With the advent of vastly improved videoconferencing, the soaring cost of travel and concerns about carbon footprints, leveraging resources across the enterprise means getting more creative with technology. Real advances are being made in how we collaborate and share documents. Traditionally users would have to work on materials and save a copy as a new revision each time to ensure they were working on the latest revision. It led to a lot of confusion, and wasted time just dealing with process. Proposal drafting, for example, is one area where multiple experts can be called into play and that expertise may not physically be in the same office location – or even time zone. SharePoint dominates the space When it comes to critical surgery for children, there’s no time to waste on process, especially when your task is to co-ordinate wait times in 16 world class pediatric operating rooms across a country with multiple time zones. Given the downside, the challenge is ominous: collaborating in real time is mission critical, with little margin for error. A few years ago the federal government recognized the importance of getting children to surgery at the earliest possible opportunity – regardless of where that was – and launched a pilot project to collect and analyze data across the system. Toronto’s Sick Children’s Hospital was designated the program lead. The hospital began investigating which technology platform and software package would best serve the needs of the surgical waiting time team, while also integrating with other hospitals across the country. They narrowed it down to Microsoft Corp’s Office SharePoint Server 2007. There wasn’t a lot of choice, says Daniela Crivianu-Gaita, Sick Kid’s CIO. She says industry analysts like Gartner and others note that SharePoint dominates in its niche – at least for now. Other data management systems allow collaboration, but they aren’t as flexible across more areas. Indeed, SharePoint has been a Microsoft success, generating millions of licences and more than a $1 billion in revenue. The system was implemented in July 2007, says Crivianu-Gaita, and started seeing immediate benefits. “Before the main means of communication was via e-mail,” she says. “And that was a huge problem.” With a thread bouncing around 16 or more users, it was difficult to get a fix on status and what opportunities were available. SharePoint’s differentiation is that it allows multiple users to access and update documents, and always delivers the most up-to-date, revised document on demand. With added multilevel security to comply with privacy laws, and relatively easy integration into existing networks and databases, it has proved so successful, says Crivianu-Gaita, that other areas of Sick Kid’s are mulling how it might help them. Even the learning curve was gentle for users, an important consideration in the implementation of any new process, she says. The experience of SharePoint in a medical setting is an allegory for businesses that are depending more and more on virtual teams, spread across diverse geographies and time zones to complete projects and deliverables with a minimum of process bottlenecks. SharePoint itself has six key areas, collaboration, search, portal, enterprise content management, business process management, and business intelligence. However, it is not a stand alone solution. It needs to integrate with other Microsoft products to work efficiently, and requires some custom tweaking since it’s not an off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all solution. SharePoint not the only game in town For all SharePoint’s dominance in the sector, there are still a few warts, says Craig Roth, VP and service director for Burton Group’s collaboration and content management strategies team. “I’m not standing up and saying there’s nothing here,” says Roth. “But there are some issues.” It’s a tough choice for IT managers. Products from other vendors in the space, notably IBM and Oracle Corp, don’t dovetail as easily into the existing suite of Microsoft tools, especially the ubiquitous Office with its Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook applications. And that has prompted some vendors to take a more conciliatory route, making their offerings compatible with SharePoint rather than fight it out and go it alone. Alfresco, an open source enterprise content management (ECM) system, says its offering is an alternative and offers Microsoft users greater choice by providing them with the first open source fully-compatible SharePoint repository. Alfresco’s edge is that customers using Alfresco Labs 3 can leverage existing investments in Linux and Java – as well as Microsoft .NET connection software – to significantly reduce their total cost of ownership and maximize their hardware and software investments while using SharePoint. The free and the licensed Microsoft’s products offer two choices, says Roth: SharePoint as a free package, and SharePoint Server which is a licensed product. “They had momentum back in 2003, and with the 2007 release they’ve doubled that momentum. With SharePoint Services a lot of users just see it as the next logical set of tools for Microsoft Office. It’s a no brainer.” But while SharePoint looks simple and easy to deploy in demonstrations, prospective buyers must remember it’s not an application as such but an infrastructure, he stresses. And like all infrastructure it can’t be installed out of the box. There are critical, strategic decisions which must be made up front and which often can’t be undone without a server reinstall. “They’re either left with a mess or they do the right thing and do the planning ahead of time and realize how much work needs to be done to meet the specific needs of the organization,” Roth says. Also, for all SharePoint’s potential abilities, Roth points out that there are some idiosyncrasies which could raise a few eyebrows. There’s no centralized tool for working across server farms, it doesn’t work well off line, and there’s no robust support for wikis and blogs. Also, many of the directories are siloed, meaning communication with the application can be complex apparently because it’s a compendium of existing Microsoft products which has imported code from those applications. Still, SharePoint’s advantage is that it integrates nicely into an existing Microsoft system, and the learning curve is fairly easy given that most users are already using Microsoft Office, says Ron Surette, director of general business intelligence and CIO of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA). “But I think the key thing CIOs love is the accountability,” he says. “There’s an audit trail so you know who did what and when.” ACOA is the federal government department responsible for helping build economic capacity in Atlantic Canada. This is a decentralized agency; it’s not that there isn’t a top down structure, but the projects work more or less in a lateral and semi-autonomous way, says Surette. As such, collaboration has always been part of the vernacular, with virtual teams scattered over the region working together on different projects. However, until ACOA installed its first SharePoint server in 2001, most of the collaboration was plagued with the usual problems such as revision conflicts and lack of control. Surette says other solutions were reviewed, but the attraction of SharePoint was overwhelming: “We were and are a Microsoft shop.” Since the initial installation to the ramp up to 2007 the organization has gone from being .NET-based to fully Web-based with SharePoint. “There was nothing wrong with .NET,” says Surette. “But it was expensive, with programmers costing $80,000 a year. And time consuming, too.” In contrast, he says, SharePoint sites can be built by those with lower skill levels and is less expensive, but is also much quicker to assemble, saving time and making clients happy because ideas get up and running much more rapidly. While the initial install was done by a contractor, since then ACOA has brought upgrades and operations in house. “We found we had the people and we could do it,” he said. “Though we did have Microsoft audit what we’d done, and we did implement their recommendations.” The surprise wasn’t that SharePoint was fairly simple to configure, but that its use is expanding beyond what was originally scoped, with about 1,000 licences deployed. “They’ve started using it as a project management tool and it turns out to be better than some of the existing applications out there,” he notes. “And that’s really cool. So we were able to add a couple of plug in modules to make that work.” Next up, says Surette, is to expand SharePoint into other processes and open up access. “We’re going to have to change the business process and shift towards a Service Orientated Architecture, but we need to get the framework in place first,” he says, adding they’re also keen to add mobile capability to the system. “We haven’t opened that box yet for security reasons, but we’d like to on the horizon because we’ve got all these people running around with smartphones, and you’d like them to be able to access files,” he says. And that’s another area where Microsoft sees growth. Mobile connectivity is integrated into SharePoint, allowing users to tap into documents on the fly, issue approvals with the minimum of delays whether they’re on the GO train, at the airport, or watching their kids play soccer.