I've always found public folders to be a great benefit for team or group discussions. Now, Microsoft is moving users away from public folders, but you can use SharePoint discussion boards as a replacement. Previously, you were able to access the discussions only on the SharePoint Web site. However, using Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 combined with Windows SharePoint Services 3.0 or Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007, you can now take your SharePoint discussion boards local, and you can read and reply to items when you're offline. This can be a great way to improve team discussions.

I've previously explained how you enable synchronization by selecting the desired SharePoint list or document library and clicking "Connect to Outlook" on the Actions menu ("SharePoint Integration with Outlook 2007, Part 1," April 27, 2007, and "SharePoint Integration with Outlook 2007, Part 2," May 25, 2007). You sync discussion groups the same way. When you do, Outlook 2007 creates a discussion folder that's similar to a public folder; its Outlook type is "Folder containing Mail and Post Items." The folder contains all items from the discussion board, and Outlook's Instant Search indexes them. Thus, all items are fully integrated with Outlook.

You can read and post items to the Outlook folder when you're on the road and offline; when you have a connection again, any new or changed item is synchronized back to SharePoint. If you have a discussion folder that you consider important, you can add it to your Favorite Folders just by right-clicking it and selecting "Add to Favorite Folders." From the Favorite Folders list, you can more easily see whether the folder contains unread items.

You can drag and drop items from other folders, such as your Inbox, to the discussion folder, which creates a copy of the message. When you use this method for moving messages from public folders to SharePoint, the copy will have your mailbox account as the originator; you lose the message's original "From" information. However, it's an easy way to get all your public folder information to SharePoint.

When you open an item from a discussion folder, you have two response choices, which sometimes confuses people. You can use Post Reply, which posts a reply message to the discussion folder, or Reply, which sends an email message to the originator of the item. It's important to tell your users that they should use Post Reply to get the discussion going in the folder.

One of the coolest features of using Outlook 2007 to post items to a discussion board is the ability to add pictures or attachments. From Outlook, just copy and paste the picture to the new item and post it. The picture will be displayed when you access the item on the SharePoint site. If you've tried using the SharePoint site's item editor to do this, you know how much more convenient the Outlook method is. However, sometimes an added picture doesn't show correctly on the SharePoint site; it displays a placeholder for the picture instead. For a workaround, just click "Edit" and you'll see the picture correctly.

Discussion boards are also great for storing your email messages from distribution lists (DLs). As long as the SharePoint site is email-enabled, you can add an email address when creating the discussion board in SharePoint. Then you just need to add this email address to your DL to automatically send all messages to the discussion board. I've created a discussion board for my departmental DL where everybody can look up old messages from the list.

In my department, we use a discussion board as a small knowledge database for any kind of computer-related information. People post questions and solutions and also move messages to the folder that might be important. Showing my coworkers the Outlook 2007 integration not only increased the frequency of their postings tremendously, but they're also now including useful attachments and pictures, which didn't happen before.

Try using discussion boards this way with your colleagues—you'll be amazed at how valuable SharePoint and Outlook 2007 integration is for your organization.

Outlook Internet Site of the Month
This month's focus is an Outlook tool that's especially interesting for all you PST users out there: AddOnMail's BackupMyFolder! for Outlook, which you can use to back up your PST files. You can select a single folder, folder structure, or the complete PST for backup. Also, you can schedule backups so they occur when you're not using the computer. This is a nice, easy-to-use tool—try it! You can download it for free from AddOnMail.

As always, if you find a link for an interesting new freeware tool or add-on for Outlook, let me know! Send me a message at siegfried.jagott@siemens.com.