Depending on who you talk to, the SharePoint Community is huge and very important to Microsoft, or smaller and more tight knit, but still plays a critical role in the popularity of the SharePoint platform.

Microsoft on the SharePoint Community

A little while ago I had the opportunity to chat with Chris Johnson, Senior Technical Product Manager for SharePoint. We talked about the SharePoint Community and its importance to Microsoft. And it is important.

But while Microsoft views the SharePoint Community as an important part of its business, it does not play a key role in the community. In fact, according to Johnson, Microsoft does not force anything on the community, it let's the community do its thing because it believes the community is filled with people who are passionate and engaged because they love what they are doing -- working with SharePoint. What more can you ask for from your community?

So it doesn't play a key role, but what then does Microsoft do for the SharePoint Community?

Let's back up a little here...

The Origins of the SharePoint Community

Johnson first became involved with SharePoint in 2001, back when SharePoint was just an infant. This was when Microsoft had a separate product for content management, MCMS as most know. This was where the seeds for what is now the SharePoint community were sown. And one person whose name you should know well if you are involved with SharePoint in any way -- Andrew Connell -- is said to be a primary driver.

Johnson says it was Andrew Connell who started the now famous SharePint -- the informal social event that brings together SharePointers from all around. Have a drink and chat about SharePoint, an event style that has grown legs and occurs in a number of different groups/topics.

If you are wondering just how big the SharePoint Community is, it really depends on who you talk to and their definition of the community. Microsoft says that there are 50k engaged active users across its SharePoint Facebook (the SharePoint Facebook Group has grown from 11k to 21k since July) and Twitter accounts. Of course, you know there's overlap there, so that number is not exactly right. But is that really the SharePoint Community? These active social network users are certainly using SharePoint or work with it in some fashion and many reach out and help others, but does that mean they are part of the SharePoint Community?

Microsoft's Role in the Community

Microsoft does not play a key role in what drives the SharePoint Community. It plays a support role, typically coming in a few different flavors:

  • It sends its people to events to speak
  • It offers swag/software
  • It offers a number of social networks for SharePoint users to talk to others
  • It runs events through its social networks (eg. Facebook Live Chats)
  • It supports its MVP (most valuable professionals) who do tend to play a key role in the community
  • It offers space for SharePoint events put on by the community
  • It offers MSDN and technet forums for SharePoint documentation
  • It holds the SharePoint conference

SharePoint MVPs have a very strong relationship with Microsoft. They do tend to be some of the most vocal community members and they have no problem letting Microsoft know what's working and what's not with the SharePoint platform. MVPs also tend to have a voice in future product planning, including what features need to be in upcoming releases and what documentation needs to be beefed up to support SharePoint users.

It's also interesting to know that Microsoft does not require its employees to be involved in the community (i.e. it is not part of their job responsibilities). However, most of them are involved anyway and have built close relationships with community leaders.

Does the Community Drive the Success of SharePoint?

What came first, the community or the success of SharePoint? In other words does the SharePoint Community drive the success of SharePoint? Johnson said that Microsoft sees it an organic growth between the two. The growth of the product makes people want to be engaged.

Of course Microsoft really hit their stride with SharePoint 2010 in terms of both timing and features. The community rallied around it and supported it in ways that Microsoft really needed, as did people in the community.

So that's Microsoft's take on the SharePoint Community. It's huge, it's engaged and Microsoft supports it in any way they can, short of taking control of it.

@WonderLaura Talks Community

If you really want to understand what the SharePoint Community really is all about, you need to talk to people in it. And so I did. First to Laura Rogers (aka @WonderLaura), who first became involved with SharePoint in 2004 when the organization she worked with decided to try it out. Laura was an Exchange Server Admin. In 2005 Laura met Bill English (another well known SharePoint expert) at MindSharp training. She committed to a chapter in Bill's then upcoming book on SharePoint 2007 and took her first steps into the door of writing and speaking about SharePoint.

Laura shifted to a SharePoint Ambassador role at work, teaching people how to use and create applications with it. She admitted struggling with the organization's development team who didn't embrace SharePoint. She then started speaking at conferences and was later recruited to work with SharePoint 911 where she has been for the last two years.

When Laura defines what the SharePoint Community is, she compares it to the SQL Community. Where that community is filled with tech/IT people, the SharePoint Community has a much broader base of people. The SharePoint Community includes the techies/admins, developers, brand/visual designers and end-users. There are a lot of people in it like Laura, who develop applications using much of the out-the-box capabilities.

Laura told me that she sees the Community has really come together in the last three years thanks to social networks like Twitter where people started talking about SharePoint. Here, she says her knowledge grew exponentially.

On Microsoft's Role

Laura sees Microsoft as a good facilitator. It offers facilities, sponsorship, swag to user groups, speakers to SharePoint Saturdays, etc. She believes Microsoft helps as much as it can, but doesn't try to takeover or get in the way.

The Importance of the Community

There have always been a lot of blogs that discuss SharePoint. But Laura says that Twitter and other social media are the mesh that connects everyone together. Social media has made it more personal and people more approachable.

Can the community be improved? Laura says that one negative that stands to be improved in the community is what happens with vendors (and some consultants) who are involved. Politics tends to get in the way of events when vendors play a role, and there can be "greedy" people that shine a negative light on the community. She believes there is so much knowledge to go around and share -- and business -- that it doesn't make sense for vendors to be selfish.

Laura gained her MVP status this past April.

