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Getting to the point

1st of October, 2002
   
 
 
With over 3 million client licences sold, Microsoft's SharePoint Portal Server is rapidly emerging as a leading solution for knowledge management, document management and intranet portals. David Peterson shares what he knows about SharePoint.

BigCo had a big problem; one that was costing them many millions of dollars each year. Being a large, multinational conglomerate with dozens of subsidiaries, hundreds of office locations and tens of thousands of employees worldwide, BigCo was having lots of problems with communication and information sharing. A survey of professional staff found that although there was a great deal of communication within each office, interactions outside the comfort of one's own immediate circle of colleagues was much less common - and virtually non-existent between its subsidiary companies. Furthermore, because of a series of acquisitions and restructures, some divisions were not aware that some of the other business units even existed. [BigCo is a real company but its name has been changed to protect the innocent.]

Poor communication may not sound like such an earth-shattering issue, but its impact can be quite severe in a company of BigCo's size. With one hand not knowing what the other is doing, there will be significant wastage and duplication of effort as each division builds its own software systems, writes its own policies and procedures, conducts its own research, and negotiates its own agreements with suppliers instead of collaborating with other parts of the organisation to re-use what has already been done and take full advantage of the benefits that should be inherent in a large company.

Information is being increasingly recognised as the lifeblood of the modern business. Without information sharing and organisational learning there is no ability to benefit from the experiences (both successes and failures) of others. In BigCo's case, with no systems to support collaboration, professional staff in remote locations were effectively on their own when trying to solve problems, even though a wealth of experience was available across the rest of the company. For example:

  • Each site maintained its own Occupational Health and Safety system to identify and monitor workplace hazards and to plan corrective action whenever a safety incident occurred. Because this information was not shared with the rest of the organisation, the 'lessons learned' at one site could not be readily passed on to alert other sites of potential hazards in their working environment - leading to many serious workplace injuries that could otherwise have been avoided.
  • Having identified problems with the management of suppliers, the US branch invested $500 000 in the development of an eProcurement system. As the system neared its scheduled completion date, however, it became clear that deficiencies in the expertise of technical staff would mean that the system would never function as intended. They also discovered that one of the company's Australian divisions had already developed a far superior system (one that actually worked) for a fraction of the cost.
What about an intranet?
Once it was thought that having an intranet would be the solution to such problems. BigCo already had an extensive intranet but it wasn't helping; it simply reflected the existing divisions between the business units. Each office ran its own Web site independently of the rest of the organisation and without reference to any corporate information management strategy.

Poor architecture was another major barrier to the success of BigCo's intranet. To find information, a user would have to search across 30 or so separate intranet sites; even then, there was a good chance that they wouldn't find what they were looking for. The Web sites were also expensive to maintain, requiring specialised IT staff to convert documents to HTML and update content when it changed. Few managers were willing to commit scarce resources to Web sites with little obvious business benefit and as a result, most of the sites were extremely information poor, all were out-of-date, and many contained little more than an 'under construction' banner.

Consequently, knowledge remained locked up in proprietary databases, on password protected network servers, in emails, on the hard drives of individual PCs, or in people's heads. BigCo knew that it had a problem, and was certain that a Knowledge Management strategy was what it needed to solve that problem. The big question was how.

What is knowledge management?
Simply put, knowledge management involves tapping into the collective intelligence of an organisation and aggregating and sharing that knowledge to create a powerful strategic asset. The principle is reasonably straightforward - if you have ready access to the collective brainpower of the rest of your company, you will be able to work smarter and more effectively; you will be better equipped to identify new opportunities and far less likely to make costly mistakes. Organisations are filled with individuals with deep knowledge of narrow and specialised areas. Sharing this knowledge puts expertise in the hands of all staff in the organisation. The overall 'corporate IQ' rises and the bottom line improves.

In practice, knowledge management is a little more complicated. Creating a corporate culture of information sharing and organisational learning can be a lot of work. Staff have to be encouraged to think beyond the task at hand to the goals of the organisation as a whole. Incentives must be in place to discourage information hoarding and to reward behaviours that improve the corporate IQ.

There must also be a technology infrastructure in place to facilitate the communication of information, to help staff collaborate, and to provide a point of ready access to the organisation's knowledge assets. Without the right systems, getting the right information to the right people at the right time can be highly problematic.

It was to address just this sort of need that Microsoft released its SharePoint Portal Server product.

SharePoint to the rescue
Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server is an ideal platform for knowledge management, offering a powerful solution for organising, finding and sharing information, and combining document management and collaboration features with the ability to quickly create corporate 'knowledge portals'.

Knowledge portals
The Web portal is a popular method for aggregating information from many different sources in one convenient place. Just as Internet Web portals like NineMSN provide a single entry point to access information on the Internet, intranet Web portals are designed as a single entry point to provide access to the information assets of an organisation, irrespective of the form that the information may take.

