Sharepoint and Enterprise 2.0: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Summary:Depending on which numbers you look at these days, about a third of all companies right now are using Enterprise 2.0-style tools to enable collaboration and management of their knowledge. This is in stark contrast to just three years ago when the only tools most workers could count on for communicating with others and sharing knowledge was e-mail, the phone, and if they were lucky, an instant messaging or content management application. The question is these days if which tools are the best and Microsoft SharePoint continues to make the short list.

Depending on which numbers you look at these days, about a third of all companies right now are using Enterprise 2.0-style tools to enable collaboration and management of their knowledge. This is in stark contrast to just three years ago when the only tools most workers could count on for communicating with others and sharing knowledge was e-mail, the phone, and if they were lucky, an instant messaging or content management application.

It increasingly appears there is no such thing as Enterprise 2.0-in-a-boxToday's worker landscape is a surprisingly different place with the rising use of Web 2.0 applications such as blogs and wikis and other applications. Use of public social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook are practically commonplace these days, even if not quite ubiquitous (a good percentage of companies still block access to these in fact).

And the Enterprise 2.0 landscape continues to change: The increasingly popular Twitter service has become almost trendy to use in some business circles, though it currently predominates in PR and marketing for the moment. This has given rise to a new generation of enterprise-class social messaging applications such as Yammer and Signals are used behind the firewall these days, though these are not reaching even double-digit percentages of adoption yet. Mobile devices especially have become rich multi-channel collaboration consoles for communicating in just about any way you prefer including voice, e-mail, SMS, chat, Web, social messaging, and pretty much anything else for which you can find an installable application. There seem to be countless choices when it comes to communication and collaborating in today's workplace.

But when it comes to Enterprise 2.0 in particular -- and you can read my most detailed explanation of exactly what the concepts of Enterprise 2.0 are here -- the software solution that most organizations seem to reach for today in an almost knee-jerk reaction is Microsoft Sharepoint. In fact, last summer Forrester predicted that Sharepoint would "steamroll" the Enterprise 2.0 market despite "taking heat from some observers about SharePoint's wiki, blog and social networking functionality."

Microsoft Office SharePoint Server

These concerns about SharePoint's ability to be an effective Enterprise 2.0 platform is one I hear echoed a lot with practitioners I talk to. In spite of this, I correspondingly hear that SharePoint is in fact what most organizations are planning on using when it comes to 2.0-style collaboration and knowledge management. Why the apparent disconnect between the perceived suitability (which we'll dissect in a moment) and actual use? Part of it is SharePoint's stunning penetration in the software business. The recent adoption statistics for SharePoint should be sobering for anyone planning to provide competing tools:

  • 55% of organizations have implemented or are considering implementing SharePoint (Global Intranet Trends 2009 report - 227 participant organizations)

  • 46% of those companies using social media on the intranet are using SharePoint(Intranet 2.0 Global Survey – 430+ participant organizations)

  • Only 47% of organizations have a defined governance model (Intranet 2.0 Global Survey)

  • 70% use at the department level; only 38% use it at the enterprise level (AIIM)

In other words, SharePoint is already in most organizations today: Leading Enterprise Web 2.0 firm Jive Software's CEO Dave Hirsch has gone on record in the past saying that "around 80 percent of our customers have SharePoint". In the most recent authoritative number I could find, an estimated 85 million end-user licenses of SharePoint were in customers' hands over a year ago and that number is likely a good bit higher today. This paints a fairly clear picture of a workflow and document management market leader that is highly entrenched, already paid for in many cases, and most likely to make the top of the short list of any Enterprise 2.0 initiative.

Microsoft SharePoint -- often referred to these days as MOSS, for Microsoft Office SharePoint Server -- is certainly one of the most respected and widely used platforms of its kind. It has a truly extensive set of capabilities which Microsoft typically categorizes into five major groups: Portal, search, content management, workflow, and business intelligence. Like most popular CMS and community platforms these days, SharePoint also has open architecture that ensures that almost anything that is perceived as missing can be supplemented by acquiring one of the many 3rd party addons or by custom development of what is needed. However, all products, especially very complex ones, have their own strengths and weaknesses and this is where the good and not-so-good begin to become an issue.

When Harvard's Andrew McAfee first identified what was seemingly unique about Enterprise 2.0 compared to traditional collaboration and knowledge management tools he coined a mnemonic known as SLATES. This mnemonic forms a checklist of properties that seemed integral to successful Enterprise 2.0 implementations (based on successful early case studies). I originally covered the properties of SLATES back in 2006 when Enterprise 2.0 first arrived on the scene when I said it had the potential to "free your intranet" and it remains an excellent description of the key elements for successful social software. This was back in the time when I could ask technical audiences as collaborative conferences if they had access to blogs and wikis at work and virtually no one would raise their hand. Now they all do.

