SharePoint Has Its Limits

SharePoint is evolving as a versatile collaboration tool, but you can stretch it only so far. It’s not designed for every content management or business process management challenge.

The Pitch

SharePoint came about as an effort to bring Microsoft Offices usability to tools for electronic collaboration. Jeff Teper, the Microsoft vice president in charge of SharePoint development, says the company saw an opportunity with users who wanted to share their files but didnt need a heavyweight content management system such as EMCs Documentum. SharePoint 2010 integrates Microsofts PerformancePoint business intelligence tools and its advanced search engine, called Fast, as well as strengthens SharePoint as a development platform.

These enhancements aim to make SharePoint more appealing for enterprise deployment—a reflection of how customers' use of it is evolving. However, observes Tony Byrne, head of the analysis firm The Real Story Group, Microsoft walks a fine line between touting SharePoint's capabilities and deferring to partners who also provide content and business process management systems.

The catch

Chances are you have SharePoint in your enterprise even if it’s not part of your IT plan. It relieves an itch that, until recently, few CIOs knew needed scratching: Providing the rank-and-file with a tool for sharing documents instead of e-mailing them around to edit. Companies now use it for everything from intranets to document management. You can build a portal with SharePoint and have users set up their own Web pages and blogs.

“The beauty of SharePoint is that it is pretty easy to use out of the box,” says Laura Cruz, CIO at advertising agency CDM. Her company started using SharePoint to collaborate with clients, but found it handy enough to use for internal collaboration.

Although it may look like the Swiss Army knife of software, SharePoint has limitations, says Forrester Principal Analyst John Rymer. Customizing SharePoint to add functionality can pose problems, he says, when it’s time to upgrade.

SharePoint also may not support certain industry standards. For example, Teper touts SharePoint’s records-management capabilities—its ability to save documents for legal or historic reasons. But analysts note that if you follow complex regulatory requirements for record keeping (think HIPAA or SEC rules), you may be better off with an industry-focused solution.

The score

Microsoft may tout SharePoint’s myriad features, but if you don’t find what you need out of the box, a third-party solution might be your best bet, says Byrne. Microsoft recognizes the value of its partner network: For every dollar customers spend on Microsoft enterprise licensing fees, they spend $8 with consultants and channel vendors customizing Microsoft’s tools or integrating other products.

Ultimately, Microsoft sees itself as a platform company, providing generic capabilities, says Birger Steen, a Microsoft vice president in charge of sales to small and midsize businesses. If you’re not sure whether SharePoint is the appropriate tool for what you want to do, he says, ask yourself whether the application is something that might be replicated at any company, or whether the functionality you want is specific to your industry or job function.

With these cautions in mind, however, analysts conclude SharePoint is well worth exploring as an easy-to-use and flexible collaboration platform.

The company: Microsoft

Headquarters: Redmond, Wash.

Employees: 88,214

2009 Revenue: $58.4 billion

CEO: Steve Ballmer

What They Do: Microsoft dominates the desktop operating systems market and has a healthy share of other business software and consumer electronics categories. It also provides software for collaboration, business intelligence and customer-relationship management, and it plans to offer most of its software as a service.

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