FEATURE
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The Swiss Army knife for information professionals

Ten years after its first beta version, Microsoft's SharePoint is now gathering momentum in organisations around the world. Herve Basset reviews what this means for information professionals

Without any doubt, Microsoft’s SharePoint was the ‘star’ of the Documation exhibition held in Paris in March. In addition, for the first time, Microsoft organised a ShareFEST in the USA in April to focus exclusively on the use of SharePoint by pharmaceutical firms. Almost all information professionals have or will soon have some exposure to SharePoint.

SharePoint is a document management system, a collaboration solution and a web editor all at the same time. Microsoft uses the term EIM (enterprise information management) to describe this collaborative platform. It offers a wealth of functionality, including document and records management, team collaboration, intranet development, social networking and web publishing.

Like a Swiss Army knife, SharePoint has almost everything you need to create a collaborative intranet, although critics and established players might argue that it does not necessarily have the best modules. However, the question is not whether SharePoint perfectly performs all its tasks, but whether your organisation needs to merge all its applications within one system.

One of the key considerations is the time savings of integration; of local applications, MS Office tools (emails, Word documents, etc.), internal production and external content feeds. And, to be honest, SharePoint integrates all these very well, with a light infrastructure. It is easy to deploy, but still leaves your head of IT confident about security and development.

2010 is the SharePoint year

After tough beginnings with the beta version in 2000, SharePoint is now finding its way and becoming ever more widely adopted, especially since its third release in 2007. It has become Microsoft’s fastest-growing product ever and will probably become the market leader, as often happens with Microsoft key products. Thanks to an aggressive licence strategy, millions of deployments have already been achieved. Almost all the big pharmaceutical firms, for example, have turned to SharePoint as the collaborative portal for their internal communication and data sharing. Estimations of user numbers vary from five million to 100 million and it is the only product worldwide that is referenced in six different Gardner’s Magic Quadrants. SharePoint is already one of the most widely-used enterprise platforms, and projections indicate that adoption rates will continue.

To reinforce this massive success, Microsoft is deploying its impressive marketing machine to make 2010 the SharePoint year. SharePoint 2010 is now integrated into the MS Office suite. Windows SharePoint Services (WSS), which, associated with Search Server Express, offers a good basis to start a collaborative project, is now offered free of charge and downloadable by small-business companies. SharePoint might become as common as Word or Excel in our business environment.

The crème of Web 2.0

The latest release, SharePoint 2010, is clearly oriented towards internal social networks and is introduced as the Enterprise 2.0 platform. The first element of Microsoft’s strategy was to keep the best of the Web 2.0 concepts. Using MySite (your personal page) you will feel like you are checking your Facebook profile, except that here your ‘friends’ are your colleagues. The Communicator suite is a mix of MSN, Skype and Twitter. And YouTube-like podcasts from your marketing department can be completely integrated with your intranet platform. From Office Word, you can publish a post directly into your blog with one click. Of course, the blogging solution is lacking when compared to the wonderful WordPress, but it could be easily adopted by your communications department.

Because they don’t require special IT knowledge, some out-of-the-box features like native wikis and blogs can be used easily such as innovative solutions to disseminate knowledge and to communicate to end-users. This is being used, for example, by the OECD Development Centre Library.

The second part of Microsoft’s strategy was to sign partnerships with pure players to adapt core-business applications on the SharePoint silo. NextDOCS and CSC FirstPoint provide complete document management systems, compliant with regulatory requirements. Symix has developed specific web parts to help project teams to share things like lab data, documents and tasks.

OneNote was deployed for Pfizer to help drug discovery teams with collaboration. According to the pharmaceutical giant, first results are impressive in terms of productivity. OneNote is a kind of project notebook where researchers record and share notes and documents within an intuitive interface. It is completely integrated with Office tools and synchronised with the document libraries of SharePoint Server, which stays as the central repository. OneNote is now one of the three pillars of the knowledge management system at Pfizer (the others are Newsgator to collect info and a wiki to capitalise internal knowledge). Teams are shifting to a ‘culture of knowledge sharing’, the holy grail of knowledge management workers, concluded a manager.

SharePoint is the foundation: pick the appropriate bricks to build up your own business wall. This agility could inspire many customers to leap into the world of SharePoint 2010, especially those who consumed energy and (big) money on failing knowledge management platforms in the 1990s.

Applications for libraries

It is not only because the heart of the SharePoint system is called the ‘document libraries’ (the analogy with our business is pretty funny) that librarians must keep an eye on this system. It is mainly because SharePoint could integrate much of our daily activity.

You could use SharePoint as a communication platform to publish your library blog or a learning wiki; or to store training materials and surveys. You could create a collaborative work environment to share documents and dashboards with your staff or your patrons. You could also edit your virtual library with attractive web sites or a luxurious knowledge portal like the Library of Congress did, including online reading rooms, podcasts and virtual tours. As some local editors tend to develop specific web parts for library staff like Inmagic Presto, you could also manage physical or electronic assets to build your own catalogue, to manage your journals collection or to compile your RSS feeds.

So, actually, there are many reasons for information professionals to embrace the SharePoint mania. And there are wider opportunities for info pros too with this tool. Each time that the word ‘knowledge’ is said, librarians really ought to be in the neighbourhood. Many implementations of huge knowledge management platforms have failed in previous decades, because of a lack of information structure. Everybody knows at least one organisation that has ruined knowledge initiatives by lack of metadata organisation, for example. Everybody knows at least one organisation where managers and employees waste precious time trying to find the critical information they need.

People now recognise that we need classification, thesaurus, ontologies, etc. to control a chaotic and exponential growth of the enterprise document system. With their natural practice of thesaurus and classification, librarians should be appointed by large organisations to organise the metadata properly. After 10 years of unstructured data anarchy, the Google-like reign, welcome back to our core values!

Yes, we are talking about convergence of competencies, at the borders of the IT and information science worlds. IT guys are focused on technology while we are devoted to patrons. They manage the structure and we take care of the content. They maintain the network and we deliver the knowledge and make the collaboration efficient.

For all these aspects, it is clear that IPs have a critical role to play, alongside IT teams, in deploying SharePoint in the organisation.

To SharePoint or not?

SharePoint is probably a good compromise between the not rigorous enough applications coming from Web 2.0 and the too heavily structured IT systems. But SharePoint will not solve all the problems with regard to information sharing, enterprise content management, search efficiency, etc., especially if your organisation is not geared up for knowledge collaboration. Like Lotus Notes in the 1990s, SharePoint is not a Magic Wall: it is what IT and information management specialists, associated together, would like to do with it.

Yes, SharePoint might be the next ‘Big Thing’ for information professionals. Shall we watch the train leaving without us as happened with the internet in the 1990s? Of course not! It is time to expand our horizons and promote our skills. I encourage librarians who read this article to jump on the train, to be educated in SharePoint and to move forward in a new career as ‘knowledge engineer’. This way you might become the future SharePoint document librarians.

Hervé Basset is a librarian at a major pharmaceutical company, where his responsibilities include coordinating different R&D libraries in Europe and in the USA. His current interests focus on monitoring technologies (science intelligence) and the application of Web 2.0 to science business

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