Yesterday I attended TFPL's 2nd SharePoint conference. Such is the burgeoning interest in Microsoft's flagship product that once again the 100 seat Wellcome Collection theatre was packed to capacity just three months after the 1st TFPL SharePoint Conference.
The conference heard how the world's second largest real estate company, the world's second largest law firm, and a sixth form college in Surrey were each using SharePoint as an all encompassing information platform for their business. Christian Aid and DEFRA, who had spoken at the first conference, came back to update us on their progress. Jeremy Bentley give a history of the evolution of SharePoint, from its first appearance as SharePoint 2001, through SharePoint 2003 to its current manifestation as MOSS 2007. Marc Stephenson looked under the bonnet to give a detailed description of the information architecture challenges posed by MOSS 2007.
It was a fascinating day, which painted a rich picture of the complexity of SharePoint: its massive potential, the imaginative uses that it is being put to, and its idiosyncracies and glitches.
These are the key things I learned from the day:
SharePoint ' My Sites' are genuinely useful!
I had always assumed that My Sites were one of the dangers of SharePoint: providing colleagues with a place of their own where they can stockpile their documents out of sight of the rest of the organisation. This belief stemmed from my experience of e-mail in-boxes, and personal network drives: silos that even your closest colleagues can't access.
Speaker after speaker described positive and imaginitive uses of SharePoint My Sites:
- Defra, Jones Lang LaSalle, Esher College, Christian Aid and Linklaters were all using My Sites as their organisation's people directory. My Sites are places where colleagues can maintain their own contact details, role, expertise and interests; and places to go to find out about colleagues.
- Jones Lang LaSalle, Esher College, Christian Aid and Linklaters were all allowing colleagues to use their My Site to customise what they saw on their organisation's intranet home page, and what alerts they received, by signing up to belong to different audiences.
- DEFRA have found a records management usage for My Sites: they take information about the individual who created a document from that person's My Site, and save it as part of the metadata about the document.
Esher College had made particularly powerful use of My Sites:
- The college has a central timetable for students and staff. Each student and staff member sees their own personalised timetable on their My Site. If the date, location or time of one of their classes is altered this change will immediately show up on their timetable on their My Site.
- The college pushes relevant news and key messages to an individual's My Site, with the news appearing as a banner at the top of their My Site.
- The college developed a web part to enable students to work with their tutors to monitor their progress. The student's development targets are displayed on their My Site. The student can input their self-assesment of their progress and this information is fed through to their tutor.
- The document libraries that individuals can keep on their my sites are not necessarily silos: individuals can share access permissions with colleagues to collaborate on particular documents.
The vast scope of MOSS 2007
Adrian Dale identified five key areas of functionality that MOSS 2007 possesses:
- Content repository: a place to store corporate documents and records, with metadata and access rules, and (in the Records Centre site) retention and disposal rules. And with a vastly improved search facility compared with SharePoint 2003.
- Communications tool: a tool to manage your organisation's web site and intranet site, to channel news and messages to different audiences, and to enable users to customise their views of their intranet.
- Application development platform: an environment in which to develop new applications including workflows, and database applications to manage structured data.
- Collaboration tool: spaces in which people can work together on documents, and where they can house wikis and blogs.
- Directory tool: managing the organisation's directory of its people and their roles and expertise.
Both Jones Lang LaSalle and Linklaters identified reduction in dependence on other proprietary software as a key benefit and cost saving they have derived from their SharePoint implementations. Christian Aid's Steven Buckley described how the charity changed its knowledge management strategy from one of buying best of breed products for each required functionality (web content management, collaboration, records management etc.) to one whereby new applications are developed in SharePoint unless there is a really good reason why they can't be.
Giles Gregg from Linklaters said that for every application you purchase from a different vendor or in a different programming language you have the cost of maintaining the IT staff or contractors who understand that application/ programming language. These staff are needed in order to ensure that you can integrate the application with other systems, that you can upgrade it, that you can restore it if it falls down.
For Giles Gregg the most exciting thing about SharePoint was the fact that it does not constrain you. It doesn't do everything. But if it can't do something Microsoft have given you the development tools you need in order to customise it. And there is a whole economy growing up of contractors, vendors and developers which can be drawn upon to fill the gaps.
The importance of SharePoint to Microsoft
Jeremy Bentley said that Microsoft claimed to have sold 100 million SharePoint licences. Not all of these will be used, but even so it is a huge number. Marc Stephenson had been told by a Microsoft insider that there were 25 million deployments of SharePoint on PCs around the globe. Marc said that in the 1990s Office was Microsoft's main product, but now SharePoint is their flagship. One of the selling points of MOSS 2007 was that it was bound in very tightly with Office 2007. The next version of SharePoint is likely to come out in 2009/10, around the same time as the next version of Office (Office 14). Marc speculated that this conjunction would allow Microsoft to fuse Office and SharePoint together as one product. The company is hinting at such a fusion with the name of this latest version of SharePoint: MOSS 2007 (which expands to Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007).
The quirks of SharePoint's information architecture
Marc Stephenson gave an overview of SharePoint's information architecture. Marc said that you can't assume that your fileplans, taxonomies and metadata structures will automatically translate to the SharePoint environment: SharePoint provides a very distinct environment for information architecture and you have to map your architecure into that.
On the face of it there is a straightforward hierarchy within SharePoint:
- Site Collections contain sites (which can contain sub-sites and sub-sub sites down to the required levels). Any site can contain objects such as lists and Document Libraries . Document Libraries can contain folders. Folders can contain documents, images and other resources.
Complexity is added to the information architecture picture by elements which cut across the hierarchy, namely
- Columns: Columns are SharePoint's way of defining metadata for any object in the repository. You can define what columns of metadata you want for any particular site, document library, or documents within a document library.
- Content types: you can define a content type for any type of documentation that you want to treat in a similar way across different sites: for example that you want to apply a similar access rule to, or use a similar template or workflow.
If you want to introduce a records management fileplan / business classification scheme into SharePoint you need to decide for each heading of your fileplan whether to set the heading up as a site, or as a document library within a site, or a folder within a document library.
Here are the quirks that Marc identified:
- Folders within document libraries don't have as much power as any of the other entities in the hierarchy: they were put in as an afterthought by Microsoft who had thought they wouldn't need them.
- There is no support for hierarchical pick lists/taxonomy: you can only present the user with flat lists.
- The metadata columns you define for documents do not link in with the advanced search facility. You can define a 'subject' field for documents, and you can provide a pick list to act as a controlled vocabulary for that field. But (out of the box) you can't present that same pick list to a searcher, even though there is an advanced search facility which shows the 'subject' field.
- Site-Collections work in a counter-intuitive way. Every site must be nested within a site-collection. But site-collections are invisible to users, who can only spot their existence through the url adress of the particular site or resource that they are looking at.
- Site-Collections function like boundaries within the system. When you set up a content type, or a web part, or define metadata columns, these types, parts and columns only work within the boundaries of a site collection. If you want them to apply across the whole system you have to set them up afresh for each site collection. This would naturally push you towards having as few site collections as possible, but the catch is that there is a limit on the capacity of each site collection. Site Collections should not exceed 100Gb (the reasons why are explained here).
- Document libraries normally inherit access permissions/restrictions from the next level up in the hierarchy (the site). But access permissions can also be set by content types which cut across different areas of the hierarchy. This leaves open the possibility of access permissions inherited from a site conflicting with access permission assigned from a content type. Out of the box MOSS 2007 does not have any way of managing this conflict, and where the conflict occurs access permisisons are broken for that area of the hierarchy.