is self-explanatory. Over the next six posts I will explain that terminology in more detail.

It is worth mentioning that SharePoint SharePoint 2010 comes in multiple editions: Foundation, Standard and Enterprise. SharePoint Foundation 2010 is included when you buy the Windows Server operating system, but the other two editions require a one-time software license fee and a user access license for each user. Some organizations will only require the Foundation edition to satisfy their needs. Others will need some of the features of the higher end editions. Many organizations will not use all of the feature areas and that is fine. The key is to use SharePoint where and how it is beneficial to you.

I like the new name given to the Foundation edition. When I think of pillars, I think of vertical columns that are used for support in a physical structure. While the pillars must definitely be strong to support a roof, for example, they are useless unless they are erected on a solid foundation. The Foundation edition will give you a start in all six of the feature areas. However, your needs may quickly outgrow the features provided by the Foundation edition. You have options at that point: you may write your own programs that run on top of the Foundation server to fill in the gaps, purchase third-party components that run on the Foundation server, or upgrade to the Standard or Enterprise edition to take advantage of the components Microsoft has pre-written. The first option may depend on whether you have a development staff available to you. The last option may depend on your budget.

As you will see in the next post, Microsoft does not assume that purchasing SharePoint Enterprise 2010 will satisfy all of your organizational needs. In fact, even the Enterprise edition is customizable. That is because every organization is unique and has unique business requirements. The Enterprise edition definitely provides the building blocks to help you meet some information and collaboration challenges more efficiently. In my next post, I will explain the “Sites” feature area in more detail.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

SharePoint 2010: Let the blogging begin!

The biggest challenge for blogging about SharePoint 2010 has literally been narrowing down the list of excellent topics. I considered breaking down the new SharePoint feature wheel (Sites, Communities, Content, Search, Insights, Composites) into business dialect – one feature at a time. I also considered going through the new and improved Central Administration area (teaser below) to showcase the new functionality and improved navigation.


I want to demonstrate the improvements in user experience for end users, but I also want to show how SharePoint Designer 2010, InfoPath 2010 and Visual Studio 2010 have streamlined the development process. If blogging were my full time job, I would not be able to write about all the things I want regarding SharePoint 2010 in a timely manner. However, I have got to start somewhere. One of the nice things about blogging, in contrast to writing a book, is that I can jump around from topic to topic and not have to follow an outline. I will probably do just that. So prepare yourself for the deluge of SharePoint 2010 blog posts that will ensue. As we say in southern Indiana: “It’s gonna be real good!”