SharePoint gets the message

Microsoft’s collaboration platform – SharePoint – offers a number of ways to deliver better workflow with e-mail, explains Ivan Wilson. Ivan Wilson is a founder and principal of Sydney consultancy business SharePoint Gurus.

Let’s start at the beginning. You decide to grant some staff members access to a SharePoint site. If your environment has been appropriately set up, you have the option of having SharePoint send them an e-mail informing them that they can now have permissions to that particular location.

But wait, there’s more – once the staff start using the SharePoint environment, they will probably find content that they are particularly interested in.

This is where Alerts come in. Say we are keen on knowing about any Leave Requests that are submitted to the document library dedicated to that purpose. Not a problem, just select Alert Me from the document library’s Actions menu. This tells SharePoint to drop you an e-mail when there are changes made.

There are plenty of options for fine-tuning your alerts. For example you may only want to be notified when an item has been added rather than updates to existing items. Or perhaps you are very keen to know if someone has deleted a document. One of the more interesting properties for alerts relates to the frequency. If you choose “send e-mail immediately” then you will get an e-mail shortly after the changes have been made. It’s not quite “immediate” – the job responsible for sending these alerts runs every 5 minutes by default.

Choosing immediate notifications results in one e-mail for each item that has been changed. If you don’t need to be notified so urgently, you can choose a daily or weekly summary instead. In these cases, you will only receive one e-mail per day or week, summarizing all of the changes you are interested in. This can be a great way to be kept informed of updates, particularly if these changes are infrequent.

What if you are only interested in a subset of the documents in a library? Not a problem, just create a view that filters the documents down to the set you are interested in. Once you have created a filtered view, the “Alert Me” screen includes an option to filter on items that appear in any of your filtered views.

You can also sign up on alerts for items within a document library folder. Just choose the “Alert Me’ option from the folder’s drop-down menu. If any items in the folder or its subfolders change, SharePoint will drop you an e-mail.

You can even target a specific item in a document library. Perhaps there is a specific proposal that you want to closely monitor. Again, simply select the “Alert Me” option from the item’s drop down menu.

I have often gotten the request to turn on alerts for everyone in the company. While the intentions are good, this goes against the concept of SharePoint alerts. The idea is to let people decide themselves what they are interested in - give them the ability to create and delete alerts as they see fit. Of course, this means they need to be made aware of the functionality so they can take advantage of it. Ideally, this approach will reduce the amount of internal spam in people’s inbox.

Saying all of that – it is actually possible for people with full control permissions to sign up other individuals for alerts. The key thing to note here is that you can only sign up individuals; you cannot specify a group alias to receive alerts. If this is what you are trying to do, then there are other ways of achieving this – the easiest probably being a workflow created using SharePoint Designer.

Another handy spot that you can use alerts in SharePoint is with search results in Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (not available in the Windows SharePoint Services version). Once you have performed your search you can sign up to receive e-mail alerts whenever SharePoint indexes a new item that meets your search criteria.

Combining this with the advanced search functionality means that you can have SharePoint constantly monitoring your environment for specific content that you are interested in. Perhaps it’s tender responses that mention a particular product, or CV submissions with a certain skill set. You might even use it to ensure that inappropriate terms do not appear in your documents. Since SharePoint can index items on your file system and web sites, search alerts are not limited to content stored within SharePoint.

Once people start taking advantage of alerts, they are going to want ways of managing them. If your users are running Microsoft Outlook 2007 then they can access the Rules and Alerts dialog box from the Tools menu. Select the Manage Alerts tab and you will see a list of any SharePoint e-mail alerts you have signed up for. You can unsubscribe from an alert directly from here, or link back to the SharePoint site to modify the alert settings.
When you are browsing a SharePoint site, the Welcome menu has a My Settings option. This allows you to access a page that lists all of the alerts that you have signed up for within the current sub-site. From here you can modify the frequency of a particular alert or just remove ones that you no longer need.

The standard SharePoint Tasks and Issue Tracking lists come with special e-mail notification functionality not available in other out-of-the-box lists. When a person or group is assigned to an item they will receive an e-mail with the item details. They will also be e-mailed each time the item is modified.

Not only can SharePoint send you e-mails, you can also send e-mails to SharePoint. At first, this may seem a little odd, but in practice, it can be a great way to easily add content to the SharePoint environment.

There is some mail server and SharePoint configuration involved, but once this has been accomplished you get the option to assign an e-mail address to a library. You can decide what happens to e-mails sent to the library.

Your options include:
• Save any attachments in the e-mail to the root folder of the document library;
• Create a folder based on the e-mail subject and save attachments within it; or
• Create a folder based on the e-mail sender and save attachments within it.

Since it is quite likely that you will receive attachments with the same name going into the same folder, you can decide to either overwrite the previous file, or auto-rename the new file to include an incremental number.
You can also choose to save the original e-mail message. This is saved with a .eml file extension. SharePoint is able to index the text within these .eml files so that they can be found using the search functionality. It is interesting to note that .eml files are opened within Internet Explorer or Outlook Express but not the standard Outlook client. This makes it difficult to reply to an e-mail that has been saved to SharePoint.

There are third-party products on the market that improve the ability for people to save e-mails to SharePoint. I have seen this used effectively for storing correspondence, say for a specific project. However I’m also aware of companies that have considered using SharePoint as an enterprise-wide message store – in my opinion this is a step too far for the platform. There are more appropriate platforms out there for this.

Allowing a document library to receive content via e-mail can be very powerful. Consider remote workers that are often disconnected from the network. They can compose e-mails with attachments, hit “send” and have them queue up in their outbox until they are next online.
At that point, all the necessary data will be sent through to the proper location. Combine this with event handlers and workflows and you have a very versatile platform for collecting and processing content. From a security perspective, you need to decide whether you are going to accept e-mails from anyone or just those people who have permissions to the document library. While it is nice to open up your document library via e-mail to external parties, it does mean that you have little control over what comes into that library or who can submit to it. As with most things, the secret is to plan up front, know what you are getting into and monitor for inappropriate activity.

Document Libraries aren’t the only list type that can receive e-mails. Discussion and Announcement lists have similar features. In these cases, the e-mail message is used to create a new list item and the attachments are added to the item.

This can be particularly useful for having discussions within your e-mail client and using a SharePoint discussion list to store the conversation thread for future reference.
Although we are living in an Enterprise 2.0 world, with tweets and other technologies vying for our attention, e-mail remains a staple part of our online communications. Hopefully this article has given you some ideas on how you can integrate SharePoint and e-mail in your environment.