While SharePoint 2010 leads in almost every Gartner Magic Quadrant in which it appears, it does not lead in social computing. But before you say anything about this perceived limitation, let’s explore what the platform’s real shortcomings are and how they impact the majority of businesses and end users, and discuss what additional investments you may need to make in order to ensure that SharePoint delivers the features and capabilities your employees need to be productive.
Rarely does any company succeed with hitting a home run on their first product release. What may be new to the majority of the marketplace may actually be the third, fifth, or ninth iteration of a product or platform that may not have caught the attention of the mainstream market while still in beta, or even during the initial launch. And then the stars came into alignment, and the mix of expanded features, early-adopter passion and industry buzz made the technology seem to appear out of nowhere to the masses.
Enter Microsoft. Seldom have they been accused of hitting a home run on the first try, but instead the company is well-known for iterating, improving upon ideas (whether their own or acquired), extending through internal "dogfooding," and working with partners to build success over time. SharePoint is an excellent example of Microsoft's ability to stick with it. For much of its 10-year history, the platform had not been viewed as a leader in any category in which it competes. But Microsoft kept at it, and as of today with SharePoint 2010 SP1 available, the platform leads in almost every Gartner Magic Quadrant in which it appears.
But not in social computing. Why is that? What is missing?
Ask these questions, and out come the doubters, the competitors and the anti-everything-Microsoft crowd to point out all of SharePoint's social computing shortcomings. But what are those shortcomings, really, and how do they impact the majority of businesses and their end users? What are the social features everyone seems to want, and what additional investments do you need to make in your SharePoint platform to deliver the features and capabilities your employees need to be productive?
What SharePoint Does Not Offer
First and foremost, it's not Twitter or Facebook or Google+. But then again, they're not trying to be them. While your end users may be clamoring for an enterprise version of their favorite consumer applications, what is it that your business really needs? Therein lies the biggest gap in the social argument against using SharePoint -- the pain (and expense) of bridging social outside of the organization. SharePoint focuses primarily on the intranet. If your requirement is to collaborate with external players (partners or customers), your current SharePoint deployment may not be the right solution. While you can build out an extranet, it can be painful both in cost and in effort to secure those external connections.
What SharePoint 2010 Offers
The most obvious mention here are MySites, which offer status updates; dynamic news feeds of your activity within the platform, including tagging, mentions of attachments and uploads so that people can see the work you're doing; and the tracking of comments. These features allow for a much richer search experience, tying your social activities to content and providing better context to your activities. Other features include social tools available in earlier versions of SharePoint, such as discussion boards, wikis, alerts, improved blogging (individual and team), and better integration of Workspaces (formerly Groove) to allow online and offline collaboration.
The real meat-and-potatoes of SharePoint for most organizations are the Team Sites, allowing individuals and organizations to organize SharePoint sites and sub-sites in the way that best allows them to work together. While separate from SharePoint, the Lync communications platform "lights up" when used alongside SharePoint, offering instant messaging, desktop sharing, web meetings and unified communications options.
All in all, it's a fairly formidable competitive platform, and more than meets the needs of most social computing requirements in the enterprise. SharePoint also offers a strong security model -- something that most of its competitors cannot claim. It is corporate collaboration. It was designed for teams, and it works well for teams. Not to say that there aren't use cases for external collaboration (there are), but SharePoint very much follows the 80/20 rule, providing 80% (or more) of your requirements.
The Future of Social in SharePoint
Ignoring the competitive hyperbole for a moment, when considering social computing needs, organizations should focus on those requirements which are critical to the business. Understand your key use cases, how your teams currently collaborate with each other, and with your customers and partners. Understand how social computing would support or improve upon those use cases, and then prioritize your requirements.
As SharePoint continues to grow and iterate, we'll see expansion of the most common (and expected) social computing features, likely with increasingly seamless movement between on-premises and online (both dedicated and multi-tenant) environments, allowing the social tools to cross these divides. The future will include capabilities that span your entire SharePoint footprint -- in a secure way, of course. For example, news feeds that provide a snapshot of activity, security-trimmed, across various platforms that an end user can access, allowing the user to quickly move between those environments and seamlessly collaborate with multiple teams, customers and partners.
In the short term, the real punch will come through developments in Office365, which may be the most viable extranet model for SharePoint. As a parity of features is reached between Office365 and on-premises platforms, we will see Microsoft strengthening their position in the social computing space. Partners will lead much of this innovation, providing tools to help synchronize between these platforms and enabling collaboration online and offline, between on-premises and cloud-based components, and using a variety of computing and mobility devices.
Understanding your key use cases will help inform you on what you need now, and whether SharePoint can provide it.
For those who move forward with SharePoint as their platform of choice, the important thing to understand is that the focus of your team will be shifting over the next one or two SharePoint releases -- from keeping SharePoint-the-platform up and running, to a focus on developing business solutions. That's why many companies turn to SharePoint in the first place, right? They want to focus less on building technology, and focus more on using that technology to help their business. The future of social computing in SharePoint is making this same shift: we are moving past the questionable business value of individual social features and consumer tools (focusing o the technology itself), and are instead looking to utilize social productivity solutions to help us get the most out of our investment.
It's an iterative process. We need to improve on what is working, continually tying end-user requests to use cases and to priorities. We need to dogfood (test out our solutions by using it, and iterating), and we need to work with our partners and customers. And we need to realize that you can still win the game without hitting a home run every time.
Editor's Note: You may also be interested in reading:
- Why You Need a Records Management Foundation for SharePoint
- The 5 Teams You Need for Effective SharePoint Governance
- Challenging Collaboration: Using SharePoint as a Collaboration Tool