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Examining SharePoint 2010 and Outlook 2010 synchronization gotchas

Wondering why SharePoint and Outlook aren't syncing as they should be? First learn why, and then pass on these rules of thumb to your users.

The ability to synchronize SharePoint 2010 content with Microsoft Outlook 2010 is especially important to organizations that rely on collaboration. Unfortunately, synchronization is not always the pain-free experience that administrators and users might hope for. Because each SharePoint component must be synchronized individually, gotchas between SharePoint 2010 and Outlook 2010 can crop up.

SharePoint document library synchronization

When you synchronize a SharePoint 2010 document library with Outlook 2010, the document library is displayed as a folder within the email client. When configured correctly, Outlook indexes all the documents within the synchronized document library. This allows users to find documents based on their content directly through Outlook 2010.

The big gotcha of SharePoint document library synchronization is that the integration process is one-way. If a user checks a document out of a SharePoint document library, modifies the document and then checks it back in, the changes are synchronized with Outlook 2010.

However, document changes made through Outlook might not get uploaded to the SharePoint document library. If the user modifies something other than a Microsoft Office file, any changes made through Outlook will not be synchronized to the SharePoint document library, and the user's edits will eventually get overwritten.

Users often edit Microsoft Office documents through Outlook when they are offline. For example, if a mobile user has Outlook cached mode enabled on his laptop, he can access all content in the SharePoint document library. If the user edits a SharePoint document, he can upload changes to SharePoint upon returning to the office.

The problem is that Outlook does not track modifications to SharePoint documents. If someone else edits the same document while the aforementioned user is offline, the change made might be lost.

When it comes to synchronizing SharePoint 2010 document libraries with Outlook 2010, be sure to tell users that they should use Outlook only to read documents, not edit them. If users need to modify SharePoint documents, they should check them out through the SharePoint Web interface rather than edit in Outlook and risk losing data.

SharePoint 2010 synchronized tasks

When a user synchronizes a SharePoint 2010 task with his Outlook 2010 client, the synchronized task appears beneath the Other Tasks option in Outlook's navigation pane.

Unlike SharePoint document library synchronization, task list synchronization is two-way. Changes made in Outlook are synchronized to SharePoint, and SharePoint changes are synchronized to Outlook. This type of synchronization happens automatically.

The main gotcha with SharePoint and Outlook task synchronization is that a user's view might not always be up to date. This can happen when two (or more) users simultaneously view or edit a task in both Outlook and SharePoint.

If a user updates a task through Outlook while another user is viewing the same task in SharePoint 2010, the SharePoint view of the task might not get automatically updated. The user may have to refresh the browser window to see the latest task information.

Similarly, if a user edits a task in SharePoint, an Outlook user might not immediately see the changes. The only way an Outlook user can guarantee that he is viewing the most recent task information is to do a quick send/receive.

SharePoint and Outlook contact synchronization

Contact synchronization between SharePoint and Outlook is similar to task synchronization. Like task synchronization, contact synchronization is two-way. If an Outlook user and a SharePoint user both modify the same contact at once, changes made to the contact are not immediately displayed.

Outlook users can get the most recent contact information clicking on send/receive, while SharePoint users can get the up-to-date information by refreshing their browser windows.

IT admins and users need to be aware of these Outlook and SharePoint synchronization problems when multiple users try to access the same data. Explain to users that they should use Outlook as a SharePoint document viewer and not for editing documents, contacts or tasks.

Brien Posey is an eight-time Microsoft MVP with two decades of IT experience. Before becoming a freelance technical writer, Brien worked as a CIO at a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the nation’s largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox.

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