Microsoft is pushing SharePoint Server 2010’s social computing features with a vengeance, to an international user community that is now Facebooked to high heaven. Can SharePoint change the enterprise as deeply as Facebook has changed everything else?

This subject is near and dear to me. Social computing is my thing, as all my Facebook pals will confirm, I think. I’m a firm believer that the connectedness and information-pooling the Internet and social sites offer us are game-changers, for better or worse. I dare anyone to convince me they aren’t here to stay, which leaves us to decide what better or worse it will be and whether it can do us some good in the workplace.

I’m arguing that it can, if we look in the right places.

What Microsoft is pitching us

Microsoft’s marketing hordes have much to work with here, and you can’t sit through a SharePoint 2010 dog-and-pony show without getting a plate piled high with social computing features. Here are a few of the biggies.

Finding other people. Not too long ago, my high school class had one of its big reunions, and at this point in time we’re all friended on Facebook, so we had months and months of perpetual old school. At any hour of any day, I knew where my childhood friends were and what they were doing, and the prevailing joke among us was that all our mothers were crowded around a monitor in a server room somewhere, checking up on all of us.

And now this is actually part of Facebook: if you want FB to report your physical locale to the world, along with your thoughts of the moment, you can configure it to do so. And SharePoint is following in FB’s footsteps: Microsoft is telling us that people-finding makes us all more accessible to one another. Hmm. When people on Facebook passively announce that they’re at Taco Bell, I don’t feel edified. It’s possible that if I’m at the office, I might be even less interested.

Finding expertise. In addition to telling us where other people are, SharePoint can now tell us what they know. One of the new social computing features is to inventory everyone’s skills and interests — to recast people as content, attach metadata, and make it searchable. That’s a fun concept, if nothing else. From a practical standpoint, I guess there might be a situation where such a feature could tell me something about someone I don’t already know, but so far I’ve used it only to find other people in my company who love Doctor Who.
Remote teamwork. Between laptops for everybody, the Internet, and stocking up on VPN bandwidth, the organizations we work for have made work-from-home not only practical but preferable. With SharePoint 2010’s Office-interactive coauthoring features, everybody can be home in their jammies and still write presentations and reports together collaboratively.

How social media will hurt the workplace

Granting that all these can bring about culture change, I’m wondering whether these particular changes are good ones. Consider that while not having to go to other people for information or access to it might be a time-saver, it is also isolating us a bit more. The same is true of the remote pajama parties and never having to look for anyone.

We wind up more autonomous, I suppose — but as culture change goes, this doesn’t necessarily take us in the best direction. I like the fact that I need my coworkers. I like going to them for this or that. To see them less and need them less wouldn’t necessarily strike me as an improvement.

What we really need

Whatever the marketing folks are trying to sell us and however useful that may or may not be, the truth is that most of our corporate cultures could do with some tweaking. But I really don’t think the tweaks they’re hawking are the tweaks we really need.

I’m about to suggest a couple of things that are really, really simple. But culture change that really matters and really takes hold for good is a very bottom-up, nuts-and-bolts thing — so here are some bottom-up, nuts-and-bolts changes that will alter the way we think about our work and our information and that will trickle into our communication.

Please, an end to email! Not a literal end, of course — we still need email for, well, mail–but look at us! We’ve become so pathetic in our use of Outlook et al. that we actually hold meetings in email — and if it’s possible to be lamer than that, we actually save those emails as project documentation. Not all of us are guilty of this, of course, but be honest: haven’t you at least been an unwilling participant?

SharePoint sets us free. Leveraging team sites and collaborative workspace (and even that jammies thing), we can reduce email to what it should be: the ringing bell that tells us something needing our attention is sitting there in our team site, where it should be, waiting for our input or review.

True utility for our unstructured content. More and more, the content we need doesn’t come in the form of data, but in files of exotic types and other materials that need storing and have been, up to now, dumped in file shares, where only John Conner dares to go. The new taxonomy management features of SharePoint are not touted as a social computing boon by the marketing flunkies, but — think about it! We can now store almost anything in SharePoint, via SQL RBS, and with the taxonomy tools, we can tag it as we please. Which makes it discoverable. Which makes it shareable. That, my friends, is meaningful change.
An end to folders. I’ve saved the best for last. If there’s any change we can bring about that will change our corporate mind-set, it’s the death of file folders. The hierarchical file system is the worst thing that ever happened to business computing, a legacy of brain-numbing organizational rigidity and time-wasting linearity that taught us, not to organize information, but to see just how cleverly we could hide it.

Basing our collaborative use of information around the metadata-driven SharePoint library structure, forsaking fixed-dimension file storage for flexible, multidimensional views, makes everything better for everyone. Bravo, SharePoint!

The irony, of course, is that the whole folder thing is Microsoft’s fault to begin with.

What is culture change, ultimately? Change in how we do things? To some degree, certainly; but the changes that matter aren’t so much changes in what we do, but changes in how we think. That’s where SharePoint can really give us a starting point.

I’ve got loads more to say about all of this, but right now the refrigerator calls …