Using Sharepoint as basis for Community Collaboration Platform

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Original Message

From: Adrian Gnägi, posted on 2010/01/04

A few weeks ago, I posted a query on IT-tools for virtual projects and got very useful recommendations. One colleague pointed out to me that, for an organization like SDC (big, Government), one of the main elements to consider would be the IT department. This proved to be very true. Our ministry's IT department over the past few years developed one major collaboration application (consultation tool to develop consolidated Swiss statements for UN), based on MS Sharepoint. This application has a fantastic track record: it is used, it is appreciated by its users, it produces good results and it saves time. Our IT department therefore concludes that MS Sharepoint is the basis on which to build SDC's collaboration platform.

We are not quite sure they are right, but for the time being they definitely got more and better arguments than we do. This is why I would like to tap into the km4dev collective experience again: what do we as a group know about MS Sharepoint as basis for building a community collaboration platform?

Some of the questions turning in my mind are:

  • What was MS Sharepoint initially conceived to be? What is its development history? What are the core functions it is really good at?
  • I got somewhat alarmed when seeing that MS Sharepoint is not mentioned at all in "Digital Habitat" (book by Etienne Wenger et al on Technology Stewardship for communities). Nancy, why don't you mention it? 
  • What are "make it or break it" features we should ask for, which would guarantee that a useful community collaboration platform can be built on MS Sharepoint?


All replies in full are available in the discussion page. Contributions received with thanks from:

Related Discussions


Consolidated Reply prepared, with thanks, by Adrian Gnägi

In the 2 weeks following the query I received roughly 25 replies, some of them referring to more detailed information (for example on the km4dev community knowledge wiki). This is the consolidation of those replies for the km4dev community (text in italics is direct quote from replies or referred to content). I would like to warmly thank all colleagues who responded to my query!

Replies received can be grouped into 5 categories:

  1. A query on MS Sharepoint triggers emotions - why?
  2. Start with community needs, not technology
  3. Strengths of MS Sharepoint
  4. Shortcomings of MS Sharepoint from a collaboration perspective
  5. "Make it or break it" features to make it a useful community collaboration platform

A query on MS Sharepoint triggers emotions - why?

My query on MS Sharepoint mostly triggered responses which can easily be grouped into "support" (few) and "rejection" (many). Only a few replies were purely technical. Some respondents explicitly addressed the reasons why MS Sharepoint divides the world into followers and opponents, and why there sometimes is open anger. The following elements seem to trigger emotions:

  1. MS Sharepoint is the politically incorrect choice for a development agency: Due to license fees, complexity/cost of administration/tweaking, bandwidth etc. MS Sharepoint is not an option for small organizations in poor countries. Therefore, it is often argued, rich development organizations should rather invest in Open Source solutions, which are available free of charge for poor organizations/countries, rather than in buy Microsoft products.
  2. MS Sharepoint is the capitalist Goliath against altruist Open Source David: Microsoft symbolizes big business, centralized control ("command and control management mantra"), well-tested functioning [why did Vista not change this perception?] versus altruism, open innovation and emergent results for Open Source. There is a symbolic "good" versus "evil" element in the discussion [reminding me of the appropriate technology debate in the 1980ies], which leads some colleagues to call it a "religious war". "Personally, I avoid it [MS Sharepoint] like the plague. Microsoft just doesn't get it. I've been in meetings with their designers and something in their DNA just doesn't get collaboration and cooperation"; "I would not wish Sharepoint wiki on my worse enemy".
  3. MS Sharepoint is not well documented: Documentation in the web on MS Sharepoint is scarce and often perceived as non-informative, most respondents (even those who have it installed on their system) acknowledge they do not know and use all functionalities. Several colleagues report hearing about great and terrible experiences with MS Sharepoint, feeling confused since not being able to figure out why perceptions differ so much. Plus: "To get the full benefits, you really need to be running 2007 versions of all these [word, excel, ppt, Exchange, Sharepoint] MS products", and "who knows what 2010 version will bring".
  4. MS Sharepoint drives on an unethical alliance with IT consultants: The MS Sharepoint business model is perceived to be based on a symbiotic relationship with IT-consultants that distorts the market and unfairly influences procurement decisions. "I have a friend who works as an IT-consultant, and he told me that he always recommends to buy Microsoft products, since it guarantees that his clients will come back to him asking to help them fix it. This strategy gives him a very clear advantage in his highly competitive market, and the Darwinian selection brings out a common front of MS enthusiasts (and religious wars by Open Source proponents)".
  5. MS Sharepoint serves IT-departments, not communities: IT-Departments in large organizations normally favour Microsoft solutions, due to a range of incentives specific to their function (systems' integration, compatibility of different IT-applications, uniformity of applications allowing for easy maintenance etc.). Communities' needs are mostly reported as not being well served by MS Sharepoint. But since IT-departments frequently determine IT procurement decisions, their needs override communication needs of clients.
  6. MS Sharepoint is exclusive: Bandwidth, browser and access issues (see below) divide the world into "us in our Microsoft-centric organization" and "them out there". Since licence costs and connectivity are involved, there frequently is a connotation that MS Sharepoint prevents poor southerns from participating in rich northerners' communities.

