Recently, we had to deploy a collaboration / groupware solution internally, and we decided to take a special route.
We took some extra time to study what ‘value’ from a groupware / collaboration solution meant for us — we said “What are basic things we want the groupware solution to do for us? How will we use it to do what we want to do?”
“What tool is actually going to be beneficial for the business, rather than making it slower because the tool is so complex”
After studying a number of commercial collaboration suites such as Microsoft Sharepoint Portal, as well as open-source alternatives such as eGroupWare, we decided to configure a solution ourselves using specific off-the-shelf components.
I have been pleasantly surprised. Read on for the results of our internal solution against what I’ve seen with typical Sharepoint deployments.
Note: A consulting firm I worked for earlier did quite a bit of work on Microsoft Sharepoint Portal for enterprises, both for collaboration and for partner integration, so this is based on some light on the subject.
MS Sharepoint is an enterprise groupware and collaboration suite that integrates with Office and Microsoft’s workflow/integration products such as Biztalk to “enable productivity” and “empower business-driven value” as marketing would tell you, whatever that means.
To be fair, Sharepoint does Portals decently. I have also seen a few good solutions built on top of Sharepoint, most notably the Brightwork IT Work Manager. But overall, Sharepoint is a very lousy product for groupware / collaboration (there, I said it). Not only is it exceeding costly to customize, but Microsoft did not really approach the product from the perspective of creating value for customers.
There was an internal deployment of Sharepoint at the prior consulting firm for project governance, but no one really used it for the first two years of deployment — timesheet and project tracking information became inaccurate quickly ; knowledge management always remained a 3-year problem to solve. It wasn’t the firms fault — Sharepoint just never encouraged improved productivity, because it was just built as a ‘tool’ with a set of ‘features’ that ‘users’ would perform ‘actions’ on.
Here is what our approach (i.e. thinking of value first and tools second) did for us:
- It is fully customized around our internal workspace. We never had to adjust our processes for the tool.
- Includes a time-sheet solution that tracks time on individual tasks in milliseconds of duration, and generates automatic files each day for each person that feeds into accounting systems.
- Includes a searchable knowledge management solution that can also relate individual pieces of knowledge with particular threads in the company.
- Reduces the cost of hierarchy by encouraging more open communication between executive leadership and the rest of the professional group
- Has a design collaboration solution that links with document management
- Allows for more transparent decision making.
- Has a version control and document management solution (DM is simplistic for now).
- Has parts of project management solutions (Project Work tracking ; task assignments etc.)
- The solution took a total of 4 hours to design, configure and deploy (yes 4)
- It took us 6 Hours to write a Word document which describes to everyone how to use the system.
- Total Cost of the solution (excluding hardware) : Zero.
Over the next two weeks, we plan on integrating a comprehensive project management system into this.
Of course this solution has its own caveats, and we dont expect to release this commercially — the solution needs to be scaled out and tested en-masse first.
Still, its nice to see so much come out of one day’s work.
The two-month plan for this solution?
“Throw away MS Word for documentation and use the workplace solution for document creation as well…” Seriously, 6 hours for a simple 10-page document? There has to be a faster way to get information across (oh wait, now there is)
Conclusions: Part of the trouble with IT software is that the products are built as standalone tools. Enterprise needs often have a cognitive relationship with process, and any solution must also focus on the process and workflow to drive results, rather than features or functionality.
As a company, it is important to analyse in depth what it is you are trying to achieve from the solution. If you have a clear idea, sometimes you can find a low-cost, quick to deploy solution that is accepted more than an expensive collaboration portal.