Can Microsoft Keep SharePoint Rolling?

Its all-in-one approach to collaboration is winning over companies. But that can cause its own problems.

by J. Nicholas Hoover

Microsoft has a juggernaut in its hands and its name is SharePoint. Microsoft has sold more than 100 million seat licenses since 2001 and is on track to generate $1 billion in SharePoint-related revenue this year.

Ask CIOs about their collaboration strategy, and a good number will start rattling off SharePoint projects. The software’s Swiss Army knife approach helps companies create more useful intranets, set up document sharing, offer blogs and wikis, and build a richer online company directory. This boundary-blurring nature is part of its appeal, and can even help in budgeting: IT teams that might not get the nod for document management software have been known to slip SharePoint into the Microsoft Office budget.

But SharePoint’s feature sprawl can be part of the problem. By taking what comes bundled in SharePoint, companies can end up compromising on critical functions compared with best-of-breed tools. And SharePoint deployments easily can go wrong if IT teams just turn on additional modules without considering the business case, requirements, and training needed to make them part of a business process. SharePoint’s all-in-one appeal may lessen as content management standards become more prevalent, making best-of-breed approaches more viable. Still, it’s undeniable that SharePoint’s on a roll because of intense demand to better manage and share an expanding glut of diverse content.

General Mills, a longtime SharePoint user, is replacing all its file-sharing systems with SharePoint and has begun using it for blogs and wikis, and to automate some workflows. The maker of Cheerios, Häagen-Dazs, and 100 other food brands counts 20,000 active SharePoint users, with more than 1,500 people contributing content on a regular basis. “There are people now–and these are businesspeople–whose job is to work in SharePoint,” says Elliot Gerard, General Mills manager of .Net and SharePoint Centers of Excellence.

The company uses SharePoint to manage content for its internal marketing portal, the Brand Champion portal. The entire sales organization hosts all its documents in SharePoint, with new documents posted there automatically distributed to financial directors. While IT manages master page layouts, business units can build one-off sites without IT’s help. “This is why SharePoint has taken off like wildfire here,” Gerard says.

Financial services company Piper Jaffray started using SharePoint recently as global growth meant it needed a more flexible intranet. Its new intranet, based on SharePoint 2007, lets it distribute targeted content to employees as they log in. Since, for example, benefits notifications in different regions might occur at different times, pushing that information out to every employee on a portal could be confusing, says Kathy Swanson, the company’s VP of Internet marketing. Next up: blogs and collaboration workspaces in SharePoint. For example, Piper Jaffray would like a PowerPoint library, where employees know they’re grabbing slides with the most up-to-date company information.

Media and advertising company Universal McCann uses SharePoint 2007 for client-facing collaborative Web sites, plus an intranet that delivers industry news, feeds of activity on other SharePoint sites around the company, and new entries on internal blogs. It has added some social networking features to the company directory (more on that later).


Microsoft rivals are tapping this hot market. IBM remains the market-share leader in content management, through FileNet and Content Manager offerings. EMC’s content management group is growing by double digits and recently retooled Documentum to add collaboration. Oracle’s a challenger. But, says Burton Group analyst Craig Roth, “it’s hard to find a good direct competitor for everything that SharePoint is.”

SharePoint isn’t a strategy, however. Greg Henson, CEO of the Henson Group, which specializes in SharePoint deployment and development, says companies often underestimate what it takes to turn SharePoint into a collaboration tool. They’ll teach how the functions work, but “there’s no real training on how you collaborate on a document within a document workspace,” he says. Using the features isn’t intuitive, because collaborative project workspaces are a different way for people to interact, he says.

Inertia also can take over. Companies get a basic version of SharePoint free with a Windows server, letting them try before they buy. Then, on top of the paid version, there are premium versions designed to deliver features such as search. “It’s a very sneaky strategy,” says Michael Sampson, an independent analyst, and consultant. “There’s an inevitability because they say, we’ve already paid this money for all these licenses, we might as well use it.”

Troy Saxton-Getty, while interim CIO at retail property management company Red Mountain Retail Group, looked at SharePoint for collaboration but decided instead on a wiki platform from MindTouch. “SharePoint is a lot more expensive, a lot more difficult to set up, and honestly not as extensible as I’d like,” says Saxton-Getty, who’s now with the e-commerce site Bill Me Later.

