MS-Office Integration with SharePoint

I always assumed Microsoft’s strength was integration between its products, so I assumed that there would be good integration between SharePoint and Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Office generally.  It was only after watching end-users struggle to navigate basic document operations in MS-Office and Outlook that I came to realize there’s a huge gap in that integration and the resulting user experience.  SharePoint at best appears as flat list of Recent Places shortcuts, leaving MS-Office and Outlook users flummoxed as they try to find or file a document within SharePoint.  Worse, metadata support is very limited; Office 2007 products don’t support new metadata fields such as Hierarchical Taxonomy (Managed Metadata Service) fields or External Content Types.  Even in Office 2010, the DIP (Document Information Panel) by default provides a random dump of the metadata fields and is far from user-friendly.  The DIP consumes valuable real-estate by default, with an unintuitive user interface for hiding/exposing it, and an unclear relationship between Document properties and SharePoint metadata fields.

As I explored add-on software to address these issues, I first came across and ultimately deployed a nifty product produced by Colligo.  It is highly focused on the Outlook end-user experience.  It provides drag-and-drop, full rich metadata support, and the ability to set up favorite SharePoint sites.  It works great at first, but there are some real issues to be aware of before committing to it:

  • Stability
    In my experience with this add-on, new releases often create problems as they fix other issues.  Before deploying, make sure the version intended for deployment is well-tested before deploying.  Once corrupted, we had to uninstall and then reinstall on the client desktop too often.
  • Caching
    Watch out for caching.  Changes to sites such as metadata don’t get reflected until a full synchronization.  When caching, a huge volume could get stored on the client desktop.  It blew up several of our thin clients, causing us to have to uninstall and reinstall the product, on more than one occasion, a user ran out of disk space and corrupted Colligo.
  • No site hierarchy

    Favorites need to be hand-entered in the 4.x version, and appear as a list of sites.  There’s no way to see the sites and libraries as a hierarchy, which is what users expect.

  • Colligo adds extra folders to the Mail Folders to represent the structure of Favorite sites. This can cause issues with the MAPI tree if the Favorite site has a lot of sub-sites and libraries.

Colligo has a 5.x version in the wings that offers two much-needed capabilities:

  • Central Administration of favorites
    You can now “push” favorites out to end users centrally.
  • Eliminating of the Site Caching
    Going to real-time is a smart move that goes to the heart of some of the problems in the prior version.

However, in testing, this version is not yet stable enough to recommend.  There are also real issues in the scrolling and display of metadata fields, preventing users from reaching some fields.

A far more comprehensive product line is offered by MacroView.  Like Colligo Contributor,  MacroView DMF (stands of Document Management Framework apparently) also provides drag-and-drop, full rich metadata support and the ability to set up favorite SharePoint sites.  In contrast to Colligo, MacroView shows the full site hierarchy in Outlook, and allows search views that can be customized to reflect the company metadata.  The MacroView menu and configuration options are very comprehensive. It already has the capability to push out Favorites and does not do any caching of file or metadata. MacroView offer an optional add-on that allows users to override and set security at the individual document level (which is another thing that is surprisingly difficult with the out-of-the-box SharePoint UI).  The SharePoint navigation and metadata experience with MacroView is consistent across Outlook, Word, Excel PowerPoint and the desktop client – even in Adobe Reader.  Lastly, the MacroView software is rock-solid reliable in tests and demos.

Customizing item-level security

Individual document security permission overrides carry its own challenges.  Each time permission is “broken” or customized in a document library, a new security scope is created.  Industry estimation is a performance hit of 20% is experienced at 1,000 security scopes in a library.  Microsoft defaults to a configurable maximum of 50,000 security scopes per library, with a recommendation to actually lower this to 5,000.

A product from a company called Titus offers a well thought out rules based security system that sets the security within the SharePoint model based on the metadata, using simple rules you defined.  While it has been the perfect product for some problems, we’ve had some reliability issues with it as well that we are working with Titus to resolve, where some document uploads fail the first time.