Our guest "8 things" columnist today is Greg Clark from C3 Associates, located in Calgary, Alberta. C3 exists to solve a problem faced by most organizations; how to take advantage of the vast amounts of content (documents, email, engineering drawings, web pages, presentations, photos, rich media files, etc.) generated every day in your organization. Greg earlier posted on his perspectives on 8 things SharePoint 2010 needed to be a true ECM System -- this is an update to that post. Greg's a smart guy -- check out his blog HERE, on which this article also appeared.
[I will be publishing all the various SharePoint contributions as an e-book in the next few weeks. As is usual with all things SharePoint, these are Greg's opinions. I'm happy to publish any and all perspectives -- it's a big ECM world with lots of solutions. How about it? What are YOUR thoughts on the role SharePoint should play in an overall information management strategy? What are the issues users should be thinking about in developing a strategy?]
With the release of SharePoint 2010 in beta and the anticipated production release sometime in the first half of 2010 (one source says it will be released late in Q1 but that’s a full-blown rumor, so don’t hold me to that), it is time to provide an update on the latest incarnation of Microsoft’s collaboration/content management/business intelligence/portal/ECM/records management tool.
In an earlier post I listed Eight Things SharePoint 2010 Needs to be a True ECM System, and, at first glance the new version looks very encouraging from an ECM perspective. As I’ve said before, I get excited by anything that can help my clients better manage their information and SharePoint has the potential to be a transformative platform bridging structured content, unstructured content and social computing in one flexible package. SharePoint 2007 does a decent job of this but it has some deficiencies when it comes to managing all content in the enterprise.
I’ll also give you the same caveat I gave last time; While this post focuses on SharePoint as a technology, technology is about the very last thing that should be considered when an organization sets out to manage its content more efficiently. Information management should start with a good business case, appropriate sponsorship, choosing the right areas of focus then building capacity within the organization to truly succeed. Technology is only the last piece of this puzzle. All of that said, there has been an incredible amount of interest in SharePoint (as illustrated by the 7,500 people who attended the SharePoint conference from October 19 to 22, 2009) and many of my clients have questions about where (or whether) this tool should fit into their ECM strategy.
Finally, the updates below are based on my attendance at the SharePoint conference where I went to as many breakout sessions as possible and chased down beleaguered Microsoft staffers to ask questions in what must have felt like a trip to the old Roman Coliseum (with the lions, not with Caesar). I tried to focus on attending ECM-specific sessions and have done as much reading as I can but as a vendor-neutral consultant Microsoft hasn’t seen fit to furnish C3 Associates with a pre-beta version of SharePoint 2010, so I haven’t actually used the system myself. As always we will continue to learn as much as we can about all of the ECM tools and technologies that are of interest to our clients but in the absence of actually working with SharePoint some of our understanding will be incomplete or possibly incorrect. I will provide updates in future posts as I learn more.
I have used a five point scale to evaluate the how well I think SharePoint 2010 meets my “Eight Things” criteria for inclusion into the ECM club. Remember that these are based on only my first look at the tool and are subject to revision as I learn more about how the new features and functions actually work.
- Initial Ranking Scale
5 – Feature exists
4 – Feature exists with some minor shortcomings
3 – Feature exists but doesn’t satisfy all use cases
2 – Feature may exist but satisfies only a narrow use case or feature does not exist but can be created through a customization
1 – Feature does not exist
With all of that out of the way here are the eight reasons I think Microsoft has moved towards a more complete ECM solution.
Eight Reasons SharePoint 2010 Looks Like a True ECM System
1 -- Persistent links
The single biggest shortcoming of SharePoint 2007 is the inability to link directly to a unique object ID. One of the greatest benefits of ECM systems is the ability to send content via a link rather than relying on email attachments. In traditional ECM applications this isn’t a problem; each content object has its own unique ID that doesn’t change regardless of where it lives in the repository. In SharePoint 2007, links break if you rename or move a file. The other benefit of persistent linking is that it enables the management of compound documents (a container that stores multiple documents like the chapters of a book) and the ability to link directly to an older version of a document.
SharePoint 2010 Update: Yes, they’ve finally done it; Document ID provides absolute reference to objects regardless of file renames or content moves. Doc IDs have a default format that’s alphanumeric (eg: FCHGRTB1209309 or something like that) but this can be configured to use whatever format you want. There is a possible “gotcha” here in that this can be turned on or off on a site collection level (I don’t know if it is defaulted on or off) and this could cause issues if it is inconsistently applied; you also need to think through what your numbering protocol will be and take steps to ensure you don’t create duplicate document IDs. One open question is whether each version of a document has it’s own unique ID, allowing links to specific versions.