Specifically, for this discussion it's blogs and wikis that remain the focus of Enterprise 2.0, despite there being more advanced types of applications that also qualify. Mostly this is because they are by far the most popular social tools in the enterprise, though social networking is also becoming increasingly important. It's from this perspective that we'll look at how SharePoint measures up to the ideal and practice of Enterprise 2.0, which can drive a variety of benefits such as higher worker productivity, improved knowledge retention, cross-functional innovation, and even as a corporate catalyst. That is, if the software you are using actually enables such scenarios in a widespread manner.

I should also be clear that SharePoint can be used to do a lot more than what we usually ascribe to Enterprise 2.0, the latter for which the elevator pitch is freeform, emergent, social collaboration and less the physical document share methodologies (such sharing Word, Excel, PDF, etc. files) it was originally designed for.

For the purposes of the discussion below, I'll examine where SharePoint is suitable for this particular (though very significant) use case. And if you're wondering how significant this topic this is, the Enterprise 2.0 story is primarily aimed at knowledge workers engaged in complex, collaborative projects which have had few effective software tools until recently, in other words strategic business activities. Industries like finance, government, civil engineering, transportation, and many others are trend to be top heavy with this kind of worker and are likely the last major bastions of productivity gains in modern economies, if the right solutions can be brought to bear. In other words, Enterprise 2.0 can help some of our most important and most valuable workers do better work while providing more value to the organization as a whole.

As a result of all this, and due the fact that the single most frequently asked question I get about Enterprise 2.0 is if SharePoint is a suitable platform for it (short answer: it definitely depends), I've spent the last few weeks taking a hard look at SharePoint the product itself, talked extensively with SharePoint and Enterprise 2.0 practitioners both, and created the resulting analysis. I'm hoping it helps you make useful decisions in your Enterprise 2.0 projects and initiatives.

The issues and challenges of using SharePoint for Enterprise 2.0

  1. SharePoint is not a Web 2.0 native. This can be a compliment or an indictment depending on who you talk to. However, it's very difficult these days to deny that innovation in social and collaborative systems is almost exclusively coming from the consumer Web. The Web has been far and away the most successful in creating powerful network effects and as the source of the world's largest and most vibrant social systems. SharePoint was designed before we had learned many of the modern social computing lessons and though has powerful capabilities, the platform overall is excessively complex and has relatively weak support for the most common Enterprise 2.0 application types, particularly blogs and wikis, but also social networking features. SharePoint, at least out of the box, fails the SLATES test. It's particularly weak around critical capabilities such as encouraging emergence, being freeform enough, and support tagging well (the latter which has proven to be surprisingly important for certain outcomes). For example, one of the more common offerings I saw at CeBIT in Hannover earlier this month was companies selling you the add-ons needed to shore up SharePoint's collaboration features to have parity with newer, more modern tools. To be fair, the SharePoint community has also been proactive on this topic, and the relatively new SharePoint Community Kit goes a good bit of the way towards resolving many of these issues. A quick tour of its features also highlights just how much is missing from today's standard SharePoint configuration.
  2. The technology landscape of the enterprise environment fits SharePoint well; the business requirements to a lesser extent. While Web 2.0 tools are often unique viral and tend to have much better than average ease-of-use due to the competitive nature of the public network, they don't transition well automatically into the Enterprise environment where multi-level security, governance, and policy controls are virtually mandatory and which few of the open source (or even commercial) Enterprise 2.0 tools from consumer world support adequately. SharePoint is strong many of these points with excellent Active Directory integration and better support for enterprise technologies. Sharepoint also integrates well with file servers, documents of many types, and traditional corporate databases, though this also reflects an older version of the technology landscape. While today's enterprise does often not look very much like the Web, at this stage in the game, that's not necessarily a good thing. Governance and policy capabilities in SharePoint are acceptable, but not best of breed and SharePoint has credible unified search capabilities (which is the "S" in SLATES) and works especially well if SharePoint is the only document management, portal, and knowledge management infrastructure in the organization.
  3. The wilds of the open network can be a challenge for Sharepoint. Practitioners I spoke with consistently reported that SharePoint works best with homogeneous environments and not nearly as well when the environment isn't controlled, especially on the browser-side (see this chart for details) and on mobile devices. This makes opening up SharePoint environments to work with partners, customers, and even the general public, one of the more requested Enterprise 2.0 scenarios in my experience, to be more difficult than with other platforms which were designed to function in highly diverse environments.
  4. Self-service capabilities are lacking or not emphasized. One of the important aspects of Enterprise 2.0 is its freeformedness which helps lead to emergent structure and processes. In other words, a blog or wiki can be used for just about any activity by virtue of the ability of the users to aggregate thousands of tiny decisions that affect behavior and content around the work contained within the tools. Traditional enterprise systems, including SharePoint, tend to be more rigid in their ability to be shaped by users and too often force users into pre-determined uses rather than letting the users shape the use of the tools to best fit the work. Many large SharePoint installations consist of hundreds or even thousands of smaller sites, each of which must be made consistent in terms of layout and navigation if centralized administration and governance is to be effective. David Hobbs recently pointed out how rare this is but the 2.0 world has discovered that the more this is handed over to users, the better this works and critically, the better it scales up. The lesson: The more cookie-cutter SharePoint installations are, the easier they are to manage but the more they unnaturally constrain their use and prevent desirable outcomes. Users should be able to create sites within SharePoint, customize them over time to meet the local requirements, and let them evolve and improve through shared contributions. It is, however, by no means impossible to enable this kind of self-service with SharePoint but it does not encourage it nor is it a core design principle for the product.
  5. Cost and complexity. One of the consistent messages I heard when speaking to SharePoint practitioners is the product's complexity and high cost. The diagram at the beginning of this post begins to give a sense of the extent and the depth to the features of the MOSS platform. Invariably, this means highly trained implementors, administrators, and technical support staff are required to deploy and run it, which all add to the total cost of ownership. And SharePoint's inherent sophistication can also mean slow adoption and low engagement by users. In fact, this is a central lesson in Web 2.0 design, that complexity is the enemy of ease-of-use and adoption; most 2.0 products are almost brutally simple in their user experience. SharePoint is also priced as an enterprise product and can be very expensive (at least compared to most Enterprise 2.0 products) for a large installation. However, many licenses are bundled with corporate purchases and as a result many organizations already have client licenses they are underutilizing.

