SharePointLess Training

By the way, that’s not DSC03506‘pointless’ just SharePoint-less and not totally without SharePoint. Before continuing, I should advise you that I left my laptop at work, I’m not going back for it so my trusty editor will not be able to proofread this post. All bad grammar is my fault. Oh, and there won’t be a picture until sometime later because all the pictures are on my laptop.

Earlier this year, one of my coworkers told me:

“I think part of the problem with SharePoint is that people don’t understand why we need metadata and stuff like that.”

She was right. Not because we hadn’t tried to teach those subjects. I think I had a course titled “Metadata and stuff like that” but I always tried to shape training from within. In other words, I talked about metadata from the perspective of our company. I think that might have been confusing. Metadata is somewhat abstract, but when you define it using precise, well-known examples, it becomes less abstract (see, my editor would cross out ‘less abstract’ and pencil in something different), sorry, my bad, your loss.

We made arrangements with The Holly Group to have Steve Weissman work with a woman on my team to develop and deliver a different kind of training course – SharePointLess, as in “without SharePoint.” What is taxonomy? What is metadata? Why are they important? What can we do with them once we have them? How do we find stuff? I love the last one. Steve was very deliberate (my editor might suggest that very deliberate would be like very unique or very pregnant) in that he did not say “how do we search for stuff?” Steve is all about “value” and search doesn’t add value, finding something adds value. If I had been teaching this course, I would have shown a SharePoint search example. Steve had better things to talk about, and the students appreciated avoiding the SharePoint example.

Two days later, the woman on my team started bringing Steve’s message home. She talked about our taxonomy, our metadata and the specific things we need to find. She pointed out the various ways some of our ordinary attempts at organization have failed. She showed a screen shot of my Outlook folders. She showed documents named with terms like ‘final’, ‘final2’, ‘finalFINAL’ and ‘finalfinal2’. Finally, she showed certain parent folders on our K: drive with counts of duplicate files, 4,000, 7,000 and upwards of 14,000 duplicates. We talked about why we did what we did. In the absence of a better system, naming conventions work – to a point. In the absence of a repository that can hold email and a tool like Harmon.ie, Outlook folders work – to a point. In the absence of collaboration software, sharing files with email works – to a point, but that point is when every recipient thinks it’s a file worth keeping and stores it on their segment of the K: drive.

Then, 5 hours into 6 hours worth of training, only then did SharePoint show up. She showed us organized libraries. She us showed Views. She showed examples of workflows at work and she showed examples of versioning. In fact, the example of versioning that she showed was a more recent collection of files that were previously named something like ‘final.docx’

The difference with this training was that by the time we got to showing SharePoint versioning, we all knew what business problem it was solving. By the time we saw the results of a workflow, we knew what business process was being improved. By the time we saw examples of views, we could recognize the value that the metadata was adding.

I wish we had done this training earlier, but I’m not one to focus on what’s behind me, I’m a “mirrors forward” kind of driver. I look forward to building our next solution in SharePoint because I know it will be easier to build and that the result will be even closer to the bulls-eye. Our focus going forward is to extract value from the stuff we are saving. SharePoint isn’t just a repository, it’s a working platform.

As Easy as 1-2-3

clip_image002Last week, I talked about how we built a prototype site in order to demonstrate some of the features we were thinking about using in a project for our legal department. The prototype site was well received, and even though we’re going to delete it pretty soon, it was worth building. In addition, it didn’t take that much effort to build. Part of the reason we were able to build the site so fast is because SharePoint is designed to be built fast; let’s face it, that’s one of the reasons we bought it. The second reason we were able to work fast is because we used a few of the tools we have bolted onto SharePoint. I’ve talked about each of these before, but it’s summer so I think we can stand a few reruns. Here are three of the things we have added to SharePoint that I am happy to have:

Muhimbi PDF Converter – This product not only lets our users convert Office and a wide variety of other documents to PDF from the library drop-down menu, we can call on these services from a SharePoint Designer workflow. The best part is that last little bit about workflows. We can save our coworkers the time it takes to create the PDF, but we can also manage the process. That means that we can put the PDF in the library it belongs in, and because we can kick the workflow off when an item is uploaded or changed, we don’t have to worry about people forgetting this important step.

SharePoint Classifier – We added this product from Boost Solutions last year. Working from an intuitive interface, this lets us bulk edit metadata for a large number of selected or uploaded files quickly. We can set metadata to a specific value across the entire group or we can skip through the list of documents, setting some bits of metadata to a single value but setting others to unique values. We used this to quickly populate the demonstration libraries on our prototype site. Classifier can also copy or move the selected items from one library to another, set tags and check the documents in if necessary.

