Book Review – Essential SharePoint 2007

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One SharePoint book on my bookshelf is "Essential SharePoint 2007 – Delivering High Impact Collaboration", by Scott Jamison, Mauro Cardarelli and Susan Hanley.

Time moves fast in the SharePoint world. Having been involved with MOSS2007 since around August 2006, it is amazing just how far things have come. Here we are in August 2008 and I simply cannot keep up! We have a staggering myriad of blogs, books, magazines, products, training and everything in between, competing for the hearts and minds of confused and frustrated user base, all around this powerful yet maddening product known as SharePoint.

I’m not too worried about the pace of new developments happening at an ever increasing rate, because if I struggle to keep up, what hope do my clients have? 

I’ve read a few SharePoint books over the last couple of years (particularly in the early days where like everyone else, I was trying to make sense of it all). I found most of them to offer a background to the product, then go through the extensive feature-set of the product, but are weak on practical guidance.


It is unsurprising that the first generation of SharePoint books suffer this problem, because practical guidance has to come from real-world wisdom. To become wise requires time, at least one monumental screw-up and soul searching :-). Additionally, particularly in the early days Technet/MSDN just plain sucked. Therefore back then, people were focused on what this product could do.

This particular book was published in August 2007 and therefore, most of the book would have been written in early 2007. For me this book represents the first of what I think is the next generation of SharePoint books. It is still heavily centered around explaining functionality and features, however I find this to be the first time a SharePoint book approaches things from strategy and applicability of product features as part of a governance plan.

On the very first page of chapter one, the authors set the scene.

If you’re a project manager, consultant, or business analyst, you’ll find that this book helps with all the intangibles of a MOSS rollout.

One of the big risks on writing about "intangibles" is their inherent subjectivity.  When I wrote my series on "SharePoint ROI", "project failure" and even "Thinking SharePoint", I expected a negative feedback on the expectation that people would disagree with many of my opinions and assumptions. As it turned out the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, so there really is a need for more of this type of prescriptive material.

In this case, the authors are not trying to write a book on the low level detail of the MOSS SDK, nor are they writing a low level technical whitepaper either (although they do not explicitly say so). Instead they are pitching to a more business driven audience, and thus are performing a balancing act on technical and architectural content versus strategy and practical advice. All in all, I think that the authors have done an admirable job for the audience that they are targeting. The biggest risk they face however, is likely to be the developers or low level tech geeks who buy this book looking for more "low level" material. Remember that I am a low level geek who is out of rehab ;-), so I am hard to satisfy because I want it all! Strategy *and* low level tech stuff!

Chapter by Chapter

The book is divided up into thirteen chapters, covering diverse topics such as planning/strategy, SharePoint architecture and product fundamentals, information architecture, upgrading from previous versions, Disaster recovery planning, collaborative tools like blogs, wikis and team sites, enterprise content management, search, forms/workflow, office 2007 integration and business intelligence.

Chapter 1 for me is the best one in the book. It deals squarely with collaboration strategy and within two pages you are being asked the hard questions

  • Who are your key stakeholders?
  • What are the critical business objectives for the key stakeholders
  • How will the organisation as a whole measure the business success of the MOSS initiative?
  • What governance processes need to be in place to ensure that all of the MOSS users are aware of and accept their roles and responsibilities with regards to the MOSS solution?
  • How do you plan for both the design and ongoing maintenance of the content in MOSS?
  • What type of rollout strategy should you pursue?
  • What types of communication and training do you need to provide for users?

There are some tough questions there, and it is extremely refreshing for this book to ask these questions before even talking about various product features. I was particularly pleased at the emphasis on business objectives, because failure to understand or align to business objectives is a major contributor to organisations that do not live up to their potential. This book also comes from the same school of thought as me in regards to how people solve problems.

Users often have a difficult time articulating requirements for MOSS solutions. This is because it is virtually impossible to envision how the solution will help solve business problems until they "see" real data. When users do express requirements, they may express them in a specific way, which may require a significant amount of custom coding. However, if you understand the objectives and outcomes they are trying to acheive, you may be able to accomplish the objective using "out of the box" functionality.

Emphasis is also made on finding quantifiable ways to measure success with a sample table of suggested performance measurements for common business objectives such as "reduce training time" and "maximise re-use of best practice".

