SharePoint Portal Makes For Enterprise-Wide Collaboration

What a way to learn. I was with my colleagues Dave and Geoff, a couple of people from Microsoft, and a dozen or so customers at Glen Arbor Golf Course. We called it the Nicom IT Solutions/Microsoft “Golfinar”, a combination golf game and seminar.

Before we hit the links, we had a hands-on demonstration of Microsoft Office SharePoint Server, MOSS, the fastest-selling server software in Microsoft history. If you haven’t heard of it, chances are you will soon. Actually SharePoint has been out since 1999, but it is with the latest release along with Microsoft Office 2007 that it has really taken off. Some of our employees have been working with it since 1999, but they tell me it is this release that has reached the maturity required for large-scale enterprise-wide adoption.

So what is SharePoint? Well, to use an overworked word, it’s Portal software. It enables you to easily create personal web pages, team web pages, and corporate web pages. These web pages can be on the Internet but, more often than not, they exist on secure
corporate networks – Intranets. They allow individuals within a corporation to publish content and share information in a collaborative environment. This is great, for example, when teams work on a common document like a proposal. Everyone can see each other’s
work, and a history of all revisions is kept. And when the corporate network is backed up, so is all your work.

Typically, portals revolve around a corporate page – the Enterprise Portal Page – and visitors can drill down from there to division pages, team pages, and individual pages. These are fully searchable so, if you’re used to going online and using Google, you can easily find information in these portals. Microsoft calls this “Social Computing”, a grown-up version of Facebook if you will. In fact, they’ve greatly enhanced SharePoint’s Enterprise Search capability, which not only searches data on the portal, but can be made to search other corporate databases as well.

SharePoint comes with a whole library of templates that you can use right out of the box and these are great for setting up online forms to gather data and for instituting business processes. For example, there is a template for hiring an employee, and all the associated “paperwork” is there by way of online forms. The HR department could load up these forms and tweak them as required for publishing on their portal. Enforcing tight business processes and control over content is something that organizations are interested in for egulatory requirements as well.

Areas on the web page that hold these forms and document-sharing places and bits of content are called “web parts”. Web parts can be made to do anything you’ll typically see on a web page. They can hold static information or can hold online applications that can be as sophisticated as you want. One good use is for business intelligence – gathering and displaying information that has been summarized and organized in a way that makes sense to the viewer.

This is one area in which our clients are showing a great deal of interest. They want to create web parts that reach into their corporate systems and provide up-to-date performance indicators. We call these “Executive Dashboards”. To make this all work, you need programmers who are well versed in this technology, because you can’t find templates that already know your in-house systems. But it can be done in a very customized fashion and that is one of the great powers of SharePoint.

You don’t need programmers for everything, however. Microsoft’s SharePoint Designer is a facility that enables end-users to manage content on SharePoint sites. SharePoint also comes with facilities for instant messaging, meeting scheduling, video conferencing, email, etc. And since it is part of Microsoft Office, all these facilities are tightly integrated with Office. This integration is great for project management, and you guessed it, it comes with project-based templates for Gantt charts, scheduling resources, etc.

The bottom Line: With products such as SharePoint, Microsoft is clearly positioning itself as a major player in the enterprise world. Now that there is a computer on every desk, the time has come to make these computers communicate in a meaningful fashion throughout corporations. Look out, here they come. Fore!

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