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Customizing SharePoint: Integrating tools, data flows and more

Customizing SharePoint to fit your needs can be a timesaver and a cost-cutter. Learn how other organizations have integrated tools and data flows to leverage the platform.

SharePoint is, of course, known as a portal -- the entry point into a group of systems. But more importantly, SharePoint is where information stored in a variety of different places can bubble up to the surface. Customizing SharePoint and its data flow can be a huge timesaver.

Jonathan Hassell
Jonathan
Hassell

You may have invested in SharePoint for its collaboration platform and its ability to allow your employees to work more cohesively, but there is also a very large benefit in integrating SharePoint and its methodology -- from document workspaces to groups to libraries -- with other systems that run in your organization. Here are some examples of information sources and systems that other companies have plugged into SharePoint:

Business intelligence information. Through options like the Business Data Catalog and other Web service-based interoperability options, you can delve deep into your profit-and-loss and order systems, as well as invoicing databases, and expose that data through graphs, regular reports posted to SharePoint and more. Since SharePoint works well with Office, and since most business gets done in Excel anyway, why fight it? Your users are comfortable with Office and can massage, manipulate and aggregate data from various sources -- all exposed through SharePoint. They can then perform rich analysis functions -- such as pivot tables, what-if analyses and custom filtering -- within an environment they're familiar with to get key information without having to traipse through multiple websites, terminal-based mainframe systems, etc.

Factory or production performance. SharePoint can interface with any number of different manufacturing systems to retrieve project status and aggregate those results into a central location. The alerting and reporting features within SharePoint itself can breathe new life into data stored in older, less accessible systems and drive business insights and ideas that otherwise would have remained locked away. With reporting and alerts, you can see where components are stacking up, where team members aren't delivering to the correct schedule and when partners aren't providing or receiving data in a timely manner.

Contract status and deliverable tracking. One of my clients is tracking contracts using SharePoint and an associated line-of-business database. At a glance, the client can see the status of the contracts for all parties contributing to a project -- whether and when a contract was sent, what the terms were and whether it was executed and received. Once it's fully implemented, this solution saves time tracking down these niggling administrative details and also enables solutions, such as automated invoicing into SAP, based on the progress made against predetermined milestones. Hundreds of man-hours across three different departments will be saved.

These are just a few ways other organizations have leveraged SharePoint. When customizing SharePoint to fit your own needs, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What information do I (or my employees) spend a large part of the day tracking down? Where does it reside, and can it be integrated with other pieces of information more effectively?

  • What information do I (or my employees) need on a regular basis? Daily? Weekly? Monthly? Can that be automatically brought to me?

  • What information did I not have in the last fiscal period or calendar period that could have changed the outcome of my results for that period? Was it there in the first place, and how could I have retrieved that?

The answers to these questions will fuel your own search for information to integrate into SharePoint 2007 and beyond.

SharePoint customization involves integration

For organizations that have standardized on the SAP ERP software, Microsoft delivers a set of SAP Web Parts with SharePoint 2007 that can read data from SAP Web services. Your developers can use these Web Parts to create more specific components to write data back into SAP from SharePoint, providing another level of interactivity. You can do this by calling the SAP Web services directly, or defining actions in the Business Data Catalog and then linking them with Microsoft Office InfoPath 2007.

Your users are comfortable with Office and can massage, manipulate and aggregate data ... all exposed through SharePoint.

SharePoint 2010 also brings some capabilities to the table that should prove interesting for businesses looking to improve how data is displayed internally to stakeholders. For example, with the new version of Excel Services integrated with SharePoint 2010, spreadsheet rendering and interactivity is improved -- it has better pivoting and slicing capabilities and more visually appealing, informative visualizations such as heat maps and sparklines.

New representational state transfer support makes it easier to add server-based calculations and charts to webpages and mashups. SharePoint 2010 also includes PerformancePoint Server, which allows you to create enhanced scorecards, dashboards, key performance indicators and other bits of information so your portal can become a one-stop shop for your organization.

Jonathan Hassell is president of The Sun Valley Group Inc. He's an author, consultant and speaker residing in Charlotte, N.C. Hassell's books include Radius, Learning Windows Server 2003, Hardening Windows and, most recently, Windows Vista: Beyond the Manual. Contact him at editor@searchcio-midmarket.com.

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