How To Make SharePoint More Social

Can third parties like Neudesic and NewsGator drag Microsoft's entrenched collaboration system into the era of Facebook and Twitter?

Kurt Marko

October 25, 2011

4 Min Read
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Like it or not, SharePoint is the de facto standard enterprise collaboration platform; nearly 75% of the 425 respondents to our recent InformationWeek enterprise content management survey use the product as part of their ECM architectures. As with Exchange, Microsoft has leveraged its hegemony on the desktop to entrench SharePoint as a key piece of infrastructure that organizations use to share documents, organize projects, and link far-flung colleagues into virtual workgroups.

Yet despite significant additions to SharePoint's collaboration portfolio in the newest release, which we outline in our InformationWeek SharePoint 2010 IT Pro Impact Report, its roots are decidedly pre-Web, stemming from the era of discrete Office documents and network file shares, not the age of Web-based Facebook walls, Twitter feeds, and blog comment streams.

While Microsoft has taken noteworthy strides toward making SharePoint relevant to the millennial work style, with activity streams, user profiles, and content tagging, these still feel like bolt-on additions to an essentially browser-accessed file share. As David F. Carr wrote in covering last summer's Enterprise 2.0 conference, "In a panel discussion on SharePoint as a social platform, the consensus was that SharePoint contains many of the ingredients of a social application, but by itself doesn't get you all the way there--not without extensive customization or the addition of a third-party product such as NewsGator Social Sites."

To fully embrace the social networking ethos, such commenting, tagging, and rating/liking capabilities should permeate the SharePoint environment. This is just the feature gap that several software add-ons have been designed to fill. Instead of replacing the firmly entrenched Microsoft Goliath, as social software specialists such as Jive, Socialtext, and Yammer seek to do with completely separate collaboration environments, these products augment the incumbent, legacy platform with features that make it work more like Facebook and less like TeamSpace.

Neudesic Pulse, one of the more ambitious products, was recently updated to deepen its integration with SharePoint to include a conversation view, essentially a Facebook-like comment stream, for any SharePoint document. According to Ramin Vosough, Neudesic's general manager of product marketing, its vision is to create a "social fabric" within SharePoint, not another siloed collaboration tool. But the product isn't limited to SharePoint. "We want to pull seamlessly from everywhere and expose [social comments] everywhere," Vosough says, adding that enterprises want to incorporate social software features into workflows, not just replace email conversations. "Customers don't want another application; they want to go social with any app," he says. Thus, even a custom line-of-business application can tap into Pulse's commenting system via a RESTful API or by linking to prebuilt, embeddable Web scripts. For example, Vosough says an insurance company might augment a claims-processing workflow application with the ability for employees to add and reply to comments as a document wends through the process. This allows adding ad hoc knowledge to formal content, he adds.

NewsGator's Social Sites for SharePoint is another product designed to bring SharePoint into the Facebook era. With a full range of social software features, from microblogging and activity streams to social profiles and Google Plus-like groups called spheres, Social Sites supplements and extends, rather than replaces, the SharePoint platform. Both Pulse and NewsGator are available as either standalone, on-premises software or as cloud services, and both support Microsoft's cloud suite, Office 365, and SharePoint Online. Neudesic's Pulse cloud plan starts at $12 per month per user, and, while the on-premises product is likewise licensed per user, Neudesic doesn't publicize pricing information. NewsGator is similarly tight-lipped about pricing, although its free trial download page indicates rates as low as $5 per month per user.

While companies like Neudesic and NewsGator work within the SharePoint platform, pure-play enterprise social software like Jive and Yammer take a different architectural approach, creating parallel collaboration platforms. These companies obviously realize SharePoint's importance to enterprise IT, since both have modules that integrate their platforms with a legacy SharePoint installation. Jive's Web Parts effectively merges the two environments by automatically sharing SharePoint files with Jive, allowing content to be added to either platform from the other and displaying SharePoint content and activity in the Jive environment. Similarly, Yammer's SaaS product can link to SharePoint and allows Yammer comment feeds to display on any SharePoint page--say, a shared document or project team portal. Users can post messages and files to Yammer from within SharePoint. Both Jive and Yammer support single sign-on, linking user credentials and identity between their respective environments and SharePoint (i.e. AD).

Although the last two SharePoint releases have made the product much more social and engaging, in a Web 2.0 way, Microsoft can move only so fast and is seemingly incapable of keeping up with the social software innovations popping up online at a frenetic pace. But this doesn't doom organizations that have standardized on the platform for document management and collaboration to outdated features and subpar usability, as the products described above can quickly turn SharePoint into a social animal.

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