Who is on the Team? … and What Do We Know About Them?

Content for Seamless Teamwork. Some of the screen shots are quite wide … right click them and open them in a different window or tab to see all of the details.

One of the choices a team needs to make when using SharePoint is whether to accept “good enough” with the out-of-the-box capabilities of SharePoint libraries, lists and Web parts, or whether they will push for perfection. If they embrace the “good enough” approach, the team will look for ways to take what is made available in out-of-the-box capabilities and use it to the best of their ability, coming up with ways of re-defining or embracing the capabilities in a different way than was intended. The alternative is to go for perfection, and custom create a SharePoint list that aligns perfectly with the needs of the team.

The Site Users Web Part is an example of where this choice is experienced. Let’s talk through the two options that a team has, list the pros and cons of each, and end with a recommendation.

Working with people that you can’t be with means that everyone on the team needs some way of sharing information about who they are, how to contact them for questions and for interaction on the shared project. SharePoint as a IT platform needs to keep a track of the people that can access the system, and in particular have a place for the login name for all of the users. So here’s the question: does a team embrace the out-of-the-box way of tracking team member details, although it’s not perfect, or do they custom create their own way of doing things?

Information the Team Is Interested In
You are on a virtual team and are using SharePoint as the way of working together, you want to share some information with others so they can contact you — essentially an electronic business card. That means:

– The team member’s name
– Your photo (so they know what you look like; hey, it helps!)
– Your email address
– Your IM address, and the services that you are available on.
– Your phone number
– Your blog address
– The organization you work for
– The country you live and work in

There are two ways of doing this: the out-of-the-box re-interpretation way, or a tightly-bound custom created way.

The Out-of-the-Box Approach
The out-of-the-box approach involves taking the User Information form in SharePoint and the associated Site Users Web part and re-interpreting some of the fields. There is some overlap between the team’s list of requirements above, and the User information form: it has a place for name, email, photo and a few others. However, there are no pre-defined fields for blog address, country or even organization! Out-of-the-box SharePoint gives the message that it is for use within a single organization, not that it seamlessly supports teamwork across organizations. And given that SharePoint can be used to seamlessly support teamwork across organizations, what are we to do?

We re-interpret out-of-the-box definitions to fit what we want to happen. For example, where you see the term “Department” on the User Information form, tell everyone on the team to think “Organization and Country”. Where you see “About Me”, think “free form entry of interesting things about me that others can use.” Here’s my card from SharePoint, and using the “About Me” area, I have entered my blog address, IM address on Windows Live, office phone number, and a bit more besides.


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I accept that this involves a bit of a leap of faith, and that you have to tell people to do something different than what the screen actually says, but let’s look at the benefits of doing it this way.

The first huge benefit of using the out-of-the-box approach is that these details about each user are stored in SharePoint at the level of a site collection … that is a set of SharePoint sites that have a common intended user population. What this means for end users and team members is that this information will show in all of the SharePoint sites that they are involved in (in a given site collection); change it once, and it is updated and immediately displayed everywhere. And note too, that from the top of the SharePoint screen, users can click to update their own settings. So for whatever sites a user is involved with right now, although the form could be a better fit to the needs of team members from multiple places, it has a lot going for it.

The second major benefit is that the associated “Site Users Web Part” displays the list of people who have access to the site, and shows their online presence from either Office Communications Server 2007 or Microsoft Windows Live. So you can see when you visit a SharePoint site who else is online — regardless of where they happen to be located generally or travelling to specifically.

The final major benefit is that when Microsoft next releases an update to SharePoint, because we have used out-of-the-box capabilities, there is a greater likelihood that what we have used will transfer across to the upgraded edition without us having to do anything.

The Custom List Approach
Now let’s look at the alternative approach. If you want to create something “perfect” for capturing and displaying the information of your team members in a highly directed way, then you need to create a custom list. As long as you have IT permissions to do so, it’s not a hard process. If you can use Microsoft Excel to create a table or Microsoft Access to create a database, you can make a custom list!

First click on Site Actions, then the Create option. This will open a menu of libraries, lists and web pages that you can create.


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On the menu, select the “Custom List” option.

You will be asked for a name and a description for your new Custom List, and whether you want to display this list of the Quick Launch bar. Once you have entered that information, click the “Create” button.


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Now you have a list, or the shell of the mini-database that you are creating. The next step is to define what specific data elements you want to capture. Luckily we already have all of that information defined:

– The team member’s name
– Your photo (so they know what you look like; hey, it helps!)
– Your email address
– Your IM address, and the services that you are available on.
– Your phone number
– Your blog address
– The organization you work for
– The country you live and work in

Thus from the default “All Items” view of our new Team Members list, choose “Settings”, then “Create Column”.


