Increasingly, nonprofits are faced with the challenge of managing large amounts of data across multiple systems internally, while at the same time providing external users with a seamless, integrated experience across different applications and devices. Whether an organization centralizes control of these disparate systems under a single IT department or distributes responsibility to several different departments, it can remain an ongoing struggle to track data, coordinate efforts, and maintain standards efficiently across multiple platforms and servers.
To this end, Microsoft SharePoint offers organizations a collection of tools for managing and prioritizing tasks and information through a single server. Often described as a content management system and a collaboration suite, SharePoint could also be called an integrated knowledge-management platform. It includes features to help organizations more seamlessly collaborate online, manage processes, search for data, manage and share documents, host sites, access stored information, and even create and manage wikis and blogs, according to SharePoint expert Amit Kaushik.
Organizations can also use SharePoint as a foundation for creating customized solutions that meet their unique collaboration and communication needs. These customizations might consist of enabling or disabling out-of-the-box features; plugging in free software extensions created by Microsoft and third-party developers; and even of developing new SharePoint extensions.
SharePoint Server 2013 Standard Edition is available to eligible nonprofits and libraries through TechSoup.
How Nonprofits and Libraries Can Use SharePoint
How SharePoint works as a data solution might best be illustrated by examining a fictional (yet not atypical) nonprofit struggling to manage data and coordinate efforts. Libraries often face similar data-management trials and tribulations, so we could easily construct a similar scenario with a branch of a library.
Let's imagine Environment Northwest, a 30-year-old environmental conservation research organization that publishes its own original studies as well as those of other nonprofits and government organizations and that also occasionally testifies against accused polluters.
Environment Northwest's headquarters and all of its branch offices in other locations have been computerized since the late-1980s; and all of its regular publications, reports, and communications are digitized. Now, managers and IT specialists find themselves investing an increasing amount of time supporting email servers, file servers, internal databases, as well as public-facing content hosted on a succession of web servers and content management systems. It is also becoming harder and harder to control permissions and changes throughout these various systems, opening the organization up to security breaches and mistakes. File- and folder-naming conventions differ across systems and departments, as do keywords and taxonomies; employee turnover is disruptive as new staff attempt to learn and create new systems. Yet the number of information systems keeps growing to include blogs, wikis, and a social network presence. Because none of these systems are integrated on the back end, it's impossible to do a single search across all of the organization's data repositories. Employees have to open multiple search interfaces and type in several keywords over and over to find all available information on a particular topic.
This disorganization not only exposes Environment Northwest to legal penalties for violating recordkeeping regulations (and along with that, public-relations and funding repercussions) but also makes the organization vulnerable to other problems. Internally, the inability to locate old documents and records leads to a loss of organizational memory. Staff members have trouble learning from experience and making good strategic decisions when they can't find past emails and reports. Moreover, researchers begin to duplicate efforts because they are unaware of projects in different departments.
SharePoint 2010 provides organizations like Environment Northwest with features that facilitate the integration of separately managed, standalone information systems into a single, coordinated knowledge-management system. Its core governance, workflow, security, document permissions, and records-retention features allow administrators to automate procedures, track data efficiently, and deploy taxonomies consistently across multiple information systems. Because it interfaces with each of the organization's disparate data repositories, employees can perform keyword searches from a single interface and retrieve consistent, comprehensive results from all the across all the organization.
SharePoint Editions and Naming Conventions
Now that you have a broad vision for what SharePoint can make possible in a nonprofit or library setting, it's important to step back and understand the differences between and functionality options available in each edition. This is complicated because of a variety of versions and editions, so it's valuable to have a grasp on the naming conventions before moving forward.
SharePoint 2010 is the fourth generation of a family of applications that draw on a shared set of features and software components. For the past few generations, Microsoft has released several editions of SharePoint that include differing subsets of the overall set of SharePoint features. It's not easy to distinguish between these editions if you don't eat, sleep, and breathe SharePoint. Therefore, in this section, we'll list a few of the different editions you might encounter and explain the differences between them. Roughly, these editions are the free editions, the standard editions, and the enterprise editions. Standard editions include only the core feature sets, such as content management, document management, collaboration, and enterprise search. The main difference between the standard and enterprise editions of SharePoint is that the latter contain business process and intelligence functionality in addition to the standard edition features. For more information, see SharePoint 2010: A Guide to the Many Versions and SharePoint 2010 SKUs Multiply Like Rabbits.
Microsoft usually renames one or more of these editions every time it releases an upgrade. As the release of each new SharePoint generation usually coincides roughly with the release of a new version of Windows Server and Microsoft Office, it can be easier to identify different generations of SharePoint by association with the Windows Server operating system that they run on.
- Generation 1: Windows Server 2000 and Office XP
- Generation 2: Office 2003 and Windows Server 2003
- Generation 3: Office 2007 and Windows Server 2003
- Generation 4: Office 2010 and Windows Server 2008
Note that the entire suite of editions and versions is sometimes referred to as SharePoint or SharePoint Year (for example, SharePoint or SharePoint 2010). In other contexts, writers and Microsoft marketers use the name of the current standard edition synonymously with the entire platform.
- Free versions
Each generation of SharePoint includes a free, bare-bones version of SharePoint that acts as an extension to the latest version of Windows Server and the .NET Framework. The .NET Framework is a free set of programming extensions and code libraries that act as the basis for much of the modern Windows software (see the Wikipedia article and the MSDN conceptual overview for more information). This free version of SharePoint gives you access to the core collaboration and content-management features, but for all the bells and whistles, you'll need the standard or enterprise editions. In SharePoint, Generation 1, released circa 2001, this free version was called SharePoint Team Services. With the second release of SharePoint (circa 2003) the name changed to Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) 2.0. In the third release (circa 2007), this version was known as WSS 3.0. In the fourth and latest release (2010), the free version is called SharePoint Foundation 2010.