All in all, this book is worth it’s cost just for chapter 1. There is some excellent, practical advice in this chapter, and my only criticism of it is that it was just one chapter! But then again the objectives of this book were more broad-based, and as a result I think it is pitched at just the right level. Besides, if you want to know more you have my blog 😉 .

Chapter 2 dives into the mechanics of "high impact" collaboration, to give the reader an understanding of the typical business problems faced by organizations in relation to information and knowledge management. The four "Cs" of corporate portals (Communication, Collaboration, Consolidation and Consistency) are defined using MOSS 2007 features to provide context. The Four Cs metaphor work brilliantly to build upon the strategic oriented chapter 1 and provide a platform to delve deeper into product features in subsequent chapters.

Chapter 3 is all about the "2007 Office System", and explains some product history, heritage and the various components of MOS 2007 such as ASP.NET, windows workflow foundation and SQL Server. For readers who have used the previous versions of SharePoint, new features are succinctly covered. Lots of buzzwords abound in this section, which is always a danger because Microsoft’s context for their use sometimes is different to their competitors. But the chapter redeems itself in the second half, with the topics of "SharePoint: the File Server Killer" and "SharePoint: Access and Excel killer" are discussed, which give the reader the ammo they need to avoid the old "well it seemed like a good idea at a time" type fallout of using the product for the wrong reason.

Chapter 4 sees the book switching tack into the more traditional SharePoint book topics. After all, it is all well and good to discuss strategy but one has to understand the product! So chapter 4 introduces architectural components such as Web Applications, Site Collections, Sites, Shared Service Providers, Templates, Central Administration and the likes. Physical Deployment options are discussed as well. Infrastructure nerds will probably not get what they need out of this chapter, as it is pitched at more of a project manager style reader. But it is clear, well written and easy to understand.

Chapter 5 hits a very tough topic that is difficult to write about because there really is no *right* answer: SharePoint Information architecture. This for me was the only disappointing chapter in the book, because after writing an excellent set of foundation topics in the first four chapters, this chapter was actually very small and only covers the basics of this critical topic. The topics of site architecture, page layout and metadata architecture are explained, but I feel at a much too high-level. Granted – it is such a large topic that it can be a book in itself, but Information architecture is more directly connected to strategy and business goals than many realise. Given that the authors explicitly stated their aim of the book was to help with "intangibles" and emphasise the importance of performance measurement against business objectives, it would have been great if they had carried this concept into this chapter and provided a real world example of an information architecture design that supported the collection and measurement of the data required to satisfy a business objective.

Chapter 6 caters for those who are upgrading from the previous generation of SharePoint products, and therefore was not highly relevant to me. This is where this book sits between what I think is the first and second generation of SharePoint books. This sort of chapter makes sense when a product is new and of course there will be plenty of organisations upgrading to MOSS2007. When this book was written, this would have definitely been the case. But over time its content becomes less relevant as the majority of the audience will not likely be upgrading. For what it’s worth, the content here is very good with great practical advice on approaching an upgrade. But it is probably a little light on for a developer or infrastructure person tasked with the work of performing an actual upgrade.

Chapter 7 hits the topic of disaster recovery. Now I have to say that in this topic, *none* of the books I have read have ever covered this important topic in sufficient detail for me. Even the recent whitepapers that Joel likes still miss a few things, but in saying that, the quality of material has certainly improved by light years.

But disaster recovery, by its very nature, needs to be very comprehensive. I believe that if you are going to write about DR, then you need to cater for the geeks as well as the managers. This book actually covers the governance of DR very well, and I really like the section on "What’s not covered by a SharePoint backup" and the suggestion of a change log with an example. The authors clearly recognise the risks associated with disaster recovery and the effect that customisations like 3rd party DLL’s, webparts and web.config modifications have.

But I think a couple of things were missed as well. SharePoint’s solution framework provides a safe, sustainable method for applying customisations such as DLL’s, webparts and web.config modifications. Though it is usually discussed in the realm of application development, the concept is equally important for administrators and project managers tasked with disaster recovery planning too. I would have liked to see this topic area covered. Mandating SharePoint solutions for all 3rd party development/customiation should be part of a governance plan as they reduce mis-configuration risk significantly. Furthermore, the SharePoint solution (WSP) files can be attached to the changelog. Restore speed is faster and easier to document as it simply requires the solution files from the changelog to be re-installed and activated.

