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SharePoint is for collaboration, ECM is for everything else

In the enterprise content management (ECM) web space, a debate is raging: Is Microsoft SharePoint a true ECM solution?

Given SharePoint’s widespread usage -- Microsoft reports a staggering 100 million seat licenses sold and well over $1 billion in revenue – it’s hardly surprising that much is written about it.

The surprise comes at the fervor of the debate sourounding this question. And what’s even more remarkable, the debate has been ongoing for several years now. Some developers and users are convinced that because SharePoint makes it easy to construct basic elements out of the box, it will revolutionize how information and documents are shared across the enterprise.

Others see SharePoint as a powerful tool for collaboration and project management, but caution that it lacks the structure and controls for true content management and to realize its full potential will require bringing in SharePoint consultants and third-party vendors. Some experts say it is more effective to let SharePoint do what it does best and integrate it with a stand-alone ECM solution that can do the rest.

In a Webinar, Tony Byrne, an analyst with the vendor-independent consultants The Real Story Group, said SharePoint has some strong features, including its integration with the Microsoft server and Desktop, and its empowerment at the departmental level. But he said there are a number of myths about SharePoint, including that it is very low cost.

“While it can be, especially if you are using the very basic foundational version of SharePoint, now called SharePoint Foundation Services, SharePoint starts costing some real money when seat licenses start piling up, especially if you are going to be getting the more feature capable enterprise editions,” Byrne said. “We have talked to many enterprises that had too many knowledge workers to afford SharePoint at the level that they wanted. There is no free lunch and SharePoint is not always low cost.”

The SharePoint History

The diverging opinions might be traced in part to SharePoint’s roots as a tool for web-based team collaboration. Microsoft was notably late to recognize the potential of the Web as a business communication tool. SharePoint Team Services (STS) was developed as a free add-on to Office 2000 with the hopes that the integration with the Office suite of products would propel it past Google and Apple. SharePoint Server 2001 was released later to serve the growing portal market.

The Windows 2003 release included an enhanced range for SharePoint within the Office brand. At that point, the development path focused on improving scalability and portal features – document management features, such as document profiles and workflow, took a back seat.

But as the full implication of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act became apparent, document and records management moved back up the agenda. Microsoft pushed SharePoint as a quick and inexpensive tool for public companies to use to track all of the documents required to comply with the law.

When Windows SharePoint Services 3.0 (WSS) was released as part of the Microsoft Office 2007 suite, it provided improved document management features and security. But the less centralized approach to document sharing that made SharePoint an excellent tool for collaboration posed challenges when it came to implementing it as an ECM solution. Other issues with scalability, due to document storage also called SharePoint’s ECM functionality into question.

Many of the issues that make SharePoint 2007 less than optimal for ECM have been addressed in SharePoint 2010, which was released in May. Particular attention was paid to records management functionality and better metadata management.

How Does It Stack Up

So … has SharePoint finally become a true ECM solution?

That depends on what kind of content you’re managing, says Nick Winston, team lead of ECM products for Perceptive Software. 

“Out of the box, SharePoint offers functionality that’s great for managing social content -- such as wikis, blogs and collaborative content – such as presentations, budgets, and other documents with dynamic information. Viewed from that perspective, SharePoint offers a powerful tool for sharing expertise and intellectual resources across the enterprise.

“For transactional content in areas such as accounting, human resources and insurance, it’s a different story," Winston said. "Managing this content involves high volumes of documents – such as invoices, W-4’s and claims -- with content that is relatively static. These documents are processed through complex, document-centric workflows, which are usually tightly integrated with a business application.

“For most organizations, using SharePoint to manage transactional content would mean working with a third-party to add that functionality,” the Perceptive Software SharePoint expert said.

Other Considerations

For others, SharePoint just doesn’t quite measure up to its proponents’ claim that it is a total solution for content management. Writing in response to a blog on the Electronic Record Management section of the AIIM web site, Mark Mandel gave several reasons to question SharePoint as the ideal ECM solution.

“Configured ‘out of the box,’ it can be a portal, a collaboration space, and a document management system – even a records management system,” says Mandel, who is public records administrator for the Office of Public Records, Washington, D.C.

“However, its user interfaces for document and records management are not the best, and there are no scanning tools or image viewer in the product. You have to add them using third-party tools.

“High volume, high transaction applications are not a good fit. Over 10 million objects stored and you will face performance problems, unless – again – you add third-party tools,” he continues.

Mandel notes that using the .Net platform, you can build just about anything you want using SharePoint as the platform.

“But if you do this, you are developing custom applications that require developers, support, and so on – and you may get left behind next time Microsoft upgrades the product.”

He counsels taking the time to understand what SharePoint does well, and deploying it for those purposes.

“Don’t try to make it do things it was not designed for, and you will be a happy camper.”

Functionality and features aside, SharePoint brings one thing to the table that traditional ECM solution providers cannot: the market heft and muscle of Microsoft. The Redmond, Wash.-based giant has been late to the party with some products, and has made notable blunders with others. (Anyone remember Vista?)

But SharePoint is no mistake. Microsoft has marshaled considerable resources into focusing on enterprise-wide content and records management. And where Microsoft muscle goes, ISVs will follow, developing additional solutions for vertical industries and adding to the viability of SharePoint as a broad-based ECM platform.

The spotlight Microsoft has put on ECM could end up extending not just SharePoint usage, but awareness of ECM overall, boosting the fortunes of more traditional vendors, as well. End users will benefit, too, from the additional choices and options to improve business processes.