The SharePoint Swiss Army Knife

Swiss Army KnifeLove it or hate it, you can’t ignore SharePoint.  Thanks to the might of Microsoft, SharePoint has become part of the technology and knowledge management conversation at law firms all over the world.

While not every law firm has deployed it, most I’ve talked to are thinking about it.  Unfortunately,  all that thinking is giving them a headache.  Some don’t understand exactly what SharePoint does.  Others have read the marketing materials, but are disturbed by the mixed reports they are hearing from colleagues at other firms.  At a recent meeting I attended, a colleague from another firm summed up SharePoint rather succinctly: (i) SharePoint is a pretty decent Portal and provides a convenient platform on which a firm can gather and display information from a variety of silos, (ii)  it has aspirations of being a document management system which when fully realized could make it a powerful player in this space, and (iii) it provides some workflow tools that are much needed by law firms.

One of the biggest problems with SharePoint seems to be that it has been marketed like a Swiss Army Knife: capable of doing lots of things.  However, the tools provided aren’t always up to the job.  A case in point is SharePoint’s social media tools.  For example, in one recent listserv conversation someone asked about the experience of others in deploying SharePoints blogs and wikis.  The uniform response was that those tools were rudimentary at best and ultimately proved disappointing.  In fact, each respondent said they were looking for a better, more functional third-party tool that they could plug into SharePoint.  What nobody discussed was the opportunity cost of using SharePoint first and leaving their user group dissatisfied.

Initially, I thought the concerns about SharePoint and social media were more about the user interface and lack of full functionality.  However, while attending a webinar this week on using taxonomies in SharePoint, I heard something that gave me pause:  one of the experts on the panel said that while SharePoint appeared to offer the ability to have both top-down taxonomies and bottom-up folksonomies, you really could not (and perhaps should not) deploy both.  That struck me as wrong-headed so I consulted with the father of folksonomy, Thomas Vander Wal.  In an exchange on Twitter, he told me the following:

  • SharePoint’s understanding of folksonomy is really poor and really mangles some things.  Data structures are right. Others not so.
  • In folksonomy the co-occurence of terms works in similar fashion to hierarchy, but SharePoint doesn’t make that easy.
  • The folksonomy should identify gaps in taxonomy and help inform it, but SharePoint didn’t grasp that so it doesn’t work there.

These statements might at first strike you as succinct (or perhaps cryptic), but that’s a function of the size limitations of Twitter.  Regardless, the message comes through loud and clear:  while purporting to provide social media support, SharePoint appears to have misunderstood some basic things about how social media work such that the underlying SharePoint structure seems to resist or hinder full social media functionality.  As a result, firms that are relying on SharePoint to provide a full social media experience may well be disappointed.

To be fair, you may be able to open a wine bottle and slice a piece of cheese with your Swiss Army Knife, but are you actually able to use it to prepare a nutritious and delicious meal?  It seems that the SharePoint Swiss Army Knife suffers from similar limitations when it comes to social media.

[Photo Credit: AJ Cann]

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13 thoughts on “The SharePoint Swiss Army Knife

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  • February 25, 2011 at 3:25 pm
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    To be fair to SharePoint, there are many things it can do well. Many organizations find it could or does have some value. Relying on SharePoint to do all that it says it can do is where things get to be problematic. Knowing what you need and strengths and weaknesses is a real trick.

  • February 25, 2011 at 4:27 pm
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    SharePoint is useful in law firms beyond social. The big driver for me is providing a variety of tools on top of a consistent security platform. Yammer, Mediawiki and other social tools might be far better at what they do, but they lack the consistent enterprise security model that is needed in law firms (especially where ethical wall implementation is needed). I am just starting to look at taxonomy and folksonomy in SharePoint, but my initial thoughts are that it is likely good enough for the firm. Taxonomy can be added, and I question the scope of folksonomy usage, at least beyond a few who desire to take advantage of it for personal use. SharePoint is the framework, we need to accept that certain things will need to be built on top of it.

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  • March 1, 2011 at 12:18 pm
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    I agree with the point.But we surely need a third party tool to make share point perform better. StorageEdge is also a good third party tool which answers all those problems which Share Point is not able to. Here have a look : http://www.alachisoft.com/stor

  • March 2, 2011 at 5:56 am
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    Thomas –

    It all comes down to understanding when it is appropriate to use a Swiss

    army knife and when you need specialty tools. With respect to SharePoint,

    perhaps we've been led to expect it to do too much.

    – Mary

  • March 2, 2011 at 6:03 am
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    Sean –

    There's no doubt that SharePoint brings some value to law firms —

    especially as a common platform for development. However, the vendor has

    perhaps over-promised and under-delivered with respect to social media

    tools. For those of us who believe that social media tools could help

    transform the way we work, it's frustrating to attempt this new way of

    working while hampered by deficient tools.

    With respect to the taxonomy/folksonomy issue, I'd suggest that the

    folksonomy is a valuable way of ensuring the taxonomy stays relevant and

    fresh. Without it, you're resigning yourself to a perpetually outdated

    taxonomy or lots of administrative time spent curating the taxonomy. Even

    worse, the folksonomy glitch in SharePoint is an indicator of Microsoft's

    failure to really understand what makes social media so valuable.

    – Mary

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  • October 26, 2011 at 7:16 pm
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    Whereas the origin of this great article seems to be relative to the regulated needs in law firms, the findings articulated to me seems perfectly true.

    I have always found it hard to sell knowledge sharing to law firms – perhaps because that would make it less reasonable for them to charge customers for providing the same advise again. Cynical perhaps, but then again worth a thought.

  • October 26, 2011 at 10:57 pm
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    Thanks very much, Niels. While some may share your cynicism, I believe there are many law firm professionals who enjoy the challenge of finding innovative ways of helping their clients. Therefore, they would prefer to have knowledge systems so that they can reduce the amount of time spent recreating the wheel and spend more time preparing original advice.

    – Mary

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