If it seems that Microsoft® SharePoint is nearly as ubiquitous as Word and Windows, it’s because SharePoint implementations are a major factor in IT project expenditures today. In fact, if SharePoint were a standalone company, it would rank in the top 50 software companies in the world. It should come as no surprise that executives concerned about the management of technical content often wonder if technical publications in XML can be managed well using Microsoft SharePoint.
It’s important to note that SharePoint isn’t even being touted as a way to manage content, but rather as a way to collaborate for improving business intelligence (BI), and for communication. SharePoint is not a CMS at all, it is a collaboration platform with a bit of CMS functionality. While collaboration and access to business intelligence are important goals, they are only facets of what you need to consider when creating a robust content management strategy. Often with a SharePoint implementation, you get bits and pieces of what you need. And, CCMS needs aside, other tools exist that provide collaboration, BI, and intranet-like functionality that are more effective, more intuitive, and have less administrative overhead.
So the question most pertinent to technical communicators and content managers is: if you must live with SharePoint, can you use it to execute any part of your content management strategy?
The answer: it really depends on several factors. Using SharePoint presents a number of advantages over using the classic shared file system.
Advantages to Using SharePoint to Manage Content
- Content is placed in a central repository. Authors are encouraged to store all content in the repository.
- Authors can search, sort, and filter for existing content.
- Content is locked while being edited.
- Metadata can be leveraged at a document level.
- Metadata for graphics/media is available.
- Version history is maintained (major and minor plus comments).
- User and user group management is good.
- Workflow could be implemented (requires customization).
If the content is not in XML (it is in unstructured documents like Word, PDF, Excel, etc.), then SharePoint (if it is well designed and implemented) is a good choice. However, for content that is in XML and chunked into components, SharePoint is not an adequate solution.
Limitations of SharePoint as a CCMS
There are many, but I want to focus on the limitations specific to structured authoring (companies that decide to leverage the power of XML/DITA).
Companies looking to take advantage of the benefits of structured authoring will need to consider implementing a component content management system, and should use tools such as our CCMS selection matrix to identify the right solution. It becomes readily apparent that SharePoint fails as a CCMS solution because it cannot:
- Maintain relationships between topics. Because of this, a SharePoint implementation limits single sourcing, while completely prevents assembly of topics into map and views of topic and element reuse.
- Maintain content at a component level (topics) without a plug-in. This increases the expenditure in tools, training and process development.
- Easily handle the volume of components (100,000s at a minimum) and still be usable. System performance and author productivity would be severely impacted, which are often two of the primary reasons to implement a system in the first place.
- Integrate with any publishing engines by default. As a result, the organization must implement separate standalone processes because publishing must occur outside of CMS.
- Edit content directly in the CMS. An implementation requires separate purchase of XML editor that integrate with SharePoint (such as XMetaL or FrameMaker).
- Support concurrent reviews and provides only limited support for collaborative review is Compliance requirements cannot be met since authors will have no audit trail when they accept/reject changes.
- Support basic CCMS functionality:
- Metadata cannot be applied or leveraged at a sub-document level.
- No ability to branch.
- No Search and replace across components.
- Search is limited to keywords and metadata at a document level only. [Author’s Note from January 2013: SharePoint 2013 (Enterprise level package) does support multi-faceted search and filtering but I have yet to assess its effectiveness.]
- Integrate seamlessly with other systems (an LMS for example). Organizations will need to increase budget significantly for development, testing, and implementation.
- Connect workflows to content in an appropriate and effective way. (SharePoint is making strides in this area, so this may not be a barrier in the near future.)
- Prevent authors from using “libraries” to inadvertently silo content.
Plug-Ins & XML Editors
There are some products that help span the bridge between SharePoint and a CCMS, but none are adequate as a robust DITA content solution. In each case, they are an attempt to turn a plane into a rocket. They succeed to varying degrees and you may be able to travel out of the atmosphere in them but they are still not a rocket. But if you’re stuck with your plane, then they are a feasible solution for you. Some options include DITA Exchange, x:Point, or SmartDocs:
- DITA Exchange and x:Point: Both transform (a portion of) SharePoint into a pseudo-CCMS complete with translation management, metadata, and branching, for starters. I suggest you perform end-to-end requirements and tool analyses to see if either of these tools meets your needs.
- SmartDocs: An MS Word add-in that uses SharePoint as its repository. This is an alternative to XML that still lets you leverage familiar MS Word capabilities but also reuse, variables, branching, metadata, and push-button multi-output publishing.
You can also integrate SharePoint directly with an XML editor such as XMetal, FrameMaker, or oXygen. This is a complex area, so I recommend using a consultant with experience in information management to determine the best way to set up libraries, sites, pages, and Quick Parts and to identify the best plug-ins to support your needs.
If you must use SharePoint, then it’s going to be up to you to configure it to the greatest possible advantage to maintain your content. It’s not an elegant solution, but it is possible.
If you can afford a CMS instead, then you will reap the benefits. The average ROI on a CMS is less than four years and can be as few as three months.