2012 SharePoint Conference – ECM? Nothing to See Here…

November 19th, 2012

After last year's SharePoint Conference I wrote about the change in tone, subject matter and attitude in the Microsoft SharePoint community. Specifically, it appeared that Microsoft and their partners were starting to recognize the importance of information governance, not just IT governance. In Anaheim last year there was a lot of talk about moving SharePoint from a tool focused on the IT department toward becoming a truly enterprise application with the associated governance maturity required to make it run smoothly and systematically solve business problems. This new focus on governance was welcome and I thought it would be the start of a continued evolution away from SharePoint being simply a platform with a high "cool factor".

I was wrong.

At last week's 2012 SharePoint conference Microsoft was back up to their old tricks of focusing on fancy features and enabling information workers to store unstructured information with little regard for the long term implications of poor or no governance. Sadly, this seems to be a cycle; hype the "cool things" your users can do when there's a new release then, once you realize the chaos this can unleash, get back on the governance bandwagon.

There were three key themes for this year's conference. You astute ECM experts out there will notice that none of these areas have much to do with ECM, which I will get into below.

The themes for SharePoint 2013 are:

1. Social / Mobile - The biggest changes coming to SharePoint in the 2013 version have to do with "socializing" the tool even more. There is a new timeline feature that allows users to follow individuals or ad-hoc hashtags, kind of like an internal Facebook timeline. This looks compelling although there is a lot of overlap with Yammer, which Microsoft recently acquired. Only limited work has been done to connect the two products but given that the acquisition happened barely six months ago I'll cut Microsoft some slack here.

Microsoft is seeing the same trend AIIM is seeing and is trying to get ahead of it. As AIIM's fearless leader John Mancini talked about in his keynote at last year's AIIM conference, it's all about employee engagement. I commend Microsoft for building a platform that makes it easier to connect people to people but it would have been great to see core ECM concepts like persistent URL linking based on object ID, stronger support for metadata or more robust auditing included.

As for mobility Microsoft has enhanced the overall mobile device experience in SharePoint 2013, including the ability to access BI content, geolocation and an optimized mobile browser experience, among other new features. You can learn more from TechNet here.

2. Cloud – Microsoft had a big push on for Office 365 and for the use of SharePoint in the cloud generally. The one feature that got a lot of air time was SkyDrive Pro, which is the business version of Microsoft's public SkyDrive cloud storage service. There was a big deal made of the ability to drag-and-drop any document into your SkyDrive Pro site then share it out with anyone inside or outside of your organization. Notwithstanding the significant security risks of granting access to your corporate documents to outsiders, SkyDrive Pro seems like a governance nightmare waiting to happen. If end users are able to / encouraged to upload "their" documents into a private space, it goes against the core ECM concept of "single source of the truth" because it very likely leads to users storing copies of documents that are in other users SkyDrive sites or shared drives. It also makes security administration very difficult because each individual user has secured "their" documents differently. The drag-and-drop feature, while a welcome improvement, doesn't prompt for metadata even where there are required fields in standard document libraries. Again, this is a significant shortcoming from an ECM perspective.

Fierce Content Management's Ron Miller was also at the conference and has written about some of the challenges inherent in moving to the cloud and also adopting a social business strategy. I agree with his assessment that it is a positive SharePoint is moving towards the cloud but how quickly clients follow them there remains to be seen.

3. Apps – SharePoint 2013 includes an "app store" model. The idea here is that "simple" applications can be purchased by end users and loaded onto their team sites. This model is consistent with Microsoft's desire to set end users free. This is a laudable goal but without proper controls in place your organization will end up with a fragmented system that is expensive to maintain and difficult to upgrade. There is nothing wrong with an App Store model per se, but the almost total lack of discussion about the governance considerations for App purchases was a real disappointment.

ECM 'Features'?

As for ECM there are a few minor improvements in SharePoint 2013, but my read is that Microsoft has said "we've done what we're going to do for ECM in SharePoint". One exception is an eDiscovery feature that allows a user (presumably one with Admin-level permissions) to place content in a legal hold by searching for certain terms. Although this is a nice enhancement to SharePoint there are some significant shortcomings in the way it has been implemented.

First off, there's no guarantee the information you find by using a full-text search will give you relevant results. Searches done with the embedded FAST search engine (I will say the inclusion of FAST search in all versions is a nice improvement in SharePoint 2013) will likely result in extraneous content. If your legal counsel asks you to hold all documents related to Smith and Co, you're very likely to find content created by Susan Smith, Sam Smith and the 33 other Smiths in your organization whether it is relevant or not. The tool will allow you to use metadata queries but that assumes you're using metadata in the first place. Given some of what I've discussed above there's a good chance this is the exception rather than the rule. Once the legal hold is in place users are still able to edit any content they previously had access to edit, although the legal hold tool will retain the version in use at the time the hold was established. In my mind, best practice would dictate that the person placing the hold should have the option to lock down the content subject to hold.

The new Site Mailboxes are a nice improvement. These allow users to configure an Exchange mailbox as part of their team site that makes it much easier to drag and drop relevant emails into a collaboration or project team site. The mailbox will also appear in Outlook, streamlining information access. Unfortunately, as with other new features, metadata is an afterthought here. When asked about this most presenters seemed perplexed why I would want to use custom metadata in the first place, and said if I did, users would simply have to go back and add it later.

The Future

In the end I predict SharePoint 2010 will have a very long life, especially for those organizations who have used it as a cornerstone of their ECM strategy. Unless your organization has a strong business driver to implement the social side of SharePoint, or you really want to go to the cloud, SharePoint 2013 offers little in the way of enhancements to its base ECM capabilities. As always, your business case for WHY you are using SharePoint (or any other ECM application) is far more important than what fancy features or functions the tool may have. The key to success is focusing on a solid information model, governance plan and change management strategy rather than expecting any tool to make or break your information management program.

With all of that said I remain a big fan of SharePoint and believe it can help most organizations address their core content management and ECM requirements with a bit of planning and forethought. Over the coming weeks I will write about how you can take advantage of some of the very powerful capabilities of SharePoint while working around some of the shortcomings and in the meantime I look forward to your feedback.