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SharePoint tools help one CIO streamline ops, improve user experience

Our CIO columnist shares how he uses SharePoint tools -- both homegrown and from third-parties -- to extend the platform's capabilities and streamline operational tasks.

SharePoint takes a "kitchen sink" approach to providing services -- it acts as a Web content management system and provides robust portal services. We've been able to take advantage of SharePoint tools to extend the platform's capabilities even further and tailor it to fit our needs by exploring some third-party add-ons and our own internal development initiatives.

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

My SharePoint story began in 2005, when I was IT director at a different college. Back then, we were a heavy Microsoft shop looking for a content management system. We evaluated SharePoint and Microsoft Content Management Server and I remember saying to my team, "Wow … if Microsoft would just combine those two tools, it'd be a slam dunk." At the time it didn't, and we ultimately went with a different system that better met the needs of that college.

Fast forward to late 2006 -- I became CIO of Westminster College and shortly after (read: three days) the college launched a website that was far from complete and running on a Web content management system (CMS) that was incapable of meeting the long-term needs of the institution. We made plans to rebuild the college's Web presence on a different CMS.

After an informal evaluation of the content management marketplace, we chose SharePoint 2007 -- it had inherited strong Web content management capabilities from Content Management Server and still provided its traditional portal services. Because it now met our needs on two fronts, we were able to replace legacy systems by deploying SharePoint as a single tool for both internal and external audiences.

Maximizing efforts with SharePoint tools

The move to SharePoint was budget-neutral -- we didn't save money, we didn't end up spending more. But we've been able to explore other services via custom development and through third-party add-ons that have streamlined operations on campus and extended our own internal capabilities. For example, some of the homegrown SharePoint tools we developed include:

  • A campus master calendar: While there is certainly no shortage of calendar products available for purchase, my primary SharePoint developer wanted an opportunity to expand her knowledge by building a master calendar system customized to meet our needs. The new calendar includes dozens of subcalendars that all roll up into a single master calendar, and the system allows us to slice and dice the information pretty much any way we like.

  • A call center software product: Rather than relying on sheets of paper and hand-tallied notes to keep track of calls and donations, the SharePoint-based call center tool provides a performance report. Data sets containing prospective donor information are loaded into the tool, generating electronic call lists and tracking performance.

We've also acquired some SharePoint add-ons, all of which have been a boon:

  • Data Synchronisation Studio: We use this product to help populate our faculty and staff online directory using Active Directory. We actively work to integrate Web elements into existing data sources to help us automate updates and keep the site current. We have future plans to further enhance the site using more from this tool.

  • OptimusBT eProcurement: In an effort to provide users with one-stop service when it comes to updating Web content, we're in the process of implementing OptimusBT's procurement and shopping cart software. This will allow us to put our campus bookstore online while still using the same content update tool as the rest of the campus.

  • RadEditor: We've replaced the default SharePoint editor with the free version of Telerik Inc.'s RadEditor. We have more editor controls and capabilities, such as the ability to granularly manage table properties on webpages.

  • Enhanced Content Query Webpart: This is a free Web part that overrides the default content query Web part in SharePoint. It allows us to better customize the list queries necessary for website functionality.

SharePoint challenges

If you go the SharePoint route, be prepared for the sheer amount of time it takes for administrators to become familiar with the product and use it in any meaningful way. Even after significant SharePoint training, my developers learned the most during a three-month trial-and-error period in a test environment.

Along the way, we've also run into what can only be described as general SharePoint weirdness. For example, some SharePoint capabilities (such as the blogging capability) are harder to use in a public way than they should be. And setting permissions can be a bear to get right the first time around.

On the user adoption front, the move to SharePoint was pretty positive after some requisite user training. Some still grumble from time to time about the clunky SharePoint editing process (there are quite a few clicks needed to publish something), but these are only the minor rumblings that you'd expect with pretty much any system.

Even though there have been frustrations along the way, we've found SharePoint to be a fantastic solution for us. We've managed to work around the egregious issues and look forward to what Microsoft brings to the table with SharePoint 2010.

Scott Lowe is CIO of Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. Write to him at or

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