“Use Technology – Don’t make your job harder than it needs to be and don’t be afraid to be cool”
That was the title and sub-title of a section of the presentation I gave at the AIIM Conference. One interesting feature of the conference was the way in which the messages in different presentations in the same track (Engagement) came together to reinforce a common idea. The presentation that helped reinforce my message was one that called attention to the fact that the CIO, or the person acting in that capacity, has a view of information usage that is unique in an enterprise. The idea that we were trying to sell, was the fact that IT doesn’t need to be on the defensive, that we don’t have to sit around longing for the days back in the 90’s when we were the cool kids and when we were introducing technology to the people around us. The fact that people are dragging consumer technology into the workplace today doesn’t have to put us out of business. The strength of IT lies in what we know and what we can do with what we know, not the technology we have access to.
I recently received a request to help automate an arduous recordkeeping task in our engineering department. As with most of these requests, I was being asked to solve a very small puzzle, to simply make one engineer’s life a little easier. Like many of these requests, the person asking for help had already explored other options on his own, and was prepared to solve this puzzle without me.
I don’t mind when people have looked at alternatives. I don’t mind when they find something that will work better than what my crew can build, or when they find something that can be online faster. It’s not about me, my department or my technology; it’s all about satisfying the information requirements of the company we work for.
In this case, there really wasn’t a better solution than SharePoint; they were tracking stuff that belongs in a list, and there isn’t a better way to do that than within SharePoint. What we added to this solution, the stuff that IT is uniquely qualified to add to every solution, centered on three concepts:
Institutionalizing tacit knowledge – Part of the task the engineer performs is a decision making process regarding what information should be collected. In the existing “system” (an Excel spreadsheet) it’s hard to separate the selection task from the data entry task. By isolating, automating and simplifying the data entry, we can allow people to focus on selection. Also, by presenting choice columns, lookup columns and a short list of required metadata descriptors, we can nudge people’s thought process. So, just by putting the default SharePoint “New” form in front of someone, we make it easy for them to share knowledge in addition to data.
Improve the process – All of the information a company keeps is associated with a process and almost any process can be improved. People will argue against both elements of that statement, but I stand by it. If we have information that isn’t associated with a business process, we should throw it out. If we can’t improve a process today, we still need to pay attention because as technology evolves, our chance will come. In our engineering system, the information being collected needs to be reviewed in a collaborative environment – a nice looking series of Data View Web Parts makes that easy. As the information is being reviewed, comments are made and someone has to add them to the record. We know that we can add links, or buttons or form widgets to put that entry process inside the review process and capture the comments live.
Present the big picture – Some of the data the engineers need to capture already exists in other lists. Some of it already exists in our managed metadata term store. By tying these elements into this solution, we help end the isolation of this data within engineering. By connecting the engineering observations and comments with the common taxonomy of our underlying insurance business, we were able to build a solution that offers ongoing benefit to our underwriters.
Our engineers are very smart and very capable people; they could have easily solved their problem without my department’s help. However, we were aware of the problems that were being wrestled with and solved in underwriting. We were aware of the lists and terms that had been established in other solutions. We know how to make the page look better and how to connect the components to provide actionable elements and improve the process. This is what we do, and I don’t think anyone can do it better.