Microsoft's third iteration of SharePoint, Office SharePoint Server (MOSS), was released earlier this year. Built on the vendor's SharePoint Services technology and part of the Office products portfolio, it creates a framework users can employ to share and manage content across a raft of applications, such as Word and Excel, wikis, blogs, content databases and customer management systems. The platform also allows organizations to develop automated business processes, as well as access and analyse large volumes of business data.
With the rise in demand for Web 2.0 and more collaborative business intelligence across commercial organizations and enterprises, the vendor is pitching SharePoint as the desktop platform of the future. And because of its highly customizable nature, Microsoft national product specialist, Ian Palangio, claimed partners were crucial to long-term take-up.
"It's not something you just sell out of the box - you need to have people onsite, build information architectures around it, do change management with customers and deploy it in the right way," he said.
Partners could also use the underlying SharePoint Services technology to build third-party applications, or as a stepping stone for leveraging other Microsoft technologies, such as project manager or BizTalk, Palangio said. While the channel has seen increased adoption, there are still some challenges to overcome before SharePoint experiences widespread take-up. Getting customers to understand the holistic change management proposition is ongoing, as is tackling the shortage of business-oriented channel talent.
The following edited transcript touches on some of the key SharePoint trends and sales opportunities for the channel, as well as the general move towards collaborative desktops.
Moving from a technology to business sale model
OBS director of sales and alliances, Brett Campbell (BC): When we first started, we were building applications that were 80 per cent custom development. And we had a lot of technical business people. Now we're rolling out a platform that's 80 per cent ready to go, and our business has changed from technical expertise and evangelists to business transformation specialists.
Unique World director of sales and marketing, Elon Aizenstros (EA): If you go back to 2001, the guys were just cutting code. It's about being a management consultant now: we've gone from people operating picks and shovels to knowledge workers who are information architects and experts on taxonomies and metadata.
Dimension Data national business manager, Peter Menadue (PM): It becomes a more comprehensive discussion with a customer, which can mean the end outcome is more continuous and significant. And we're seeing that today - the sorts of things we're doing with customers are much more significant. Because it's a broader discussion, it also affects a wider range of people.
SDM national manager, Andy Neumann (AN): We are certainly moving more into the trusted advisor role. Whereas previously there was a need for specific skills in a specific technology to rollout an application that solved one problem, now it's about having a platform and responding to customer requests to improve their business.
EA: The landscape and what you need to do to be competitive in this space has changed. The skills are more specialised, the projects are larger, and the changes you bring to an organization need to be institutionalised.
If you go back eight years, we didn't have program officers, or these engagement models we work on with our customers today. A MOSS implementation is not a two-week project. It can be a two-year project, or it could be a lifetime in the sense that you're changing the way a business works. You're helping them understand that all these things they didn't used to do, or did poorly or manually, can be automated. What Microsoft has done with Share-Point is bring this to the masses. What we're saying to these customers is 'hey, you've spent a lot of money investing in a lot of Microsoft technology. We're going to help you leverage that investment in your emails, security, directories, etc' by bringing the glue to the whole platform.
PM: It's probably the first time there's been a really comprehensive companion to the desktop suite.
Microsoft hits the enterprise
EA: As the Microsoft platform becomes more enterprise receptive, we're becoming recognised as enterprise architects. It's very clear the desktop collaborative platform Microsoft has is a key part of your overall applications architecture and shouldn't be to the detriment of your transaction systems or your other line of business applications.
PM: We've seen SharePoint be the wedge into some organisations that traditionally haven't deployed Microsoft technologies. And that's seen a whole other set of Microsoft products follow. For example, a number of the financial services and banks are doing that. Just three years ago, Microsoft didn't have that ability to get in - particularly at the applications or business services level - as it couldn't deliver a platform that would hold up in those organisations.
AN: It's been quite surprising how easy it has been to engage with the business on delivering value where they just haven't seen it before. To go to a CEO or MD and say 'we can put your dashboard information in front of you, along with your performance metrics' - they get really excited about that.
Previously, it was 'we can put in this system, which talks to this system over here, and take from data from over here, etc'. It just gets lost in noise. But if you present something simple that offers a solution-based outcome, such as showing if a business is running well, that's an order.
PM: From a licensing perspective, SharePoint justifies why Office is on the desktop and why people get new versions of the software. I also think we are on the cusp of a continuing wave where people will more easily solve content management problems. And there are going to be other things in that pie - business intelligence, for instance - which will be pushed along by this platform.
