With Office 2007, Microsoft is raising the collaboration bar. To fully realize the new suites collaboration potential, however, Office 2007 must be tied in to Office SharePoint Server 2007.
eWEEK Labs tests show that users will get a productivity boost from the collaboration capabilities in Office 2007, but there are some hurdles IT managers will need to help users leap to gain full advantage of the collaborative features that come from the combination of Office 2007s applications and Office SharePoint Server 2007.
At its most basic level, Office SharePoint Server 2007 gives users a place to store and share content, which can be augmented to some degree with prepackaged document workflow capabilities. During tests, we could configure workflows on a folder, then invite users to participate in a workflow, set due dates and assign tasks.
Office SharePoint Server 2007 includes four basic workflow processes: document approval, feedback collection, signature collection and disposition approval. We liked that workflows can be launched on a conditional basis, such as when a document is changed.
If a document such as a Word document is shared on Office SharePoint Server 2007 or is subject to a SharePoint workflow, the Office Button in that document will include tools that tie in to SharePoints document management constraints.
For example, when we opened a Word document that was subject to a SharePoint workflow, Word displayed a banner just below the ribbon to alert us to that fact. While working on the Word document, we could check out the document or initiate a workflow step directly from the Office Buttons Server or Workflow menu items.
We also found that Word did a good job of exposing workflow alternatives within the application. When we went to follow up on a task, Word presented us with a form that allowed us to either reassign the task or request a change in the document and change subsequent due dates.
Indeed, Microsoft has made a significant investment in the improvement of task management, ensuring that users have the ability to see their tasks both on a SharePoint Server as well as in Outlook, the application most people use for task management.
The Outlook for Office Collaboration
With Office Outlook 2007, users have the ability to import their tasks from other Office applications to gain a consolidated view.
This is a big improvement because the proliferation of task objects in other Office applications has presented a conundrum for users. Office Outlook 2007 can synchronize tasks from Office SharePoint Server 2007, Access 2007, Project 2007 and OneNote 2007.
The latter integration allowed us to use OneNote to take meeting minutes and convert action items directly to tasks. Outlook automatically imports those tasks to its To-Do List. When users mark those tasks in Outlook as completed, the same tasks in OneNote are marked as completed as well. Once a task is available in Outlook, it can be managed with the standard Outlook task management tools.
Outlook also has gained some other general collaboration hooks, including RSS support that can be used to manage internal information and traditional RSS feeds. For example, we were able to subscribe to an Office SharePoint Server 2007 RSS feed that kept us up-to-date with changes to a task list on a SharePoint site.
In addition to task management, Outlook 2007 has improved tools for users who want to share calendars and schedule meetings with external users. The advanced schedule management features require Exchange Server 2007 on the back end.
OneNote is on the fringe of what most users are accustomed to in the Office suite, but that may change with Office 2007: In the new suite, OneNote has some useful integration points with Outlook and SharePoint beyond task management.
One of the main areas of improvement is integration with the Outlook calendar, as mentioned earlier. Office OneNote 2007 installs a toolbar item (in Outlook 2003 or 2007) that allowed us to take meeting information from an invitation—such as time, attendees and agenda—and prepopulate a Notebook page with that information. Within OneNote, the information is organized in a form that includes a link back to the calendar item in the Outlook calendar.
OneNote includes two new features that simplify sharing and collaborating on data beyond whats available through Windows SharePoint Services. With this release of OneNote, we could compile a group of pages and share them by creating Notebooks. We could share these Notebooks from a local copy, from a copy stored on a network drive or from an Office SharePoint Server site.
Sharing a Notebook proved relatively easy in our tests—all we needed to do was designate the share location, either locally or on a server, and OneNote created an e-mail message with links to the shared Notebook to be distributed to other users.
This feature could also be used to synchronize copies of Notebooks on multiple computers. When sharing a local copy, we did need to ensure that we granted appropriate rights to the recipients, a task that required administrative privileges on our test Windows XP desktops. With Office SharePoint Server 2007, we could create a specific OneNote document library to manage these shared folders.
The sharing method isnt exactly seamless. OneNote has a synchronization menu item that users have to use to copy changes across different versions. In addition, OneNote doesnt have a mechanism for arbitration of changes, so the most recent change will overwrite any earlier changes in a document. Problems can occur because OneNote constantly writes to a Notebook when a user edits the Notebooks content. We could mitigate these problems—although not conveniently—by bringing a Notebook offline while we edited it and then synchronizing it once we had finished.
Get Into the Groove
Get Into the Groove
Office 2007 represents Microsofts first chance to put its mark on Groove, acquired through its acquisition of the company of the same name in March 2005. The changes in Groove are dramatic, but this version plays better in the Office world, particularly when it comes to SharePoint Server, Windows SharePoint Services and InfoPath.
Still, Groove 2007 is an odd fit in the Office suite, at least thematically. While collaboration using the applications is tied together through SharePoint Server or Windows SharePoint Services, Groove creates inward-focused collaboration islands through a peer-to-peer network. In corporate environments, where theres a serious need for document control, Groove 2007 can constitute a bit of risk, albeit one that can be managed by bringing the Groove communication infrastructure inside the firewall.
A core feature of Groove 2007 is the Groove peer-to-peer network, which is managed either through a set of public servers run by Microsoft or a set of servers companies can purchase from Microsoft and run internally. Users create their own applications using templates and share the applications with other users either on the local network or over the Internet. Applications are shared with users who have been identified through the Groove public directory, a publishing service on a local network. A user also can share an application through e-mail or across multiple computers (such as from an office PC to a home PC).
Microsoft has reduced the number of templates available in Groove, focusing instead on templates that deliver a core set of capabilities.
These core templates now include discussion, file sharing, forms, calendar, notepad and meeting applications. Some of the applications will seem redundant—for example, the shared calendar wont make sense for most Office users, since sharing calendars through Outlook and Exchange Server is relatively easy.
However, one of the great things about Groove is that it can make what would ordinarily be internally facing systems accessible to users outside the organization for project-based work. Where Exchange allows users to share calendars only within an organization, Groove allows a calendar to be shared with, for example, an external project consultant. In addition, Groove includes a forms application for collecting and sharing simple database information, such as a list of attendees for an event or details for a product catalog.
Groove 2007 adds support for InfoPath forms, allowing users to reuse forms theyve created for internal processes. We didnt find InfoPath support to be truly plug and play, however—companies will likely need to do some forms editing to ensure compatibility with Groove 2007.
Another interesting feature is support for Office SharePoint Server document libraries. Groove users can now use the Groove client to bring SharePoint documents offline for editing. This also gives companies a way to bring partners into the document creation and editing process without having to expose a SharePoint site externally or grant partners access to the network. An employee can access the SharePoint content from within the firewall and then share it, as a kind of proxy, over the Groove network with the external user. This could also be a way to allow users to make SharePoint content available on their home PCs.
IT administrators who want to ensure that this kind of sharing doesnt happen—but see the value of Groove as a collaboration tool—can tightly manage Groove networks. Microsoft also offers Groove Enterprise Management Server 2007 and Enterprise Relay Server 2007, for companies that want to run and manage internal Groove networks. Groove 2007 can be configured during installation to connect only through an Enterprise Relay Server.
Groove 2007 will be bundled only in the Microsoft Office Enterprise 2007 and Microsoft Office Ultimate 2007 editions of the Office suite, which means that Microsoft is missing out on an opportunity to help small and midsize businesses quickly build collaborative work spaces without help from IT organizations. Groove also is available as a separate product for $229 per user.
Technical Analyst Michael Caton can be reached at [email protected].