Collaboration, as we have seen this week, can take on many forms. A typical enterprise will own and maintain a number of different systems to help facilitate this collaboration. While many of these systems will serve a specific purpose, too many can be confusing, and actually prevent what they set out to achieve -- working together effectively. 

Linking Systems = Improved Collaboration

Implementing a single ‘perfect’ system, however, is often unrealistic. Trying to find something that works for everyone can often end up in failure. A better approach can be to link together, or integrate in some way, these separate systems. If they can all be accessed from one place, or the data can be viewed in one place, users will find them easier to work with -- and the resulting collaboration will vastly improve.

A tool that can help with this is Microsoft SharePoint 2010. Often used as a collaboration system in its own right, SharePoint can sometimes be better used as the ‘glue’ between a number of traditionally separate systems. The SharePoint feature in question is called ‘Business Connectivity Services’ (BCS), and is an improved version of the SharePoint 2007 ‘Business Data Catalog’.

BCS allows you to connect external systems to SharePoint 2010 with relative ease. It provides read/write access (specifically create, read, update, delete and query -- CRUDQ) to external data from web systems, databases and other custom applications. Data pulled into SharePoint can then be manipulated using standard SharePoint concepts, such as lists and web-parts, making it just another part of the normal SharePoint data store. 

Putting SharePoint 2010 BCS to Use

So how exactly can the BCS be put to good use? And how does it help improve collaboration? Let us look at an example:

Company A, a software development house, has a number of collaboration systems. The first is a dedicated wiki platform, containing a host of code snippets and examples added by developers. The second is a Yammer installation, which contains posts from all staff about company events and general information. The third is shared with external suppliers, and is an EMC eRoom installation. 

For a project manager working on a new project, collaboration is a problem. They have to use the wiki when working with developers, Yammer to keep the company updated with project progress and the eRoom to work with the external graphic design agency. Using SharePoint 2010 we are going to pull together these separate systems and make life easier for our project manager.

First, we implement SharePoint 2010, build a single central team site which we are going to call ‘The Collaboration Hub’, and give our project manager access to it. They can now use their standard Windows account to log into the team site. Using business connectivity services, we can make the wiki accessible from our team site, using external content types and lists. The project manager, logged into ‘The Collaboration hub’, can easily view wiki information and make minor amendments to the information, without leaving SharePoint.

Second, Yammer can also be displayed within the team site. Whilst BCS can be used to display the data, a simpler method could be used, such as an RSS feed or even a variant on the page viewer webpart. A BCS solution would allow our project manager to post updates from within the team site though, so it offers a little more power.

Finally, we can integrate the eRoom using BCS. EMC eRooms offer a comprehensive set of functionality, so in this case it may only be desirable to pull some summary information into our SharePoint site and encourage our project manager to log in directly to the eRoom if they need to. This summary information could include recently added documents, recently updated documents or information about which users logged in last. To complement this ‘dashboard’ view we could use SharePoint ‘single sign on’ functionality to allow the project manager to go from SharePoint directly into the eRoom without having to log in again.

The end result for our ‘Collaboration hub’ is a single place where our project manager can view and edit data from all collaboration systems. At the very least, it offers a central location for appropriate data, but with a little more work it can be a complete read/write hub.

Final Thoughts

Rationalizing the number of collaboration systems used in an enterprise is often desirable, but not always possible. Using something like SharePoint to integrate separate systems is often a better approach. So next time you are battling with multiple log ins and silos of data, consider SharePoint and business connectivity services as a possible solution. 

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