Lightning Conductor – This is our most recent add-on, but it’s one that I am really going to enjoy using. One of the features we wanted to demonstrate was the ability to pull items together from the various libraries based on certain metadata. The example we used was to show all the documents that had been tagged as the “Current Version” in a single web part on the main page. This illustrated a critical capability that our users wanted, the ability to store documents where they belong, but present them as if they are in the same place. What I like so much is the fact that we configured the web part in a matter of minutes.

These tools make SharePoint easier to use and much more powerful by augmenting the inherent strength of SharePoint’s out-of-the-box power. Whether our users are working directly with these tools or asking us to configure a solution for them, these (and other) tools are saving us precious time.

The Market Rocks

clip_image002Last week, I wrote about how we are going to shut down the now-dysfunctional shared folder structure we have had in operation since 1988. Of course, telling you via this blog was actually the easy part; telling the people using those shared folders, well that’s a different story. As soon as I declared the date (June 30) for the lockdown, my team started working on a strategy to ease the pain, and make the transition easier. My Systems Administrator seems to have hit a home run, finding another product from the folks at SharePointBoost. I wrote about these guys back in 2009, right after we installed their Batch Check-in product. Since then, we’ve added their List Transfer product and now we are taking a hard look at Classifier.

Here’s what I like about the product – In addition to forcing encouraging people to move existing content into SharePoint, we are also suggesting requiring that the libraries they establish contain a minimal set of required metadata. We’re not trying to replicate the K: Drive, we’re trying to improve upon it. That means that for the valuable content that we need to preserve, the upload into SharePoint process becomes a challenging exercise. That’s why Classifier is so cool.

Since a person who understands the content can quickly identify documents that share common characteristics, they can select those documents, batch them and very quickly establish the common metadata. SharePointBoost has a wonderful selection of tutorials on their website, but here’s a quick illustration of what I just described.

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I’ve selected five documents from a folder containing documents related to the AIIM New England Chapter. To make life easier, I selected all the minutes that were in the folder.

At this point, I can just check these all in, using the Batch Check-in features. If all the metadata is the same, I can chose to “bulk edit” the properties. In my case, most of the metadata is the same but there’s a description field that is unique, so I’m going to edit the files one-by-one.

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As I edit the properties of the first document, I can instruct Classifier to keep the choices I make on that file and carry them forward to the rest. This means that all I have to do is edit the unique property of each document.

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After I move through all five documents, voila!

Here’s what I like about this company – SharePoint add-on products can be expensive, but SharePointBoost does a great job of containing that cost. I particularly like the way they work with SMBs. Since we don’t have a ton of users, we can save money by buying a limited license as opposed to a Farm license (since we will never hit the limit). In addition, they reward previous customers instead of punishing them. One of the features of Classifier is the ability to check in all the documents that you are working with. We already own their Batch Check-in product, so they offered to discount the license fee for Classifier to reflect that prior ownership. I’m not naming names, but I know other companies that seem to ferret out every possible way that can force you to buy another license. Microsoft wants to charge me based on what I am doing, where I am doing it and what device I am using. Some scientists say we will never be able to invent the Heisenberg Compensator used in Star Trek to enable the Transporter to work around the laws of physics. I say that that technology will be an offshoot of software licensing.

IT likes market-driven solutions – One of the things that often happens after I write about buying an add-on product is that someone will point out way(s) that we could duplicate some or all of these features using out-of-the-box features, sometimes augmented by some code. We think about those solutions, but I like buying add-ons. No, I don’t like spending money, particularly when I think Microsoft should have included the feature in the base product, but I do like saving money. Designing, building, testing and maintain SharePoint solutions takes time, and we pay our employees for the time they spend doing those tasks. It doesn’t take very many hours before a fairly-priced product is cheaper to buy than it would be to build.

The combination in this case is win-win2. I win, because I’ve saved money and I am easing the pain of moving forward. Our employees win because they can save time completing the arduous task I’ve dumped on them. I win again because this lets me move the classification task completely into the user space. Finally, our employees win again because they will have well organized content. I think we need to buy this product.

Analog to Digital

In a bit of good news / bad news, I have been moving into a new office at work this past week. The good news is that I get more space and a view; the bad news is that a friend and valuable mentor is retiring. Well, I guess that’s good news for him, but I’m going to miss him. In packing my office, I was surprised by a number of trivial things that I never paid much attention to, and the impact they are going to have on my work-day. I was also struck by how easily today’s technology can help me overcome these “challenges.”

