Is SharePoint the answer to my document management problems?

By SpiderGroup

19 Jan 2010

Yes!!!… and, no probably not… I’ll explain.

I’m a SharePoint advocate and as such I’ll start with the negative and finish on the positive, it’s how I work.

Firstly, have you ever tried using a web-based document management system? It can be painful, it can be slow, it can time-out (which, because time correlates with how much work you’ve done, is highly inconvenient), it relies on browsers (I’m not even going to expand on this) and as for version control, who has a file on the web that doesn’t also reside in either their ‘my documents’ folder or on their desktop?…

If this hasn’t already reminded you why you reverted back to the network file server, lets look at integration. Having supported hosted SharePoint for a number of years I have helped a number of businesses consisting of teams of independent consultants working remotely from homes and small offices. This scenario sounds ideal to any business owner, think of the savings on office space and equipment, the geography you could cover and the low administrative overhead.


To the support technician however, this scenario is rather different. Lets make the assumption that SharePoint will work exactly the same for two consultants if they are both running the same version of windows, the same version of Internet Explorer, the same version of office and are using the same anti-virus software. This is a very big assumption, now place yourself in this scenario where all 25 consultants use their own laptop and home desktop and throw in every combination of operating system, office version, browser and antivirus software, random installations of updates and patches and a generous helping of spyware and malware to boot. This scenario becomes a seething mass of performance and authentication issues, constantly changing due to automatic updates and system upgrades, the support overhead goes through the roof and, if you’re not careful, the support technician out the window.


But if SharePoint and other web-based document management systems are such a nightmare, why did I say  ‘Yes’ to the original question?


For a start the picture I just painted is only really a horror story for the support technician, indeed he takes his own life at the end, but to the consultant (i.e. The end user) the issues are for the most part a temporary annoyance. In my experience most of the 25 users will have some form of frustration with the SharePoint system, a few very frustrated, however; you cannot make an accurate assessment without taking into account the benefits the system does bring.


Check-in and Check-out to streamline collaboration, version control for auditing and recovery, alerting when documents change, views, filtering and search for document retrieval – access from anywhere?… Priceless.


To be fair, these features aren’t unique to SharePoint, they should be standard to any document management system, so what does SharePoint bring to the mix above and beyond the basics?

The two features I’d bring into the mix are this point are, custom fields and workflows. The reason for this is not to blind you with vague terminology but rather to step document management up a notch into something a bit more clever and a lot more valuable… Let me explain:


Up to this point, a document gets retrieved, it gets edited and it gets saved, whatever the bells and whistles, it essentially remains a simple two dimensional process. Now lets think of the document as more than a document, an entity that has lots of other useful information attached to it as well as the actual document. For example it may be a proposal entity which consists of the word document that is your proposal, the owner of the document, a notes field, the stages of the proposal process, the value of the proposal, the follow-up date etc. etc. These additional fields are what we call custom fields and can be automatically added to the form you use when uploading a document to the system. In itself this is quite valuable, especially if you want to use views to group documents or tally up values (in this case perhaps the total value of active proposals) but where do workflows fit in?


Now we have all the business information we need we can start the clever stuff and we call the clever stuff workflow. SharePoint uses the Windows Workflow Foundation but never mind the technical – I’m not going to start going techie on you now. What you can do with workflow is tell SharePoint to take automatic actions based on events that occur on the system – essentially you can automate business processes. Lets use the proposal system I mentioned earlier, you could create a workflow which would initiate when the sales person changes the status of the proposal to ‘accepted’ – the first step in the workflow might be to create a task for accounts to raise an invoice and at the same time create a new project entry in the project list. When the task completes the value may be entered into the sales figures, meanwhile the project manager has been emailed to notify him the project is a go.


See, this is where SharePoint starts to get sexy; think of a process you want to improve, work out the information, people and stages required, then knock up your new business management system with the built in features of SharePoint… Simples.


Now you may think I’ve veered off the question as to whether SharePoint is a good document management system, and you’d be right, I have but for a very good reason. Many people with document management problems are actually having problems with information management and that is because they are using documents to store active business information – usually Excel documents, when what they should be using is an integrated system or database. Now it is by no means black and white and I appreciate this is a sweeping statement which I will have to clarify in a later post, however my very broad guideline is whether the information is ‘active’ or not. If its not active it is a document and can be stored in a structured document store or, my preference, a big bin. Now I’ll just clarify that by ‘bin’ I don’t mean that special’ filing cabinet that all those board memos and CVs get ‘filed’ in, I mean save everything in one place, no structure and let a search engine do the finding. I personally believe this is how SharePoint works best with documents anyway but in this scenario you’d be looking at MOSS (Microsoft Office SharePoint Server) and its enterprise search functionality, again another post.


So if I was going to sum up this quite extensive rant, yes SharePoint is a good document management system if you’re prepared to meet it half way and rethink how you manage your information. But it brings a hell of a lot more to the table than document management and that is what I plan to explore in the rest of this series.

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