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Managing the digital chaos: Unleashing the power of SharePoint

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The "virtual office" lifestyle is now the norm, with business conducted on laptops and Blackberries, in airports and behind the wheel. Employees are scattered at worksites with customers or at remote locations, and in some case, the need for a physical office space has been all but eliminated.

Yet, most organizations do not realize that this new business reality is costing them tremendous amounts of money in lost productivity. Whether it's hunting down missing timesheets, trying to ascertain who has the latest version of a contract or locating a presentation that might have been destroyed by a fired employee on their way out the door, this digital chaos is causing people to work harder, instead of smarter.

There has been increasing hype in recent years that the solution to this technological free-for-all lies in SharePoint, the fastest-growing product in the history of Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT). This highly versatile Web-based collaboration and document management platform has promised to change the very way business is done through online workspaces. In addition to document and photo management capabilities, SharePoint allows nontechnical users to quickly create Web-based worksites with anywhere access and real-time collaborative features. The sites allow users to track document versions, coordinate calendars, manage tasks, build workflows, launch surveys and communicate through real-time alert notifications. It also provides templates for creating Web 2.0 tools like blogs and wikis and serves as an effective platform for custom applications.

Unfortunately, as many users have discovered, out of the box SharePoint requires highly specialized knowledge to architect effectively, and it is easy for organizations without this expertise to find themselves in over their heads. Others have simply ruled out the possibility of centralizing their business operations on SharePoint due to financial or staffing constraints.

A couple of different options are available for organizations that are considering SharePoint but do not have specialized IT professionals on staff. The first is to work with a Microsoft-certified consultant to customize a SharePoint platform to meet the needs of the organization. Once the customized framework has been established, an in-house portal administrator can take the lead, unless more extensive customer support is desired from a consultant on an ongoing basis.

Another option is to choose a hosted SharePoint portal solution. These user-friendly services involve a small monthly subscription rate and a set-up fee, which varies by provider and the number of users, storage space requirements, etc. This is becoming an increasingly popular route for many smaller organizations without IT departments or for those that are simply attracted to the idea of cost-effectively outsourcing this IT function.

Regardless of the approach, adopting a SharePoint platform can have a profound impact on an organization. Here are some examples:

Gafcon Inc., a large construction management firm with multiple offices in California, was experiencing rapid growth, but wanted to make certain it was able to keep up the processes that had been so fundamental in its success. The company was able to eliminate file shares and is now 100 percent SharePoint-based, resulting in a 45 percent reduction in server maintenance costs the first year. A custom time card monitoring feature was added allowing for accurate, real-time analytics and quickly raised compliance from 65 percent to 98 percent, resulting in heightened productivity and increased revenue. Deploying SharePoint has also provided Gafcon with a unique competitive advantage in attracting new business.

Another example is a local community college district, which was awarded a $207 million bond measure to improve and expand its campus system. A condition of the award was the formation of the Citizens' Bond Oversight Committee to report the construction progress to the public. The group initially created a basic Web site to relay reports, but it was time-intensive to manage and required Web design expertise. SharePoint was deployed in its place to provide an easy-to-use system for sharing up-to-date reports as well as announcing public hearings. The improved information sharing reduced IT costs and shortened turnaround times. It allowed for flexibility in managing content while improving communication to the surrounding community.

Organizations that choose to opt out of SharePoint revolution do so at their own peril. While currently a "secret weapon" for enterprising firms, it will not be long before it becomes the business standard. Those who wait will be playing catch-up for years to come.

West is a principal and co-founder of San Diego-based SharePoint360, a Microsoft-certified partner offering both SharePoint consulting services and hosted solutions. More information can be found at www.sharepoint360.com.>

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