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This opens a Web page where you can define each of the above data elements in turn. The first one is the team member’s name, and that is going to be a single line of text, it is a required entry (hopefully all of your team members have at least a name!), the maximum number of characters will be set at 50, and it should be a text value, not a calculated value. See below. Once all of the information is entered, click “Ok” to create the column. You will be taken back to the default “All Items” view of the list.


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You have 7 more columns to create, as above, so go through the process of defining each of them. Make sure that you choose the right type of data for each element … for example, the “hyperlink or picture” one for the team member’s blog address, and the “hyperlink or picture” one for the team member’s photo. Note that as you choose a type in the top half of the screen, the options in the back half for “Additional Column Settings” will be dynamically updated to reflect options that are appropriate to the data type.

When it comes time to create the “Organization” option, if you know the list of organizations that are going to be involved in the project, you can make the data entry burden on team members lighter by pre-entering the list of organizations, and you can also ensure that everyone from a given organization spells and formats the organization name in the same way. To do this, choose the “Choice (menu to choose from)” type option, and fill out the additional column settings in an appropriate way. If you know the general list of organizations, and thus want people to have the option of entering other names, change the “Allow ‘Fill-in’ choices” option from “No” to “Yes.


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Once you have created all of these entries, you now have a “perfect” list and a “perfect” data entry screen. To add a new team member to the list, click “New” then “New Item”. Your new perfect data entry screen will show, for you to fill out.


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Once you have entered the details for the new team member, click the “Ok” button.

Now the list has been set up and populated by all of the users, others on the team can see of the details in a clearly defined way. There is a field to go look at for each person’s blog, for example, and a clearly defined place to enter the country from which everyone works.

There’s two really great benefits of going through this process and tracking team member details in this way. Firstly, it is very clearly stated what information you expect people to enter in certain fields. Secondly, because the various data elements have been strongly typed (“text” or “hyperlink”) and even predefined as choices (eg, the organization drop-down box), you can sort a collection of such information in the list views. So here in the “All Items” view, the default option is that the entries are sorted from first created to last created.


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What I actually want to do now, however, as an end user looking at this list, is to group all of the people together who live in New Zealand. To do that I click on the “Country” title in the view, and choose either “A on Top” to sort the complete list from A-Z, or “New Zealand” to only show those people who work from New Zealand.


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If I choose the explicit “New Zealand” option, then I get to see only those people who are marked down as being in New Zealand.


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You can’t do this type of column sorting in views if you don’t have an explicit column for recording the information! So there are definite benefits of custom creating what you want.

There are some downsides to going the “perfect” way.

Firstly, this list is stored or contained within a specific site “Project Delta Workings”, and as such, anyone who is involved in multiple projects in SharePoint that are each being run out of a different SharePoint site will have to fill out this information for each and every project they are involved with. And then change them all too when their information changes. So although you can have something that looks perfect, you create more work for someone in the short term, and then more work for everyone over the lifetime of their involvement in projects run out of SharePoint.

Secondly, when it comes time to update to a new edition of SharePoint, all of these custom lists and Web parts will need to be migrated across. Some of them will go seamlessly; others will involve a bit of work. If you go for the custom approach to things, you inherit the responsibility of keeping them up-to-date forever. Be careful about how often you actually do that.

Recommendation

Wherever and whenever possible, take the out-of-the-box lists and libraries and web parts for use within a SharePoint site. If something is not perfect but is “good enough” and can be embraced in such a way as it looks like it might work just fine, go for that rather than the custom way of doing things. There will be times when you have to create a custom list for tracking special and specific information within the team project, but as much as possible, make that the exception not the rule.

And specifically in terms of recording and tracking people details in the team, go for the out-of-the-box approach that will therefore work across all of the sites that someone is involved with, and will permit change-once, show everywhere behavior. If you find that team members want to share particular information about themselves within the context and for the benefit of just one project, take a mixed approach: they should put their shared and common information in their User Information form, and then put team-specific information on their wiki page in the site specific team wiki.

0 thoughts on “Who is on the Team? … and What Do We Know About Them?

  1. The most important field I add to a Project Team contact list is Role. You could use the Job Title field for this. The reason for this field is that it indicates responsibility. You could even make this a choice field to map to the standard roles used in your adopted project methodology.
    When thinking about contact details and the custom solution, I would try and stick with the Contacts List template and just add/remove fields as required. This will give you the benefit of easily being able to export individual contacts to your Outlook Address Book using the built in functionality.

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