Yesterday I gave a joint presentation in Sheffield on SharePoint in higher education to IWMW10 (an annual workshop for people running websites in UK higher education institutions). I was presenting with Pete Gilbert of the University of the West of England. There is no love for SharePoint amongst web professionals in higher education, which made the reaction to the talk very interesting (and in particular the Twitter backchannel under the hashtag IWMW10) .
Before I talk about the backchannel’s reaction, I’ll describe some conversations I had in the tea break immediately after the talk.
Pressure on web teams to use SharePoint as a content management system
Two people from two different universities came up separately to tell me the same story: they are running a web site, and they have experienced unwelcome pressure from their IT departments to use SharePoint as their web content management system (CMS):
- One of the webmasters is working at an institution which has abandoned a selection process to choose a web content management system. Instead their IT department, in conjunction with the Marketing department, has decided to pick SharePoint as their web CMS, without involving the wide group of internal stakeholders that had been part of the abandoned selection process.
- The other webmaster responded to similar pressure at their institution by dedicating time to finding out about SharePoint and successfully making the case that SharePoint was not the right Web CMS for them
Oxford University’s SharePoint implementation
Ian Senior from Oxford University updated me on their implementation of SharePoint as an internal collaboration system. SharePoint provides a great many configuration choices for owners of team sites. Oxford have sought to reduce this complexity by narrowing the scope of their implementation. They are concentrating on rolling out SharePoint to research teams, and to committees, and have devised template team sites tailored for those particular pieces of work.
Edinburgh Napier’s SharePoint implementation
David Telford from Edinburgh Napier University came up to discuss their SharePoint implementation. Napier are the nearest thing to a SharePoint flagship in UK higher education. They are running SharePoint for their external web site, their internal web site, as a student portal, and to provide collaboration sites for staff. This is supported by a team of four .Net developers. David says that on average two Universities a week come up to Edinburgh to see what they are doing with SharePoint. This creates a pressure on web teams in other institutions, as some of the visitors to Edinburgh Napier return to their own institutions expecting their web teams to replicate the Napier example, using SharePoint.
My position on SharePoint
The Twitter back channel during our talk was unanimously hostile to SharePoint, and gave some very valid criticisms of the product.
I am used to hostility to SharePoint, because my home milieu is the records management community, where most people dislike SharePoint profoundly. However people in the records management community are usually hungry to hear about SharePoint, whether that is because they wish to marshall arguments against it, or to find ways of mitigating the weak records management functionality in it. I got the impression at IWMW10 that there was hostility to there even being a session on SharePoint at the conference, which surprised me.
In the face of such a reaction it is hard not feel a pressure to take a position for or against the product. I have no interest in taking a position for or against SharePoint. My profession is as a trainer and consultant and my job is to help people understand complex phenomena so that they can make decisions about them. I talk about SharePoint because it is there. There are some moral issues in life you have to take a stand on, but I don’t see SharePoint as one of them. I have seen plenty of reasons to be cynical about the SharePoint phenomena, but also reasons to admire some of the things that fellow professionals have done with SharePoint.
Reasons to be cynical about SharePoint
I have seen an IT director bulldozing through SharePoint too quickly and without thought or preparation in order that he could add ‘rolled out SharePoint to an entire organisation’ on his CV. I have seen IT departments undermine established document management systems in organisations by simply signing enterprise agreements with Microsoft and rolling out or making available SharePoint team sites.
I agree with the person I spoke to last year who questioned the ethics of Microsoft promoting SharePoint 2007, which had no support for accessibility standards, for use as a web content management system in higher education.
In my own professional area, records management, Microsoft themselves have behaved cynically. They released SharePoint 2007 with records management functionality that was half-baked and not ready for use. Instead of admitting its inadequacies, they continued to claim that their product could be used for records management purposes. Microsoft contracted an external organisation to write some code that they did not support, and that would prove useful to no-one, purely in order to gain certification for SharePoint 2007 against the main US records management standard.
Prior to the release of SharePoint 2007 most IT departments were not interested in what content management their organisation used, or which collaboration or document management system was chosen. The relevant professionals in those areas (web teams, knowledge managers, records managers) would normally be able to take the lead on that. As soon as Microsoft, with its established relationship with IT departments, issued an enterprise content management system of their own in the form of SharePoint, you began to get IT departments promoting SharePoint. The fact that SharePoint client licences are available to IT departments bundled up with Window, Exchange and Office effectively pulls the rug from under the feet of professionals wanting to chose an alternative system.
There is a legitimate debate about whether or not SharePoint can be regarded as free. You still have to pay for servers, for server licences, for SQL server licences, and if you want to use it for an externally facing web site or extranet you have to pay for an external connectivity licence. And of course you are paying for the bundle itself in the form of the Microsoft Campus Agreement or Enterprise Agreement. But the fact remains that is perceived as free or very cheap by organisations who would be signing that agreement with Microsoft anyway.
Reasons to admire things that people are doing with SharePoint
Despite my cynicism about some of the actions of some IT departments in relation to SharePoint, I also find some uses of SharePoint interesting and even inspiring. I admire implementations like those at Imperial College and of Pete Gilbert at UWE. They both started small with SharePoint, built up knowledge of the product, and offered it as a solution where teams have come to them with a particular need or problem. These implementations have tended to concentrate on SharePoint for internal collaboration, rather than SharePoint as a web site. I also admire David and his team at Edinburgh Napier and their pride in the fact that they have made a tool, that many find difficult to use, fit the needs of their institution.
What I am admiring here is not SharePoint as a tool. It is the professionalism of people like Pete at UWE, David and his colleagues at Edinburgh Napier, and of the team at Imperial. This professionalism manifests itself in their efforts to get to know SharePoint, and in their disinterested and honest advice to colleagues on the circumstances in which SharePoint would be (and would not be) useful to them. That professionalism would be equally admirable if Napier were using Plone as a web content management system, or if Pete at UWE was rolling out Lotus Notes.
That professionalism and care is a million miles away from an IT department choosing SharePoint for the sake of it, which is a practice I deplore.