I should be clear that I am not overtly negative on using SharePoint for Enterprise 2.0 and certainly there are those that are doing it. However, emphasizing the tool first, no matter how ready-at-hand, to create an enterprise-class information management solution is rarely the proper way to go -- other than for solely financially expedient reasons -- and rarely is that the only criteria. It also increasingly appears there is no such thing as Enterprise 2.0-in-a-box and that organizations need to find tools that best fit their culture and needs to get the best results.

In general, I'm also finding that IT departments, which are usually rather comfortable running a great deal of network infrastructure with Microsoft tools and platforms tend to favor SharePoint while business users tend to like it less and prefer newer more modern tools. This combined with either already active SharePoint installations or unused licenses means that SharePoint is usually a heavy favorite on the IT side, regardless of whether it will be able to provide the desired Enterprise 2.0 outcomes to the business. And we shouldn't forget that SharePoint isn't standing still as a product either and Microsoft is certainly working on newer versions that will address some of the issues covered here.

These state of affairs, particularly prevalent in medium to large organizations, is increasingly a significant topic of debate as Enterprise 2.0 adoption has achieved a mainstream tipping point within many organizations this year. I've perceived lately that more and more businesses are facing this topic with today's uncertain economic times as the backdrop, making the financial component of the decision much stronger than it would be otherwise. Buyer beware, however, since these choices will set the stage for how effective your workers will be in the coming years. Years that will likely see many organizations needing to marshaling the very best capabilities of their workers to successfully transform to new market conditions and thrive.

Other points of view on SharePoint

Nor am I not the only one grappling with this topic, here are some other good viewpoints on SharePoint and Enterprise 2.0:

  1. Thomas Vander Wal's SharePoint 2007: Gateway Drug to Enterprise Social Tools
  2. Read/Write Web's SharePoint to run Enterprise 2.0?
  3. Bill Ives' Enterprise 2.0 Success Stories on the new Sharepoint
  4. Update: James Dellow's SharePoint and Enterprise 2.0

Where do you stand with using SharePoint for Enterprise 2.0? Please leave your own concerns, observations, and questions in TalkBack below and I'll do my best to respond to them.

Topics: Enterprise Software, Collaboration, Software

About

Dion Hinchcliffe is an expert in information technology, business strategy, and next-generation enterprises. He is currently Chief Strategy Officer at the digital business transformation firm Adjuvi. A veteran of enterprise IT, Dion has been working for two decades with leading-edge methods to bridge the widening gap between business and... Full Bio

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