SharePoint Portal Server provides a simple 'out of the box' solution for intranet portals, creating a ready-to-configure portal site automatically during installation. This portal uses Microsoft Digital Dashboard technology to organise and display information. Digital Dashboards are customisable Web sites consisting of small, reusable components called Web Parts which can present information from a wide variety of sources, including Office documents, Web sites, discussion groups and real-time reporting applications. More and more software vendors (such as SAP, PeopleSoft, Oracle, Great Plains and Siebel) are building Web Parts to allow their customers ready access to the data held in their systems via Digital Dashboards. Microsoft maintains a Web Part Gallery (http://www.microsoft.com/SharePoint/downloads/Webparts/introduction.asp) that provides links to many of these.

Web Parts can be easily added or removed to customise the dashboard design for an organisation. Additionally, users can be given access to create their own personal dashboards to organise and present information in a manner most relevant to them - rearranging the layout or even adding their own content from a catalogue of available Web Parts.

Figure 1 shows a typical Digital Dashboard, with news, discussion forums, an interactive sales report - and of course, an enterprise information search - all available from the one spot.

Scalable enterprise search
As with Internet portals, a key feature of an effective intranet portal is the ability to search for information. SharePoint Portal Server gives your company the ability to search a vast array of information sources simultaneously and from a single location. SharePoint's indexing engine can be configured to trawl all of your organisation's information resources - whether they are intranet Web sites, Office documents, PDF files, Exchange Public Folders, databases, personnel directories, CRM systems or legacy mainframe applications. It can even gather competitive intelligence from competitor's Web sites and news sources on the Internet.

From the enterprise search page, you can find information from across all of these sources, using the keyword searching facility familiar to users of Internet search engines or by browsing through topic categories to find information. You can also subscribe to topics of interest and be alerted to new or changed content, either through their dashboard or directly by email.

Automatic document categorisation
The main drawback to traditional keyword searching is the large number of irrelevant search results that are inevitably returned - just because a certain keyword appears in a document doesn't necessarily mean that its subject matter will be of interest. To make matters worse, many words in the English language can have differing meanings depending on their context. If you type the keyword "tank", for example, into a search engine, the search engine doesn't know whether you're looking for information on military tanks, rainwater tanks, septic tanks, fish tanks, a 'think tank', diver's oxygen tanks or Thomas the Tank Engine. So it'll dump all the results onto your screen, leaving you to sift through the results for the information you need.

This can be overcome by categorising documents according to the topic of their content. You can then perform their search on a category and be assured of only returning relevant information.

Categories are an excellent way to organise information but they come at a cost. Aside from the careful planning required to develop a useful system of categorisation, to sort every document into a category tree would be a labour-intensive task even for an organisation with only a modest collection of documents. For larger organisations the task would be truly monumental - and completely impossible when it came to Internet content or information gathered from databases rather than documents.

Fortunately, SharePoint Portal Server has a solution with its Category Assistant - a name that dramatically understates the power of the tool. Once the Assistant has been 'trained' by manually categorising a few representative documents for each category, it can automatically categorise the remaining documents based on what it has learned. Although not as precise as a human, the Category Assistant is nevertheless fairly accurate and extremely fast. The real-time nature of this automatic classification also makes possible new kinds of systems - like the one described below.

Document management and publishing
SharePoint Portal Server's easy document publishing from Office, Windows Explorer or even a Web browser overcomes the traditional publishing bottleneck for intranet Web sites. This flexibility is balanced with control to ensure that important documents are not lost, overwritten or difficult to find. Key features include:

  • check-in and check-out to ensure that only one person works on a document at a time;
  • version tracking to record document history and to keep archived versions;
  • customisable approval workflow for documents that need to be approved before publication; and
  • Web discussions for online comments by multiple reviewers.
< You may be thinking that all of this information sharing is nice, but what about security? Some information, like performance appraisals, salary information or other sensitive data needs to be kept confidential and only available to certain members of staff. Security within SharePoint is linked to Windows file and user-level security, which ensures that users will not be able to read, find or even find out about the existence of documents to which they shouldn't have access.

SharePoint Team Services vs SharePoint Portal Server
SharePoint Team Services is the 'lightweight' member of the SharePoint technologies family, intended as an ad-hoc collaboration solution for individual workgroups or project teams. A SharePoint Team Services Web site can serve as the central repository for all team or project information, including documents, calendars, tasks and discussions. A team site can be created in minutes using FrontPage 2002. After that, any team member can contribute and collaborate using their Web browser or any Office XP application.

Additionally, for companies that lack the resources to manage their own team server, SharePoint Team Services is also available as an outsourced service from a number of Web hosting companies.

An organisation using SharePoint Team Services can add further functionality with SharePoint Portal Server to provide an enterprise-level view of the team Web sites and give employees a single access point to all corporate information.

A solution for BigCo Australian petroleum company Santos was in a similar situation to BigCo - with multiple business units operating in geographically dispersed and remote locations; a need to capitalise on the knowledge capital of its staff; and a fragmented intranet that provided no real support for inter-divisional collaboration.

