It’s the first full day of the NTEN Conference, and so far my favorite part has actually been the keynote, which was given by David Weinberger. His talk gave me some new ways of thinking about and communicating why “Web 2.0″ is so powerful and different. In the olden days (ha!), we had to organize information in one way because a piece of information was represented by a physical item, such as a book on a shelf or a card in a card catalog. Because the item could only be in one place, we had to develop taxonomies such as the Dewey Decimal System for figuring out where to put that item.
But electronic information on the web is no longer limited by physical constraints. Information can be organized in countless ways. Of course, we all already know this. We tag our bookmarks, our blog posts, all our web stuff in ways that make sense to each of us individually for our current context. We don’t worry about fitting everything into one standard way of organizing all content anybody anywhere might produce. For instance, on this blog, I tag my posts so that when I come back later to compile all my thoughts and ideas on a particular topic that’s interesting me or related to a work project, I can find them quickly. The tag may have absolutely no meaning to you, but that doesn’t matter, because if you want to reference a post again later, you can bookmark it with your own tags.
This is what is wrong with the whole idea of portals in general and SharePoint in particular, and this is what has frustrated me about SharePoint ever since we deployed it. (To be fair, it has frustrated me about previous versions of our intranet, as well.) Unlike how the web is evolving, SharePoint is really not intended for all of the users to generate and organize the content. SharePoint still assumes there are editors or middlemen setting up taxonomies and posting things in the appropriate place.
The problem is that I don’t think about our Portal organization in the same way that any of my co-workers do. While I might look for a piece of information under the name of the country where that work was done, someone else would look under the name of the project, or the subject area, or the donor, or the name of the author, or any number of other criteria. Sure, we can set up cross-referenced listings to one item on SharePoint, but that quickly becomes difficult to maintain and there is still a limit to how many ways we can cross-reference something. Someone is always going to be dissatisfied and complain that they can’t find what they need on the Portal.
We need to look to Web 2.0 models for building better portals/intranets, and I’m not just talking about throwing in support for blogs or wikis. I’m talking about turning over the power of generating content and organizing that content to the people who are actually using that content everyday. The old way of having one or a few people deciding how everything should be organized just doesn’t work, especially when so much information is being produced and updated. Owners of the information can no longer own the organization of the information if it is really going to be useful. (Are you listening, Microsoft?)
We also need to give up control of the display of the information. Everyone should be able to open the Portal home page and see only what is most important and relevant to them. Maybe that’s news headlines or items that they’ve tagged for home page display or lists of all their tags or all of these things.
You can somewhat engineer all of this in SharePoint, I know, using My Site, and custom columns and views on libraries, and opening up editing permissions to everyone. The problem is that it’s not easy. It’s not one-click simplicity, like saving a bookmark on del.icio.us is. It’s tough for people to learn, and they make mistakes and get frustrated. The user controls are hidden from them. I don’t really blame them for not wanting to fully use the technology or for sticking to familiar ways of organizing things, such as with folders.
Weinberger’s address was about the power of the new web, which enables us to take back control of our world from broadcast media, restore its complexities and externalize meaning. Instead of being passive consumers, we are now active participants shaping the web into what we want it to be, and look at how knowledge sharing is exploding. If we want the same thing to happen inside our organizations, we have to give our people the right tools, make those tools easy for them to use and then get out of their way. But as long as we’re imposing a one-size-fits-all organizational scheme on them and giving them tools that make it very difficult to manipulate that information, they’ll continue to keep all their knowledge in their heads and on their desktops.
There are parts of SharePoint I really love, and I am sure 2007 will improve on them even more, such as (when used) the document collaboration tools. But if I had to do it all over again — even just a year later — I would probably fight for going a different way. The problem is that we are all beholden to Microsoft and their products, so we’re stuck with whatever Microsoft imposes on us, and Microsoft does not have the tendency to make things simple or easy. If I ever get out of the corporate environment, I am definitely banning Microsoft from my life.