Microsoft is learning to share – but not soon enough?

Jive, an enterprise-focused social software company, has a catchy tagline: it says it’s going to “liberate SharePoint content”.

Anyone who uses Microsoft SharePoint can imagine what this means: no more clomping in and out of information silos. Whatever you want on tap, when you need it.

But it remains to be seen whether any vendor can deliver the sort of sophisticated collaboration tools that some businesses urgently need today.

Jive seems to know that many workers achieve results through collaboration with others, who often work in different parts of the organisation. This collaboration is much more productive when everyone has easy and direct access to the right information. This data might live within the workers’ blogs, wikis or bookmarks. Or it might live in the organisation’s traditional IT systems.

Microsoft has revealed its 2010 offerings will include a revitalised SharePoint, which apparently will feature significant ’community’ capabilities. The company has also announced its Future Social Experiences (Fuse) labs, the deliverables of which are, presumably, off into the future.

The social elements of Microsoft’s 2010 line-up are unclear but what is clear is that, in some areas of business, the worlds of ’content’ and ’social’ are moving closer together. Organisations need to bear in mind that, in general terms, social is predominantly about sharing while content is more about controlling.

What both Jive and Microsoft are aiming to do is important: bring together the best elements of social computing and traditional content systems in a way that is helpful to organisations. Ideally, workers will be able to collaborate with each other in flexible and ever-changing communities but also be able to tap into any enterprise resource that helps them achieve their goals. And they will want to do all of this securely.

At the moment, social and content applications are like oil and water – and it’s going to be difficult for any single company to act as an emulsifier.

Maybe Jive can pull it off with integration that gives both factions what they want, all under a single sign-on. Or maybe Microsoft will regard the Jive approach as a handy stopgap and will buy a social company to give it a leg up and eliminate a competitor into the bargain.

If Microsoft does go the acquisition route, integration could still take a while. Groove, which Microsoft bought in 2005, will only be integrated properly in the 2010 product set.

Although a harmonious and unified system is the ideal, some organisations haven’t got time to wait. They want a social layer now. And they will almost certainly want to build on the systems they have already rather than risk a ’rip and replace’. They probably don’t care too much who they bring in for the social bit either, as long as the providers are reasonably well-established and professional.

Returning to security, between the mindless extremes of ’share everything’ and ’control everything’ lies common sense. For collaboration to work in businesses the social folk will need to adopt a degree of responsibility and the content folk will need to loosen up a bit. Many documents and files need to be clothed in permissions and users need to be authenticated to reach them.

At the same time, the more liberated the content, the better informed your workforce in general can be. That’s not a reason to expose everything to unrestricted view – obviously some sensitive materials need to remain confidential, accessible to an identifiable few.

The Jive product seems – on the face of it – to be a good one. Previously, it connected with SharePoint in a functional but not terribly satisfactory way. The Jive connection acted as a member of the SharePoint community and everyone on the Jive side inherited the permissions of the connection. With the new Connector, due in a few months, SharePoint content owners or administrators will apparently be able to assign different rights to individual Jive ’places’.

While Microsoft continues to improve the collaboration aspects of SharePoint, from what I’ve seen it still is not the ideal answer for most enterprises. Perhaps collaboration with Jive or a similar vendor is the best way forward for now.

The Fuse project may eventually deliver the social goods to Microsoft customers. But it will mean little to people who need social and content integration today.

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