Initial Rating: 4
2 -- Store once, use many
SharePoint 2007 had a nasty habit of copying content throughout the system rather than using pointers to a single source of the truth (because content links might break as noted above). Perhaps the best example of the misguided use of “copy” capabilities in SharePoint is the “Send to…Records Center” feature where a copy of a document is sent to the Records Center while leaving the original in place rather than either moving the document and leaving a pointer or changing the state of the document to indicate its changed status (see point 3 for more on the RM capabilities of SharePoint).
SharePoint 2010 Update: This concept seems to have made its way into SharePoint 2010, although it doesn’t seem that Microsoft has fully embraced this concept. The new records management capabilities of SharePoint allow records to be managed in place (locking declared records so they cannot be changed) , copying records to a records center or moving the file but leaving a link behind (for more on records management see the next point). However, the ability to create a “document set”, where selected content is added into a new object type that is managed separately still relies on copies of content moving into the new object rather than links. There are likely some legitimate use cases for this feature; gathering documents for disposition or a legal hold, but I get nervous any time a system wants to copy content rather than link it to a source document.
Initial Rating: 4
3 -- Honest-to-goodness Records Management
I recognize that that SharePoint 2007 is DoD 5015.2 certified but the statement from the product development team that the DoD 5015.2 components are “not intended for customers…who would like to enhance the records management functionality of MOSS 2007 with particular 5015.2 oriented features but are not required to run their system in a certified configuration” doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Add to this the fact that SharePoint doesn’t allow users to efficiently manage physical objects out of the box and it is clear that Microsoft needs to decide if they are really serious about the records management space or if they will leave it to partners.
SharePoint 2010 Update: As I hinted above, Microsoft appears to have made some significant strides towards the including true records management capabilities in SharePoint 2010. It leverages the persistent linking capabilities to enable in-place management of records and takes advantage of the contextual ribbon user interface inherited from the Office 2007 / 2010 suite to allow authorized users to declare records. Perhaps most importantly, SharePoint 2010 allows for the creation of hierarchical file plans. The system leverages the greatly-improved connection to the underlying SQL Server 2008 database to allow for the creation of lists that run to the millions of items; handy (necessary) if you want to manage physical objects on any sort of scale.
SharePoint 2010 records management likely isn’t going to replace traditional ECM applications when it comes to meeting stringent compliance requirements and I suspect this is where these vendors will focus their “embrace and extend” strategies when it comes to SharePoint. Although Microsoft says industry standards like DoD 5015 and MoReq were considered when the RM capabilities were designed, I doubt very much that organizations with strong requirements in this area will find that SharePoint 2010 meets their needs and I also suspect that this the current incarnation of records management in SharePoint 2010 is about as far as Microsoft will take this capability.
Initial Rating: 3
4 -- Better metadata management
Metadata in SharePoint 2007 took a quantum leap forward with the introduction of Content Types. However, managing metadata in SharePoint 2007 can be difficult especially when dealing with multiple site collections.
SharePoint 2010 Update: On of the most impressive features of the new SharePoint is the introduction of Managed Metadata Services, which allows administrators to centrally manage metadata and share it anywhere in the SharePoint farm (across many site collections). Microsoft has done a nice job of including “folksonomy” tagging capabilities alongside traditional managed metadata lists. This means that users can add their own tags or keywords to documents (pre-filled with suggested key words both from the official metadata library and based on what other users have done like a YouTube or Google search). While this is configurable on an attribute-by-attribute basis, when enabled it looks to be a very useful way of refining the metadata model over time based on user input because administrators have the ability to add popular user-created tags into the formal managed taxonomy.
Initial Rating: 5
5 -- Reusable search templates and stored search results
There is no question that search is a focus for Microsoft based on their acquisition of FAST and their push into public internet search with the recent launch of Bing. Search in SharePoint 2007 is reasonably good but the tool does not have the ability to either store a “snapshot” of search results for future reference nor does SharePoint 2007 allow users to create reusable search templates. This feature would save users time by allowing them to create a search query then either re-execute that query in the future or add new criteria without having to rebuild the entire search.
SharePoint 2010 Update: One thing I can say for sure; FAST takes SharePoint search to another level. FAST brings some of the best of internet search to the enterprise, allowing users to filter searches based on slider bars common to e-commerce websites and metadata search appears to be both faster and more comprehensive given the closer connection to the SQL Server database. Although I don’t know the licensing model for SharePoint 2010, I strongly suspect that FAST is licensed separately and is likely a relatively expensive add-on. In terms of whether this gets SharePoint 2010 where it needs to be in relation to some of the search capabilities of other ECM tools is unclear at this point, but Microsoft has clearly advanced in this area.
