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A Microsoft SharePoint Overview

[The always wise and profilic Gavin Clabaugh posted some terrific, detailed thoughts about SharePoint on NTEN's great "NTEN Discuss" discussion list - which he and NTEN were kind enough to let us edit and re-post here. This is the first of two posts - yes, from the same (amazing) discussion list post! You can read more of Gavin's wisdom at his blog, www.digitaldiner.org]

I’m going to talk about Microsoft SharePoint. And, straight off, I’m going to tell you I am biased. SharePoint rocks. We at Mott have used it since version 2001, and are rolling to MOSS as we speak.

It’s solid, and it will do some amazing things. Currently, ours holds some 100,000 documents – mostly PDFs – and we index many, many more. It’s responsive, and with a little creative thought, can be customized to do lots of stuff. For the price, it blows the competition (what little there is), out of the water. And that’s it’s problem. It does too much.

My MAIN critique of SharePoint is this -- it’s too much and too many things. Hence, it is daunting and confusing. It’s a development environment, it’s a document management system, it’s a workflow system, it’s a CMS, it has decent indexing and search; it’s too much. People get confused by its possibilities. The secret: start slow. Start with a simple “Intranet”…and then begin to add things. That, and don’t be confused by the templates and pre-designed “Intranet” sites that come with it. Nothing is sacrosanct: I usually blow away much of the default stuff and set up my own simple structures.

Now, into the meat of the matter. First off, there are three versions. Microsloth, in its strange inability to name things, calls them all SharePoint. All of the versions are pretty damn amazing. The versions are:

Version 1: Windows SharePoint Services – AKA: WSS.
WSS is the heart and soul of SharePoint. It provides the basic development environment, document management and storage, and most of the part of SharePoint that you will use. Other versions of SharePoint are built on WSS. WSS is free – if you have Server 2003, you can download it and run it. WSS includes (out of the box) templates for a “team site”, shared document workspaces, Blogs, WIKI, and meeting workspaces.

Contrary to popular belief, it DOES include search – but it is a search that only works within a single WSS site. That means you can search all docs or pictures, or PDFs, or whatever, within a set of document repositories, but you can’t add other web sites, or fileshares, or other sites into that index. If your needs are modest – or if you design your repositories so that they are all within one site collection, search works just fine.

Version 2: Microsoft Office SharePoint Services (Standard) – AKA: MOSS.
MOSS is the “Portal” version of SharePoint. It adds cross-site searching, and the ability to add anything into your search index (such as fileshares, or other websites, or just about anything you can point an HTTP at. MOSS also adds LOTs of pre-designed templates that will get you up and running in short order. In fact, in my experience, you can have a decent (non-customized) Intranet up in just a few minutes. Figuring out just what you have, and what it will do, can then take some time. Customizing – really customizing – takes some work. But it can be done, once you get the hang of it.

MOSS adds “social networking” components, including a public and private user profile, and personal sites that let your users set up their own Blogs, upload shared pictures, etc etc.

MOSS also adds RSS (to any list or document library), audience targeting (you can filter the display of just about anything based on membership in an audience), Mobile device support (automatically creates WAP versions of just about any standard page or library).

Finally, the MOSS versions directly integrate with Active Directory, automating profile import from AD, and directly tie into Exchange, updating the GAL for things like mail-enabled document libraries (these are very neat things).

Version 3: Microsoft Office SharePoint Services (Enterprise) – Also AKA: MOSS.
Move to “Enterprise” and you get a couple of really neat things: Excel Services, InfoPath forms server, Single-Sign-On, and the Business Data Catalog. These are hard to explain. Excel services lets you publish live spreadsheets on a web page (including charts and graphs). It’s a quick way to build a dashboard, for example. The excel sheet can be connected to a back-end database, and update in real-time. InfoPath forms lets you serve InfoPath as a web form. InfoPath is the cat’s PJ’s anyway.

Finally, the Business Data Catalog is amazing. You can take ANY database (including MySQL, for example) and make MOSS treat it like a “List” in SharePoint. Once connected up, it becomes sharepoint data, that can be filtered, structured, and connected to other things. It can be set so you can edit it too. If you want to report or display dynamic data from any database within SharePoint, you can. Easily (one you get the hang of writing a BDC connection XML thing).

Two New Articles: Online Conferencing, and CRM Case Studies

We have two new articles up, in two of the areas that people ask the most about...

First off, Anthony Pisapia and Brett Bonfield bring us a detailed look into four organization's implementation of Constituent Relationship Management systems in Managing Constituent Relationships: Four Case Studies. This is always a thorny area - the software is really only a small of the story - so I'm excited to have a look inside at the actual process and issues behind implementation.

