Why Microsoft will always fail at collaboration

This story could be told a hundred times over, but this week I seemed to move a step forward in the classic cycle and have now moved on to Acceptance. I accept that Microsoft will forever be terrible at collaboration, no matter how many products they upgrade or tweak or mash together to build yet another Studio 23 back lot Dr. Zhivago snow scene fabrication of an environment someone could actually use. I used to be angry and depressed, but I'm past all that now. Let's move on to the case study. Since the Microsoft world is so vast we'll need to take a philosophical approach and define terms. Get focused. Be clear and precise in our representative sample of the larger problem. A flicker of the pure forms on the cave walls, as it were. Here are my starting assumptions:

  • The functionality in Microsoft Project rocks. No other solution, be it proprietary or open source or SaaS, has the whiz bang algorithms in Project.
  • Project plans need to be shared. They need to be collaborative documents. They need weekly TLC to remain useful and up to date.
  • We live in the internet age, and no matter how swanky desktop software may be, it must be able to connect to the internet in some form or fashion.

And thus we begin the story. It started two weeks ago when I built out a project plan and thought hmmm, it would be nice to get this up on our team SharePoint site for review and general communication. Ah, but the SharePoint instance is 2007. So sad long time. Google a bit. SharePoint Designer hacks (ahem, that would be Frontpage in 70s disco clothing for those who missed the great re-purposing of Frontpage) and template tweaks. No thanks. No support for group tasks. Forget it.

But I'm in luck! The SharePoint instance is due to be upgraded in two weeks. Score! And then even better, probably because I had the dates wrong, it was upgraded in ONE week. Outstanding. Now I've got 2010.

Oh, but so sad long time again! I have Microsoft Project 2010 Standard. No option to sync with a SharePoint site. Google some more. I'm guessing I need Microsoft Project Professional 2010, because, you know, the options to connect to servers and other Borg-like interfaces cost a lot and Microsoft needs to stay in business. Can't find any clear direction on whether or not I need Professional -- don't have time to slog through the endless and marginally useful documentation -- but I'm not new to this game. I have the installer for Professional handy and so I run it.

Success! The option is there. And, because I know the game, I've had my target list built for a while in SharePoint. Off I go to synchronize. Or maybe not. Errors and errors and errors. SharePoint site not available? Sure it is. Don't have permission? Sure I do. I'm an admin. And some other inane bullet I can't remember. I go home because I'm tired of the same routine.

Next day I give it one more shot, and by chance (and I mean that literally) I stumble across a comment at the tail end of some dude's blog post about putting in the base site URL, not the full path to the list. Hence the need for the second droplist when setting up the sync. OK, OK, so I made it past that hurdle. I'm still forging ahead since I see these activities as one-time problems, not problems I'd have to deal with on a regular basis. And so the sync goes through and it looks pretty good and I'm happy. Could be my project collaboration solution after all. Shut everything down. Go have lunch.

And I'm back. And so are the errors.

SharePoint Sync Error

This time the problem is your proverbial show stopper. I can deal with one-time oddities, but stuff like this makes work unpredictable, and I absolutely can't deal with unpredictability in a highly collaborative environment.

Closure and Namaste

And now for the wrap-up, and I hope this reads like the parent-to-teenager conversation it is meant to be. It is true, Microsoft, that you have outstanding desktop software, with rich features that other companies can't hope to match. The trouble when it comes to the way we work today is that we're always connected, on multiple devices, and highly collaborative. I have a project plan that I need to share with a good 20-30 people. Hardly any of them have Project installed, and if they do they probably don't know how to use it. They certainly haven't mastered the Cirque du Soleil art of printing project plans. So I'm left in the "hit by the bus" role in which only I, with the installed copy of Project Professional 2010, the URL to the SharePoint site, and the hard-won knowledge about the sync configuration, can make any real updates. What do I do with the binary? Push that up to SharePoint too? What if someone edits the file? Oh, but all this is moot because right out of the gate I can't sync the plan and I'm getting errors.

It is death by a thousand cuts. For each setting, oddity, license requirement, version requirement, and Google-driven "ah ha" revelation we are driven away from usability and collaboration, and the solutions we are trying to build become brittle. In my dream world I'd have a project plan and I'd sync it up to a SharePoint site. People on the team would view it and make updates as needed. The tasks would be tasks and we could all track progress against them. Add comments. And whenever needed I'd sync back to Project for the powerhouse features. Like the reports. Which are buggy and unruly by the way, and which only seem to spin out options that are 3 pages or 158 pages long.

So today I'll tear down my project task list in SharePoint and go back to my desktop copy and to generating PDF versions for people on the team. So sad long time.