- Standard editions
In the first generation of SharePoint, the full-featured version was known as SharePoint Portal Server (SPS). With the second release, the name was changed to Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) 2003. Since then, the name has stayed the same, with new releases identified by appending the release year. For example, the third release was MOSS 2007, and the most recent release is interchangeably called MOSS 2010, SharePoint 2010, or SharePoint Server 2010. However, starting with the third generation, Microsoft offered two versions of MOSS, a standard edition and an enterprise edition.
- Enterprise editions
If business intelligence functionality would benefit your organization, the enterprise edition of SharePoint may be a good fit. Business intelligence software is a type of enterprise application that collects and integrates widely-dispersed data about your organization and presents it in a form that facilitates effective decision-making. While the enterprise edition of SharePoint is more expensive than the standard edition, your IT staff won't need to learn a new application or build a new server if they're already supporting SharePoint for its other features.
New and Improved Features in SharePoint 2010
Let's examine what's new in SharePoint 2010:
Expanded Browser Support
With previous versions of SharePoint, users had to make updates to their SharePoint sites in Internet Explorer or SharePoint-compatible desktop applications such as Microsoft Office or SharePoint Designer. End users can still add content via desktop applications, but now they have more options when it comes to web browsers. SharePoint 2010 supports recent versions of Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari.
Support for Mobile Devices
According to CMSWire's article How SharePoint 2010 Supports Mobile Access, Microsoft has built their recent smartphone operating systems (for example, Windows Mobile 6.5 and the forthcoming Windows Phone 7) such that they're both tightly integrated with SharePoint 2010. With this integration, mobile workers using Microsoft operating systems on their smartphones will be able to view and edit documents and information hosted on a SharePoint 2010 installation.
Bringing Social Networking into the Enterprise
SharePoint 2010 approaches social networking as a vehicle for organizational collaboration and productivity. CMSWire's article 5 Ways Social Networking Has Improved in SharePoint 2010 offers a good overview of SharePoint's new social networking features, which include an improved user profile page, a dynamic activity feed, a central picture library, and knowledge mining.
SharePoint also lets anyone in the organization add tags and notes to any page on the intranet, turning the entire internal website into a collaboration tool. If you need more traditional Web 2.0 tools such as a blog, a wiki, or RSS feeds, SharePoint 2010 provides those features as well.
Improved Findability: Search and Metadata in SharePoint 2010
"Findability" is as term coined by information architect and usability expert Peter Morville to describe the ease with which users can locate and access information resources on a website or other information-management systems. With SharePoint 2010, Microsoft has substantially improved findability over its 2007 version; improvements can be found in two key features: metadata and enterprise search.
Metadata: Classification and Tagging
SharePoint 2010 offers organizations several options for classifying and categorizing enterprise content. You can opt for a controlled, centralized approach to taxonomies and classification, or a decentralized folksonomic content tagging system, or you can combine both approaches.
According to How SharePoint 2010's Metadata Services Improve Usability, SharePoint 2007 required substantial tweaking when systems administrators wanted to create a centralized taxonomy and apply it across multiple data stores. SharePoint 2010 attempts to remedy this limitation. It allows managers and systems administrators to create and manage terms and keywords and then gather them into sets. They can be made available to end users throughout the organization, according to CMSWire's Overview: SharePoint 2010 Metadata and Taxonomy Management. However, users can also add their own folksonomy keywords to documents by simply tagging them, which doesn't require help or permission from IT.
In early 2008, Microsoft acquired Fast Search & Transfer (FAST), a Norwegian software company that focused on enterprise search applications. Since then, Microsoft has been incorporating FAST software capabilities into Search Server and SharePoint 2010. In particular, search capabilities in SharePoint 2010 improve upon those in the 2007 version in the following ways:
- Boolean search. Searchers can use AND, OR, NOT, +, or – to narrow in on the most relevant search results.
- Wildcard search. Searchers can retrieve a wider set of results by adding a wildcard operator (*) in place of certain words or letters.
- Faceted search. Once users submit a search query in SharePoint 2010, they receive a refinement panel along with their search results. They can hone in on their desired results by selecting their preferred results type, author, tag, or modified date.
- People search. The search engine in SharePoint 2010 indexes employee profile directories, not just document repositories. Therefore, search results return not only documents but also links to individuals with the desired expertise.
Installation Support for Nonprofits and Libraries
While Microsoft has clearly identified the major information-management problems facing organizations and their IT departments, the amazing power and flexibility of SharePoint can be a mixed blessing. With so many information-management features included in the default installation of SharePoint 2010 or available as a free extension, this abundance of features and options means that you and your IT staff have to invest time up-front studying the SharePoint literature and deciding which features suit your organization's needs.
Recognizing this dilemma, the TechSoup Limited donor partner mindSHIFT Technologies offers eligible organizations a four-hour intranet assessment donation. Eligible organizations will receive four hours of phone consultation, followed by a written assessment on whether SharePoint is a suitable platform for their library or nonprofit, along with suggestions for ensuring a successful implementation. Learn more about this and other SharePoint Server 2010 learning resources from this companion blog post.
Special thanks to Willow Cook for her contribution to this article.