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Trending with SharePoint: The Value of Change

Here’s the thing: The bad news about the cloud is that anyone has access to information, from anywhere, 24 hours a day. The good news about the cloud is that anyone has access to information, from anywhere, 24 hours a day.

Which brings us to this month’s topic: SharePoint. I’m aware that SharePoint isn’t necessarily a “cloud” solution (more on that later), but it has become associated with cloud storage and applications.

There’s no question that Microsoft’s SharePoint platform has become the “go-to” application for many IT organizations. It’s stable. It’s scalable (especially in the cloud). And it is, uh, adequate. But that’s not a high compliment, is it?

That’s because SharePoint requires a deep back-depth of support, enhancement and industry-specific taxonomy and company-specific search and find tools.

The thing about SharePoint is that it is everything at the same time. And sometimes nothing at the same time. And by that I am not trying to be critical, I’m just saying that the platform is not as complete as you’d hope it to be. SharePoint is not the be-all/end-all… it’s simply a tool for creating business value. But just as a hammer is a tool, you have to swing it right. With the Microsoft partner model, there is a plethora of vendor applications that address even the miniscule needs of enterprises.

The question remains, is that enhancing SharePoint or adding layers to SharePoint? Interesting notion—that SharePoint actually adds layers of complexity rather than smoothen the road. If SharePoint is so great, what do we need an ecosystem for?

So I sought out an expert (no pun intended) from a company called Expert System. His name is Luca Scagliarini. He is CEO of Expert System US, one of the many SharePoint enhancement partners across the globe. He wanted me to stress that “SharePoint is not all we do.” And it’s true. His company’s text analytic tools are frequently applied to many business applications. But this paper is about SharePoint, and so I tried to keep it on topic.

I sat down with Luca one (rare) warm April afternoon. After a couple of muffed opportunities (long story), we were finally able to talk. In his rich Italian accent, we discussed SharePoint and search and linguistics and taxonomies and text analytics… you know, the usual stuff. It went something like this:

Luca wanted to underscore that SharePoint is just another platform… it’s just one that has a lot of market penetration and lots of enterprises are spending lots of money on it. So he knows where his bread is buttered.

I took taxonomy first. (In full disclosure, these are not my core areas of expertise, so I was counting on Luca to school me.) (And he did.)

So who, I wanted to know, is typically responsible for creating the lingua franca for the organization?

“The reality is that very often creating a taxonomy becomes a very academic exercise,” he begins. “People sit around in a room, and everyone has ideas, and it becomes a very cumbersome process. And very often, it results in an outcome that is sub-optimal, for several reasons. First, it ignores the content that is actually available in the organization. The other reason is that the taxonomy group typically tries to do it all, and boil the ocean.”

The best way to approach a taxonomy, Luca says, is a combination of automation (machine learning) and manual prepping. “The system should provide the metadata tags automatically. You can always add more.”

Putting the Meta in Data

I have always been curious about this: If SharePoint needs so much enhancement, why doesn’t Microsoft do it? What do we need the “SharePoint ecosystem” for? “That’s the magic question,” laughs Luca. “They have provided the infrastructure, but the reality is that they delegate everything to the users.” So Microsoft appears to be satisfied to allow it to be a platform for development further down the line. “Probably,” says Luca. “Probably. It’s one of those things they haven’t thought through too much.”

But that is not necessarily a bad thing. “It’s well known that metadata is a powerful tool. But added with semantic search (usually provided by a third party), it’s a total solution,” he says.

I shift the conversation to the governance issue. Much has been written about the lack of security of cloud solutions (such as SharePoint), which can expose organizations to risk and compliance abuses. If your employees can copy content and carry it home, and share it on collaborative sites, and alter it at will… yeah, I think security is an issue. All manner of content misuse remains pos­sible under SharePoint. For many organizations that store sensi­tive content in SharePoint—such as those in government, healthcare and law—that’s too little restriction for comfort.

Anyone can start a SharePoint repository, for a project or a meeting, etc. And just as easily, they can walk away from it and forget it exists. That creates enormous problems, not only with storage costs but also with legal exposure issues. What should one do about that?

Luca calls it “the mess under the bed.” He writes, “Remember when you were little and your idea of cleaning your room meant shoving everything under the bed? Thinking that you have solved all of your information management issues just by implementing SharePoint has a similar result: same mess, just better hidden. Without question, SharePoint is an essential component of your business productivity infrastructure. However, frustration in finding what you need quickly is still a common theme among users, and only grows as more content is added and more instances of the platform are developed.

“The immediate post-implementation benefits of SharePoint (all of the content in one place, organized, visually appealing, etc.) are often followed by a sharp decline in usefulness as large volumes of unstructured data are added to the platform,” Luca adds. “As a result, users engage less, and SharePoint quickly goes from the solution to just another tool. We’ve seen it time and again: Despite the platform’s potential and functionality, content findability actually decreases as content repositories grow in volume and number. Frustration, and distrust in the platform naturally follow.

Unfortunately, this does not match with the expectations and demands that have been put on our content management systems by the enterprise, and rightly so.

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