Still Bullish on Social Collaboration in SharePoint

For those who know me well, I have been bullish on social collaboration going back to the late 1990's when I co-founded my first software company and helped create a project management solution that was powered by our own social graph. Formed in 1997 with two b-school friends, we were building some fun little solutions, and eventually sold the company. After that, I partnered with my college roommate and brother-in-law who was a developer, creating an online dating site (hey, back then there wasn't much out there — and we had some solid connections and a vision of a quick flip), and built out our own social platform with advanced (and secure!) instant messaging, only to scuttle our self-funded effort after initial discussions with AOL fell apart due to Love@AOL's partnership announcement with Match.com. Well, that and my decision to join a well-funded, VC-backed startup (E2open) in the cloud collaboration space. But I digress…

BullishAt their core, all enterprise collaboration systems, web content management systems, productivity solutions and social networks serve the same fundamental purpose : the sharing of information between teams, and of providing new ways for them to connect. In the evolution of the digital workplace, social computing is quickly becoming the de facto method for how we collaborate. We truly are moving from systems of record to systems of engagement, where the conversations we have — through text, audio, and video — are the information assets.

As SharePoint continues to evolve as a platform, with many of the most innovative features being powered by the Office Graph and other cloud capabilities, many companies are reviewing their collaboration strategies and trying to understand how Microsoft’s vision for the cloud fits with their own enterprise requirements — and the increasingly social habits of their end users. End users are always chomping at the bit to employ the use of the latest, greatest tools — but administrators and decision-makers are concerned about moving away from a centralized platform and back toward a “best of breed” approach that fragments control and governance, and quite possibly impacting team and individual productivity.

Many CIOs are concerned (as they should be) with the impacts these tools will have on security, support and maintenance costs. These are all valid concerns. Asking questions and pushing back on faulty messaging from the OEMs is natural, and healthy. A CIO's chief concern should be in delivering solutions that meet their end user needs while also maintaining some semblance of order. There needs to be a balance between giving users the features and experiences they want and delivering a system that meets compliance, regulatory, and security constraints. Productivity is the goal, of course, but organizations should be careful to recklessly allow every consumer-based tool into their system.

Historically, SharePoint has not been known for the strength of its social capabilities — but I think it's also fair to say that most popular consumer-based social tools fail to align with anything beyond the basic business requirements. IMO, extending SharePoint is still the fastest path to delivering what users want, in a scalable and manageable way.

Social for the enterprise is not the same as enterprise social. While there are many organizations striving to build “Facebook for the enterprise” (including Facebook), what most of them lack are the fundamentals collaboration components — and sheer extensibility — of SharePoint. As you consider all of your business requirements, including but not limited to the social activities your users desire, look at them without the lens of any single tool or platform.

Enterprises need new ways to:

  • generate and take action on innovative ideas
  • connect those ideas across the organization and beyond geographical divides
  • create and act on simple and complex business workflows
  • align ad hoc collaboration activities with business-critical line of business (LOB) applications and systems
  • deliver some form of semantic search capability that can understand what the users are looking for, and then to promulgate ideas and artifacts based on context
  • collaborate in more powerful and meaningful ways across the enterprise

SharePoint continues to be the best platform on the market to deliver on all of these enterprise needs. Extending the social capabilities of SharePoint, whether online or on-premises, will only enhance these capabilities, and help improve productivity. And managing social collaboration inside SharePoint — rather than attempting to support an external tool or cloud-based service — allows you to apply the same rules and best practices as the rest of the platform, requiring governance around permissions, usage and activity, storage, and ongoing auditing.

The key to tying social computing to productivity is to first understand the business gap that they fill, and then to help your end users understand the context (specific use cases, business processes) in which to use them. Provide guidance, best practices, and working examples on how to align these tools with their roles and responsibilities. Develop your plan, train your team, and begin leveraging the many capabilities of SharePoint to meet your future social computing and collaboration needs.

End users want technology to fit the way they work (which is why so many gravitate toward the latest consumer-driven social tools), instead of requiring them to work a different way to fit the technology (what many enterprise applications usually require). The "trick" is to deliver what they want in a way that makes sense to the business, and can be tracked and measured by your key performance indicators. It takes planning, thoughtful consideration of what to measure and how, and many iterations as you learn and adjust.

I remain bullish on social collaboration. In fact, I love the visuals of referring to social as "the fabric" of collaboration. All of this discussion around which tool to use when is just noise — when it comes down to it, it all comes down to managing conversations. You want your solution to be simple, secure, contextual to your content and online movements, and compliant with all of your governance and operations guidelines.

I think I see some partner opportunities in there somewhere…

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Apps & Services MVP, the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and fractional-CMO for revealit.io, tyGraph, and Extranet User Manager.