That Painful Slicing Sound

clip_image002Given the fact that almost 20 years after we started using email, we still have a Fax machine, it really shouldn’t bother me that we still use paper and have numerous artifacts of a paper-based content management system in place. I only need to walk down the hall to see the annual offering to Iron Mountain being assembled in accounting, or peak in the “binder bins” in that and other departments that are actually used for binders. I understand that some content is easier to work with in paper form, but it makes me sad when I know that content that was born digital is being printed, punched and stored in binders. It is therefore ironic that they chose to locate a 3-hole punch on a file cabinet outside my office – a convenient spot because it sits between two printers, which also makes me sad.

In trying to determine the appeal of a large 3-ring binder over something like SharePoint, I am led back to something I have talked about many times on this blog – proximity. People like the binder because it contains the body of knowledge on a particular subject. The reason we can’t replace the binder, despite having SharePoint in place for over five years, is because SharePoint is still a work in progress. We have won battles against binders, but we aren’t yet in position to win the war. In those places where we have won the battles, SharePoint is functioning more as a file system than a content management system and it’s far from being an information management system. If you’re shaking your head, let me offer an example.

One of our engineers just punched 3 holes into an article about one the plants he is assigned to. While that might seem absurd, it’s not, because for the moment there are bits of information that are in the binder that aren’t in SharePoint. Yes, he could simply scan all of it into SharePoint, but then SharePoint is an electronic binder and the only difference between the digital and the analog binder is that the digital binder is harder to read. The “content” we have about this facility is digital, albeit some remains on a shared network drive. New content is being created on SharePoint. Older content is being moved into SharePoint (backfilling) at a quickening pace. This is great, but it still comes up short of the goal of managing information. We are still a long way from this engineer being able to go to SharePoint and find everything he needs to know about this facility.

We are planning to attack this problem on two fronts in 2012. First, we are moving our structured data, the stuff generated by those transaction processing systems, into SQL Server. Currently, that data is spread between DB2, Lotus Notes and some flat-file tables. We may not have every application working against SQL Server, but we will have all the data represented there. That will allow us to render facility information into SharePoint via direct connectivity and / or SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS). Our second front will be to formally introduce the power of Document IDs and links.

We were recently asked if we could create a central repository for business presentations. In defiance of my normal responsive nature, I said “no, we can’t do that.” We can’t put all presentations in a central location unless we relocate them from the libraries they were prepared in, or create a duplicate copy. Of course I told the person what we could do instead, which is to link to those presentations wherever they happen to be. Actually, the final result will likely be a hybrid solution; we will store ad-hoc presentations in a library and link to presentations that are associated with other projects. If we are lucky, we will even be able to resurrect an earlier effort to populate a functioning Slide Library.

The objective is clear and worth supporting. We prepare a lot of presentations that cover overlapping territory. Not only can we benefit from not reinventing wheels, but we can make sure that we are all running on the best wheels possible. Frankly, I’d settle for knowing that we are running on the same size wheels, i.e. we say the same things when we talk about the same topics.

This project will challenge us to gather, and make available for sharing what sometimes seems to be proprietary content. It will force us to build a library that supports sharing the content and metadata about what represents appropriate use of the content. It will force us to confront ownership, distribution, attribution, permissions and elements of style, to drop a few buzzwords. It will also present us with a huge opportunity to demonstrate the power of managed information.

I think I know how Sisyphus felt.