What does it Mean to WorkSmart

clip_image002Sorry for the little play on words in the title but I spent an amazing day on Thursday at ADNET Technologies annual WorkSmart Summit. ADNET is a technology services and training company and WorkSmart is simply one of the best educational experiences of the year. Did I mention that it was free? Yeah, it was free.

Free usually means supported by vendors and that usually means that you have to sit through have the opportunity to attend a bunch of scripted commercials presentations by those vendors – NOT at WorkSmart. Some vendors did offer presentations, but they were focused on helping us (the customers) to understand a bit of technology, not to hear about their product. One of those presentations was by the morning keynote speaker, Bob Lincavicks who is a Technology Strategist with Microsoft. The title of Bob’s presentation was “The Evolving Future of Productivity” and although he gave himself numerous opportunities to talk about Lync and Exchange and SharePoint, he didn’t. Oh, he mentioned the product names, but no commercial. Bob talked about concepts, history, The Jetsons (and flying cars) and people (and flying cars), I think if Microsoft ever makes a flying car, Bob should be the head of sales.

clip_image004At one point in his presentation, Bob showed a Venn diagram relating People, Process and Technology. Two things came to my mind. First – I love Venn Diagrams. I do. I freely admit that if you can package your concept into a Venn diagram, you are going to have my attention. It goes back to the whole New Math thing; I was a sucker for New Math. Second – Think about it – people, process and technology – if there was ever a stepping stone to a SharePoint sales pitch, that was it. Bob stayed the concept course and he gained my respect by the moment. So, I’ll make the pitch for Microsoft.

Productivity requires that you pay attention to people, process and technology. Technology alone won’t do it. Despite the modest success I had early in my career as a Methods Analyst, process improvement alone won’t do it. People, even those who work hard to be productive, can’t get there alone. It takes all three. It takes all three, and when attention is paid to all three in SharePoint, you can deliver some serious support for productivity.

SharePoint can be made to work with people. That sounds obvious, but so often it isn’t. SharePoint out of the box isn’t always a people pleasing experience. On the other hand, with just a little attention to detail, SharePoint can move close enough to being an intuitive experience that people can thrive in the environment that the platform supports. I’m not talking about hundreds of hours of work to make SharePoint “not look like SharePoint,” I’m just talking about enough time and energy to increase the area of intersection between people and process. Sometimes all you have to do to accomplish this is to get rid of the links to stuff you’re not using and reorganize the links to the stuff that you are using.

Process is SharePoint’s happy place. Often, when I look at a SharePoint solution that has been in use for a while (without review) I can almost hear SharePoint saying “you know I could do that for you…” SharePoint can do so much, and just like with the look and feel of a SharePoint site, it doesn’t have to be national railroad scale process. We recently put a 5-action SharePoint Designer workflow in place to eliminate the need for people to remember a bit of process.

Too many people are forgetting to do this.” Ok, how many people are thinking about the “Dr. it hurts when I do this” joke? Seriously, somebody had that complaint and the apparently not-so-obvious answer was to let SharePoint do it.

Of course, you can’t have SharePoint without technology, but even the people who are comfortable with SharePoint forget that SharePoint exists within an expanding universe of technology. We are a relatively small company but I’ve written about SharePoint going mobile, SharePoint running on an iPad, SharePoint augmenting the process in otherwise fat-client applications and SharePoint providing the electronic shelving for critical document libraries.

SharePoint can support the intersection between people, process and technology and the resulting union (you’re going to have to look those up if you don’t remember) can be a very productive place.

Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker

Marc, Chris and RogerA few days ago, the AIIM New England chapter held its final event of the program year. The event title suggested three disparate topics: “Cloud, Mobile content management and BYOD”, but we quickly were made to understand that these topics are deeply intertwined. In addition, it became apparent that the panel we assembled for this discussion understood the ways in which the challenges these topics present are not new, not different and that this is not the last time we will see them.

Our panel included Roger Bottum – VP of Marketing, SpringCM; Christopher J Luise – Executive VP, ADNET Technologies and Marc D. Anderson – Co-Founder and President of Sympraxis Consulting. Regular readers of this blog know that Marc trades under the Twitter handle of @sympmarc and Chris’ business thoughts can be found under @ITwithValue although I prefer the bacon-laced tweets from @cluise. Roger’s insight can be tapped at @springCM, a recent add to my daily twitter feed. We chose this group with the thought that a vendor, an integrator and a consultant would be able to give three different views on the subject. I’m not sure if it was the combination, or the fact that these guys were not actual competitors (like some of our previous panels) or perhaps that we just got lucky and picked three brilliant speakers, but this was an awesome panel.

I scrawled notes and quotes across 10 pages while trying to juggle a comment and question feed from a streaming audience that was almost the size of the group gathered in the room. I can’t recap everything, but just the opening thoughts were enough to tell me this panel wasn’t going to stay on the rails:

Roger: “Mobile is not an option, it’s here. The cloud isn’t a question of ‘if’; it’s a question of ‘when’ and ‘how’”.

Chris: “Connecting to the enterprise has always been possible, it’s just been clunky. Now, scale has come to the market and most companies have been caught on their back foot.”

Marc: “This technology has always been around, just not everywhere – now it is” Marc also added my favorite quote of the event “By the way, the ‘D’ in BYOD stands for device, not disaster.”

