Although Microsoft sells SharePoint as a collaboration tool, it really isn’t. It is a process and storage tool, and actually does a reasonable job at that. Many of our larger clients have thousands (if not millions) of documents stored in SharePoint. But in terms of supporting collaborative interactions between team members, SharePoint has some bolt-on technology at best.

Ancient Architecture

SharePoint architecture, which is not inherently collaborative, is based on a much older model of “publish and subscribe.” It is very top-down and hierarchy supportive, more like a Web 1.0 (or pre-Web) application than today’s Web 2.0 social applications. SharePoint is really a Web 1.0 tool more focused on content than people.

SharePoint’s architecture comes from a time of “non-transparency” where security was more important than sharing. Each site can be its own mini-silo and can’t see any others (based on topology and access settings); Microsoft recommends a “governance framework” to fix this. SharePoint sites are, functionally, ASP.NET 2.0 Web applications that are served using IIS and an SQL server database as a data storage back-end. If you are not technical, all this means is that there are lots of IT guys behind the curtain making sure things work.

It is also hard to figure out a topology for SharePoint sites, which can be expensive to set up and can require a lot of IT resources. It is often hard to find documents on “sites” -- sometimes even for the people who created those documents. One of the issues with SharePoint is the proliferation of sites, many of which are “abandoned,” have not been updated, or have been deleted or archived. This is more of a policy problem than a technology problem.

Additionally, the search functions in SharePoint (MOSS search provides the ability to search metadata attached to documents) are very limited. Microsoft has focused on fixing this in the more recent 2010 version by adding FAST search technology to make search not only more useful but more granular. Even so, it is often hard to find specific information in SharePoint unless you are in a specific site or at the top level of the hierarchy.

Issues with SharePoint

SharePoint has quite a range of functionality. Yet here are some common issues:

  • When you save a file back to SharePoint from your desktop, it does not delete the old version, which can cause confusion and a proliferation of documents.
  • Write directly on a wiki (edit and save): easy to compare old and new versions. Microsoft wiki template is very limited in these abilities and not strong in many others.
  • If you choose to “deactivate” a site, you lose all the customization information in that site.
  • You can only add “list” templates to “list-based” sites.
  • You can only add a picture from a Web address; you can’t browse your desktop to do it.
  • Often it is difficult to trace a path back to the document. Sometimes the creator can’t find it.
  • Most IT shops have to send employees out for SharePoint training or bring consultants in.
  • It is not an easy platform to develop applications for; its development cycle is 50% longer than most other options.
  • 50% of users find that the development of custom solutions requires more effort than expected (AIIM report, 2008).
  • SharePoint 2010 is only offered as 64-bit server and requires all new 64-bit servers to support it (64-bit Windows Server 2008 or 64-bit Windows Server 2008 R2). It also will require 64-bit SQL Server 2008 or 64-bit SQL Server 2005 -- a rip-and replace exercise if you don’t already have these servers for the 2010 version.
  • SharePoint uses Web parts (like widgets) for customization. A number of third-party Microsoft partners build templates and widgets. Microsoft does defray some of the partner support costs through the SPDS program.

SharePoint…the Path of Least Resistance

SharePoint 2010 is relatively new (about a year in production), and many companies are looking at upgrading their 2007 servers because Microsoft offers the upgrade free as part of its enterprise license. However, the initial cost for the software often is the least expensive part of TCO (total cost of ownership). Some Microsoft partners like Apps4Rent offer access to SharePoint on a multi-tenant architecture for $60/mo. (Platinum plan). This option seems to be more popular with small and medium sized organizations rather than the IT groups in large enterprise.

Although SharePoint 2010 claims it is able to create communities for large enterprises, many enterprises choose Jive, Lithium Technologies or SocialText to extend their “social” features to SharePoint. But in many cases these online community tools can work with SharePoint.

Most enterprises today are more externally than internally focused. With cloud-based collaborative services (CBCS), there is no longer the need for expensive server-based solutions like what Microsoft and IBM/Lotus offer.

Without any bad intentions, most IT departments take the path of least resistance (in this case SharePoint). The smart ones look at adoption and usage six months later. What often is easiest for IT is not always the best for the business units they are serving. But because the collaborative solution IT chooses does perform some of the functions needed by the business, the enterprise will often adopt SharePoint because it has IT’s blessing, and IT has a strong relationship with Microsoft.

IT and Situational Applications

These days, IT is an appropriate resource for ERP applications, but absolutely the wrong resource for what I call “situational applications”-- that is, applications you need right away for specific purposes and that may be used for only a short time or a specific situation. Many of today’s 2000-plus collaboration tools fall into this category, and many of them are free to try and inexpensive to subscribe to. This moves collaboration from a line item in a budget to a monthly expense. So many groups, departments and teams in the enterprise are finding their own collaborative solutions that fit their needs rather than following the choice of IT.

SharePoint still only runs on Windows, and it was not originally built as a collaboration tool, but Microsoft keeps bolting on collaborative functions and calling it a collaborative tool. As I said, the marketing is pretty convincing -- but you make your own decision.

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