Thursday, July 10, 2008

SharePoint and shifting the Culture

Like it or not Microsoft is tightly embedded in many corporations and the freely licensed Windows Sharepoint Server (WSS) makes the Sharepoint collaboration experience an easy decision for many organizations that don't want to take the time to consider their real needs.

To me SharePoint is a fractured product. It perpetuates the document centric view that has been at the heart of the Office suite for so long. do you feel the frustration of everything being an extra click away because the information you are looking for might be buried in a word, excel or powerpoint document? Do you get frustrated by a word document being loaded inside the browser and in a moment of distraction you close the window and realize you just closed the browser and need to relaunch and navigate down the myriad menus and links to get back to where you were?

I am also coming to a realization that many organizations do not do themselves any favors by the way they deploy SharePoint. Given that the Search tools leave a lot to be desired the tendency to replicate the Shared Drive structure in Folders within libraries in SharePoint leads to a frustrating experience when searching for information. This then is compounded when SharePoint is implemented as a lightweight document repository. The result is often document libraries that are lacking the context and discussion around the documents. In the basic Sharepoint implementation the Discussion libraries are self contained and make it a frustrating experience to link back to other content.

So how can we make things better? How can we encourage a more forward thinking deployment of SharePoint that helps to change the culture to encourage real collaboration amongst team members?

I am facing these challenges on a daily basis. As a result I have been thinking about some principles for SharePoint sites. A set of principles that can encourage collaboration and improve information accessibility. Here is my list. I welcome your contribution to improve this list.

SharePoint Sites - Principles for Collaboration

  • Don't reproduce the shared folder in SharePoint sites and libraries
  • Categorize information in lists to enable filtering, sorting and grouping
  • Keep text out of documents
  • Hyperlink whenever possible
  • Enable comment and discussion around content
  • Make sure version histories are enabled
  • Make information openly readable whenever possible
Don't reproduce the shared folder in SharePoint sites and libraries

Sharepoint makes it easy to create folders inside libraries and sites but it doesn't make it easy to navigate back up through the folder structure.

Wherever possible create additional fields in lists and libraries that allow pseudo folders to be created and then create views that sort, group or filter by those pseudo folders.

Create a category field to describe the type of document. Use this field so that you avoid creating libraries for presentations, white papers, templates and other documents that fracture the overall picture. Setup views to group and filter by document type. When used in conjunction with pseudo folders this allows all documents for a given subject to be seen in one view.

Categorize information in lists to enable filtering, sorting and grouping

As per the previous point. Use additional fields in lists to allow information to be categorized and viewed logically without requiring folders to be created to segregate information.

Keep text out of documents

Use the Wiki library function and the Rich Notes fields in lists to allow users to enter information directly in SharePoint. This avoids the double or triple mouse click to load a word, excel or powerpoint document just to find it doesn't have the information you are seeking.

Use the notes and comments fields when documents are uploaded to allow a description of the document. This can be more helpful than the sometimes cryptic document file names.

Hyperlink whenever possible

You don't need to copy information if you can link to an existing source. Use this capability to make it easier for users to find information as they navigate documents and lists. Hyperlinks can also be used to bring users back to SharePoint and keep people engaged with the sites you create.

This is a practice that is slow to be adopted by many users. Therefore as the site "Gardner" it falls on your shoulders to edit content to add in links when you know they are available. Lead by example!

Enable comment and discussion around content

Don't create a replication of the shared folder where libraries and sites just contain documents. Create A Wiki library and encourage comment in the pages of the Wiki. As per the previous point, link back to content in the document databases.

One simple trick to encourage comment, given the barebones nature of the SharePoint Wiki library, is to finish every Wiki page with a "Comment" headline and a tag "Enter your comments about this page by clicking edit. You can even make "Edit" a hyperlink that is tied to the Edit URL of the page, just copy it from the browser address bar.

Make sure version histories are enabled

I often encounter libraries and sites where versioning of documents is not implemented. Switch this on! It goes a long way to reduce the fear factor amongst new users when they realize that they aren't destroying content if they make a mistake.

Make information openly readable whenever possible

In many organizations the temptation is to over use the security features in SharePoint. The more you have tight controls the harder it becomes for users to make changes. Simple edits, such as for spelling errors become bigger production efforts.

Think very carefully about security. You may want to create a sub-site for Work In Progress that is not ready for prime time and limit the access to just the direct team members. The rest of the site may well be okay to grant at least read only rights to a much wider audience.

Remember the more you tighten the access reins, the more time you will spend diagnosing access issues and granting and revoking access rights.

What have I missed?

That is my seven point list. I am sure I have overlooked something. Let me know your thoughts. What would be your top principles for creating a great SharePoint site that encourages collaboration? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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