And then we have a look at desktop sharing and webinar tools in our A Few Good Online Conferencing Tools article. The question I get asked the most - by a lot - is which online seminar software we're using... so hopefully this will lay out what the options are for those of you wondering. And as we wanted to look at the packages in detail to find what would make the most sense for our own needs, this article is even more thoroughly researched than usual!

Resource Roundup 7/20

Google Analytics Help: Questions, Answers, Tips, Ideas, Suggestions (Occam's Razor by Avinash Kaushik)
Avinash Kauskik, by way of NTEN, answers a whole slew of great questions from NTEN members about Google Analytics.

Planning Education Projects in Rural Ethiopia Using GIS (ArcGIS)
Useful case study on the IRC's use of GIS tools to plan school sites in Ethiopia (tip of the hat to Allan Benamer).

Blackbaud to Integrate Raisers Edge and Sphere
(Non-Profit Tech Blog)
Blackbaud announces that they intend to integrate Raisers Edge and Kintera Sphere before the end of 2008.

Google Trends Reveals Which Tech Trends Are Hot Or Not (Small Business Computing)
Google Trends allows you to compare the number of searches for commonly used keywords - interesting for judging the popularity of concepts or particular terminology.

New Firefox Version: Nice New Features (Beaconfire Wire)
A nice overview of what's new (and what's missing) from the new version of Firefox.

You’ve Got a Friend in Barack Obama: Integrating Social Networking Tools into Political Campaigns (ePolitics)
An interesting case study as to how the Barak Obama campaign is using social networking, with some lessons extracted for the rest of us.

Tips for Standardizing Your IT Infrastructure (TechSoup)
A nice overview of how and when to standardize your hardware and software across your organization.

The MaintainIT Project (TechSoup)
A resource rich site that provides information about technology for libraries.

Linux desktops? (Zen and the Art of Nonprofit Technology)
Some very useful thoughts from Michelle Murrain on when it makes sense to use Linux operating systems - and when it doesn't.

Sources for Congressional Voting Records

Looking for records as to how each member of Congress voted on a particular bill in a useful format? In another great conversation on the ProgressiveExchange discussion list (have I mentioned recently how much I love that list?), the community talked about the available sources. Daniel Atwood of Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America was kind enough to post a summary of the responses, in the form a huge number of sources of this data. I've cribbed from and adapted his summary below...

http://projects.washingtonpost.com/congress/
A votes database going back to 1991 that lets you sort by everything including astrological sign

http://www.govtrack.us/
An independent site that brings together information on the status of all federal legislation, voting records, and other congressional data, with available email updates and RSS/Atom feeds

http://www.opencongress.org/
See how lawmakers voted on any bill in the 110th Congress

http://www.votesmart.org/index.htm
Project Vote Smart collects data on key votes, along with stated positions of politicians on key issues

http://progressivepunch.org

Votes on progressive issues broken down by issue area

http://maplight.org/
Get more info on the connection between money and votes

http://clerk.house.gov/
The official data provided by the government for the US House. The vote records are XML files, and so can be easily opened using Excel 2003 or later, or viewed by writing your own XML stylesheets

http://voteview.com
For those looking for actual raw data

http://vis.org/
Vote data available in a parse-able format for a small fee.

Resource Roundup 7/10

VoIPowering Your Office: Do I Really Need this VoIP Stuff? (Small Business Computing)
A quick look at some of the considerations when thinking about Voice Over IP phone lines.

And the Walls Start to Tumble Down, Open Platform/API/Source Free For All! (NonprofitTechBlog)
There's been an promising amount of movement and buzz towards open platforms, with announcements by Convio, Kintera, and MPower. Alan Benamer looks at these announcements in detail.

Ways to Follow Your Friends on the Web (Wall Street Journal)
The Wall Street Journal looks at sites that can help you consolidate your social networking profiles

UNICEF Uses Web 2.0 to Double Video Views (About.com)
Quick but useful case study about how Unicef used a number of different video sharing sites to drive traffic to their site.

In the Cloud: Storage Meets Collaboration (Small Business Computing)
An introduction to the idea of cloud services- distributed file storage solutions that can be useful for backup or online collaboration.

CSS support in email clients (Campaign Monitor)
A fabulous, although technical, guide summarizing how different email browsers interpret the CSS code to format your eNewsletter or solicitation email.

NTEN Mobile-apaloza (NTEN)
NTEN's June eNewsletter is chock full of Useful information, advice and case studies on how nonprofits can effectively reach constituents through mobile phones

Should Your Nonprofit Embrace Social Media? (NTEN)
As the first installment in NTEN's and Beth Kanter's We Are Media Project, this collection of resource provides a useful first step in understanding and considering social media

Ask Idealware: VOIP Phones for Small Organizations?

Megan asks: We're considering one of those online/virtual phone systems. Regular phone systems are so pricey and if there's a VOIP option for multiple lines, voicemail, etc that's reliable, easy to setup and use, that would be great. Are these systems worth considering for a small organization? If so, what systems would you recommend?



