'Mega' SharePoint brings static information to life

If there was a Murphy’s law for collaboration software, it might go something like this: Moving small, independent workgroups to platforms where information can be shared across an entire enterprise doesn’t necessarily improve the ability to share information.

“When you go into enterprise mode, you start to deal with large volumes of content,” said Pirooz Javan, president of Easy Dynamics Corp., a business process consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. “What typically happens is users get overwhelmed.”

“They get access to a [larger] domain or community, but they don’t know where to start,” said Javan, whose company is working with the Homeland Security Department and the Marine Corps on migration issues related to collaboration software (see sidebar).

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Trust and identity management issues are also more critical in larger, enterprise settings. Within a small department, people know the other staff members with whom they are working, but at the enterprise level they could be collaborating with others  who are hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Such growing pains are becoming more common as agencies try to reap more value from SharePoint, a family of software products from Microsoft that enables collaboration, file sharing and Web publishing. While SharePoint has been widely used in government for years, agencies are now working to adapt it to more complex tasks and processes as well as larger groups of staff, business partners and citizens.

Land of a thousand workgroups

The state of Minnesota is confronting these challenges by creating what it calls “a collaboration ecosystem” that lets state workers share information both within and across agencies.

In October 2011, the state successfully completed the migration of 35,000 state workers to Microsoft Office 365, the company’s cloud-based messaging and communications platform. Although not trivial, the migration of basic tools such as e-mail and instant messaging was fairly straightforward, according to Tarek Tomes, assistant commissioner with Minnesota’s Office of Enterprise Technology.

Migrating on-premise SharePoint sites to Microsoft Office 365 SharePoint is a different matter. Several Minnesota agencies have large on-premise SharePoint sites that have been complex to maintain. The next phase is to move those SharePoint sites to the Microsoft cloud.

“This is where we are finding the challenges, although not insurmountable, are very different and, in some cases, more complex,” Tomes said. The migration of data and applications from older versions to a new version is quite significant, he said, adding that SharePoint on-premise also requires a large infrastructure footprint.

'Overarching governance'

“The first thing we discovered on the path to adoption is the need to have an overarching governance model related to how everyone interacts and how things are created,” Tomes said. Organizations must have a larger taxonomy for how data is treated, he added. “You really have to view it from a data management perspective.”

The government has a great deal of data in on-premise SharePoint installations, and now agency managers want to share information with their employees in more productive ways, said Javier Vasquez, director of cloud and collaboration services with Microsoft Federal. And if organizations do not have solid data governance in place when moving SharePoint across an enterprise or to the cloud, data could be at risk, he said.

Jim Sweeney, chief technology officer at GTSI, agreed. Agency IT administrators supporting multiple, smaller groups of SharePoint users, most likely have set up separate security policies for each group. In tuning SharePoint for intra-agency or cross-agency collaboration, agencies must focus on security and governance from an enterprise perspective, Sweeney said.

Building trust is a key aspect of any governance model when an organization moves content to the cloud, whether that is a private, on-premise cloud or public providers such as Amazon, Microsoft or Rackspace, said Easy Dynamics’ Javan.

If agencies can overcome the challenges, the rewards can be significant. Minnesota state workers are now actively using the Microsoft Office 365 SharePoint platform for a variety of collaboration needs since the service went live last fall, Tomes said.

For the first time, the state will have the ability to share information and data across the executive branch, apply data retention policies and facilitate broad collaboration quickly. “We consider the enterprise SharePoint direction to be a hugely strategic-enabling platform for us,” Tomes said.

Same-day deployments

Recently, the state’s Human Services Department had to review prospective changes in health care reform policy, which required collaborating with four other agencies. By using the Office 365 platform, Minnesota’s IT department was able to instantly the same day create a collaboration system that linked Human Services with the four agencies.

“Previously, that did not exist,” Tomes said, noting that each agency had their own instances of SharePoint that allowed collaboration within but not across agencies.

Minnesota is moving its on-premise SharePoint installations in stages, agency by agency. Officials are looking to innovate within the new platform as quickly as they can while at the same time moving existing on-premise sites. ”The disruption to business is critical because there are so many workflows businesses rely on quite heavily,” Tomes said.

The majority of SharePoint installations are just starting to scratch the surface when it comes to creating a “holistic communication and collaboration infrastructure,” Tomes said.  When this is achieved, a collaborator’s presence might be viewable together with documents she is looking to share and the workflow capabilities that are permitted.

Minnesota’s users are eager to move to the new enterprise SharePoint where they can have access to the latest collaboration features, Tomes said. “We have gotten quickly to the place where SharePoint is where we collaborate,” he said. “Business people associate SharePoint with their particular site, not realizing it is bigger than their sites."

In the past, SharePoint implementations largely consisted of document collection libraries and the storage of information. Now, the state wants to ensure proper data policies are in place and workflows route information to decision-makers who need it.

The goal is a basic one, Tomes said: “We are looking to bring that information to life.”


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