As it tries to be all things to all people, SharePoint lacks functionality in places. Ed Bilodeau chose SharePoint when he was director of knowledge management at the Community Foundation of Canada, an organization of community groups that wanted to move past listservs for information sharing. But SharePoint users couldn’t modify passwords in an extranet environment, so Bilodeau kept passwords in a spreadsheet, eventually buying an add-on from Bamboo Solutions to fix it. SharePoint sends e-mail alerts when new content is posted to a workspace, but replies go to an admin and not the group, dampening casual interaction. “Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t use SharePoint,” he says, adding he’d likely opt for best-of-breed tools for blogging, wikis, and discussion boards.

As always with Microsoft, there’s the concern of lock-in. Companies with SharePoint must use Windows Server and likely the SQL Server database. SharePoint is deeply integrated with Office. “If you buy SharePoint, you buy Microsoft,” Sampson says. “You have to get a lot of other software from Microsoft to get it to work properly.”

There’s some thaw here. Microsoft recently changed SharePoint’s security model to let companies do authentication without Active Directory. It will ship connectors to integrate Documentum and FileNet stores into SharePoint search results. It’s joining an industry group for content management standards.
Companies also can’t assume SharePoint will give them what they want without customization. “We had to improve on what Microsoft gives you out of the box, which is clunky at best,” says Jason Harrison, CIO of Universal McCann. Even then, there are some limitations, he adds, such as a user interface that isn’t customizable enough.

Customizing also can take the form of SharePoint add-ons, which have sprouted into a cottage industry. Universal McCann uses RSS software from NewsGator, called Social Sites, to bring more social networking into SharePoint’s basic profile pages. In addition to news from RSS feeds, employees can see who’s looking at that content and which news items are most read.

In contrast to Universal McCann’s fine-tuning are companies like General Mills, where Gerard estimates 90% of the functionality it needs comes out of the box.

A big advantage for General Mills and many others interviewed for this article is that they have deep Microsoft development skills on staff. But even that capability can cause problems if companies shortchange project discipline with customizations. “The biggest issue is when people cross over to custom development, they don’t treat it like a real software project where they come up with a list of requirements and think of the skills of their own IT staff,” SharePoint VP Jeff Teper says.

Companies that get SharePoint right often start simply, with many of the features disabled. Burton’s Roth says some of the most successful SharePoint 2007 implementations act like enhanced shared drives. When General Mills replaced its content management system with SharePoint, it started slowly, spending a lot of time in pilot tests, coming up with record retention and site creation policies early, and requiring business units to have training before creating new sites.

SharePoint integrator Henson typically sees six steps in a full-blown deployment. Companies start by replacing their intranet, move to document management, and then to forms management. Next comes business process and workflow management, then sharing business intelligence dashboards and enterprise reports, and finally pushing SharePoint capability to mobile devices. Microsoft’s Teper sees companies starting in targeted areas such as file sharing, intranet replacement, or Web publishing.


Microsoft’s adapting SharePoint to the times. It introduced a Microsoft-hosted version of the software, called SharePoint Online, that companies including Coca-Cola Enterprises and Energizer have signed up for. Microsoft promises to have a true software-as-a-service, multitenant version soon.

Microsoft also promises to more deeply integrate SharePoint with Office and third-party applications. SharePoint 2007 introduced a business data catalog to bring data from business applications such as ERP into SharePoint; Teper says improving such integration is the biggest R&D expense for the software. The Duet team, an interoperability effort between Microsoft and SAP, is now part of the SharePoint group. Microsoft plans to add a high-end enterprise search capability from its acquisition of Fast Search & Transfer, but it doesn’t offer a timeline.

Perhaps the biggest question is the role open standards will play in the competition in content management and social software. Rivals such as open-source content management provider Alfresco now have access to Microsoft Office protocols, as required by European antitrust rulings, and they’re using them to offer features such as team editing of Word documents using Alfresco. That could blunt one of Microsoft’s great advantages, its tight integration with the Office suite.

In September, Microsoft joined EMC, IBM, Oracle, and others to collaborate on a content management data-sharing standard, Content Management Interoperability Services. That standard would let companies use SharePoint’s user interface with EMC on the back end, or combine EMC and Microsoft content management systems, but it could decrease the need for a complete platform like SharePoint.

SOURCE: InformationWeek