Ron Zucker, with 2020 Vision, responds:


Are any nonprofits using VOIP phone systems? Yes, certainly. Some love them and swear by them. The availability of advanced phone services, including voice mail and "Find Me" phone routing at a very reasonable price, is certainly attractive. Does VOIP make sense for smaller nonprofits? That's harder.

One of the key considerations for VOIP is the reliability of the internet connection that you're using. If your internet connection goes down, so does your phones. If it blips out just for a second - which you wouldn't typically notice if you're just surfing the web - your VOIP phone call will be disconnected. For most home VOIP users, this is fine. If your phone is down for a couple of hours, or it disconnects, they'll call you back. If it's someone you really care about, they have your cell phone. But for business, that's typically not acceptable; you don't KNOW in advance who needs to find you (what if your phone's down on the day your big grant proposal is due?), and an unstable phone system is just plain unprofessional.

If that kind of reliability is important to you, to use VOIP you really need an internet connection with a Service Level Agreement (SLA) of at least 99.9% uptime (i.e. down less than two working hours per year -- 52 weeks/year minus 10 federal holidays times 40 hours/week = 2000 work hours/year). And most cable and affordable DSL internet services aren't willing to give you any SLA at all, let alone a 99.9% uptime commitment, or any arrangements for you if they fail. (Note: Some business DSL services will give you an SLA. You'll need to check it with your provider.)

So that would imply you likely need to have a T1 internet connection. A T1 comes with uptime guarantees and failover solutions - but at a cost, often between $350 to $650 per month.

On the other hand, a Plain Old Telephone Service (commonly abbreviated POTS) tends to be very reliable. And they're really not very expensive. At 2020 Vision, we spend $17/month for 2 lines that are local plus charged long distance, and $39 for two that are unlimited long distance. Incoming calls are routed to local lines first to keep the outgoing calls on the lines that include free long distance. Can you REALLY beat that by enough to justify the lower uptime of a VOIP line? Especially when you consider that you typically need to buy new physical phones when you switch to a VOIP line?

VOIP phone service is certainly worth investigating if you have a T1 connection already, or one makes sense for other reasons. Or if the reliability of your phone service is not a critical concern. But for a typical small organization, Plain Old Telephone Service is likely to be pretty hard to beat.

The Ask Idealware posts take on some of the questions that you send us at ask@idealware.org. Have other great options? Disagree with our answer? Help us out by entering your own answer as a comment below.

Working with Voter Files

There was a great thread recently on the ProgressiveExchange discussion list, about the challenges and options for working with voter files. I didn't know much about this area, so I found the conversation really useful.

The basic problem is that voter files are big. Really big. A statewide voter file - summarizing the registered voters for a particular state - can have millions of entries. The general consensus was that these files are too big to try to read via common office software, like Access or Excel. Excel has a cap on the actual number of rows you can have (the number depends on the version, but it's only around a million even for the most up-to-date versions), and Access is likely to be extremely slow and undependable - and at risk for catastrophic failure and data loss.

So what should you do instead? A number of people suggested outsourcing the data management process - there are folks who specialize in voter files, such as Astro or VAN (Voter Action Network). These services aren't cheap, but they provide a number of benefits. They deal with all the data, and let you just pull the reports, walk sheets, call sheets, etc that you want. They also can be accessed over the internet - a big plus for organizations working with organizers in multiple offices or locations.

It can also be useful to look for other organizations using voter files for the same geographic area - you might be able to share their file infrastructure, or go in together on one of the outsourced services.

If you do want to store the data in-house, the consensus was that you'll want a SQL database back end, optimized by a professional, and likely a specific database server - probably a several thousand dollar investment at a minimum.

The Progressive Technology Project has more info - as well a lot of great resources about technology useful in organizing in their Voter Tech Kit.

Lessons Learned from the Grants Management Report

We're just winding down now from our work on the Consumers Guide to Grants Management Systems - a project that we worked on for more than six months. It was the biggest, most research intensive report we've ever done as Idealware, and I learned a lot from the process. Here's some of my take-aways, as I reflect on the project overall.

Surveys aren't a great fit for gathering information about software
Surveys often seem like a great idea, like a straightforward way to gather a lot of information about what people think about packages. But it's in fact very difficult to get results that tell you much. Distribution is challenging. Getting a representative sample of anyone is infeasible on a limited budget (this would require defining a specific group of people and then trying to get a 50-60% response rate from them - classically, you do this through monetary incentives, follow-up calls, etc), so you need to default to more informal distribution methods.

But it's difficult to ensure that these informal methods gather information from a useful cross-section of people, and they're quite prone to being distorted by a few individuals. You don't have to have evil intent to distort an informal survey - if one enthusiastic user forwards the survey request onto the user group for their favorite package, then your usage numbers are suddenly way off.

