11 June, 2009

Why is there no universal task list in SharePoint?

This is a question I have been asked at a few occasions lately. It’s a good question because the experience many have with a growing SharePoint implementation is that you can quickly loose grasp of all the individual sites and their associated task lists. This is particularly a problem if you’re subject to an uncontrollable site sprawl due to poorly implemented governance, but even in relatively small and well-governed site collections the sheer nature of cross-functional collaboration can produce a significant number of sites.

If you’re a member of 10s of different team sites and workspaces that all have task lists and you also play a part in publishing workflows for various intranet and/or internet sites, you can quickly end up with quite a large number of task lists. Facing all this, the next logical question is “where can I see all the tasks that are assigned to me?” Wouldn’t it be nice, if SharePoint provided you with a universal task list aggregating all of your tasks from across the server farm?

The concept of a universal task list refers to a central list that automatically aggregates all your tasks from potentially many different task lists. It’s a concept well known from other systems. For example, SAP has the Universal Worklist (UWL) which brings together assignments from different workflow systems, including SAP workflow, alerts, Knowledge Management (KM) notifications and collaboration tasks.

So, why doesn’t SharePoint have one? Well, there are actually some good reasons for not having one. Although it seems like an obvious feature, it might not make so much sense if you dig a little deeper. The purpose of this post is not to revolt against a potential universal task list in SharePoint. But the fact is that SharePoint does not have one at present and although I have no insight into the product team’s design decisions in this area, I can think of two good reasons as to why there is no universal task list in SharePoint straight out of the box.

SharePoint is a platform, not a solution

SharePoint is a platform. Not a solution. It provides a platform of base services and features upon which you build business solutions. If you're not quite following this, then there are plenty of great articles out there trying to clarify this (including these). That means it doesn't have the business context to be able to determine what task lists to include in a universal task list and to provide meaningful ways of categorising and prioritising even at a basic level. It's not predetermined what the task lists are being used for, let alone whether they are being used for managing tasks at all. The task list in SharePoint is much like a datatype in a database. It’s a building block that can be used when designing and implementing business solutions.

A universal task list would inevitably have a large amount of tasks in it, so in order for it to have any value some level of prioritisation and categorisation would need to be applied to it. But how do you define levels of priorities and sets of categories in a generic way that can be applied to tasks from vastly different sources?

I'm not trying to argue that the concept of a universal task list is not applicable to SharePoint at all, but rather arguing that providing one out of the box does not make much sense because of the lack of business context. There are of course cases where task list aggregation does make sense. Imagine you have built a number of workflow solutions in SharePoint and you want an aggregated list of workflow tasks. Here a centralised aggregated task list could have a place. But again, this may still contradict the fact that task management has to be fully controlled by the individual to be truly effective which brings us to the second reason for not having a universal task list in SharePoint.

Task management is personal

The requirement for a universal task list is often driven by management wishing to find a silver bullet that will magically make everyone perform all their tasks in a timely manner. But driving task management following a top-down approach is not necessarily very conducive for individual productivity. I think productivity guru, David Allen, would agree with much of this. If you have a large generic universal task list, where you have had no involvement in defining the principles of it, your brain will very quickly go num to it. What you really need is tasks coming in via one of your existing “inboxes” and then process and manage the associated actions with your own personal system.

So what's the solution in Microsoft's current suite of products? Well, that's where Outlook comes in. Outlook is your personal productivity tool and it has the ability to aggregate tasks from multiple sources, including scattered SharePoint task lists. Outlook has a rich set of features to filter, sort, categorise and prioritise your tasks, customisable to your style of working. Outlook is a tool for you as an individual to collate tasks from a myriad of sources and create your own system that works for you. Obviously, this is only ever going to be as effective as the individual systems people have put in place to manage their tasks. But I dare say you will get much better results providing each individual with the right tools and coaching to improve personal productivity rather than trying to roll out yet another centrally managed task list that the brain quickly goes num to because it wasn’t designed for each individual’s particular style of working.


Liam said...

Nice one Kristian... I've been asked similar questions in the past and have not had a really good answer other than "yeah, well... that kinda doesn't work for SharePoint - why not try xxxxxxxx".

One point I would add though is "content query web part!!". Depending on the nature of what you're trying to achieve with a consolidated list of tasks, the content query can be very useful - especially with a little forward planning about how task lists are set-up in terms of site collection columns and content types. Especially if you happen to work somewhere that doesn't use Exchange / Outlook *sigh*. I guess this all goes back to your point about SharePoint being a platform...

Jasper said...

Although I agree on the fact that an aggregated list might not be the ideal solution and Outlook is great tool for these things, there's one scenario you're missing out on.

We're dynamically creating sites with tasks lists on them. I can't possible ask all my users to connect those lists to Outlook manually each time a new site is being created.

I'm going to use the CQWP to solve this problem and query all tasks from all subsites into one list; a nice approach if you ask me (since no data is duplicated, but you do have a central view). Now the only thing to sort out is how to display those tasks correctly.

In my opinion; a webpart for this purpose would definitely be a good addition to the SharePoint toolset.

Kristian Kalsing said...

Jasper, thanks for your comment. Yes I can certainly see the need in such a scenario. Particularly if you are talking about project sites where task lists are used for project management.

You might want to have a dig around for third-party task aggregators. The Content Query Web Part might give you performance issues in large site collections (see http://techblog.ranjanbanerji.com/post/2007/07/16/Content-Query-Web-Part-%28CQWP%29-SharePoint-2007-Performance.aspx).