Q&A: Integrating SharePoint with Social Content

Social content is rich with information, but integrating it with other enterprise data can leave it isolated and unused. We explore how to wisely integrate the two.

When planning your enterprise social strategy, you must consider how your organization will integrate internal social activities with existing technology investments and processes. When social technology is implemented without an effective strategy and without effective integration, social information often can become isolated from the business processes and activities that would benefit most. This means that your investment isn't resulting in as strong of a return, especially over longer periods of time.

What should be integrated with that ubiquitous enterprise application, SharePoint? What are the benefits of such integration, and what does it take? We asked Richard Harbridge, a senior SharePoint architect/evangelist with Portal Solutions for his perspective.

Enterprise Strategies: What social technology and social activity should be integrated with SharePoint?

Richard Harbridge: When talking about social technology scenarios, people often ask us what and where social content should be used within their enterprise. The answer many people provide is "everything and everywhere," but the answer that is right for most enterprises is much more specific.

Although it can be valuable to have all of the basic social capabilities such as blogs, wikis, activity feeds, ratings, user profiles, people search, communities and forums available across the enterprise, the application of these social capabilities often requires careful planning and often should be done in phases to benefit both the overall business and business users specifically.

As an example, the user profiles of SharePoint can be integrated your human resources systems, where certain key employee data is maintained. You need to determine what privacy level should be applied to which fields, and which fields will allow for employee self-service/management (because SharePoint can update Active Directory, for example). User profiles should be deployed organization-wide but it may take time to adopt them, appropriately update them, and to build organizational familiarity with them.

[Editor's note: Richard Harbridge and Portal Solutions have provided an Excel worksheet that helps with this planning process at http://www.rharbridge.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/SharePoint-User-Profile-Properties-Listing.xlsx.]

One of the most popular discussion points is the use of the "status update" or the updates that people share through activity steams that let others learn more about a specific subject or event. Although SharePoint allows users to post these updates manually, it does have some basic update automation based on the activities a user performs (such as when a user tags, rates, or uploads content).

Automating these updates tends to be one of the most effective ways of providing immediate value within the enterprise. As an example, say you have a contract review process within your organization. In that review process, when the contract is received by the reviewer, a status update is posted to notify other people involved in the process (a simple tag as an example). Based on social proximity, another user sees this update and can read the contract but cannot update the document (based on access rights).

In this situation, the user can post a quick comment or directly message the reviewer to share feedback, a key opinion, or provide additional information about this specific contract or client. This becomes incredibly powerful if used with other technologies to simplify the contribution of many business activities that typically are isolated from users.

The key point about "status updates" or social updates is that they have a business reason for being created in the first place. Whether it's an individual sharing a link and reference to a useful resource online or an automated update from an integrated technology, both should be designed to share information that can benefit others.

Some of the most effective implementations are carefully managed. It may seem counterintuitive to the openness of social media, but carefully controlling initial usage/acceptance of social technology ensures that the initial content, stories, and examples in the system are all business focused and have provided a clear value opportunity ensuring greater stakeholder and executive support.

If the most popular discussions are about a TV show or something that isn't directly related to the business, it can have a significant impact on how the business perceives the social technology investment (even if it really is being used for productive activities as well).

How does social information appear in a SharePoint app or SharePoint solution?

This often depends on the nature of the solution or application. Some applications use the native SharePoint social components. Out-of-the-box SharePoint has a Ribbon button that allows a user to "like" something, and many organizations can add, change, or remove Ribbon buttons to provide additional quick social tagging, rating, or sharing options.

Other solutions are designed to support existing processes or sites. These solutions often are simply developed using SharePoint Designer and often involve minor customization of DataView Web parts or pages. As an example, perhaps an organization uses SharePoint for project sites and project coordination. In this scenario, it may make sense for the Notes Web part to be shared on the project home page. This would allow project users to quickly post a brief text-based update or comment on the project without the structure of a more formal discussion forum.

In other circumstances, the social capabilities of SharePoint can be completely hidden from the interface and may be added through code. For example, some third-party products in SharePoint use the underlying social tagging and rating capability to ensure that ratings or actions you take in their custom interface still increase the SharePoint ranking of items. In SharePoint, from a search-relevancy perspective, if something has been "socialized" (meaning tagged, rated, etc.), there is an assumption that it is more important than content that has not been socialized.

What are some of the benefits of integrating social capabilities and/or functions within SharePoint?

An organization must understand the basic benefits of social technology before it can understand how, specifically, SharePoint supports these benefits.

You need to understand the value at both the organizational level and the individual level. You will be challenged on this, and you will want to appropriately support and articulate the value at all times and in a variety of ways.

There are a number of reasons organizations cite for introducing and leveraging social technology within the enterprise. The most popular are fairly broad value statements such as:

  • Social technology lowers the cost of sharing and organizing information (easier and more ways to access information)
  • Social Technology surfaces knowledge and networks (improved visibility)
  • Social Technology increases employee engagement (by allowing more participants)

The reality is that social technology tends to support key subject areas or organizational activities already within companies. Most social technologies within an enterprise leverage the identity of the contributing individual. As a result, there is no such thing (in most cases) of anonymity within the enterprise.

This means that the enterprise social technology usage will:

Improve search relevancy and helps people find what they are looking for: A concrete example of improving search relevance in SharePoint is that social tagging, rating, and action results in an increased ranking of that document or item. If it is being socialized, the assumption is that it is more important than content that isn't.

