What ever happened to the Collaboration Revolution?

If your employees consider collaboration as nothing more than a good theory, take a look at SharePoint Team Services, a new offering from Microsoft. Columnist Tim Landgrave explains its strengths and weaknesses as well as what it can do for your staff.

When the first Novell network was installed, IT managers made the first of many promises to their users that collaboration would be the cornerstone of future productivity. Once it was clear that the network wasn’t the “Holy Grail” that would provide huge advances in collaboration technology, e-mail became the next savior. The great thing about e-mail was its ability to deliver documents and discussions to lots of people inexpensively. The problem, of course, was that someone had to merge changes from multiple authors, filter through comments from all recipients, and restart e-mail chains in order to complete the loop.

Then came groupware. Pioneered by Lotus Notes, the concept was simple and elegant. Add a development environment to electronic mail to allow advanced collaboration functions to be coded as part of a messaging transaction (or series of transactions). Groupware products like Notes (and versions of Microsoft Exchange starting with 5.0) provided simple tools for users and advanced development options for “real” developers. But the application creation and management process turned out to be more difficult than the results were valuable. In 1996, the Web became the publishing mechanism of choice because a simple HTML client viewer made sharing published documents easy—but interactivity was limited. Corporations adopted Web technology in the form of intranets—the collaboration mechanism for corporations.

It seems that collaboration has never been fully realized, and potential benefits have been sidetracked from overinflated promises and sluggish progress. But there may be hope on the horizon, in the form of Microsoft SharePoint Team Services (STS). I'll take a look at this new offering and discuss what benefits your team could gain as well as some limitations you'll need to know about.

Progress is still limited
Most collaboration today is still done by moving documents around through e-mail. Microsoft Word has seldom-used document discussion features. Group editing is basically nonexistent. Sharing of calendars, events, lists, etc., is still done mostly with one-way intranets and isn’t an interactive experience. Companies are looking for ways to make it simple for their users to create “self-service” collaboration systems.

Most CIOs have figured out that simply giving a department access to Web servers and HTML editing tools doesn’t translate into satisfied intranet customers. And, pushing the intranet down to departments doesn’t allow the departments an easy way to share local information among their employees and business partners.

An inexpensive jump start for collaboration
Lost in the hype behind Microsoft’s Office XP announcement and the release of SharePoint Portal Server, Microsoft’s home-brewed portal product, is perhaps one of the best pure “deals” available today. Microsoft combined their FrontPage Server Extensions and the Office Server Extensions, enhanced their usability, and released a low-end version of SharePoint called SharePoint Team Services (STS). STS ships with Office XP, FrontPage 2002, and is also available through ISPs who are members of the SharePoint Web Presence Provider program. Where SharePoint Portal Server requires both server and client licenses, STS requires only a single FrontPage server license and no client licenses. STS can also use the Microsoft Data Engine (MSDE), a scaled-down version of SQL Server, to store the metadata required to run a simple portal with a limited number of users.

STS allows your users to create simple ad hoc information-sharing sites and set up their own users and permissions using simple Web-based menus. Once activated, users can publish documents and then use the discussion and notification tools to facilitate group document editing and management. The sites can also include other collaboration tools such as surveys, event calendars, and custom lists. Searching capabilities make it simple to find documents within an STS site. STS will meet the needs for the vast majority of departments who need simple collaboration capabilities. Before you adopt STS, however, be aware of its limitations.

What’s the catch?
First, it doesn’t scale well beyond about 75 users per site. Second, extensive customization requires knowledge of FrontPage 2002 (earlier versions don’t work). To get advanced capabilities like document routing, check in/check out, and document versioning, you have to upgrade to the full SharePoint Portal Server. Finally, although you can store any type of document on STS, to take full advantage of the ease of use, you need to be running Office XP. Why? With Office XP, the ability to update and manage an STS site is built in.

For example, you can save a file or load a file directly from an STS site using the same file dialogs you would use for the local or network file system. If you’re using earlier versions of Office or non-Microsoft applications, then you’ll have to use the Web file upload mechanism to upload files to the site.

Microsoft critics will complain that STS is a Trojan horse designed to force users into upgrading to Office XP and SharePoint Portal Server. But unless there are other compelling reasons to upgrade, our experience with STS is that it provides some significant collaboration functionality beyond what most companies have already implemented without having to upgrade.

You probably will want to upgrade the database engine from MSDE to a full-blown SQL Server 7.0 or SQL Server 2000 installation. Performance in MSDE has been throttled to make simultaneous connections by more than five users tedious, and at 10 users, unacceptable. Assuming a 10-to-1 simultaneous connection average, that will limit you to between 50 and 100 users per installation of STS. (Of course, you can also install multiple STS Servers and MSDE installations to get around this limit.)

Many companies will also find it more cost effective to take advantage of hosted STS implementations. These allow you to get up and going quickly without making a lot of infrastructure investments. If you have remote offices that need simple collaboration services, this could be a cost effective way to provide them.

What's the state of the Collaboration Revolution going on at your company?
Is this term still regarded as just another buzzword around your office, or are technologies and work habits in place that allow true collaboration? Send us an e-mail and share your experiences.


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