When you are a company with 500 offices and 15,000 employees, it's easy for people to lose each other, or never meet at all.
For Colliers International, a decentralized commercial real estate firm based in Seattle that does business in 60 countries, the need to connect the local experts operating in all its global markets became vital as the firm expanded its operations.
"We make most of our deals through referrals, so we rely heavily on relationships — with our clients and with each other," says Colliers CIO Veresh Sita. "But we did not have a social collaboration platform."
The firm had been depending on old school ways of connecting: email blasts asking if anyone has expertise in a subject or a relationship with a particular client.
"Most of these blasts would get deleted because they were viewed as spam," says Sita.
Colliers looked to Microsoft SharePoint 2010 to accelerate and manage how its far-flung employees connect with each other. Sita had never implemented SharePoint before and signed on with Microsoft's TAP (Technical Adoption Program) when SharePoint 2010 was in beta in early 2010.
A SharePoint 2010 customer for a year now, Sita reports that Colliers has greatly enhanced and improved how employees communicate. But Sita and his staff had to do a lot of customization to tailor SharePoint to Colliers' needs.
Customizing SharePoint: The LinkedIn Influence
SharePoint's out-of-box capabilities will not solve all your problems, notes Sita, and that's where customization comes into play. Colliers decided to modify SharePoint internally by hiring developers.
The first place Sita looked for inspiration? LinkedIn.
"LinkedIn is a phenomenal repository for networking," says Sita. "Its user interface is directly applicable to our business where we have experts on certain real estate subjects who are geographically dispersed."
[ For complete coverage on Microsoft's SharePoint collaboration software -- including enterprise and cloud adoption trends and reviews of SharePoint 2010 -- see CIO.com's SharePoint Bible. ]
So Sita and company effectively used SharePoint 2010's MySites to build out their own "LinkedIn for Colliers."
Now, a year or so after relying on e-mail blasts for collaboration, Colliers has 15,000 people around the globe with professional profiles that can connect and collaborate through integrated Exchange, SharePoint and Lync (or Lync's predecessor OCS, depending on what part of the world you are in). Colliers has plans to migrate to Office 365, Microsoft's soon-to-be-released cloud platform.
"People can see each other's presence information right on the profile pages and then IM or do a video call," Sita says.
He recommends customizing the UI design of MySites. SharePoint MySites can be sterile on their own, says Sita, and could turn people off from using them. UI enhancements can be done in-house or through a third party such as NewsGator or Atlassian. Colliers tweaked its UI internally.
"This is about people and relationships, so it's worth it to invest in UI design to make MySites more visually appealing and user-friendly," he says.
Making SharePoint Search Your Own
But all of this connecting and collaborating wouldn't mean much if Colliers hadn't also customized and refined SharePoint's enterprise search functionality.
To that end, Colliers IT team spent four months building a portal called "Our People" that employees worldwide now use to find each other. The key to Our People, says Sita, is how he and his developers, with help from Microsoft's product development group, customized SharePoint search to provide deeper contextual search results.
The employee profile pages fuel this search because they contain not just biographical information, but rich content such as what clients are affiliated with a person or what specific deals he or she has worked on.
To create this contextual search, Colliers integrated its CRM system, its invoice system and its deal tracking system into SharePoint 2010 to provide rich data about deals and clients.
"You can type in a client name like Proctor & Gamble and get contextual search results on everything we know about that client and what people have worked with them," says Sita.
"Then you can contact the right person directly through SharePoint and Lync and say, 'Hey I noticed you've worked with this client. Can you help me?'"
Giving Clients Access, Just Not Full Access
In a relationship-based industry like commercial real estate, how much access do you give clients to private SharePoint sites?
Colliers clients do not have access to the Our People portal, says Sita, but they still have access to the Colliers external site, www.colliers.com, where they can at least access the information in the Our People section. The Our People section itself and Profile Pages are for employees only.
Nevertheless, giving clients access to some SharePoint sites is becoming more common, says Sita.
"We've created external connectors and specific portals for clients within SharePoint to let them view their personal dashboards, share documents and start discussion threads with Colliers employees."
For now, clients get a special URL to log into Colliers SharePoint sites. But the firm is redeveloping its website so that clients can log in from the site and go straight to a SharePoint portal.
After this upgrade, "the new site will be fully integrated with SharePoint," says Sita.
Shane O'Neill covers Microsoft, Windows, Operating Systems, Productivity Apps and Online Services for CIO.com. Follow Shane on Twitter @smoneill. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Shane at email@example.com