So aside from not talking about the SharePoint solution framework in this topic, overall it is well written and emphasises governance.

Chapter 8 is the first of the final chapters that covers specific product functionality. This chapter deals with team sites, blogs and wikis and it is a terrific read. Like chapter 1, the authors delve into the mechanics of collaboration and the topic of knowledge placement. There is excellent stuff here that actually could have been introduced in chapter 5. Rather than just say "here is a SharePoint wiki", "here is a SharePoint blog", the material is centered around who, why or when you should use them and how the features can be leveraged to best utilise them. The final topic in the chapter "Putting it All Together" ties the chapter topic areas up really well.

Chapter 9 delves into one of the more misunderstood areas of SharePoint – Enterprise Content Management (ECM). ECM suffers from serious buzzword abuse these days, and in reality its true meaning really depends on who you ask. The authors set out the terminology right at the start to try and alleviate this and I pretty much agree with all of their definitions.

  • Web Content management (WCM)
  • Document management
  • Records management

I personally like to refer to "document management" as "collaborative document management" because I find many people confuse it with records management

The chapter then examines SharePoint’s native features for each of these areas with a great walkthrough illustrating document management and then introducing records management. It concludes by discussing WCM and the publishing feature.

This chapter is well pitched and very well written, and conveys the critical concepts of document and records management really well. I think that WCM is particularly misunderstood and probably warrants a dedicated chapter on its own.

Chapter 10 covers enterprise search and once again starts out by asking the reader, "what do you want to do?", before explaining how search in MOSS 2007 works. (Note that the recent infrastructure update renders most books on SharePoint search out of date due to changes it has made). Interestingly, this chapter also explains how to index a lotus Notes database. That, for my money, is not a task that a project manager or business analyst is overly interested in. In fact it probably delves into more low level detail than the disaster recovery chapter.

Chapter 11 covers workflow and InfoPath forms from the perspective of "Making Business Processes Work". Out of the box workflows are examined, how they work with Office 2007 client applications. The chapter then switches focus to SharePoint designer workflows. Given that entire books are written on this subject, this section demonstrates enough to get you started. InfoPath is then covered and the mechanics of creating and publishing a form are deftly handled.

Chapter 12 covers a very important and often overlooked topic. That is, offline options for MOSS2007. It only covers one form of offline access however, dealing with Office 2007 applications like Outlook, Groove and MSAccess. No 3rd party tools are covered unfortunately, but things change so quickly in the product space, I can understand why the authors left it alone.

Chapter 13 (the final chapter) covers one of the other big abused buzzwords – Business Intelligence. Topics such as KPI lists and web parts are covered, as well as Excel services and the Report Center template. All well written, covering all the areas that need to be covered. Missing from this edition is the topic of SQL Reporting Services integration, but that was likely released after this chapter was to the publisher. I’d expect any future editions to include coverage here. Like the workflow chapter, this is a huge topic area worthy of a dedicated book on the topic, but this chapter is a well structured introductory guide to what Sharepoint offers.

Conclusion

This book for me was the first SharePoint book to try and combine the "technical" with the "strategy". This is a difficult thing to pull off, and the authors deserve a pat on the back for making the attempt so early in MOSS 2007’s life-cycle. Thus it represents a transition between first generation and second generation SharePoint books, and the fact that SharePoint as a product has now shifted from being all shiny and new and "look at all these great features" to "how do we best make use of the features that make sense for us".

I think in the ensuring period since publication, a lot more material on the intangible topics have now come to light, and I know that books are starting to come out on specific topics, such as the four books below. My only major issue with this book was with the topic of information architecture in chapter 5. If I was really going to nitpick, I’d suggest maybe sacrificing detail on the search chapter for more in the disaster recovery chapter.

Other than that, I think that the authors did a terrific job of balancing the technical stuff with the project stuff and I highly recommend this book to any IT manager, Project Manager or Business Analyst trying to make sense of it all. 

Thanks for reading

 

Paul Culmsee

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3 Responses to Book Review – Essential SharePoint 2007

  1. Pingback: SharePoint Daily for August 13, 2008 - SharePoint Daily

  2. Chris says:

    I enjoyed the book as well but was also disapointed by the IA chapter. At least they’re making an effort to get it out there, and I don’t know of any other MOSS + EIA works out there.

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