Identify community needs first and then assess IT solutions to serve those needs

Many respondents pointed out that the way I posed my query is not useful. One should start with the identification of community collaboration habits and non-answered needs, and then identify technology options that fit habits and needs. [This is also the overall message of the book by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John D. Smith, 2009; Digital Habitats - Stewarding Technology for Communities; CPsquare, Portland. As Wenger et al (2009, 119) show, the "community needs first" strategy often is not possible in large organizations, where IT-departments define what's possible or not. SDC currently is in this situation: we will have to work with MS Sharepoint and can only influence customization).

Core functions MS Sharepoint is really good at

  1. "Sharepoint is a Portal architecture from Microsoft ... designed from a document management perspective. That's its DNA. ... In terms of Knowledge Management, it offers document libraries, people search (individual skill profiles can be easily implemented), easy content creation (e.g. FAQ lists, Discussions, Surveys etc.). Being web-enabled and not too hard to learn Sharepoint supports local content creation".
  2. High integration with MS Office applications, good on collaborative document editing, file sharing and content management/Intranets. "If your requirements are primarily around teams sharing MS Office docs and performing basic co-ordination tasks such as calendating & task allocation then Sharepoint should come top of your list". "Click 'Publish' within a Word document and it is published immediately to the intranet.. but without MS Office you are trapped".
  3. "MOSS2007 Search quite good - Able to index not only the portal but can expand to other resources, too - People search functionality since it also picks up skills / competencies if entered by the users. This way it is easy to figure out who speaks Chinese in your organization etc. - Not like Google but does what it needs to do". Great mulit-layered taxonomy.
  4. Security issues are well handled: data security, advanced and versatile access control.
  5. A wide range of functionalities integrated in one platform, including good interfaces with business applications (like SAP).
  6. RSS and e-mail notifications. "Out of the box Sharepoint has EXCELLENT alerts (email notifications) that by default can be triggered by a large number of customizable events. One of my favorites suggestion is to save the criteria for an advance search as an alert and have it to send you updates on new content that matches that criteria. I did, and now every day I receive an email that shows me all new content regarding Knowledge Management. VERY handy. Also, you can setup an email address to convert emails sent to it into new content on the portal. You will need an IT guy to set it for you, one email for each content you want to update via email. Too much hassle for us for the time being, but probably in the future it will come handy. All in all, quite good."

Shortcomings of MS Sharepoint from a collaboration perspective

  1. MS Sharepoint was built as corporate software for file storage/sharing/publishing, serving individuals working on their individual PCs in a corporate IT environment. MS Sharepoint was not built for collaboration, it was later adapted to also allow for collaboration => many collaboration tools feel like crutches, many core elements of the software work against cooperation
  2. Weak collaboration tools. "Its pseudo web2.0 tools such as blogs and wikis leave much to be desired". "I found its "conversation" functionality (discussion forums, blogs, wikis) to be weak compared to other products I have used". The main problem with Sharepoint for collaboration is not with the tools, but with the features of the tools.
  3. Favours exchange within silos (separate workspaces), requires strong governance procedures and customization for enterprise wide (and beyond) sharing. "In essence, there is no fundamental network structure to the platform ... Simply having spaces for teams to collaborate won't work for most of us, particularly in international development". "My folders. Your folders. Each community "ready to go with a click" but siloed in the very design of the software".
  4. Not well suited for connecting with people outside one's organization (rights, roles, gates etc.). MS Sharepoint works best if all other IT applications are Microsoft also, and all come in the same version => the high organization-specific integration works against collaboration with outsiders working with other IT-solutions. Most MS Sharepoint functionalities work under Internet Explorer only (to be changed with new 2010 version?).
  5. Not well suited for collaboration with south/east: Bad on low bandwidth environments, slow for people in the field.
  6. Cannot be tweaked by the communities themselves; tweaking needs IT-support. "Collaboration these days is a matter of multiple and changing tools within an ecology, rather than a single application. Its presenting a capability to users rather than treating KM as if it was an accounting system where requirements can be specified up front". Tweaking MS Sharepoint is complex and time consuming => high costs and high risks with tweaking. "Organizations deal with Sharepoint's limitations by purchasing plug-ins or running custom development projects. These are not without their own risks - I have heard stories of organizations spending millions on customization and then having their customization fail on them when MS releases an incompatible upgrade".

"Make it or break it" features to make it a useful community collaboration platform

  1. Good integration of email exchange with document management: Ability to respond directly to messages/e-discussions from the inbox, without having to go on-line to respond. Archive of discussion integrated in document repository (searchable). Collaborative document editing via email.
  2. Easy access by people from outside the organization (smart handling of firewall issues).
  3. Possibility for "public face" (internet site of community)
  4. All "need to have" tools available; "nice to have" tools available or procurable, but can be deactivated in the beginning to reduce complexity