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SharePoint governance: Is semantic technology the answer?

"Microsoft SharePoint," one European IT professional told me on a Skype call a while ago, "is the new MS DOS. And much of governance is involved in semantics."

"Semantics?" I asked. I had no data at my fingertips to dispute him. I knew that last year a Microsoft Gold Certified partner shared with me that SharePoint had more than 100 million licensees. If my informant was right about semantics, SharePoint may be the biggest windfall to hit indexing since the invention of the scroll.

With SharePoint's significant market saturation comes a number of challenges, such as training your partners, resellers and users about SharePoint and its features. When a system sprawls across an organization, there is the challenge of making certain that documents are findable and share certain common indexing, and that a user can locate a specific document.

Security can also poke its nose into large distributed systems. Access control lists (ACL) work quite well when two conditions are met. The first is that the ACL is current, accurate and propagated across the distributed network. The second is that users keep their password someplace other than a sticky note in the corner of their cubicle. A further challenge is making certain that the versions of a document are distinct and accessible.

Coping with those and related content challenges has become a modish consulting business. A few definitions or swipes at definitions may be helpful. First, what is SharePoint? The MS DOS quip, while thought provoking, suggests market dominance, not functionality. At Microsoft's SharePoint 2010 site (http://sharepoint.microsoft.com/en-us/Pages/default.aspx), this definition appears:

"Microsoft SharePoint 2010 makes it easier for people to work together. Using SharePoint 2010, your people can set up Web sites to share information with others, manage documents from start to finish and publish reports to help everyone make better decisions."

The main point is sharing information. The definition also calls attention to SharePoint as a system for managing and publishing documents.

Fair enough. SharePoint is a content management system, and it contains sharing and collaborating features. Wikipedia comes at SharePoint a different way. The article says that SharePoint is a "technology that allows a company to host an intranet Web page." Other definitions exist, adding nuances such as centralized, password-protected spaces and a platform on which to implement business processes.

The validity of the comparison with MS DOS is becoming clearer to me. SharePoint supports a number of information-centric applications and the different types of work users do with information. MS DOS supported many types of programs for a personal computer. SharePoint, it seems, supports many different types of information applications for an organization.

We need a second definition. Governance, according to Google, is a word that takes meaning from its context. SharePoint is an application and a platform. There is a governance for linguistics, one for non-profit organizations, one for stakeholders and one for services-oriented architecture (SOA). After reading each of the definitions for governance, the one crafted by SOA4All struck me as appropriate for SharePoint: namely, "a concept used for activities related to exercising control over services in an SOA."

What I found interesting was the keen interest in "governing" SharePoint. Like one of the countries roiled by turmoil, SharePoint appears to require the equivalent of NATO to help keep the software, the content and the users under control. Some of the challenges SharePoint licensees face are revealed in the top-rated technical papers available from the SharePointGovernance.org Web site. At the top of the list is "A Guide to Moving SharePoint Content Out of SQL" by Andrew Chapman. The document is nine pages in length and contains a wealth of information about the technical issues associated with storing binary large objects in Microsoft SQL Server. The solution to the challenge is to move the content out of SQL Server to a file system. The phrase "file system" refers to putting individual files into a directory and file structure.

Another approach is to stuff the SharePoint content into an archive, essentially a giant storage device. The third approach is to move the SharePoint content to a different enterprise content management system. On the surface, the idea seems quite straightforward, easier perhaps than dumping everything into a big storage device or transforming structured information into unstructured information and copying the files into directories. You can download that white paper at http://goo.gl/krhm4. After I read the white paper, a number of questions occurred to me. The obvious one, "Why does a licensee need to move content out of a system designed to manage content?" That remains unanswered.

I did some investigation and found the ideas in "Governance-What Does It Mean for You?" stimulating. You can locate this article at http://goo.gl/3eobY. Governance, in general, touches several different aspects of SharePoint. But the salient idea is that governance helps a SharePoint user "get from the present state (unhappy place) to the future state (happy place)." The implementation of governance involved a consulting project that focuses on understanding thegoals of the system, assisting with organizational change, delivering measurable business objectives and maximizing the value of the client's SharePoint investment. In short, SharePoint governance boils down to figuring out what the system should do and then making the system deliver functions that meet those objectives.

What is evident to me is that SharePoint and governance are the digital equivalent of peanut butter and jelly or any other pair welded into one's consciousness. SharePoint requires governance. That basic observation is not too surprising in the enterprise software and application market, but many products are delivered as tools or individual components. The licensee must shape the raw material into a solution that meets the particular requirements of an organization. The shadow of SharePoint embraces the idea that SharePoint requires governance ... that is, SharePoint can be a handful.

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