As I was packing the contents of my file cabinets and desk, I was making a mental note of the new destination. You see, I’m moving from an office that is equipped with “system furniture” a.k.a. the stuff they build cubicles out of, to an office with real furniture. System furniture is designed to store stuff and support activity. I had drawers, files cabinets, binder bins and shelving built in and within reach of my chair. I had outlets, jacks, cable-guides, wiring grommets and a keyboard tray designed to make working an ergonomic delight. Now I have a free-standing desk with measurable distance between me and my stuff; one might ask if they are expecting me to do any work in this place. Fortunately, much of what I was moving is already available in digital form, so about half of my files went from file drawer to shredder-bin. I have to confess, much of the paper I was about to move was actually documents that I printed from SharePoint. While I am comfortable storing content digitally, I still like to have it printed out sometimes to work with. For example, I am not yet a fan of annotating documents digitally – it’s too neat. I find that my hand-scrawled notes convey my emotion and my meaning much better than a callout box in Acrobat.

One of the stupid little things that I am going to miss is a bulletin board. The space between my back desk and the binder bins above it was filled with a cloth-covered panel that held pushpins really well. I had a bunch of things stuck there that I really liked having “at the ready.” One example was a transaction where I am still waiting for a refund. I had the receipt, the form I faxed for the refund and the fax I received in return. Names, numbers and hand-scrawled notes (implying emotion) were all pinned together. Another item was a list of frequently called numbers and another was some instructions I need during several different kinds of emergencies. My first thought was that I could easily scan these items and add them to a Bulletin Board Library on my My Site. Then I realized that some of these items are already in other libraries on my My Site. So, I added a site column called BBoard, that holds a yes/no value and now I can query those lists for items that should be on my virtual bulletin board and display them in a web part.

In addition to losing my bulletin board, I am losing my whiteboard. The office I am moving to has windows, and while I am loath to complain about natural light, I’m not left with much usable wall space. I’ve also been told by my new neighbors that they don’t want my new office looking like the “IT Guy’s” office. I’ve threatened to buy a new whiteboard that would fit on the back of my door, but I am also going to investigate some digital substitutes. Lync has a shared whiteboard feature, but like the annotations, I don’t draw well with a stylus/mouse or even my finger on a monitor. On the other hand, I just started playing with the free version of Jot, and I like that enough to spring for $4.99 for the real deal and maybe get a copy for each of my team members.

Between SharePoint, my iPad and my phone(s), the transition from analog to digital is going to be easier than when I gave up my slide rule for a TI-50 in 1974. Ironically, even after buying a few copies of Jot, this shift won’t cost me as much – that calculator set me back $135, and that was with a student discount at the university bookstore.h

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

clip_image002The David Bowie song was released as I was finishing high school, and the 40 years since have been characterized by change more than anything. I have had to deal with everything from adapting to the constant change in technology, to having my boss tell me that I had to become an agent of change. One of my early blog entries was on that subject, and when I went back to snag the link I was reminded that I was writing about trying to make SharePoint surveys look a little better. It’s ironic, because today’s post has to do with the same business task, but this time, I’m more focused on the changes that have taken place, than on the disappointing nature of SharePoint surveys (not that they have changed).

The survey today and the one back in 2009 is associated with our Policyholder Meeting. It’s a simple mechanism for gathering information about the attendees to help with planning and scheduling. We’ve been using an on-line survey for a long time, starting out with an ASP-scripted survey on our public website. We moved the survey to SharePoint to make it easier to deal with the results. The ASP page sent individual results as an email to be transcribed into a spreadsheet; SharePoint let us download the results directly into the spreadsheet. Last year, we improved the process by eliminating the spreadsheet altogether, opting to drive the analysis and summarization from a collection of Data View Webparts tucked away on the Policyholder Meeting site. This year, we are working to change this process again, and we are following the lessons that we have learned from our other recent SharePoint success stories:

  • Incorporate as much of the process as you can
  • Make peoples’ lives easier

You might be shaking your head at the fact that it’s taken me 40ish years to learn the second lesson, but technology has not always been a people-oriented occupation. The first lesson is really a technique used in meeting the goal espoused in the second lesson, and it’s one SharePoint is uniquely capable of helping us achieve. The fact that it takes so little effort to expand a solution beyond the requirements into the realm of being really helpful might be SharePoint’s signature strength. If you chart the evolution of our solution, it goes like this:

