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]

Share