EA: For the public sector, it's about end-to-end enterprise content management. If I was a document management provider that didn't have an interface into SharePoint, I'd be worried. The market is seeing the need to integrate with that presentation layer.
In the commercial space, the interest in SharePoint is leveraging other Microsoft tools that have been released, such as Excel Server.
PM: We do a lot of work in financial services, which are very information and process centric. Anything that can help people collaborate, share and find information is key and that's part of what SharePoint brings to the table. And without being heavy handed, it also makes process automation possible. Public sector is another big one for the same reason.
BC: Locally we've seen a lot of pickup in the mining sector. With the amount of resources getting dug out, as well as the mergers and acquisitions occurring, Share-Point has been able to connect businesses securely. Internet publishing and media entertainment companies are also driving this because they can start to publish content on their websites quickly and manage information they couldn't internally before.
PM: We do a lot of work across all parts of our business in telco, and that wasn't a domain of Microsoft technology a number of years ago.
EA: What's interesting is there are people who haven't traditionally thought about collaboration before. Guys like Canon, who are processing documents, are looking at how to take that digital information and drive workflow and storage. That was fantasy land a few years ago. We've also been approached by Lexmark and Toshiba.
PM: There's been interest from unified communications and video conferencing providers wanting to integrate into SharePoint. It's been a central magnet for a lot of solutions.
BC: The big challenge we're seeing at the moment is validating the cost benefit. Sometimes we're seen as too cheap compared to the big end of town. Our job is to ensure we have credibility.
PM: We're displacing a lot of expensive pure-play vendors. That said, we're moving a lot of work off development projects, so there's big costs being cut out.
EA: Our competition is the internal IT team. We compete with people who bet their careers on other decisions, or think they know better. The people in this room would be seen as competitors but we rarely compete. Most of the time it's convincing someone about SharePoint's value proposition.
BC: This is the first product we've seen that really brings business and IT to the pointy end of the discussion. You're going to have your infrastructure manager and your HR manager signing off on it. It's quite an emotional conversation.
PM: In the content management space, SharePoint enables content owners and stakeholders to manage the content, rather than the traditional choke point, which has been IT.
AN: I think that's where partners really come into play. We can turn over rocks, and turn someone who knows they have a server into someone who recognizes how that can be a part of the business.
BC: Microsoft has brought out several application templates which has shortened the time of deployment and given us the key foundations to work with. There's government compliance and a board reporting system for example. That doesn't take away our services business, that extends us into more of a trusted advisor role.
The impact of social networking
PM: We've had a number of situations where people have not connected the dots between Web 2.0 stuff - wikis, blogs etc - and the enterprise. We haven't seen the full wave of that yet. People are just starting to get their heads around the basics. Once they do, they'll start thinking about old problems in new ways.
BC: We're using the social networking platform in SharePoint more for the expertise location and resource directory aspect.
EA: The biggest challenge is the impact of communicating that info. There have been huge legal concerns with blogs. That's something organizations still have to deal with: what are they prepared to release.
PM: 10-15 years ago, people were worried about sharing documents over email, and whether they should be encrypted. That went away because they realised the value of sharing information within some proper guidelines. And I think that's what people will work around [with social networking tools]. They have to figure out where it fits with the governance policies.
Tackling managed Services
SharePoint integrators argue the key to a successful platform deployment is wrapping a services package around it. But the concept of how to create a managed service is still difficult for some resellers to grasp.
Dimension Data national business manager, Peter Menadue, said managed services were historically synonymous with hosted services.
"Not all businesses want to operate that way - they just want part of their IT to be managed and looked after by someone else," he said. "So how do you focus on that without necessarily taking control away from them? That's the key to managed services for us."
Unique World sales and marketing director, Elon Aizenstros, said integrators also needed to take risk management into account.
"Managed services are about understanding what level of risk the customer wants to own. Do they want to own infrastructure or product expertise risk?
To what extent do I want to have that internal skill set? Depending on the profile, that could mean anything from providing a mentor to being an outsourced provider," he said.
OBS sales and alliances director, Brett Campbell, said there had been a change in mindset around the ASP model. "Customers are now enabling key security information to be managed by someone else," he said. "And hosting infrastructure companies are coming into play. That's exciting for us as we know we can partner with someone like WebCentral or Hostworks. That makes it's easy to engage."