  • Implemented ASP-scripted survey on our company website
  • Implemented survey on our Internet-facing SharePoint server
  • Added basic event venue information to a landing page and success page after submitting survey
  • Added description of social events and activities to the landing page – also added a follow-up survey
  • Added an event schedule, and links to informational websites associated with the social activities
  • Replaced spreadsheet for analysis and reporting with Data View Webparts available to employees only

This year, we are expanding the employee-only section to include lists and libraries so that the entire event can be captured in SharePoint. All of the information, all of the images that we need for collateral material, all of the collateral material that gets developed, all of the contracts, menus, pictures, etc. will be in one place. This will help everyone associated with this year’s event and it will help the people who have to plan next year’s event.

These are simple changes, and you might be surprised that is has taken so long to get to this point. Well, it’s an annual event, so “we can add that next year” syndrome is in effect. Also, it seems people always find it easier to start annual projects by returning to the place they left off, thus carrying on inefficient traditions. We are starting earlier this year to get a head start on those challenges; we have a new (IT) team member to help with the heavy lifting on SharePoint and we have a few more employees on the event team, so collaboration is more important. It only takes a small crowd to make you realize that your collaborative solution could benefit from a few changes – so, you know how it goes: “turn and face the strain.”

Automating People

iPhoneRecently, I was discussing process automation with a few friends – yes that is the kind of life that I have, at least during the NFL off-season. One subject that came up during the discussion is the problem that is caused by automation that goes into a holding pattern. When processes were manual and routing and storage were analog, something was physically on a pile on someone’s desk, an obvious constant reminder of the work that needed to be done. Once we suck the content into SharePoint and wrap the process up in a few workflows, the constant reminder is replaced by a single email – do you know how easy it is to ignore an email? Of course, the just-in-time nature of workflows means that while person A is ignoring the task, persons B through G don’t even know the task exists.

Since I am frequently cast in the role of person A, I might be a good example. One of my tasks is to approve expenses added to a cloud-based expense tracking system. This system notifies me of every charge I make, every charge I have to approve and every subsequent status change during the lifespan of an expense. This system has proven beyond doubt that the only thing easier to ignore than one email, is 100 emails on the same subject. Not only do I ignore the emails I receive, I’ve gone so far as to create a rule in Outlook to ignore the emails automatically on my behalf. Based on this unscientific study, I’ll conclude that having SharePoint send more notifications isn’t the answer. OK, what about a dashboard?

Despite not liking the buzzword, we are rapidly becoming fans of building meaningful dashboards around SharePoint managed content. It doesn’t take very long for list items or documents to pile up and turn a list or library into an unreadable mess. Since we have a few of these pages up and running, we have decided to add a personalized Data View Webpart to one of the pages that will show “Stuff you need to do”, but I’m not sure that’s going to help much. I say that because the rule that I created in Outlook wasn’t designed to ignore notifications, it was actually designed to help me pay attention to them. Based on the subject line, the rule puts the notifications into one of two folders for follow-up. The problem with that rule/folder combination is that it is a Pull operation – I have to go to the folder. Dashboards or status pages are also Pull operations, so those tasks will only get done if I go looking for them. Pull operations are forgotten, push operations are ignored – what’s a process to do?

As I think about this, I realize that there are only two types of reminders that I always respond to: calendar alerts and direct requests from people that I like. I recall Marc Anderson saying at the recent AIIM NE event, that he is more likely to respond to humorous notifications. I would agree with that, but there’s no guarantee. If I know that I need to stop for donuts on the way to work, I create a calendar item, set an alert time so that my phone beeps while I am driving; it works, I stop every time. When the nice woman from accounting calls or sends me an email reminding me that I have (n) expense reports to approve, I login and take care of them.

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On the other hand, I told my wife that I was planning to stop at the ATM earlier this week; she wrote my planned withdrawal in the checkbook, but I forgot to stop. I also forgot to tell her that I forgot to stop, putting our checkbook out of balance – my bad.

I think a combination of push and pull solutions might help. Something like an alert that says “You have to do something” where the link takes you to a DVWP that includes actionable items. I.E. if you need to review a document, the link will open the document for you. If you need to approve a process step, the Approval button is right there. Maybe calling a person’s attention to an item coupled with an easy-to-use option to act on the item, will be enough to even get busy people to respond. We are even looking into VPN on Demand, so we could send these notifications as directly actionable items to an iPhone. If I add a bit of humor, maybe I can even increase the success ratio.