SharePoint is a popular ECM (electronic content management) server software from Microsoft. Some of the most common uses include document and intranet content management. It was traditionally enterprise software for medium and large businesses, but SharePoint has become more widely used by small businesses and other organizations after being bundled with Microsoft’s Office 365 subscription. As its popularity expands, more people have questions about the platform and its capabilities.
Is SharePoint really a document management platform?
SharePoint was not originally designed as a DM (document management) system. The ECM capabilities were added on later in response to consumer demand and the rise of more robust competitors. Even after many versions and revisions, the software still reflects this “after-the-fact” design. This leads people to debate whether or not SharePoint is actually a document management platform or whether it is document sharing software that can merely be used as a DM system.
On one hand, many users argue that it is a document management platform because it is widely used for that purpose. Regardless of design flaws, the software is classified by how people use it. On the other hand, many experts argue it is not a true or complete DM platform because it lacks key functionality. Despite the availability of add-ons and workarounds for the main issues, the core program falls short of the feature set expected from document management platforms.
The “everything but the kitchen sink” design is another factor that leans toward saying SharePoint is something other than a DM platform. While SharePoint has document sharing and collaboration tools, it also serves several other enterprise server functions. For example, SharePoint is used for blog management, as a CMS, for intranet management, and corporate file management. This unfocused Swiss Army knife approach trades full feature sets and detailed functionality for a variety of capabilities. It does a lot decently, but it does no individual thing particularly well.
One point of view is that SharePoint is a basic but robust enterprise development environment. Some IT workers espousing this perspective state that it is improper to call it an ECM, CMS, or other name referencing its various practical applications. Instead, it is a platform that can be tweaked and extended to provide a variety of services and working environments. This viewpoint is grounded in the notion that no one should use a “vanilla” installation of SharePoint, instead always customizing and expanding it to fit the specific needs of a given business. One can only call a given customized setup of SharePoint a CMS, ECM, or other descriptor.
The many shortcomings of SharePoint
Because it was not originally designed as an ECM server, SharePoint has numerous flaws as a document management platform. Two of the most infamous shortcomings are image capabilities and workflow limits. The collaboration features are also a common source of frustration for users. Additionally, the setup process is more complex and difficult than advertised.
The imaging capacity, or lack thereof, is the top shortcoming. Unlike many other document management systems, images and scanned documents are not handled like other content entries. Without customization, SharePoint cannot build and reference libraries of image content. This is a major shortcoming for a business that needs to enter and track scanned material. It is also problematic when working with visual content, such as diagrams and charts. There are add-ons that help make up for this flaw, but they are limited fixes and do not match the robustness of full ECM suites.
The collaboration tools also leave much to be desired. Most ECMs offer revision tracking, multi-author structure, and other such tools. In contrast, SharePoint’s collaboration feature basically boils down to a newsfeed with notes and file sharing. It lacks the more involved workflow and co-authoring tools typically found in document management platforms.
While installation is relatively easy, the actual setup process can be rather involved and complicated. This is especially true of environments where multiple features are used simultaneously and interlinked. For example, a common setup includes collaboration, file sharing, intranet management, and blogging features. Getting everything set according to the workflow and needs of a specific business can be an exercise in frustration. It is common to see community forum threads with seasoned IT professionals seeking advice on getting a SharePoint environment up and running with interlinked tools.
There are also complications with conflicts between add-ons and custom designed features developed through the APIs. It is not unusual to run into problems trying to add or revise multiple functionalities for the same or related features. Sometimes these difficulties can be resolved with different approaches to API programming or using certain sets of add-ons that are known to play well together. However, the need to accept a lesser functionality than intended or to implement a clumsy hack is just as frequently seen. This problem can be avoided by sticking as closely to a vanilla installation as possible, but that is a non-solution for many businesses.
In line with the after-the-fact design and limited ECM functionality, there are several other points where SharePoint falls short as well. As one well known and much hated example, the enterprise search function performs poorly. This shortcoming is exacerbated by the lack of proper imaging capacity, which makes it even more difficult to find and manage image documents. Related to the weak search capabilities, it also lacks the robust ontology and taxonomy features common to other ECM platforms. This makes it difficult to properly filter listings and search results.
Popularity despite the flaws
SharePoint is a Microsoft product. Microsoft products see widespread use in business environments. They offer a wide variety of software from operating systems to enterprise servers to programming language development environments. The average end user is also familiar with Microsoft’s aesthetic and menu structure. SharePoint has also been incorporated in the Office 365 subscription, causing the number of SharePoint installations to skyrocket. Companies have confidence in the strength of the Microsoft brand and take assurance that Microsoft will be around for many years to come. This contrasts with many competitors that are much smaller companies with less brand recognition and more uncertain futures.
Another aspect to SharePoint’s popularity is a robust selection of add-ons. Authorized users can add new features, revise existing features, and otherwise customize installations. The process of adding and removing add-ons is user friendly and simple. The attractiveness of such ease of customization in a reputable brand name product cannot be overstated. Many feel that the shortcomings of SharePoint out of the box are made up for by the selection of optional features. Furthermore, SharePoint has a collection of APIs that allows for the development of a broad range of custom enterprise software.
The ongoing popularity of SharePoint is reinforced by official support and an active community. Official support is an important element for many enterprise systems. It is even a requirement in many companies. The vibrant Microsoft community is also a major asset, providing peer guidance on troubleshooting and advanced usage. Companies feel secure and comfortable that the software can be adapted to their environment due to this combination of reputable official support and cooperative peers volunteering their knowledge.
Put together, the well-known brand, reputable company, deployment flexibility, and multiple avenues for product support gives SharePoint a strong position. Despite its many flaws, no competitor can match this combination of market advantages. SharePoint is likely to continue dominating the market for the foreseeable future.
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