Initial Rating: 4
6 -- More granular security
This is one area where SharePoint was already reasonably strong but truly deep ECM systems include advanced security features like the ability to deny permission to certain objects on an as-needed basis. The current process for managing security is a bit cumbersome but I expect this is something Microsoft is working on. It will be interesting to see if what changes, if any, make it into the final release of the product.
SharePoint 2010 Update: The security model in SharePoint 2010 appears to be fundamentally the same as in SharePoint 2007. Additional security parameters can be set using the latest SharePoint Admin Toolkit and this is an area where SharePoint didn’t need a huge amount of improvement anyway. As my colleague John Meilleur pointed out, you have to be careful what you wish for when applying security; too much granularity or breaking the inheritance model can lead to administrative headaches.
Initial Rating: 4
7 -- Surface the audit trail
One of the things I like the best about established ECM applications is the ability to see who has opened my documents. I find this particularly handy on status report day when I inevitably discover that I’ve made a mistake in the document I’ve just sent out (as an unbreakable persistent link of course). I can check the audit trail to see if anyone has opened the document and if not, make my changes without anyone knowing I’d messed up in the first place. While SharePoint tracks most major audit events, the list of events is not as extensive as in a traditional ECM application nor is this information surfaced through the function menu of the content object.
SharePoint 2010 Update: This is one area where Microsoft appears to have not caught up with traditional ECM vendors. In all of the sessions I attended and in all of the demonstrations I have seen to date SharePoint 2010 doesn’t seem to have surfaced the audit trail in the function menu. In SharePoint 2007 some events are logged but not all; files opened in the browser don’t necessarily trigger a “view” event where MS Office files do when opened using “Edit In Microsoft Office xxxx”. It isn’t immediately clear whether this issue has been addressed in SharePoint 2010 but I hope a closer inspection of our brand new Beta install will answer this question. Audit information can be added to the function menu of a document by applying some relatively simple custom code or you can buy a third-party application but again, any customizations or vendor modules need to be managed and these costs add up.
Initial Rating: 2
8 -- More and more mature line-of-business integrations
This should be a strength of SharePoint given the sizeable .NET developer community as well as the extensive Microsoft partner ecosystem, but SharePoint still has a lot of catching up to do in this area. Organizations deploying SharePoint won’t be able to hold a single vendor to account for a series of modules (or Content Enabled Vertical Applications, as Gartner likes to call them). This may or may not be a bad thing depending on your perspective but established ECM vendors have offerings that satisfy a variety of industry verticals and business functions. To achieve the same thing with SharePoint customers will need to research, purchase and deploy modules from a variety of Microsoft partners. CMS Watch offers a good summary of the issues associated with third party add-ons for SharePoint.
SharePoint 2010 Update: This is still an issue with SharePoint 2010 and will continue to be given the way that Microsoft relies on its partners to extend its products. There were over 200 partner exhibits at the 2009 SharePoint conference and countless hundreds more beyond this so it is likely that most content management scenarios can be met through the purchase of a vendor add-on but as before this adds to the complexity of a SharePoint deployment and increases the total cost of ownership of SharePoint, likely to a point not that different from the prices charged by traditional ECM vendors.
Initial Rating: 2
To sum up, it is clear that SharePoint will continue to have a significant impact on the ECM landscape. The question is whether the functional improvements evident in SharePoint 2010 mean that organizations with significant commitments to other ECM platforms have to start all over again with SharePoint? In the short term, I think the answer is no. In many cases, the true benefit from the investments made in traditional ECM can be realized by surfacing some of this content though SharePoint interfaces; done well this can significantly enhance the user experience while still ensuring that the strong compliance engine in your existing ECM system keeps your content safe and your CEO out of jail.
I suspect that any changes in the ECM world will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. SharePoint is a disruptive technology to be sure, but given it’s breadth, relative lack of maturity and a widely varied partner community Microsoft will help the overall ECM market grow and likely take established ECM vendors with it. As they (used to) say on Wall Street, a rising tide floats all boats.
This is not to say that things will be easy for the makes of FileNet, Documentum, Livelink and others; they have a significant challenge ahead in trying to position their products not relative to one another, but relative to SharePoint (whether they like it or not). The vendors that do this well will continue to thrive and any that choose to ignore SharePoint or do not recognize the significance of the changes in SharePoint 2010 could be in trouble.
Some other perspectives that may be of interest...
- 8 Things That You Should Know About Open Source ECM
- 8 Ways Your Organization Can Improve Efficiency, Increase Productivity, and Reduce Risk
- 8 reasons Google Wave may (or may not!) kill e-mail
- 8 steps to the ISO 15489 Records Management methodology
- 8 reasons why a "big" ECM solution isn't always better