Improve content authority and reliability: When searching or browsing through so much corporate information, using social features such as tagging, rating, and discussions can greatly help you understand the authority level of certain content -- not only from the existing tags, ratings, and discussions, but also based on who uploaded or modified the content, and whether or not (based on their user profile information) they have expertise in that topic area.

Add additional contextual relevance to existing information: In SharePoint, it is not only within communities or personal sites that social features are leveraged. Even on executive dashboards that use roll ups and reports of data, you can, in many cases, use the Note Board Web part for discussions, to tag specific reports, or to rate specific reports or data summaries. As long as the information is within SharePoint, it can be tagged and discussed. In fact, SharePoint even allows users to work with a feature that enables the tagging and discussion of external information sources.

Provide additional ways to find content: Beyond searching for information by using keywords, phrases, or tags, it is often useful to find information by discovering "experts" or individuals linked to the content -- either as authors or as a user who recently highlighted that content via social tags, ratings, or sharing. Additionally, what this means for finding people in the case of expertise searching and discovery is that people are more easily found and their properties (that help you find them) are more accurate.

What are the dangers of not integrating or using integrated social technology with SharePoint? Here are a few of the most common issues:

Keyword sprawl: This issue tends to occur when multiple technologies are used to tag and categorize content, status updates, notes, discussions, and other material. Technologies often suggest terms and may even have defined terms that should be used; when these are not available in both SharePoint and the other applications, there are challenges with consistent search. For example, if I tag something with Client A in our intranet which is SharePoint-based, then tag something with Client A in our social collaboration system, when I perform a search for Client A on the intranet, I don't see the item tagged with Client A in the social collaboration system.

User profile sprawl: This issue is not as simple as it may seem. First, there is the issue of core user profile properties being synchronized across these profiles and systems. If an individual's manager is updated in the source system (such as Active Directory), it is often critical for this information to be updated in all other systems that use this data (including SharePoint for many workflows and privacy settings).

Even after core fields are synchronized, there is the additional challenge of synchronizing preferences and user data. Perhaps SharePoint has your previous projects listed as does an an additional "complimentary" social collaboration system. However, the user must enter this information in both places to ensure the search returns them when people search in either system.

Security risk:This is, perhaps, the most underestimated risk for not integrating with the primary ECM technology within the enterprise. If there is no direct integration other than activities such as discussing, referencing, and mentioning, a specific content item can inadvertently provide access to it (or simply knowledge of its existence) without users explicitly intending to do so.

In some situations, the title of the content itself is confidential, and providing even that information could create undesired organizational risks. SharePoint and technologies that are tightly integrated with SharePoint always respect SharePoint permissions and "security trimming" that hides updates that mention content to which a user doesn't have access.

What does it take to integrate social with SharePoint? Is this something an end-user can do? Is an automated solution needed (and if so, how does that solution distinguish between valuable business information and clutter)?

SharePoint's social capability is automatically integrated within SharePoint 2010. Most users actually use SharePoint social features without realizing they are doing it when they click the "I Like It" button to bookmark a page or document for future reference. This simple action impacts search, provides another way for other users to find one another, and gives users a way to contribute (in part) to content they don't have the authority to manage.

If the user wanted to integrate or surface SharePoint's social content within other applications such as Outlook (a common one), it would require the use of third-party products or custom development. Some of the free, third-party components (such as Microsoft's Outlook Social Connector and Harmon.ie's Outlook connector) are partly targeted to end users.

The question about how a user distinguishes between valuable business information and clutter is an interesting one. In some ways, it is up to the user to determine what is valuable and what isn't, but sometimes if structure is added, the organization can infer or suggest what it believes will be valuable based on the activity the individual is performing or who the individual is.

As an example, when a user navigates to a tag profile, SharePoint shows all of the items tagged with that term. This is often used in a personal manner by individuals to bookmark content and come back to it later. However, the organization might automatically tag or seed content that already exists based on common terms within the organization. In this scenario, the user would see many items the organization believes relate to that tag, not just the ones users selected.

Newsgator (a SharePoint product vendor) takes this concept of filtering further by enabling filtered views of activities as they relate to communities or topics of interest. This allows the user to navigate to the community or topic of interest and then find relevant activity about that community/topic quickly. This is a way of filtering content based on interest (or communities of interest).

Once the information is integrated (however that works), how valuable, useful, or workable is SharePoint to analyze that data?

Now here is an area that SharePoint 2010 is weak natively.

Keyword reporting in SharePoint 2010 is extremely weak; it only supplies basic keyword search and editing capabilities. It doesn't show trend information or suggestions for promoting keywords to managed terms or structured terms.

One frequent request businesses have is for a way to report how many user profiles have been completed and how many still need to be completed (to improve people search, workflows, and other features that use this profile information). Although this can be accomplished with code, the reporting is not provided out of the box.

What SharePoint does have is usage statistics and, of course, auditing of many SharePoint events. This means that reporting on pages, blog posts, and other content is possible natively, but the automatic suggestion of, say, the top blog posts or the top discussions requires a level of customization or third party support.

Custom development is necessary to overcome these weaknesses and create valuable reporting and analytics.

Editor's note: Richard Harbridge suggests the following additional resources to learn more about SharePoint:

Locking Down SharePoint 2010's Social Features

Eight Key Considerations When Implementing SharePoint 2010 Social Capabilities

When are people going beyond SharePoint for social functionality?

Everything You Need To Know About SharePoint's Social Capabilities (SharePointFest Denver)

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