My thoughts on the question of whether Microsoft SharePoint can support Social Networking

Ning and SharePoint

I was recently asked to comment on a blog post written by independent blogger, Ken Graetz, who is the eLearning Officer and Director of the Winona State University in MN, who pointed out some key distinctions between SharePoint Produdcts & Technologies and the popular social networking platform, Ning.  In Mr. Graetz post, he calls out the following distinctions between Ning and SharePoint:

  • Ning sites offer many more social networking than SharePoint sites. In other words, when you enter a default Ning site, it looks and feels like it should be used for social networking. When you enter a default SharePoint site, it looks and feels like it should be used for file sharing.
  • Customizing a SharePoint site to support social networking is not as easy as tweaking a pre-configured Ning site. Although I love SharePoint’s complexity, I am also a major geek and most team site members won’t share this love. That means we will either need to modify their sites for them, create great templates that can be used without major modification, or train selected members to be site designers/owners. WSU eLearning is working on a set of video tutorials and we have created, using SharePoint, a virtual community of practice around, “Working Together Differently,” that includes a SharePoint special interest group.
  • The average SharePoint ”contributor” can’t create the equivalent of a Ning Group. There is no “Create a group” button.
  • Sharepoint’s People and Groups lists contain personal profile information and pictures of members, but it’s not easy to expose that information on the main page (e.g., similar to Ning’s Featured Members component). This contributes to the overall impression that a SharePoint team site is not a very social place.
  • SharePoint’s equivalent to Ning’s My Page is called My Site, which exists independent of any team site and is presented in two views: public and private. The private view is very useful. Essentially, all users have their own personal workspace that they can modify as needed. Among other things, the Colleague Tracker Web part lets users access their colleagues’ My Sites quickly and easily. Unfortunately, most of what’s displayed in the public view cannot be changed by the user. The value of fixed parts like Memberships, Sites, and Organizational Hierarchy are apparent only if that information is managed well centrally. If it’s not, the public site can be a very confusing place for visitors.

In response to Mr. Graetz’ comments, I’ll say that I have to agree and disagree in many respects.  To clarify, I’ll address his points individually:

  • Ning sites offer many more social networking than SharePoint sites.
    • I disagree.  Let’s put into perspective the fact that SharePoint was not originally designed with social networking in mind and has had to play a bit of catch-up as it relates to adding social networking capabilities. I believe this comment was largely targeted at capabilities, or the lack thereof, within versions of SharePoint pre-2010.  In many respects it depends on which context you’re referring to when you say social networking.  Like Ning, SharePoint has support for:
      • Unique member profiles
      • Moderation and privacy
      • Invite and Share
      • RSS
      • Support for Photos and Videos
      • Discussion Forums
      • Blogs, Wikis
      • Etc.
    There’s been a large misconception when defining social networking in the context of SharePoint, which is an ENTERPRISE collaboration platform.  To that end, capabilities like knowledge/people networks, expertise finders, My Sites/Personal Sites, team sites for groups (which can be “templatized”), and the broad community support with 3rd party and open source add-ins for other capabilities make it a platform that’s capable of addressing many social networking needs.
  • Customizing a SharePoint site to support social networking is not as easy as tweaking a pre-configured Ning site.
    • I agree.  Ning provides a number of tools out-of-the-box to easily configure a social networking-based website.  However, we should also keep in mind that this was built into Ning’s design from the start.  SharePoint requires some customization and doesn’t provide out-of-box templates that provide social networking support (e.g. you don’t have a team site pre-configured with web parts that provide immediate connectivity with Twitter and Facebook for example), however that’s not to say that you can’t tailor a SharePoint solution to provide these capabilities.  In future versions of SharePoint, there are plans to address this and make the product “socially smart” out-of-the-box.  But again, this has been response to customer requests versus woven into the original design of the platform.
  • The average SharePoint ”contributor” can’t create the equivalent of a Ning Group.
    • Group creation in SharePoint (from the perspective of comparing it to Ning) is based around the provisioning of team sites or document workspaces where as you provision one of these sites, you can choose who you want to be a part of that “group” within the context of the site.  So, per that point, I agree with Mr. Graetz here.  However, when creating a community, ideally you’d want some landing space where they can collaborate in discussions, share content, etc., and SharePoint does provide that capability out-of-the-box.  If we liken the concept of Groups to establishing “Communities of Interest” you can certainly do that in SharePoint and then the added bonus is that within SharePoint you can actually target content to a particular group, thereby allowing you to customize the user experience of a given site.  For example, let’s say I provision a team site and invite 50 people.  Obviously, at that point, I’ve given 50 people the ability to access that one site.  Well, if I then create 5 “communities of interest” within that site and add 10 people to each group, then I now have the ability to tag content within lists or the list itself to only display for certain communities of interest.  In SharePoint, this is called audience targeting.  Something to my knowledge Ning can’t do.
       
  • SharePoint’s People and Groups lists contain personal profile information and pictures of members, but it’s not easy to expose that information on the main page
    • I agree from the perspective of providing users with the ability to expose this information in an out-of-the-box user experience.  But again, when SharePoint views a user’s personal profile information, it is secure by default and will only expose information if told to do so.  SharePoint follows a more enterprise-oriented process as it relates to users, profiles, etc.  However, because of the integration facilities it has, it can certainly act as an “aggregator” of profile information and pictures from a number of internal/external sources and can be customized to surface this information on the main page, albeit with more effort than Ning.
       
  • SharePoint’s equivalent to Ning’s My Page is called My Site, which exists independent of any team site and is presented in two views: public and private
    • Nothing to agree or disagree with here.  He’s correct that the SharePoint My Site is equivalent to Ning’s My Page and of his synopsis regarding the user’s ability to customize the Public View.  However, I disagree with his last statement if he’s talking about it in the context of SharePoint alone.  This is a challenge for ANY application that exhibits these types of capabilities. The success of a SharePoint deployment or any website is driven by sound information architecture.  Also keep in mind the context in which the My Site was originally introduced.  As I mentioned in a previous bullet, SharePoint was originally designed to provide ENTERPRISE capabilities, and as such, the intent of the My Site was to provide a central point to create a “personal” space in an intranet setting for a user and has evolved to encompass what we now know as Knowledge/People Networks and define “identity” within an organization.  It currently lacks the social element of integrating with more public social media vehicles like Twitter or Facebook, but again, that wasn’t is original intent.  However, as stated earlier, newer versions of the platform will be more socially aware and recognize these public social vehicles as first class citizens within the “day in the life” of an information/knowledge worker.  We’re already seeing some of that capability surface in products like Outlook 2010 that now sports social connectors for Facebook and LinkedIn and will evolve to encompass micro-blogging via Twitter.

So while Mr. Graetz makes valid points, I would classify his overall assessment to comparing apples and oranges.  Moving forward, SharePoint will morph into a platform where what are deemed as “strengths” within platforms like Ning will be become a commodity feature that’s “just there” the moment you deploy your SharePoint server.

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