Did you happen to spend any time browsing the official Web site of the 2008 Olympic games? (You can find it at http://en.beijing2008.cn/index.shtml.) The site likely attracted thousands — possibly millions — of visitors during the Olympic games in Beijing was built on the Microsoft SharePoint platform. It is a Web portal, intended to provide up-to-the-minute information about the games, including competition schedules, competition results, medal statistics, and more. According to a case study released by Microsoft, the portal (referred to simply as INFO 2008) is expected to have about 300,000 pages, with content being updated every few hours. In some cases, such as event-results info and medal standings, the portal will be updated every few minutes. The site is a great way for Microsoft to keep the momentum going on its MOSS (Microsoft Office SharePoint Server) 2007 release, which has already sold more than 100 million licenses.
The introduction of SharePoint generated a big buzz in the ECM market, with vendors and solutions providers speculating about the ultimate impact the product in present and future ECM strategies.. While the majority of vendors and solutions providers were in agreement about SharePoint's functionality as a Web portal and collaboration platform, opinions varied widely when it came to determining the platform's applicability as part of an ECM strategy. INFO 2008 provides a very public example of why many providers of ECM products and solutions decided to acknowledge SharePoint's persistence in the market. Although the look and feel of INFO 2008 is unmistakably SharePoint, delivery of the portal's content wouldn't be possible without the content management technologies integrated behind the home page. INFO 2008 relies on the integration of information from an electronic database that tracks results of events, as well as a traditional content-management system. It is the integration of ECM technologies that remains the strongest trend in the evolution of Microsoft SharePoint.
SharePoint Users Still Need ECM Assistance
Microsoft has spent a great deal of marketing collateral espousing the benefits of SharePoint, and the vendors I spoke to report that the platform is either already present — or at least on the minds of IT decision makers — in the accounts to which they sell. "We feel this has actually been a positive thing because businesses of all sizes (not just large enterprises) are beginning to realize that they need to have some type of content management repository, in part, because of the SharePoint momentum," says John Gonzalez, director of product management at Xerox DocuShare. "This provides vendors with an opportunity to address the importance of how ECM offerings can integrate and cohabitate with SharePoint."
While many vendors may have viewed SharePoint as a potential rival in the ECM market, the dust has settled enough for consumers to understand that SharePoint cannot function as a content management solution on its own. "As users might expect from any relatively new product, Microsoft SharePoint still leaves some gaps in the ECM framework," says Paul Yantus, executive VP of product management and marketing at Captaris. "For example, unlike the many providers who thrived on centralized imaging, imaging wasn't a focus for Microsoft in early releases. Microsoft's approach has always been to think from the desktop out." SharePoint still lacks any inherent paper-to-digital support. As a Microsoft Office product, the primary emphasis was on Microsoft-created content, such as documents produced in Word, Excel, and other applications in the Microsoft Office Suite. Imaging vendors and solutions providers alike have embraced these gaps by building solutions, including preconfigured imaging hardware and SDKs (software development kits) that address faxing and scanning images directly into a SharePoint environment.
Brandon Tomchuk, director of business development for Westbrook Technologies, points out a different gap for users hoping to deploy SharePoint as an ECM solution. "What many users still don't realize is that the standard version of SharePoint, which comes bundled with Microsoft Server software, offers only very basic functionality," he says. He points to SharePoint's lack of broad indexing and storage capabilities that users have come to expect from EDM (electronic document management) solutions. "SharePoint employs a folder structure similar to what users would find in a paper filing system, and the reality of document management is that relational databases are much more powerful than a folder structure," he says. Vendors are overcoming this obstacle by developing solutions that enable users to leverage SharePoint for its strength as a collaboration tool, while providing connectors to traditional EDM solutions for indexing and repository functions. SharePoint becomes a cousin to traditional document imaging, serving as another point of capture for a document management system. With support for multiple SharePoint document libraries, which include both custom and standard field properties, these connectors enable users to share metadata between multiple databases and EDM systems. Additionally, integrating SharePoint with more functionally-rich ECM systems, such as workflow definition capabilities, is critical if users expect to get the business benefits of implementing a content management solution.
SharePoint Integration Will Continue
The July 2007 Microsoft SharePoint Server Ecosystem and Customer Usage Trends survey compiled by research group IDC indicated that, of the 300 organizations that participated, SharePoint integration with content management systems was expected to rise from 14% to 21% in large companies. (The report defines large companies as those with 1,000 or more employees.) Furthermore, organizations where SharePoint has already been deployed indicated an intention to expand the application's footprint by adding more users and integrating more enterprise data sources into their existing SharePoint environment.
Despite the anticipated extension of SharePoint's influence, stronger connections between SharePoint and traditional ECM-related technologies have users pursuing integration, rather than replacement, strategies. Respondents to the IDC survey also were asked if they planned to replace any non-Microsoft applications where there might be a potential overlap in functionality. Ninety-seven percent said no, preferring instead to deploy SharePoint as a complementary technology, indicating a need for companies to improve the management of information across its life cycle.
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"SharePoint is extremely valuable early in the document life cycle — at the point of document creation, collaboration, and while tracking multiple versions during document revisions," says Jim Thumma, VP of sales, marketing, and professional services at Optical Image Technology. "However, when you consider the intersection of document management, business process management, and records management, SharePoint is only a small part of that picture." Thumma says that overall, consumers need to let their business processes and goals determine which ECM technologies to deploy and how to best integrate them into their business environment. "If an organization's business processes demand a lot of collaboration, and if a Microsoft Office environment is familiar to its employees, then integrating SharePoint with an ECM solution makes sense and can offer immense value," says Thumma.
A complete ECM strategy addresses all related technologies, including imaging and capture to process documents and data efficiently, document management, workflow, storage, and archive, which SharePoint cannot provide as a stand-alone application. Delivering this model of end-to-end content management is the direction SharePoint seems to be heading. It will require solid interfaces between disparate systems, integrated metadata management, and strong search capabilities to access information no matter where it is stored.