And it's hard to interpret the data you've gathered. You need to be very limited and specific in your questions in order to get useful results. For my money, individual interviews - or even focus groups - are a better bang for the buck.

If I had it to do again, I wouldn't have spent nearly as much time on our grants management survey as we did. However, it was very useful for a particular purpose: it helped us to finalize the vendor list. By listing tools and including an "other" category, we heard about all the tools that were in use by the people who answered the survey, and it prompted vendors who weren't listed to contact us.

It's hard to define an evaluation framework before you've reviewed tools
I like defined processes, and my tidy brain really wants to interview a bunch of folks about the features they find useful in a software package, translate that into a framework for evaluating tools, and then evaluate tools using that framework. Only one problem: that doesn't work. You can (and we did) translate the interview data into a set of questions to ask, but it's really impossible to determine the key aspects that will be important in comparing software until you've done a number of reviews.

For instance, Document Management was a major theme in interviews, and we asked vendors a number of questions about their features in this area. But for 90% of the features, not a single product had them. While we certainly need to highlight this gap, it's pointless to have a whole evaluation category just to show that every products score poorly.

So in practice, you need to define the questions to ask vendors, do at least four or five reviews, and then come back around to define the evaluation framework. This seems weird and inefficient - for instance, you need to first write up your demo notes so you'll remember what you saw (products blend together mighty fast when you demo 5-10 products in a week or two) and then come back later and translate those notes into your review format. It's way faster to just go straight from notes to review - but if you don't have the evaluation framework completed, you'll need to go back through those reviews later to make them consistent in language and what's evaluated. Which is what we did on this project. It's inefficient, and so tedious but difficult that I worry that it can't be done accurately... without the superhuman diligence of Katie Guernsey, research assistant extraordinaire (thanks, Katie!).

Reporting features are hard to evaluate
I'm not entirely happy with our coverage of the reporting features - our comparison is valid, but the vast majority of products were "Advanced" by our scoring system. Are most grants management systems really advanced in reporting? I don't know. Most had quite flexible ad-hoc reporting systems, where you could actually do a lot of slicing and dicing on almost any data element. The real differences, it felt to me, were around ease of use - are the canned reports useful? Can you actually use the ad-hoc tools? This stuff was very difficult to evaluate without specific scenarios - useful for what? To who?

Quick summary reviews work well in tandem with detailed reviews
For this report, we spent two to three hours demoing and reviewing each of nine tools, but we also did quick half-hour demos of another eight. These quick looks were more useful than I thought they'd be. While we weren't able to do the same kind of detailed comparison of these packages, we got a good sense of strengths and weaknesses of each, enough to put them in context in the report. I think that doing a number of detailed reviews *first* really helped, though - it gave us a lot of knowledge about what to look for and ask about for the summary reviews.

...But they're really hard to proof
We asked each vendors to review their reviews and summaries for errors of fact, and interestingly, it took as long or longer to deal with the comments for the products that had only a little paragraph summary blurbs as with the products that had five-six page detailed reviews. The detailed reviews deal mostly with facts, so often there was no arguing them. On the other hand, the summary reviews generalize - i.e. X product is strong in this area, but is weak in another - and vendors found many things to argue with there. We obviously don't need to get the vendor to agree that they're weak in a certain area, but we wanted to make sure we hadn't gotten any important facts wrong, which was much harder for these summary blurbs.


All in all, I'm really happy with how the report came out. Those of you who have taken a look, what do you think? Are there things you think came out particularly well, or not so well, in the report?

Updated Guide to Online Politics

Interested in learning about online advocacy, outreach, list building, website best practices, emailing techniques, viral videos, or more? Colin Delaney of ePolitics has updated his Online Politics 101 handbook. It's a terrific - and funny - introduction to the world of online advocacy, with both broad coverage and practical advice.

Resource Roundup 6/16

To Tweet or Not to Tweet: TechSoup Talks Twitter (TechSoup)
TechSoup's online event about Twitter (a social media tool that allows you - or anyone - to send short posts to a group of friends via web or phone) resulted in some good information about whether and how to use the tool. Not familiar with Twitter? Marnie Webb provides a great overview of Twitter resources.

The CIA's Use of Wikis (Enterprise 2.0 Conference)
From the Enterprise 2.0 conference, an intriguing case study showing how the CIA is using a wiki to create an internal “Intellipedia” (Tip of the hat to Marc Baizman of Nonprofit CRM)

Routing around potholes in the DAM road (CMS Watch)
Useful look at the current gaps and challenges in the Digital Asset Management Space.

The Utility of CRM (Gokubi.com)
Thoughtful, high level look at the purpose and advantages of a Constituent Relationship Management system.
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