Wednesday, January 18, 2006

SharePoint Communities

Lately, there’s been a great deal of debate about forming communities to centralize/aggregate/organize SharePoint-related content.  I think every one of us who pontificates on SharePoint has lamented the lack of a distinct community structure at some point.  There is no doubt that it’s frustrating, especially for new users, to find SharePoint content, tips, tricks, advice, code, best practices, and the like.  There are blogs, aggregators, community sites, MSD2D, newsgroups – the list goes on and on.  Now that’s the definition of confusion.

No one can really agree on how best to approach this problem – although we’re all aware that there is, indeed, a problem – but there seem to be three main approaches:

1. Centralization

Proponents of this approach believe that the only way to tame the beast is to bring all of the various resources together under one roof (which usually means THEIR roof) to provide a one-stop-shopping approach.  While this initially sounds like an attractive proposition, there are all kinds of issues, like: Who controls the platform?  Who determines format? Who maintains the directory?  Who has final say on contributions and content? Is somebody profiting disproportionately from it?  How are contributors engaged?  Who gets the AdSense revenue?

One very important shortcoming of a centralized resource is that a structured framework by its very nature is anathema to creativity.  Most community contributors see their sites/blogs as labors of love and means of expression – they don’t want to use somebody else’s template or format or rules.  Centralization is their kryptonite – they work under too many restrictions from day to day and free expression of their ideas is a constructive outlet.  The overall community may not need yet another WSS site with a fancy template and a bit of original content but the person who built it needs it for their own personal satisfaction and edification.  This is a powerful factor that cannot be overlooked (and too often is).

And let’s not be so blind as to think that there is not a profit motive behind many of these efforts; often times somebody, somewhere, wants to get paid (which is neither good nor bad, it’s just reality).  There’s a natural level of distrust between the community and the people who run commercial enterprises; they assume, whether right or wrong, that the business owner wants their content for the sole purpose of enriching themselves.  In truth, that’s probably a rare occurrence (I can’t think of one example in the SharePoint community where this is absolutely the case), but the perception still exists.  This is the true Achilles heel of centralization.

Then, of course, there is Microsoft’s centralization effort, which you would think lends itself most to the profit motive argument but in reality is probably the least likely to support that hypothesis (Microsoft is going to sell lots of CAL’s regardless of what all of us post on the web).  There’s lots of distrust here too but for a different reason – people are worried that Microsoft will police their contributions, stifling dissent and revoking it’s favor (like MVP status) for those that don’t toe the line.  I don’t know if this will really happen or not but I will admit that it concerns me – how long do you think my Extreme SharePoint Design series of posts would last on an MS sponsored site?  They’d never make it past the editors, I would imagine, because they show users how to solve problems or overcome inbuilt limitations that don’t necessarily jive with what MS defines as a ‘supported’ solution.   

Having said all that, what are the advantages of centralization?  Ease of use, for one, especially for new users.  Efficiency as well, in that we would all spend less time searching for what we need to know.  I suppose a certain level of consistency would also be achieved along with elimination of duplication if everyone is aware of what other contributors are saying.  There’s probably a bit of esprit de corps that would go along with being on the same team and enthusiasm, as we all know, is infectious.  And let’s not forget that together we could probably achieve more in one form or fashion than we could each working on our own.

So are the benefits enough to outweigh the disadvantages?  I suppose the community at large will decide, or they may choose…

2. Decentralization

This model leaves things just as they are.  Lots of different content islands floating around the SharePoint ocean with no direct links between them.  Users leverage existing tools like Google, MSN, Yahoo!, Technorati, Feedster, and RSS feed readers/aggregators to find what they’re looking for.  Convenient?  No.  Efficient?  Not even close.  Effective?  Hardly.  But it is easy, as no one has to build or maintain a centralized resource, and it doesn’t require users to do anything different than what they already do when looking for other types of information. 

This model is already in place and, if it were working well, I imagine that fewer people would be decrying the current state of affairs, so something is rotten in Denmark (my express apologies to our Danish friends for that turn of phrase).  I know how confusing it is for new SharePointers – I hear from my clients all the time about how hard it is to find good information.  Frankly, there’s just too much out there for them to catalog and synthesize.  It’s second nature to us because we live and breathe this stuff every day but they have real jobs with other responsibilities.  And I know lots of people want access to more resources because the most popular feature on my web site is my blogroll (I wish it were the description of my service offerings or my contact page but sadly it is not to be). 

It’s also very hard to discover new content in a decentralized model.  When all the information is pulled instead of pushed you have to know exactly what you’re looking for.  Free association is no strong point here – if you’re looking for needles, that’s what you’re going to get, even if a match stick might work better.  It’s no secret that you always find what you were looking for yesterday when you’re looking for something else today.  By way of example, Heather has one of the best resources on the web for SharePoint customization but people still post questions to the newsgroups that she has long since answered in-depth.  I wish more people would use SharePoint BlogSearch but they don’t – it’s mostly a handy tool for me to find postings from other bloggers without wading through Technorati’s endless parade of irrelevant results.  And just a few months ago I had a user point me to one of Bil Simser’s posts on automating list metadata from Word documents that I was unaware of – and I read Bil’s blog religiously!  Talk about an embarrassing moment; if I don’t know these things off the top of my head, how on earth is Joe SharePoint Administrator supposed to cope?  There’s just too much out there for anyone to get a good handle on.

Which leads us to…

3. Affiliation

This is a middle-of-the-road approach that places more importance on the connections between contributors than it does on command and control.  A Federalist solution, this model encompasses as many content islands as everyone can build so long as there are good links between the islands, perhaps with a DNS-root-server type of directory listing hosted somewhere.  This is in line with the organic growth model of most online communities and eschews any sort of governance other than mutual accountability. 

As with any group of city-states, the overall economy of the region is only as good as the trade routes between destinations.  In other words, if we can’t all agree on some uniform method of linking to each other and cross-publishing then the whole garment will unravel.  We know the ‘web ring’ concept doesn’t really work, so we’ll have to come up with a better method of maintaining the roadways between our islands.  And there still has to be a unified directory somewhere, which opens up the same control issues as complete centralization. 

This method does seem, at least on the face of it, to blend the best of both the centralized and decentralized approaches.  Yes, we all have to agree on some way to keep traffic flowing between us, but it would sure make the task of finding information easier.  And contributors would be free to exercise their creative talents.  The directory is a problem, if for no other reason than someone is going to have the task of maintaining it, and it will have to contain real or near real-time information.  No easy task, to be sure.


So what’s the final solution?  I don’t know any more than you do.  Personally, I think the Affiliation model works the best but I could be wrong – I know several of my clients would much prefer Centralization because it makes their work lives easier but many community members are staunch adherents to the Decentralization metaphor.  The two constituencies seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum.  Judging by the community reaction to any proposition for centralization, I doubt we will see this happen any time soon so it may become the de facto loser, with decentralization winning by default since it requires no additional effort on our part (I sure hope that’s not the reason but we can’t rule out general sloth as a factor).  One thing’s for sure – spirited debate on the subject isn’t about to die any time soon!