To overcome this, Santos teamed with Microsoft Gold Certified Partner, OBS Ltd, to design and implement a next-generation intranet built on SharePoint and Digital Dashboard technologies. The new design provides a centralised portal which enables the collection of information from multiple sources and presents it in a simple, browser-based format. With instant publishing, anyone in Santos with the appropriate authority can easily add content to the company site. The solution has inbuilt facilities for applying consistent formatting, so the overall look and feel of the site remains uniform, thereby increasing usability and reducing training costs.

To facilitate management communication with staff, the intranet contains press announcements, company news, announcements from management, reports and planning information accessible to every business unit in Australia and overseas.

To help staff communicate with each other, SharePoint Team Services was used to provide ad-hoc information sharing, team Web sites, discussion boards and surveys. This still left the issue of staff from different divisions being able to find each other in order to collaborate. To meet this challenge, Santos and OBS worked together to create TeamLink - a Microsoft SQL Server-based application that runs from within the Digital Dashboard and acts as a company directory, but with many additional features. Employees can add their own personal profiles, and include details about their experience, expertise, skills and abilities. TeamLink was deliberately designed to allow unstructured input, to encourage employees to contribute in whatever way suits them best - filling in forms, uploading their CV or adding photos as they wish.

Helping staff find each other is a vital part of any knowledge management solution, but one which is often overlooked. Making existing document-based information accessible is important, but documents can never capture all of an individual's expertise. Companies should beware of products badged as 'knowledge management systems' that do not support collaboration and the discovery of human resources.

Molten Markets
Managing information is important for all businesses, but it's the key to success for Sydney-based financial research company Molten Markets. Molten Markets aggregates and distributes financial information from leading sources such as Bloomberg, Reuters and Dow Jones for analysts and investors from financial institutions and large corporations. Earlier this year, Molten Markets commissioned Sydney-based Microsoft Gold Certified Partner Unique World to upgrade their delivery system with the objective of creating the world's most advanced financial information platform.

"The Molten Markets research portal was an extremely successful information product," said Unique World's CEO, Eddie Geller, "but the feedback that they were getting from their customers was that they wanted a personalised solution - one that could deliver information specific to their requirements and do so directly to their desktops." SharePoint Portal Server was selected as the ideal platform for the new system, combined with SQL Server 2000 and Exchange Server 2000 to enable financial information from any source to be gathered, scanned, analysed and directed to the analysts who need the information - all in real time.

"Molten Markets customers do not have to sift through mountains of data to find the information that they need," said Eddie. "A carefully planned categorisation system ensures that the right information makes it to the right people at the right time."

"Basing the solution on SharePoint Portal Server also gives Molten Markets a highly extensible solution for the future," Eddie added. "Their customers' internal systems can be already be integrated into the Molten Markets Digital Dashboard and in the future, any new information services can be served up through the same channel."

At the time of writing the system is being trialled by a number of Australian leading financial institutions, such as the Commonwealth Bank and Colonial First State.

SharePoint as a document management solution
Need a document management solution but don't want to spend a fortune? SharePoint Portal Server is proving to be a very popular product for many businesses who need an inexpensive, easy-to-use document management product that can readily integrate with their existing desktop environment.

For example, a legal practice looking for a document management solution might opt for a system such as iManage, due to its established popularity with the legal profession. However, such an organisation's requirements for document control, check-in/check-out, revision control, search, security, categorisation, customisable workflows, and so on, could just as easily be met by SharePoint Portal Server.

This would bring a number of additional benefits, such as seamless integration with Windows Explorer and Microsoft Office, automatic content categorisation and ready integration of external content with the organisation's internal document repositories.

Who can help?
When deploying SharePoint Portal Server or developing a SharePoint-based solution, it pays to use an expert. Microsoft Certified Partners are companies that have been accredited by Microsoft as experts in Microsoft technologies and that can help ensure your project's success. From the www.microsoft.com/australia Web site you can search for Microsoft Certified Partners in your area with expertise in your industry and the Microsoft technologies you require.

Unique World - Sydney (www.uniqueworld.com.au)
Unique World is a leading provider of Web-based technology and e-marketing solutions. They are the only Microsoft Gold Certified Partner for collaborative solutions in NSW and the only company Gold Certified in both collaborative solutions and e-commerce solutions in Australia.

OBS Pty Ltd - Melbourne (www.obs.com.au)
OBS is the leading SharePoint implementation partner in Victoria, having successfully completed complex SharePoint projects for customers like Santos and the Department of Employment, Education and Training. They are a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner for e-commerce solutions.

Bay Technologies Communications - Queensland (www.baytech.com.au)
Bay is a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner for collaborative and enterprise solutions.

David Peterson is a principal consultant at Peterson IT Consulting (www.PetersonITConsulting.com). He can be contacted by email at david@PetersonITConsulting.com.

   
     
   
   
     
     
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