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SharePoint: Transforming the information have-nots into the haves

This article appears in the issue January 2012, [Volume 21, Issue 1]
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I really enjoy how quick and easy it is to find information on the Internet. We all take it for granted now, but it wasn't too long ago that tracking down information was completely manual and incredibly time-consuming.

When I was a kid, there were two camps of people: those who obtained information from their own set of encyclopedias, and those who had to trek to the public library for information. I was part of that second camp and always felt a little out-classed by the kids who had information at their fingertips, in their own homes (the haves). Sure visiting the public library was fun, but I didn't get there too often. It was in the center of town, and we lived in the suburbs. When it came time to do school projects, I was at a disadvantage (the have-nots). Information was not as easily accessible to me as it was for my encyclopedia friends.

The Internet has changed that situation for many of us. Today, if you have a computer or smart phone and Internet connectivity, you have access to vast amounts of information. You can research, socialize, shop, bank, play games and so much more. As I look back, I would never want to return to the time where instant access to information was for the select few. It's a good thing those days are over. Or are they?

Corporate information haves and have-nots

Sure, getting information on the Internet is quick and easy, but what about the intranet? The network in your corporate office can often be one of the hardest places to find information. Can you instantly find the information you need on your corporate network? Many people can't.

I'm a SharePoint consultant. When I work with different companies, I'm always amazed at how challenging it can be to find information. In most organizations, it seems like a lot of information is stored in file shares and e-mail. We somehow have to find people who have the inside track with information, the ones who have been with the company long enough to know where everything is (the haves). It's difficult to feel self-sufficient and empowered when you have to continually ask for information (the have-nots). So often the response is, "Let me check my e-mail" (thousands of e-mails) or "Go ask Billy. He has that information." It feels a bit like having to borrow someone else's set of encyclopedias to get the information you need. Not cool.

Document libraries

So how can we improve this situation and start empowering information workers? Simple, we must get them the information they need in a similar fashion to the way they get information on the Internet. Let's start by creating rich content and then serve it up with a powerful search engine. SharePoint is a great tool for empowering information workers. It allows you to move beyond storing information in file shares and e-mail and start collaborating and collecting knowledge.

The obvious first step is to store documents in SharePoint document libraries instead of file shares. Search will find the information in the documents and serve it up to users who have access to it. SharePoint document libraries are a big improvement over file shares because documents can be checked out while working on them. That keeps users from overwriting each other's work. You can turn on versioning and keep major and minor versions. With versioning, you can maintain a running history of how documents evolve over time. You can collect metadata with the documents, and it will be crawled by the search engine. You can also run workflow on documents to automate business processes

Blog and enterprise wiki sites

Two items that are similar to document libraries for collecting knowledge are the SharePoint blog site and the enterprise wiki site. Those sites use Web pages instead of documents to collect information. Blogging is a great way for individuals or teams to publish knowledge for others to consume. If you decide to blog in SharePoint 2010 and have Microsoft Word 2010, try using Word as a Blog Writer for SharePoint. It does a great job formatting text, tables and graphics. The enterprise wiki is a good way for many subject matter experts (SMEs) to share diverse information with the entire enterprise. You should set up a process for reviewing information, but don't discourage users from contributing. Create an environment that encourages users to share knowledge with their co-workers.

Leveraging those three items—SharePoint document libraries, blogs and the enterprise wiki-is a great way to move information off file shares and into a rich searchable collaborative environment.

To address the issue of discovering knowledge trapped in e-mail, organizations can move some of their e-mail conversations to online discussion forums. SharePoint 2010 has a powerful discussion list that connects to Microsoft Outlook 2010. When discussion items are posted to SharePoint through Outlook, it works like normal e-mail, but there are big advantages over private conversations. Online discussions can be searched by users who were not part of the original conversations. This is where knowledge sharing and discovery really shine. Instead of having to ask someone to check their e-mail for information, they can search for the information and find it in a discussion forum.

Commitment

An important dimension to the success with those forums is that SMEs must engage by replying to questions posted on the forums. This is a commitment they must agree to, but it's easier than it sounds because you basically move the questions from private e-mail to "public e-mail." You address the questions once either way, but multiple users can benefit from the knowledge if the answers are made publicly.

All editions of SharePoint 2010 include search, but the basic version included with Windows Server, called SharePoint Foundation, does not scale to the enterprise. The basic search can only return results from within the site or list from which you are searching. If there are resources in other locations, you just won't find them. For those reasons and others, SharePoint Server Standard or Enterprise should be considered. The search capabilities in those two editions go well beyond the base edition.

Other search offerings

Microsoft has other search products that work with SharePoint. At the low end, Search Server 2010 Express is a free download worth checking out if you're on a tight budget. At the high end, FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint has sophisticated capabilities that will impress even the most hard-core search technologists, while satisfying user business needs by quickly and efficiently finding what they need.

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