By Mike Gunderloy and Susan Harkins

It’s time to consider one of the biggest selling points of Microsoft’s latest Office version: “Integrated Collaboration,” as Microsoft calls it. This bullet point in the marketing documentation covers a number of Office System features. High on the list are meeting workspaces and document workspaces. These two features both use Office applications to leverage the document-sharing and management capabilities that are built into Windows SharePoint Services (the successor to the current SharePoint Team Services). In this installment, we’ll give you an overview of these features, talk about the prerequisites for their use, and help you decide whether they’re worth implementing in your own organization.

But what is SharePoint?
SharePoint is the overall name for Microsoft’s Web-based collaborative technologies. SharePoint version 2 will ship in roughly the same timeframe as Office 2003, and includes two distinct products:

  • Windows SharePoint Services is an underlying set of database and Web services that installs as an optional component of Windows 2003. Windows SharePoint Services lets you set up as many individual SharePoint Web sites as you like.
  • SharePoint Portal Server is a more complex, enterprise-level portal built on top of Windows SharePoint Services. It’s designed to let you combine sites from multiple servers across an enterprise.

Microsoft has not yet announced pricing or availability details for SharePoint version 2, but one thing is clear: It will require you to install Windows 2003 to run the SharePoint server. If you remember the previous installment in our series on Outlook, you’ll see that this is a common theme of the Office 2003 System. You can use Office 2003 on any version of Windows, but for the most effective collaboration experience, you need to have Windows SharePoint Services available in your organization. And that, in turn, requires installing Windows 2003 on the box that will host SharePoint.

Meeting workspaces: Organize for efficiency
A meeting workspace integrates SharePoint with Microsoft Outlook 2003. To create a new meeting workspace, click the Meeting Workspace button when sending out a meeting request from within Outlook. This will open a meeting workspace Task Pane directly within the meeting request, as shown in Figure A. Here, you can create a new workspace on your team’s SharePoint server (here, and elsewhere in Office, called the Team Web Site). When you send the meeting invitation, other attendees will receive a link to the meeting workspace.

Figure A

A meeting workspace is a special sort of SharePoint site. By default, the site will have sections for Objectives, Attendees, and Agenda. You can also add other sections (called Web Parts in SharePoint) by clicking the Modify This Workspace hyperlink. In Figure B, we’ve added a Document Library Web Part to the workspace so that attendees can review important documents related to the meeting. Clicking a document lets you open and revise it in the appropriate Office application.

Figure B

The meeting workspace is a good demonstration of the principles of integrated collaboration in Office 2003:

  • The collaborative data is stored in a SharePoint site.
  • Users can manage the site themselves from their browsers, without any administrative help.
  • Data is stored in Office documents and edited in Office applications.
  • The workspace captures all facets of a particular task or activity.

Document workspaces: Effortless collaboration
Document workspaces provide a document-centric (rather than meeting-centric) way to collaborate in Office 2003. A document workspace is designed to help a group of users collaborate on one or more documents. Office 2003 lets you transform a Word, Excel, or PowerPoint document into a document workspace simply by collaborating with other users in ad-hoc ways. When you invite others to collaborate on the document or assign tasks, you’re creating a document workspace, even though you never work directly with SharePoint.

You can create a document workspace without leaving your Office document. For example, if you have a Word document open, you can select Shared Workspace from the Tools menu. This will open the Shared Workspace task pane. The task pane opens with the Members tab highlighted, and prompts you for a workspace name and a location. Choose a name, fill in the address of your SharePoint server as the location, and click Create to create a new document workspace with you as the default (and only) member.

As part of creating the Document Workspace, your document is stored on the SharePoint server, which also keeps track of members, tasks, and other information in the document workspace. Any member of the document workspace can open the document directly from the server, or check out a copy to work with on his or her local hard drive. The Shared Workspace task pane (shown in Figure C) includes a link to the document workspace (Advertising Prospects is the name of the workspace in this case) and six tabs.

Figure C

You can use the link to open the document workspace in your browser. From left to right, the tabs have these functions:

  • Status: Displays alerts and other status messages
  • Members: Displays the members of the workspace
  • Tasks: Displays the tasks in the workspace, together with their status and to whom they have been assigned
  • Documents: Displays the documents in the workspace (although a workspace starts off with a single document, you can add as many more documents as you like)
  • Links: Displays the hyperlinks in the workspace
  • Document Information: Allows you to see who has last modified the document and its version history.

A document workspace provides you with an easy way to set up a group to collaborate around a particular document or group of documents. The built-in tabs let you work with SharePoint’s features without ever opening SharePoint. If you need some of the more advanced SharePoint features (such as a discussion group), you can jump from the document to the actual workspace in your Web browser with a single click.

So is it worth it?
The capabilities of SharePoint, and its deep integration with Office 2003, are quite impressive. In addition to the features we’ve highlighted in this article, SharePoint also offers a Web services interface and a complete object model, meaning that you can integrate it easily with other business processes with a minimum of development effort. If your business involves exchanging documents or holding meetings (and whose doesn’t?) then the meeting and document workspace aspects of SharePoint hold the promise of substantial benefits. In addition to organizing all of the relevant information for a task or meeting in one place, workspaces help cut down on disk storage requirements by keeping a single copy of each document on the server. This can translate into very real hardware cost savings.

But remember: There’s no collaboration here without Windows SharePoint Services, and there’s no Windows SharePoint Services without Windows 2003. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that your experience with previous versions of Windows will enable you to successfully install and administer a Windows 2003 server. There are many new features in the new version, and many old features have been moved around or reworked. You should factor in some training time even if you’re only going to add a single SharePoint server to an existing method.

Test drive, before you buy
Fortunately, Microsoft is making it very easy for you to test-drive all of the relevant pieces. You can order an evaluation copy of Windows 2003 from Microsoft’s Web site, and while you’re there, you can pick up an Office 2003 beta as well. If collaboration is attractive to you, we recommend a pilot deployment on three to five test boxes. Set up a few dummy accounts and create some workspaces. Then think about how the results will fit into your corporate workflow, and whether the time and hardware savings will outweigh the software costs. Only then will you have enough information to make an informed decision.