Being Notified of SharePoint Task Items: By Email, "Connect to Outlook", or RSS?

You are on a project team and are using SharePoint as the central place and space for capturing and recording all of the project related information. Within the team site that’s been created, there is even a task tracking capability … so that people on the team can record and view what they have been asked to do. So the question is: How do we keep team members informed of what tasks they have been assigned? If you say that they should “check the team site regularly”, then I question your sanity.

Microsoft built into SharePoint a number of options for keeping team members informed of their task assignments. One of the operating principles of team work in our virtual world is that people are working on multiple projects at once, usually in different spaces and sometimes in different tools. They need some way of being pulled back to each of the projects they are working on, and being told what they are supposed to be doing, and what the other people on the team expect of them.

SharePoint offers three ways of being notified of new tasks:
– By email
– By a connection to Outlook
– By RSS

So which one should you choose, for tasks?

Notification by Email
If you do it by email, you can set it up to get a new email every time you have a new task assigned to you, or once a day in summary form, or once a week in summary form. The problem is that you then have another email to deal with, and most people say that they’ve had enough of dealing with email. Secondly, if you choose a daily summary of your tasks and you are so highly productive that you get one of the tasks completed on the day it was created, then you will still get a notification in your daily summary of that task. It will say that you have completed it, but it will still say it … and it’s extraneous noise that you don’t need to see. This is partially due to how the notification email is created by the end user; you can only choose one alert statement when creating the rule, not a combination thereof. So you can’t say “send me a notification whenever I have a task assigned as long as it’s not completed.” It’s one or the other, but not both.

Notification within Outlook 2007
If you choose “Connect to Outlook”, the complete list of tasks from the task part of the SharePoint team site will be synchronized between the SharePoint team site and an Outlook task list. Note that you get every task item, not just the task items that have been assigned to you. So if you want to see what everyone on the team is working on, “Connect to Outlook” is the way to go.

But if you want to just see your own tasks … “Connect to Outlook” isn’t the way to proceed. Even if you choose “Connect to Outlook” from the “My Tasks” view of the tasks list, you get ALL of the tasks that have been created, not just the ones that have been assigned to you. Now, I’m sure that you have really nice team mates, but getting to see all of their tasks alongside yours when you come to get some work done … that’s pushing the boundaries a bit too far. And remember too, that one of the realities of working in a distributed and virtual team is that not everyone is going to use Outlook (shock horror!). And thus if you only want to see your own tasks from SharePoint in an Outlook task list, then you need to do some programming magic at the SharePoint end or within Outlook. That then becomes a custom coding situation, rather than taking what’s available out-of-the-box.

Notification by RSS
If you do it by RSS, it actually works the way it should work for showing a user the list of tasks they want to see. You receive an RSS alert of whatever list of tasks you want to be given. If you want to see “All Tasks”, then select “View RSS Feed” from the “All Tasks” view. If you want to see only “My Tasks”, then choose the “View RSS Feed” from that view.

RSS also solves the distributed teaming issue of everyone not using Outlook and a Windows computer. Even the Mac people on the team will be able to receive a pull-back into the space if RSS is being used! As below … with NetNewsWire on a Mac:

The other really nice thing about using RSS is that most RSS readers permit you to set up folders for grouping your RSS feeds by topic or interest. Because you have an RSS feed for tasks from the SharePoint project site, and also an RSS feed from the announcements list from the SharePoint project site, you can put both together in an RSS feed folder called “Project Delta” (the name of the project, in this situation). Then you can quickly see the current state of the project directly from your RSS reader.

Recommendation
So the answer to the question … it depends on what you specifically want to do (see all tasks vs. see only your tasks), but RSS is likely to be the most broadly applicable alternative for everyone on the team. And it gets over the problem of more email noise from being created. This will involve spreading the RSS virus around, and showing team members how to use an RSS reader both for the project at hand and for wider information goodness.

And finally … maybe the “Connect to Outlook” is the right option for you, or the email notification alternative works best even given the “limitations” I said about. That’s fine. I’m just pointing out how the tool actually works — ie, what does SharePoint actually do — and interpreting that within a virtual team situation … and then seeking to give guidance that broadly works.

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