Why write this blog post?

Microsoft currently has a 51% worldwide market share of the business email and collaboration market according to the Radicati Group; and, I would be willing to wager that the percentage is much, much higher in the North American market.  As consultant, I am in and out of many different organizations that use Microsoft products and I am often asked how tasks in Outlook work in conjunction with tasks in SharePoint.  And as I do Microsoft Dynamics CRM implementations, I am also asked whether tasks should be held in SharePoint or CRM on projects.  So, I decided to hunker down and write a quick blog post on the differences, similarities, and when & where Outlook, SharePoint, and/or CRM should hold tasks.

What is Outlook good at?

Lets first look at what tasks in Outlook are good for.  To do this, I want to start from the premise the Microsoft Outlook is a PIM (I.e., a personal information manager).  Since Outlook is a PIM which organizes your email, tasks, contacts, and appointments, it is used by many people to manage their personal tasks.  Now since most businesses use Outlook for their employees in the office, many employees mix and mingle their personal email, tasks, contacts, and appointments with work email, tasks, contacts, and appointments.  So, Outlook is good at taking care of both the basics of personal and the basics of business task management.

What is SharePoint good at?

SharePoint is Microsoft’s entry into the collaborations and document management arena thru a customizable web application platform.  One of the items that SharePoint allows placed onto its’ customized collaborative work areas are “task list” components that hold tasks.  These “tasks” are contextual in terms that they are in reference to the collaborative work area they have been placed under.  In addition to being in context of the collaborative work area they are under, additional custom field (I.e., meta data) can be placed against tasks to store additional items against each task.

What is Microsoft Dynamics CRM good at?

Microsoft Dynamics CRM is a customizable customer relationship management system.  It is a CRM system that essentially provides an organization with a rapid database development tool with a pre-defined set of tables for sales, marketing, and customer service.  When companies get Microsoft Dynamics CRM and start to gain proficiency with it, they soon realize that getting this product is like obtaining a big box of lego.  One of the sets within this lego box is task management.  Task management is stand alone, but can be made relational to any of the other bits of sales, marketing, customer service, and customized work that is found in the system.

Synchronization options

Outlook and CRM

Outlook and CRM offers native two-way integration with the addition of the “CRM for Outlook Add-In” into Outlook and a setting of the synchronization filters in CRM.  If someone chooses to “track” a task from Outlook into CRM, they would simply click a button in the ribbon of their Outlook.  CRM creates a copy of the task and places it into CRM where it still remains connected to the task in Outlook.  So, if the task is updated in CRM, it would be updated in Outlook as well, and vice versa.  And since Outlook is found on peoples’ phones and tablets, the task is synchronized two-ways here as well.  Going the other direction, from CRM to Outlook, tasks created in CRM automatically get pulled into Outlook with synchronization filter settings.  A typical synchronization filter setting would be to pull in all the tasks that where assigned to you.

Outlook and SharePoint

SharePoint 2013 and Exchange Server 2013 now allow for task aggregation in SharePoint and then a choice to synchronize these tasks with the user’s Outlook.  The flow here is from tasks that are initiated in SharePoint.  There is a limitation that tasks created in Outlook have no out-of-the-box solution to synchronize with SharePoint; however, tasks that are in Outlook as a result of being synchronized from SharePoint can be updated in Outlook and those changes will be reflected in SharePoint.  And again, because Outlook is synchronized with users’ phones and tablets, we have synchronization occurring across phones, tables, Outlook on the desktop, and SharePoint.

CRM and SharePoint

At this point in time, there is no out-of-the-box functionality provided by Microsoft that would synchronize tasks across CRM and SharePoint without the use of Outlook.  Outlook must be used as the intermediary.

Conclusion

In all my time consulting at various companies across North America and Europe, I have not seen many instances where employees actually use tasks within Outlook.  However, tasks in CRM and SharePoint are often used.  The advantage of the tasks in CRM and SharePoint over the native Outlook tasks is that the tasks are held in context (I.e., the task is found in a particular collaborative project site where it is relevant or against a particular business entity in CRM that it is relevant, like against a sale).

What I have found, though, is that when people get used to using tasks in CRM and SharePoint they soon would like them also showing up on their phones and tablets; and, for this to occur it is probably most logical that we use Outlook as the intermediary or build some custom mobile solution to view the tasks.

So, my final conclusion is that it depends on the job you have in mind on whether the tasks should live in SharePoint or CRM.  Keep the tasks in context of what you have to do.  And if the users insist on having the tasks show on their mobile devices, then weigh the pros and cons of using Outlook or building a custom mobile solution.