The Outlook is Bright: Using Alerts with SharePoint Discussion Boards

For the purposes of this exercise, there are three primary team members for my Bottom-Line PM project:

  1. Me: the Queso Grande
  2. Tim: my overall project management guide and advisor
  3. John: my editor here at Bamboo Nation

Heretofore, we have communicated about the Bottom-Line PM project via email.

I’m as big a fan of email as ever there was, but email is simply not the most effective way to communicate about a project. For one thing, sometimes I forget to Reply All, so once in a while, someone important to the project will miss out on a topic to which s/he should have been privy. For another thing, I get a lot of emails and am not always fastidious about sorting them into the appropriate folder in a timely manner, so occasionally an important email will get buried beneath the 20K other emails I get on a daily basis. There are probably other good reasons supporting the idea that email is not the best way to communicate with a project team, but you get the idea.

The solution – and the best practice! – is to use the discussion area on your SharePoint project site to collaborate with your team, instead of bouncing emails back and forth. The discussion list comes built-in to the basic project template that I used to build my Bottom-Line PM site. It works pretty much like any other message board online, so it’s easy to navigate and use – no new technology or interface to learn.

Once I got it set up, though, it occurred to me that, being a busy woman, I don’t really want to have to switch to the browser tab with my project site on it and hit F5 to refresh it every five minutes to see if someone has added something new to the discussion. If only there were a way to have new discussion items routed to my Outlook where they’d catch my attention…

Well, there is. There are actually a couple of ways to do it.

The first one I tried is to link the Team Discussion list from my project site to Outlook. This video about using Office 365 to sync your SharePoint items to Outlook tells you how:

The good news is that it was really easy, and new discussion list items show up in the navigation pane on the left of my Outlook, just like my inbox does. The bad news is that I don’t get a visual or audible alert when a new item lands there. If I happen to look at the discussion list entry in my Outlook navigation pane, and it’s bolded, I can tell there’s something new there. But I get distracted easil… oh, look, a shiny… hey, did I tell you about this really neat… My point is that if I don’t get a little popup on my monitor and a little chime telling me about a new item in my inbox or my discussion list in Outlook, there are good odds I’ll miss it unless I make a concerted effort to look for it. Which isn’t going to happen on a really busy day. Which most of them are.

So I went looking for a way to change the alert settings for non-email items in Outlook, and I stumbled upon a different method of being alerted to changes on my project site, including new posts to my discussion area. Oddly enough, and truly pure coincidence, I found it right here on Bamboo Nation. It was John’s second post ever on SharePoint Blank. Detailed instructions about how exactly to do this are here.

Then I set about testing which method worked best.

Short answer: the alert function within SharePoint worked better for me than linking the discussion list to Outlook. I still haven’t figured out how to get that little chime to let me know about a new item when I link the discussion list to Outlook using the button on the Ribbon. Going through and setting the alerts using the Alert Me function within SharePoint gave me (audible and on-screen) notifications the second the mail server made its rounds.

A couple of things of note. If you are using the “link to Outlook” function, then deleting that item within Outlook also deletes it from the project site on SharePoint. That makes sense, since you have actually linked the two interfaces, and what happens on one happens on the other. The upside of this is that, when Outlook and your SharePoint site are synced-and-linked, you can directly reply to discussion items and create new posts within the Outlook interface. The downside is that if you have an itchy delete finger, you might wind up wiping out a post or even a whole thread on the project site carelessly deleting in Outlook.

The Alert Me function, on the other hand, merely forwards a copy of the new item to your mail server; you’re working with two different servers operating independently of each other. The upside of this is that you can safely delete items within Outlook without fearing you’re wiping them off the project site at the same time when you use Alert Me. But to contribute to the discussion, you have to go to the discussion list URL in your browser and enter your post in a Web form. As far as I can tell, Alert Me is pretty much just a Town Crier letting you know about new items on your project site; you can’t use it to actually generate content for your site using the Outlook interface.

It’s also worth noting that the Alert Me feature works not just for discussion lists, but also for other lists, calendars, changes to documents, and so forth. It’s highly configurable, as is virtually everything on SharePoint. I should also tell you, for the sake of being fair and balanced, that Outlook isn’t the only Microsoft product you can link-and-sync with SharePoint if you choose to go that route, and that you can link each individual component of your project site (other lists, calendars, changes to documents, and so forth) to these other Office tools.

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