@JenniferMason Talks Community

Jennifer Mason's track to SharePoint was pretty straight. In 2003 she graduated from College. She interned with a company where she was paired with a project manager that wanted to use SharePoint to run his project. So she learned SharePoint 2001. When SharePoint 2007 was released she switched to a consulting group which was just getting started with SharePoint. In 2010, she joined SharePoint 911. Jennifer builds SharePoint solutions out-of-the-box using the tools given to solve every day problems.

She defines the SharePoint Community as collection of experts that you can reach out to any time for advice, help or input. You can find community members across Twitter, Facebook and at local meetings. She talks about consistent support, especially with local user groups. She thinks the core community is made up of about 200 people who are actively engaged.

Jennifer also sees different levels in the community. There are those that use SharePoint all the time in their jobs (e.g vendors and consultants) and then there are the every day users. On a larger scale, there are blogs and social networks that enable people like her to communicate and participate whenever they can.

On Microsoft's Role

Jennifer sees MVPs as a big part of Microsoft's role in the community. She also recognizes the support from Microsoft for local meetings -- facilities, swag, etc. She says that lately Microsoft is playing a bigger role, getting more involved. But it is not trying to overtake the community, only identify where it can support it.

The Importance of Community

According to Jennifer, SharePoint is popular because it hit the executive level. But she says it takes a team to run SharePoint and as a result, these people naturally look to others for support. In many cases there may not be full local teams to work on SharePoint projects. It's these teams that can leverage the community to bring in added knowledge and value. As Jennifer points out, no one is an expert on all parts of SharePoint -- the community grows up out of that need for support.

When asked what she would do different to make the community better, Jennifer talked about the grassroots nature of the community. She wishes it would be easier for more people to get engaged at the same level, that it be more than just the initial group of people who started it all. What's needed is a virtual, central location that highlights the community and pulls everything together. But something like that requires resources and effort to manage it.

@MeetDux Talks Community

If you want to talk to someone about SharePoint, Dux Raymond Sy (@meetdux) is probably one of the most entertaining. Dux became involved with SharePoint in late 2000/early 2001 consulting with a government organization. He worked with things like Team Services, Outlook and the digital dashboard. It was around 2008 when he became involved in the community. One of his customers said he had great insight around the business and project management side of SharePoint. So Dux went to O'Reilly and proposed a book. Dux was also part of the first SharePoint Saturday event (Virginia Beach).

He defines the SharePoint Community as a group of people who want to take advantage of the technology to get their work done faster, efficient and better. The nature of the SharePoint platform is why the community is like it is -- it's about collaboration. People come together for the common good of making SharePoint better. Dux says he doesn't see this in other Microsoft technologies, that people aren't as social.

He sees the community as both a core set of people and a group of people who are getting valuable information for their own work. It's the difference between being engaged vs being internally engaged.

On Microsoft's Role

Dux says that Microsoft's role has evolved from being one where it simply provided space to one where it is now reaching out via 1) a heavily engaged SharePoint Product team 2) support for events like venue, speakers, swag, etc. He says, like the others, that Microsoft doesn't want to own the community, they just want to be there, offering things as needed.

The Importance of Community

And that community is growing all the time, says Dux. Before SharePoint 2010 there wasn't a lot of content from Microsoft -- and that drove the community. Community evangelists like Joel Oleson (who defined the evangelist role) became more vocal and global, traveling and helping to start local communities. In 2010 a lot business people also started getting involved with SharePoint from both a vertical and horizontal perspective.

Dux is a well known face in the SharePoint Community. He has put together the first SharePoint Saturday Conference in DC with participation currently over 200 people and with no formal SharePoint conference or event in the area this year, there has been a need for SharePoint training and information to happen in some form.

When asked what he would do differently in the community, Dux said SharePoint needs more visibility. He spoke of Microsoft's reputation, saying that if you saw what's inside you would get a different perspective of Microsoft

The Value the Community Brings to SharePoint

There is a SharePoint Community -- of that I am sure. How big it is, I am not so sure. If it's based on social networks then the number of members is vast and far reaching. This would include not just Microsoft's own Twitter and Facebook groups, but also pretty much everyone else with a social network account that claims a tie to SharePoint in their work. All of these people have the opportunity to share knowledge, to ask questions and to help promote the platform.

But I don't think it's the size of the SharePoint Community that's relevant. What's relevant is that there is a group of people out there supporting each other for a common goal -- making SharePoint work for them. Microsoft could not have done a better job promoting and supporting its platform if it had played a more prominent role.  In fact, it could have been detrimental to the community if Microsoft started and managed it. Let's be honest, there aren't many vendors who would publicly criticize issues with its platform or draw attention to the lack of information provided to support it (and let's face it, you could say 90% of the platforms out there have this same set of issues).

But I do think the SharePoint Community could stand a little bit of structure in the form of central, virtual location (as Jennifer indicated). There is so much information roaming around on the platform, and not all of it is correct. Knowing there was a central location, supervised by knowledgeable SharePoint experts would be a great help to the community. Partly like a SharePoint Wikipedia, but also add in all the social features needed like profiles, sub communities, discussions and more.

Should Microsoft build that environment? I think they should, at least financially. I don't think they should directly maintain or manage it. If they were to give anything back to the community that supports their platform, this would be the one thing I would recommend.

In the end though, what is important are the people in the community who actively engage and support each other. You've met some of them here, but we all know there are a lot more. So take a minute and introduce them, or yourself, and tell us what you think is important about your community.