Driving collaborative business applications on Microsoft® SharePoint®

Larry Roshfield, CorasWorks

Solutions built on the Microsoft® SharePoint® platform can help your business transition from 'islands of information' to a truly collaborative organization. According to Larry Roshfeld, senior vice president of CorasWorks, the challenge is in finding a rapid, flexible and cost-effective means of designing, building and maintaining these collaborative business solutions.

You want to be able to 'snap together' powerful and easy-touse business solutions on SharePoint, without custom software development. This approach drives increased productivity and efficiency, while controlling development and maintenance costs.

For the first time, businesses and organizations on the SharePoint platform would be able to have exactly what they need; they would be able to modify their solutions as needs change, and they would be able to do this quickly and easily.

This approach reduces business risk, freeing IT to focus on other critical projects and, most importantly, utilizes the collaborative nature of SharePoint to its highest potential, with the most efficient return on investment (RoI).

The evolution of a collaborative business environment

Managing complex programs. Working across multiple projects teams. Approving and tracking multiple documents. Displaying multiple team sites. Navigating through thousands of SharePoint lists and document libraries.

Consolidating information from a multi-level and multi-server infrastructure into a single dashboard. Tracking customer deliverables. Coordinating activities with partners or suppliers. Planning new products or services…

Your team is inundated with an ever-increasing flow of information. Technology has made information easy to create, but until recently it hadn't done as much to make that information truly usable. Is it possible to streamline business processes and improve how people work together?

  • What if you could connect your employees, customers and partners to the information, people and processes they need, when they need it?
  • What if you could automate day-today business processes, helping people increase their productivity and extend their effectiveness?
  • What if you could deploy connected and automated solutions quickly, easily and cost-effectively?

To put it simply, what if you could empower your workforce? With recent improvements in collaborative software, businesses and organizations around the world are improving the ways they work together.

Initially, collaborative software provided a central location for storing information, ensuring access to the most current version of 'the truth'. More recently, collaborative software has become a platform for deploying rich, interactive solutions that enable business processes.

The value of a collaborative environment

Individual solutions snap together without custom development (imagine Lego®) to create an environment where employees, customers, suppliers and partners work together. This is not simply sharing information; it provides the solutions and processes that people use to accomplish their work, and that evolve over time. Most importantly it evolves over time into a common platform with an increasing RoI.

Organizations can deploy a range of solutions, which can be integrated to support cohesive internal processes. Rather than creating 'islands of information', you can incrementally deploy any number of powerful and tightly connected solutions.

This is a more efficient way to work, since these web-based solutions are always open for business and provide secure access to authorized users, from anywhere, at anytime.

Leading business, educational and governmental organizations worldwide have adopted SharePoint to help address their collaborative needs. As a result, SharePoint has quickly become the dominant collaborative platform in the market.

While many organizations initially used SharePoint simply to store information, it has evolved into a platform for building and running collaborative business applications.

One key advantage of SharePoint is that most organizations already own it. You probably already have Windows SharePoint Services (WSS), a part of Microsoft Windows Server 2003, and you may have SharePoint Portal Server as part of your Enterprise Agreement with Microsoft.

Given its power, flexibility and ubiquity, leading industry analysts consider SharePoint to be the most cost-effective collaboration platform available in the market today.

The evolution of SharePoint solutions

Initial SharePoint-based solutions often provide an alternative to storing information on a PC or shared network drive. Rather than searching for the latest version of a document, or the correct contact information for a prospective customer, it provides a common repository for business information. This helps address the challenge of, 'Where do I put information so others can access it?'

As SharePoint becomes more widely adopted, it becomes a victim of its own success. The more it is used, the more ad-hoc information is stored within it, and the more difficult it becomes to find and manage specific information.

The challenge now becomes,'How do I find anything in this enormous collection of content?' To address this, many organizations incorporate improved navigation and search capabilities to add structure into their collaborative solutions.

The challenge then becomes information integration. Users ask, 'How can I display the information I need, from across multiple sites, the way I want to see it?' Roll-ups deliver the integrated information each user needs, and display it the way they want to see it.

With roll-ups a user can integrate information from multiple sites or projects, showing, for example, the tasks they were assigned, the documents for a particular client or a consolidated calendar of events.

The next critical phase in the evolution of collaborative solutions addresses the question of, 'How can I automate my work?' Rather than repetitive, step-by-step activities, users want to work with information more efficiently and drive business activity.

For example, say you've worked on three different projects this week and completed a total of 36 different tasks. To update the status, you could go to each project site, individually marking each task as 'Complete'.

Each week you would go through the same repetitive process. Isn't it easier to create an automated process, or 'action', that will perform repetitive tasks in a single step? With actions, information and tasks can be brought to the user. It is simply a better way to work.

These collaborative solutions provide an environment where business activity can be proactive, rather than reactive. Users can act on information, making rapid decisions and transforming the way people work.

The keys to successful collaborative solutions are power and flexibility. They must empower the user to be productive, while also providing the flexibility to be rapidly and cost-effectively modified as needs change over time.

Deploying solutions on SharePoint

One must customize and extend SharePoint to meet particular business needs and challenges. Organizations come to a fork in the road, faced with a choice between custom development (either in house or by outside consultants) or using commercially available software products.

Companies must assess the short- and long-term costs of developing their own solutions, in contrast to the short- and long-term costs of purchasing commercial software that meets their requirements.

The correct choice, given the collaborative and 'open' nature of the SharePoint platform, is modular commercial software products, allowing you to:

  • decrease your start-up costs (i.e. time to deployment);
  • employ a gradual or evolutionary approach to building your business solutions;
  • dramatically increase your ROI while controlling deployment, expansion and maintenance costs;
  • increase access to the latest know-how of SharePoint industry experts via technology updates and new releases.

Companies with successful SharePoint implementations find that using an application suite on top of the SharePoint platform allows organizations to 'snap together' solutions that meet their unique needs.

The application suite allows you to quickly and easily design, build, deploy and manage collaborative business solutions on the SharePoint platform, without the time and expense of custom development and maintenance.

Another advantage of an application suite approach is that they typically have a one-time software licence cost, and so there is no incremental cost for creating and deploying additional business solutions.

You can use, and reuse, the software components to accelerate the development of a wide range of collaborative solutions. As a result, you 'snap together' the solutions you need, and then add to them as your needs evolve.

This gives you the flexibility to ensure that business needs drive the scope of your solutions, instead of being constrained by product limitations or development costs.

Larry Roshfeld is senior vice president of CorasWorks, a company specializing in modular business software on Microsoft SharePoint. For further information please visit www.corasworks.net