Integrating taxonomies with SharePoint BCS

October, 2011

The Managed Metadata Service (MMS) in SharePoint 2010 lets knowledge base publishers create and use both topic hierarchies and controlled vocabularies, but it still has two serious limitations:

  • Metadata imported into SharePoint from an external source can't be used for non-SharePoint applications. Metadata added to SharePoint can't be used in other programs.
  • The SharePoint MMS Term Store lacks classic thesaurus relationships such as broader term, narrower term, and related term. Nor is it possible to create custom relationships, such as authored-by or subject-of.

In my book and courses, I describe four ways to overcome these limitations:

• Links to an external metadata repository. Data is retrieved using HTTP queries and can be displayed on a SharePoint Web page.

• SharePoint Web parts. The RSS, XML Viewer, and Page Viewer Web parts can be used to display data from an external metadata repository on a SharePoint Web page.

• Custom Web parts. Custom Web parts can be programmed to grab the text that the user types in the SharePoint search box, query an external metadata repository, and display the results on a SharePoint Web page.

• Third-party metadata management software. The most sophisticated of these products allow the taxonomist to create sophisticated external metadata repositories and synchronize them with SharePoint search, lists, libraries, and sites.

The third option requires a programmer, and the fourth option is meant to be used by professional taxonomists — not untrained knowledge stewards. In this article I'll describe another option that does not require programming and can be implemented by savvy end users — SharePoint's Business Connectivity Service (BCS).

What is Business Connectivity Services?
The Business Connectivity Services (BCS) function was created to let SharePoint and Office users work with external data stored in "line-of-business" (LOB) systems such as SAP, Siebel, and PeopleSoft. Typically, these are expensive, complex back-room applications containing information about customers, suppliers, inventories, and employees. They are tightly integrated with the organization's financial functions, such as payroll, vendor payments, and customer receipts. Therefore, it isn't practical to move LOB data into SharePoint, but there is some data overlap between the two types of software. For example, both SharePoint and the payroll system contain information about users/employees, but private data such as salaries and benefits may not be made available to SharePoint. On the other hand, there may be no reason to display SharePoint people profile information (e.g. values in the Interests or Ask Me About columns) in the payroll system.

BCS is of interest to knowledge managers in those applications that rely on cross-functional information from both inside and outside the organization, such as sales, R&D, and marketing. Outside information can come from commercial information services (e.g. Dow Jones' Factiva or Elsevier's Science Direct) or employee research. A SharePoint site is the ideal place to integrate information from all three sources. The issue is how to combine and synchronize metadata for current and potential customers, existing and potential suppliers, internal and external experts.

Take experts, for example. The following shows people-related metadata from different information sources.

Information source Metadata Comment
AllExperts (Web-based service)

Experience in the area
Client ratings
Customer reviews

Services of this type do not provide contact information but display aggregated quality data, such as rating and reviews.
SharePoint people profile

SharePoint user name
Job title & Department
Contact information
Tags & Notes
About me
Ask me about
Past projects

Some data comes from organizational sources (e.g. job title, department) but most comes from the employee. Social data (e.g. colleagues, memberships) is also provided.
SAP (Enterprise Resource Planning application) Human resources metadata (e.g. contact information)
Financial's metadata (e.g. salary)
Travel metadata (e.g. trip expenses)
Much of this data is confidential, but aggregated data (e.g. total number of employees) may be generally available to everyone.
ACM Digital Library (Commercial bibliographic database service) Name
Home page
Email address
Affiliation history (universities)
Roles (author, editor, advisor)
Subject areas
Information to evaluate and contact the author + "bibliometrics" (publication years, number of articles published, number of articles cited, number of articles available for download, number of articles downloaded per time period)

Individuals (e.g. field sales staff, competitive intelligence researchers) and teams (e.g. proposal departments, R&D project staff) typically create their own mashups of these internal and external data, either in folders on their own laptops, in SharePoint lists or libraries, or in a user-friendly database system like Filemaker. These localized information sources have three characteristics:

1. They are highly customized to a specific task or function.

2. Both data values and schemas (lists of data elements or fields) are subject to change.

3. Some data created by one department or business unit is likely to be useful to others.

How would BCS compare to the SharePoint Term Store Management Tool for metadata management in these localized, knowledge-intensive domains?

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Created on October 25, 2011 l Updated on November 18, 2011