My Sites in SharePoint 2007

My Sites are the part of SharePoint 2007 that is most directly in competition with web based social network applications.   In terms of useability and dynamism they don’t stand up too well in comparison with the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Linked In,  but they do have an important role to play in a SharePoint implementation.   A key point of interest when SharePoint 2010 is unveiled next month will be the extent to which Microsoft attempts to provide a more intuitive social computing facility within SharePoint.

My Sites provide an individual with three key benefits:

  • the ability to display information about themselves to colleagues, through a profile and, if they wish, a blog
  • the ability to store documents in document libraries, and either keep them private or collaborate on them with colleagues
  • the ability to function as a personalised start page

These are functions that the individual could in theory use a combination of a Linked In account, a Blogger account, a Google docs account and an iGoogle page for.  However Brett Young, in a very useful and reflective blogpost describing his organisations experience with My Sites, argues against comparing My Sites and web 2.0 applications:

It is very tempting to compare My Sites to Facebook. It’s not a good idea to do that. First, it builds an unrealistic expectation. Facebook is a Web 2.0 application designed from the ground up as a social networking platform. My Sites are built on MOSS and WSS. Facebook is relatively intuitive. Probably very few people feel the need for Facebook training. On the other hand, My Sites are about as easy (or hard) to use as any other Microsoft application. Frequently functions are hidden deep within complex menus. Seemingly simple functions, such as deleting a list or library throw people off. They invariably come away thinking a My Site is nothing like Facebook.

The second reason that comparisons to Facebook are problematic is that the feature sets don’t align. Sure there are some slight similarities. However, there is nothing in My Sites equivalent to status updates, the comment wall, or friend activity tracking. (No, the colleague tracker web part doesn’t even come close.) That’s fine. My Sites do a lot of cool business-related stuff that Facebook cannot do, like document management, approval workflows, and lists. So, the point isn’t that one is better than the other; it is that while there may be some loose similarities, they are two completely different tools, designed for different uses. It is better to market My Sites for what it is, a document-based, personal workspace with some basic social networking capabilities.

If colleagues do make use of their SharePoint 2007 My Site then it helps the whole ecosystem of a SharePoint implementation.

  • it adds a human element – when an individual contributes a document to a library anywhere in SharePoint a link will be provided to his or her My Profile page in their My Site. This means that if I see a document that interests me I can immediately click on the link to the contributor’s My Site to find out more about them. How good the information is on the profile depends upon whether the individual is motivated to contribute to it (though organisations can usually pre-populate basic role and contact data for staff from other databases).
  • It helps internal communications: My Sites are places to which the organisation can push messages relevant to that individual. The individual can use their My Site to manage their subscriptions to other information sources in SharePoint, and to keep tabs on the various team sites that they belong to or are interested in.

A My Site is a SharePoint ‘site collection’ in its own right, which means that the individual has adminstration rights over it. They can add new pages, or new sub-sites. They can add whatever SharePoint web parts they wish to pages within their My Site. They can give trusted colleagues permissions to view and/or contribute to documents, document libraries, web parts, pages or sub-sites within their My Site.

The high degree of control that an individual has over their My Site has pros and cons.

  • On the plus side it means that it gives the individual scope to experiment and customise and is a great place for them to learn about the functionality available in SharePoint, the way it works and what you can do with it.
  • On the down side some organisations have found that underneath their My Site  individuals have created what are in effect team collaboration sites, visible only to the select group that the individual has invited in to that site, and evading any controls the organisations has put in place to govern and limit the creation of new team sites.  Organisations can mitigate this risk of this by imposing quota sizes on My Sites

Steve Gaitten has written an excellent critique of My Sites in SharePoint 2007, which is much fairer than its title ‘SharePoint My Sites Suck’ would suggest.

Gaitten’s comes up with three killer criticism of My Sites:

  • Useability – Gaitten says My Sites are ‘too hard to personalise – if we’re asking users to choose, add and configure Web Parts to create a basic user profile, it’s just not going to work. Many employees can’t do it and most just don’t care enough to make the effort.’
  • Lack of lifestreaming features – ‘Status is absent. The single most important feature driving the adoption of Twitter and Facebook is the status message. What are you doing right now?’
  • ‘Lack of integration with existing social networks. Social networking is one of those things where you need a lot of people to play for it to work. On that basis alone, I’m skeptical that viable social networks can be formed outside of the largest organizations. You need thousands of users updating profiles, status messages and contributing to the network to keep it interesting. A company with even a few thousand employees may find that there just isn’t enough critical mass for an active social network to form’.

Gaitten gives the reason for the weakness of social computing within SharePoint as being the fact that the My Site feature must have been thought of and planned as early as 2005, when social computing was in its infancy. (SharePoint 2007 was released late 2006). This is a fundamental weakness of packaged software as opposed to applications hosted by the providor.  Think how many times Facebook has radically changed the look, feel and operation of its application since SharePoint 2007 was released. Even if SharePoint 2010 was to come up with a social computing facility that matched Linked in, Facebook, Twitter and iGoogle now, how will it keep up as those applications, and whatever succeeds them, continue developing?