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How To Plug SharePoint's Social Holes

Microsoft SharePoint offers a solid foundation, but many enterprises need to customize it or add third-party tools such as NewsGator Social Sites to get the desired social collaboration capabilities.

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Microsoft and SharePoint were only occasionally in the forefront of the conversations this week at Enterprise 2.0, a UBM TechWeb event, but ever-present in the background.

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Pure play social software competitors may slight SharePoint for not providing a complete enterprise social media environment, but the product is ubiquitous in corporate computing and SharePoint 2010 added fundamental social media features like richer user profiles and news feeds.

In a panel discussion on SharePoint as a social platform, the consensus was that SharePoint contains many of the ingredients of a social application, but by itself doesn't get you all the way there--not without extensive customization or the addition of a third-party product such as NewsGator Social Sites.

Shawn Shell, head of the technology consulting firm Consejo, led the discussion with Sadie Van Buren, a senior software engineer at BlueMetal Architects and Unni Loland, a senior consultant at Bekk Consulting of Norway. All three said they had built successful social sites on SharePoint, but certainly not effortlessly.

Loland said SharePoint offers some good features but that you should plan to customize if you want to use them effectively. "I work a lot in customizing intranets, where Facebook and Twitter have shaped the expectation for how social should work," she said. While it's possible to satisfy those demands, it takes a lot of work, she said.

"It's difficult to create the next good thing because you're limited by what SharePoint offers," Loland said. The list of things customers are often dissatisfied with includes the activity stream, the blog, the wiki, and the discussion forums in SharePoint.

Van Buren added the SharePoint calendar to the list, saying customers often ask her to make it work more like Google Calendar.

Van Buren said that by providing richer profiles and allowing users to create personal MySite pages, SharePoint is giving employees "a voice within the enterprise." SharePoint has become more social by letting you search for "people as well as content."

"What SharePoint does out of the box is so much more now," Van Buren said, but she still has plenty of work to do for the growing number of clients who want to make it work like Facebook.

Loland and Van Buren agreed that SharePoint wouldn't necessarily be competitive with other social platforms, except that so many organizations already have so much investment in it. "Lots of organizations won't even consider the other competitors--they're not going to open the door to other solutions that may be best of breed," Van Buren said.

A couple of audience members spoke up to say, "it seems like it all comes down to, SharePoint works if you customize the hell out of it," and that a successful social SharePoint deployment "involves custom development, a heck of a lot of time, and a heck of a lot of money."

Microsoft did also have defenders in the audience, who argued SharePoint is a broad platform that doesn't necessarily promise to be tailored for every need. "SharePoint is a platform, not a product," Shell agreed, arguing that organizations ought to be willing to invest in customization to get exactly the social environment they want.

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Van Buren said the NewsGator social add-on can be a good solution, and is powerful enough that she hears clients referring to "NewsGator sites rather than SharePoint sites."

Loland said she has found NewsGator to be a good choice because "activity streams actually work the way I expect them to work." She is also investigating Socialcast as a social software option that boasts SharePoint integration.

"NewsGator has got a virtual monopoly right now" on extending SharePoint into a full social environment, said Tony Byrne, president of the Real Story Group and chair of the social apps and platforms track at the conference. Competition is growing from other products that add social features to SharePoint, as well as social software platforms that are deepening their integration with SharePoint, he said.

Christian Finn, director of SharePoint product management at Microsoft Corp. notes that the advisory firm Gartner identifies Microsoft as one of the leaders in social sharing within the enterprise, putting SharePoint shoulder to shoulder with the social platforms from Jive and IBM. However, that same magic quadrant report from October 2010 notes that SharePoint remains more focused on files and documents than personal interaction, putting it "somewhat out of step with overall social software trends."

In an interview, Finn acknowledged there is an opportunity for smaller, more specialized vendors to create social software that adds to SharePoint. "We're happy because a NewsGator customer is also a SharePoint customer," he said.

Independent software vendors also can release updates on a more frequent schedule than is practical for Microsoft, given that SharePoint must be updated on a more deliberate schedule reflecting its status as a platform technology that supports many types of applications. Microsoft's goals for collaboration are "much broader than social," Finn said, and in any case "it's not like social started with Facebook. We always have had social processes. The question is can you build them, can you scale them."

As an example of a powerful social application built on SharePoint, he used the example of ideation--crowd-sourced idea generation--as part of his keynote presentation. Internally, Microsoft uses a SharePoint application called ThinkWeek to brainstorm on product and business ideas. The original "think weeks" were brainstorming sessions Microsoft founder Bill Gates used to host when he was CEO. With Gates retired from that role, Microsoft has graduated to an online system where employees submit papers to be critiqued and commented on, and that process has been paying off, Finn said.

A few years ago, one of those submissions was a paper on how body movements might be used to control computer games, Finn said. That's an idea that led, indirectly, to the creation of the Kinect controller for Xbox--one of Microsoft's current hot products.

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