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SharePoint is a hit for Microsoft but still clunky for IT

SharePoint is Microsoft's fastest growing server software, but IT managers still grouse about its lack of acceptance and the difficulties in supporting this increasingly common collaboration platform.

BOSTON -- For Microsoft, SharePoint has by many estimates been a runaway success, but for many IT pros and business users here this week, the enterprise collaboration software is no game changer. In fact, in some cases it can be an expensive boondoggle.

Everyone agrees that SharePoint is here to stay. Some IT experts say it's quickly becoming the de facto collaboration platform not just in Windows shops but also at companies that may not traditionally consider Microsoft platforms -- say, those with a large population of Unix and Linux machines.

But for many IT managers and users gathered at the Enterprise 2.0 conference , it hasn't really changed their work processes or opened up the enterprise to easy collaboration. At least, so far.

One IT consultant acknowledged that social media applications have a real place in the enterprise, but managers must pick their battles and install technologies that end users could see a benefit from using and that help them do their jobs. With SharePoint 2003 and Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007, SharePoint hadn't moved past its core content management application functions, said Carlo Delumpa, a Portland, Ore.-based consultant.

On the other hand, social media applications like blogs, wikis and chat services are winners among office workers. "They actually use these things," Delumpa said.

But Delumpa knows that SharePoint is everywhere, particularly since Microsoft distributes a free version, Windows SharePoint Services, which comes as an add-on to Windows Server 2003 SP 1 and 2008. Microsoft made its latest version, SharePoint 2010, available in May. The latest version supports only 64-bit hardware, but adds the Office ribbon interface. It also adds better search features and enables larger lists and user libraries.

"What Microsoft was able to fix [in SharePoint 2010], it's done a good job of," said Craig Roth, an analyst at Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based consulting firm. "On the technical side there are a lot of improvements."

As to the nontechnical issues associated with SharePoint uptake -- well, there's not much Microsoft can do about that. Governance is still hard and SharePoint still steps on the toes of existing applications. End users don't always know what they want. They think they do, but they then realize when they get into [it] that it may not be what they're looking for, Roth said.

Installations are doomed by poor planning

One of the problems with SharePoint installations is that they can lead to more silos within a company, said Rick Ladd, who is recently retired from a twenty-year career in the aerospace industry. Ladd worked with his firm's SharePoint installation from the start.

When planned poorly, a SharePoint site inside a business unit could lead to balkanization. Tech savvy and advanced users might take advantage of SharePoint and put it to use. The majority of end users would only do so under protest. Ladd said that the fault lay mostly on how it was deployed.

"They kind of threw it over the fence," he said. "But that's an IT problem, that's not SharePoint ."

SharePoint doesn't work for every employee

An IT professional at a large northeastern manufacturing center who declined to be identified, said the effort of deploying SharePoint had been an expensive lesson in futility. "We've been learning all about the things SharePoint still can't do; [but] it can help you spend money," he said.

At the heart of it, he said the intranet collaboration software platform just wasn't enough of an improvement on how documents and information were shared and changed. "You could probably find 3% of users in my company that say they absolutely love it," he said.

More on SharePoint:
New SharePoint 2010 adds features for admins

Kicking the tires on SharePoint 2010

Adding virtualization to SharePoint governance

He added that the response of most users ranged from completely ignoring the SharePoint application to active hostility. The administrator said one example was the research and development unit, where scientists absolutely refused to share or collaborate on their findings because of the company's convoluted incentive system.

"We pay them for [making new] inventions," he said, and consequently, researchers kept handwritten logbooks that could prove a breakthrough. But [they] wouldn't share with co-workers for fear of getting scooped on a patent or new product. He added that the firm was still using Office 2003 on the desktop, which made it impossible to use many of the features that SharePoint touts as integrated.

Hard to get your arms around

Beyond poor planning, one reason companies still have trouble understanding SharePoint is that it has so much built-in functionality – content management, intranet, blogging, Wikis, etc. Some of the features are close to being the best available, and others may be just good enough.

"After it is installed, IT may not even be able to manage it and may let it go," said Joel Oleson, a SharePoint evangelist and product manager at Quest Software Inc., in Aliso Viejo, Calif.

If enterprises don't use SharePoint for quick and inexpensive deployment of business intelligence to the masses, or intranets, blogs, wikis, etc., then why do they use? There are likely to be better point products out there. "Perhaps there is another specialized application," Oleson said. "But what other platform does all these things in a cheap way. It's goo that can be quickly deployed."

According to SharePoint boosters, that goo can take any form the organization wants.

Margie Semilof contributed to this story.

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