MS SharePoint as a Wiki: Few Functions, less Compatibility

Siehe auch den deutschsprachigen Artikel zum Thema.

Update from 2009/07/31: This article was intensively discussed. Evidently there are some factual errors in it, that concern Sharepoint as a product apart from the Wiki features. No one doubted, that Sharepoint cannot cope with state-of-the-art Enterprise Wikis. And that's important here: "Sharepoint is a great and beneficial product for a lot of companies. But Sharepoint is not a good Enterprise Wiki."

The basis for this article were recently constructed under the leadership of Martin Seibert at an open-space session at the WikiSym in Portugal. The original document is available in English under the title “How good is MS Sharepoint as a wiki?”

Without professional knowledge management, companies are losing potential, wasting resources, and acquiring unwanted competitive disadvantages. Along with many other companies, the industry giant Microsoft has rolled out its own application, SharePoint, which allows data to be centrally deposited and edited.

But is MS SharePoint really a good alternative to a fully developed company wiki application? Our answer is a definitive “no”.

Microsoft SharePoint as a Wiki

Microsoft isn’t offering more functions than would be necessary for a completely rudimentary wiki. Pages can be created, edited, and given links. If Internet Explorer is your browser of choice, the page can be augmented in a way reminiscent of MS Word. That’s it. But it’s just not enough to become a really helpful company wiki. 🙁

Working with SharePoint is extremely problematic, especially when the system is divided among several locations: Data of office must sometimes be downloaded onto the local server before it can be edited. Afterwards, you have to upload it again. Incomplete processes create annoying waiting times.

User productivity
Even just the downloading of a big document from the WAN costs time, even if it is only a minute. If the user then also notices that it is the wrong file, this is not only an annoyance but also a reduction of productivity that must be taken seriously. To give one example, SharePoint doesn’t have any full-text search function, which is why the quality of the search results is often relatively low, as these are often directly dependent upon the error-free classifying and naming of documents. Sixty seconds may not seem to be much in a one-case scenario; many minutes per month, however, may be a different story. Multiply this by 500, 1,000, or 10,000 employees, and you have a serious waste of time.

Lack of compatibility
MS SharePoint is based on Microsoft products. Every computer needs MS Office Professional Edition, and Microsoft Clients are absolutely required. Moreover, de facto only Internet Explorer can be used when working with SharePoint.

Here is a screenshot of MS SharePoint with a Firefox browser:

Screenshot of MS Sharepoint without Internet Explorer

It is especially problematic when the user – even in a standard document – is confronted directly with source text and HTML code. This does not contribute to good usability. To give an example, documents may become perfectly unusable after having been vigorously formatted or subjected to copy and paste processes. Beyond this, the program does not allow all of the functionality that should be expected from a serious rich-text editor.

SharePoint is complicated, and not all of your employees will immediately be able to use the system without training. Training and unproductive practice time will therefore be necessary.

Data sharing
SharePoint was first and foremost developed to collect data in a central location. Active knowledge management with shared texts and web content is not part of the plan. Also, everything focuses on MS Office documents. At the least, the system is clearly missing many necessary components for a professional enterprise wiki.

SharePoint looks – at least superficially – professional. At first glance. But which MS product doesn’t? And yet, here lies the disadvantage: The development of company-specific expansions is not so easily possible as with comparable wiki systems. Unfortunately, the wiki functions of SharePoint are very basic, so an expansion would be of the essence.

Hide instead of share?
In MS SharePoint, new elements are often published and available only for the user themselves – in the name of “safety”. The standard configuration only allows this user – or at best the user with a couple of colleagues looking over his or her shoulder – to access these newly published contents. That is the exact opposite of what a wiki should actually allow. “Everyone participates in the wiki, and everyone can see new contents” is part of the mantra for success shared by successful wikis. Only those contents that others shouldn’t see are protected and hidden. MS SharePoint is no product of the interactive and user-driven Web 2.0.

Further disadvantages
In addition to all of the above, the technical restrictions alluded to result in further challenges, which deserve specific mention here in a list:

  • SharePoint cannot – as a wiki – be implemented as an extranet because there will definitely be other browsers in use than just Internet Explorer.
  • It is probable that Microsoft is fighting many (for it) more important battles, which will likely lead to the result that the weak wiki in MS SharePoint will remain weak. A couple of examples:
    • Microsoft Office is competing with numerous offline- and online alternatives, such as “Open Office” on desktops or Google DocsZoho and Adobe Buzzword on the internet. All of these are well-developed alternatives and have become widely available and used.
    • Google Chrome has also ruffled the all-important browser market in the recent past. In addition, Firefox offers a widely distributed and – in many technical areas, superior – alternative to IE.
    • Regarding operating systems, Apple with its Mac OS X is a competitor to Windows Vista that cannot be taken lightly. Finally, the development and popularity of Linux operating systems is increasing.
  • We believe that Microsoft is currently not focusing on the field of enterprise wikis. This is also shown by the collaboration with Atlassian (see below).
  • Only one MSS SQL server may be used to operate Sharepoint. Especially in larger operating environments, this can quickly lead to performance problems.
  • There is no comments- or discussion function, which is the norm in well-developed wiki systems.
  • If you wish to bring a file into the system, you need a sensible depository place within MS SharePoint. You cannot simply load the file from your hard drive (which is normal in other systems), but must first locate it within SharePoint.
  • It is basically a simple and limited whiteboard-wiki without the advantages of a structured wiki. There are no hierarchies and no assistance regarding navigation through the wiki pages.
  • MS SharePoint isn’t even referred to by Wikipedia as an “enterprise wiki”. The system also isn’t even included in the comparison chart by the comparison service WikiMatrix. The operators will tell you – if asked – that Microsoft has no interest in having its product compared on a wiki-comparison page. This would probably be – regarding the comparison of functions – a somewhat sobering experience.
  • In e-mail notifications of changes, you don’t see merely the changes but rather the entire article. This is not very useful.
  • There is no overview of changes in which you can also see what was actually changed. Whoever expects to be able to track changes like in Microsoft Word is going to be bitterly disappointed.
  • This list was still more thoroughly supplemented in the discussion at WikiSym2008. Nevertheless, since this discussion often revolved around plausible suppositions without proof, these will not be reproduced here. The rumors may be read here, however.

Safety anchor: Confluence
If you – for political reasons – still must insist on implementing MS SharePoint because it is required by your internal guidelines or company decisions, you should try to install a fully compatible enterprise wiki through the proverbial backdoor by using Atlassian’s Confluence and that company’s SharePoint Connector. The advantages include a uniform search function and the possibility of embedding contents in Confluence – and the partial imbedding of Confluence contents in SharePoint. Additionally, the connector allows a shared user management in both systems. If you would like to learn more about this, please contact us. We would be happy to advise you.

SharePoint’s problems are obvious. Therefore, MS SharePoint is nearly unusable as an application for knowledge management that I envision and is no alternative to a real enterprise wiki. In summary: SharePoint is only suitable for the collection of data, especially Office documents. Thus, in our opinion, really efficient knowledge management cannot be executed using SharePoint.

Further information:

Wikis in an intranet: TWiki in actual company practice
Wikis are the glue holding intranets together