Differences between SharePoint as an intranet platform and SharePoint as a collaboration platform

I spoke about SharePoint to an audience of intranet managers yesterday. The talk was at J Boye’s ‘SharePoint at work’ event in Copenhagen.

I made the following points:
• SharePoint is not the first platform that an organisation could use both for their intranet and for their general collaboration/document management environment. But it is the first platform to be market leader in both spheres.

• Managing a collaboration/document management environment is a different ball game from managing an intranet environment.

• The scale is different. In an intranet environment you can expect a sub-section of the organisation to contribute a small amount of content on a monthly basis. In a collaboration/document management environment you may reach the point where most of the organisation are contributing on a daily basis.

• The risks are different. In the collaboration/document management environment there will be material with sensitivites (personal/commercial/political). Such material is not typically contributed to intranets.

• The difference between the functionality of SharePoint when used for an intranet and the functionality of SharePoint when used for collaboration is paper thin. In either case you store content within SharePoint site collections. If you intend a site collection to be used for the intranet then you use the publishing site template to create the top level site of the site collection. If you intend a site collection to be used for collaboration you create the top level site with a different template (for example a team site template).

• Organisations typically put site collections intended for the intranet in a separate web application to those used for collaboration, with a separate URL address, different branding and different administrators and administration settings.

• There is no licensing difference between SharePoint Server 2010 used for an intranet and SharePoint Server 2010 used for collaboration/document management. Where an IT department have purchased SharePoint Server 2010 licences (for example as part of an enterprise agreement with Microsoft) it is hard for either intranet managers or records managers to explain why they want to buy and use a different system

• There may well be synergies to be derived from having both intranet and document management happen in the same environment, but realising these synergies is not easy. An organisation might identify valuable type of information (for example research reports), define a content type for it and then surface such material from the collaboration environment onto the intranet.

• If an organisation wants to use content types to leverage and make the most of valuable types of information then it becomes very important to control their content types. There is a tendency for content types, like everything else in SharePoint, to sprawl. Content types can be created in any site by any site owner, and be available not just in that site but in all sites underneath it. The more content types you have the less chance there is of a team choosing appropriate content type(s) for their document libraries.

• Your records manager may want to use content types to apply retention rules and/or to route documents to a records centre. If so they will want to apply content types to large aggregations of documents (record series such as ‘refurbishment project records’ ‘client case file records’ ‘consultation records’ etc.) rather than to individual document types (‘project initiation documents’ ‘research reports’ ‘meeting minutes’ etc.)

• There is no way of using content types for both record series aggregations and for document types (because a document can only belong to one content type at a time).

Question from the audience about document sets
I was asked whether ‘document sets’ (a new kind of content type available within SharePoint 2010) could be used to aggregate different content types. I said that although document sets do aggregate content types, I did not think they would not work for records management purposes.

Document sets were intended by Microsoft for use with compound documents (such as ‘health and safety manuals’).

In theory document set content types could allow a records manager to:
• define a document set content type for a record series (for example ‘refurbishment projects’)
• enable content types to be used within instances of that document set (for example ‘architectural drawings’ ‘contracts’ ‘contractual correspondence’ ‘meeting minutes’).

The problem is that if a colleague uploads a document to a ‘refurbishment project’ document set and gives it the content type ‘meeting minutes’ then it would take its retention rule from the information management policy defined for the ‘meeting minute’ content type and not from the policy defined for the ‘refurbishment project’ document set content type.

Facilitated discussion on SharePoint governance
Earlier in the day I had the pleasure of facilitating a round table discussion about SharePoint governance. Two intranet managers told me that their organisations had decided to apply strong governance arrangements in the site collections used for their SharePoint intranet, but to be much less controlled in the collaboration environment, where team sites would be given to local teams on demand.

We talked in the group about the ‘Pontius Pilate’ attitude to SharePoint of some IT departments who treated SharePoint as though it was a tool set. They provide team sites on demand, and when it grows out of control they say it is the fault of the business for not governing it properly.

Someone else in the group said that the trouble with governance is that at first it doesn’t seem like a big issue, you have a system that you want people to use, there are not many users yet, and there is not much content yet. Later on, when the system has grown and evolved you realise the need for governance, but trying to put governance in place is much more difficult (like locking the stable door after the horse has bolted).

I said that governance in SharePoint is primarily about taking away powers (for example the power of site owners to create sub sites, and the power of site owners to create content types). There is a resource implication to taking away those powers. You need to give people a quick way of obtaining new sites and new content types where appropriate. And that means having people in place who have the ability to judge whether or not the new site or content type is necessary and appropriate. If requests for new sites/content types are granted on demand then you have not added any value.

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