Coming of age
BY DAVID E. ESSEX
With improved search and collaboration functions, Microsoft SharePoint Server 2007 finally offers some features a project manager can love.
SharePoint has long been the linchpin of Microsoft's groupware and collaboration strategy. Not only is it the networked hub for the collaboration features of programs such as Microsoft Project, it's also the platform behind the many portals—the personalized, user-friendly entry points to shared documents and data—that many organizations placed big bets on at the turn of the century.
Yet SharePoint has always had a bad and largely deserved rap as a lightweight portal tool that couldn't compete with large-scale web platforms. Many of those run on the Linux operating system and Java programming language, rather than Microsoft's entries, Windows and .NET.
Now, Microsoft has made its best effort in four years to release a truly competitive SharePoint.
Released last January, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 has garnered much attention for alleviating some glaring shortcomings.
Microsoft made the most headway with its beefed-up enterprise content-management (ECM) capabilities, including records management and new features for collecting, managing and disposing of documents in conformity with organizational and regulatory policies. Document management capabilities include workflow features, such as check-in, checkout and version tracking, and tools for managing content destined for intranets, extranets and public websites. All that said, SharePoint is still lacking in the power and convenience needed for large-scale ECM, according to analyst firm CMS Watch, Olney, Maryland, USA.
For project managers, the lower-profile features add up to better ease of use and improved integration with both Microsoft Office and Project. Although Microsoft has long sold a server version of Project, SharePoint is now that software's true collaboration server. (Microsoft says Project Server 2007 requires SharePoint and runs on top of it.) Templates provide much of SharePoint's elegance and power. The new version comes with several templates targeted to project managers, including time cards, teamwork sites, multiple project budgeting and project-tracking workspaces.
SharePoint's new Excel services let team members publish dynamic, shared spreadsheets to the web and undergrid an improved dashboard that allows authorized personnel to monitor project progress at a glance.
Microsoft also claims SharePoint has better out-of-box integration with the Office applications team members use daily. Office's desktop authoring tools, such as Word, now have built-in tools that let users set up the workflow features managed on the server and specify which team members have review authority. Reviewers receive e-mail messages and Outlook task updates when their input is needed.
A few high-end upgrades bear noting. First is an enterprise search feature that puts SharePoint in the class of platforms from web server powerhouses such as BEA Systems and IBM. It indexes information according to the people who know it, rather than only by the documents where it is stored. A “colleague tracker” program automatically finds people in your organization with common interests and lets you add them to My Site, your personal web page. It can also index public documents in a shared repository, making them easier to find. SharePoint thus becomes a true knowledge management platform, previously a level of sophistication that only higher-powered competitors provided.
SharePoint remains a good mechanism for putting up a shared portal for a single project or even a project management office. It also has what Microsoft calls “project lite” capabilities, such as basic task management and Gantt charts, but for real project scheduling you'll need Microsoft Office Project, which handles successor tasks, earned value management and the like.
If you don't want to buy and install SharePoint, Microsoft continues to offer impressive collaboration features in SharePoint Services 3.0. It's software you already have if you own Windows Server 2003 and is the foundation of SharePoint Server. With SharePoint Services, you can set up a website for a small project team, for example, but you'll need SharePoint Server for real enterprise-class collaboration powered by strong search and ECM features.
Although I was impressed by how so many of the Office programs can be customized and automatically share data, I found myself getting lost among the many programs. Often, I couldn't find my way back to my main portal page, but that could be solved without much training.
One thing about SharePoint hasn't changed: It is only for “Microsoft houses” that have chosen Windows for their network servers—the workhorses that typically handle e-mail (via Exchange and Outlook), mission-critical server and desktop business applications, and sometimes public-facing websites.
If you work in such a place, this new SharePoint might be just what you have been waiting for. PM
David E. Essex is a freelance journalist specializing in IT.
PM NETWORK | SEPTEMBER 2007 | WWW.PMI.ORG
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