These and a few other common threads dominated the technical current running through this meeting. The notion that we have been dealing with the problems of integrating new devices, securing new devices and adapting to new technologies forever, was prevalent throughout the discussion. The thing that made this discussion so fascinating was the absolute pragmatism that was evident in their collective point of view. When a question was asked about controlling a cloud-based solution or controlling a cadre of mobile devices, the answer was fast and sharp – “to assume that you have control today is a false assumption!” It’s not some brave new world that we are entering into; it’s the next phase of an evolutionary process that involves a broader audience.

One of the most spirited portions of the discussion came after a question from a member of our streaming audience, asking about the fact that people are now carrying a laptop, an iPad and a smartphone instead of a single device. The attendee wondered how corporate IT was going to make this a better experience. Ironically, I was sitting there with those three devices, and the question kicked off a series of responses that ranged from the suggestion that my laptop was inadequate to the fact that today’s solutions have to driven by a combination of Capability, Form Factor and User Experience. That seemed to be enough to light the fuse on the philosophical side of this meeting, which was a powerfully refreshing discussion. Again, I can offer a few quotes:

Roger: “If someone doesn’t think it (your solution) works better than the old solution, it’s not going to be supported.”

Marc: “IT is not spending enough time asking users what they want and what they need to do their job. IT is more concerned about writing a BYOD policy than they are about getting people the data they need.

Chris added some thoughts that seem to indicate that the key vendors in this space are fueling the fire toward a trend that supports their own objectives.

Apple wants to sell devices, Microsoft wants to sell applications that are going to work on all (wink) devices and Oracle (yes, he said Oracle) wants you to believe that only the data really matters.

The event ended with a major challenge to companies and particularly those of us in IT:

Give your users the tools they need to meet the increasing demands you are placing on them.

I don’t know who offered the suggestion that problem facing practitioners is to find a way to meet technical, cultural, and procedural challenges in an integrated manner – and to meet those challenges quickly. Of course, the panel members quickly added that meeting those challenges isn’t really a new task.

Q & A – Reflections After a Week on Stage

clip_image002This week began with me playing straight-man to Jill Hart in a presentation on User Experience to the CT Project Management Institute’s conference. The fun part of presenting as an employed end-user is that I get to talk about the things we did wrong, or in this case, the things we didn’t get right until the second attempt. I told my story and Jill talked about what I did wrong (at first) and what I did right (eventually). Although I was trying to get off the stage to let Jill work the room, I got a question about the process we had worked to automate. If you’re familiar with this blog, I’m talking about our loss-control inspections. A young woman asked me “why do people have to create agendas? Couldn’t your process start by generating a suggested agenda of inspection items?” I explained that while we do have inspection guidelines, the nature of our business doesn’t lend itself to a fully-scripted process, but I honestly thanked her for the question. That’s an example of the kind of questions we simply have to ask – “is there a way I could make this process even better?

The very next day, I gave the presentation I talked about last week, the Career Day presentation to our local high school. We didn’t have a big crowd, but I verified that every guy and each of the two girls all wanted a technology-based career. One of the questions that I was asked was “what do you like most about your job?” This came after I had shown a slide of about seven things I like about my job and a slide of the single thing I hate – meetings – but the answer I gave the young man wasn’t on the slide. I like learning new things, I like that I was able to build an app for my iPhone, I like playing conducting research with new technology, but the thing I like most is solving problems. A love of problem solving is what originally sent me to college to be a chemist. Solving problems with technology is what I appeared to be better at than chemistry, and for 35 years, that’s what I’ve been doing for a living. SharePoint is simply the latest in a long list of technologies that I have been able to bring to bear on the problems presented to me.

Thursday, AIIM New England held its first event in Connecticut in recent memory. Steve Weissman led a spirited discussion around the mission of AIIM and the local chapter. We had so many interested people in the room, that we are already planning a CT meeting in the upcoming chapter year. I was batting clean-up in this meeting by reprising a presentation I made at the AIIM Conference titled “Expand, Unlearn and Ignore.” I am not going to go through that here, but if you want to see it, I think it’s part of the Virtual Best of AIIM Conference on June 7th. The memorable question I received after that presentation is “what did you try before SharePoint (for content management)?” I get that question a lot, and I love answering it. I point out that I’ve been a systems developer throughout my career, so my first thought was “I can build that!” Then I explained how we did build a system for storing documents, and that we did include some cool features, including a controlled upgrade process (PDF(n) to PDF(n+1)) but that when it came to access and retrieval, we struggled to meet the needs of our coworkers. Whenever I do think of SharePoint’s weaknesses, I remind myself that SharePoint 2003 was better at navigation, search and web-based access than the system I built.

The question that I really enjoyed was when a woman asked about controlling content management in things like cloud-based solutions that our employees can download for free, or controlling the proliferation of smart phones and tablets that have spawned the term BYOD (bring your own device). You might think that I planted that question, because the answer was “I am so glad you asked that!

On May 23rd, the AIIM New England chapter is staging our final event of the 2011-2012 chapter year, and the topic of conversation is going to be “The Cloud, Mobile Content Management, and BYOD” – seriously, how cool is that? When I say conversation, I mean conversation. We have assembled a panel that includes: Roger Bottum – VP of Marketing, SpringCM; Christopher J Luise – Executive VP, ADNET Technologies and Marc D. Anderson – Co-Founder and President of Sympraxis Consulting. I have seen these guys give presentations on their own, and I can’t wait to see them together! This event will be held at the Marriott in Newton, MA, so if you’re in the greater Boston area (that includes CT, just sayin), join us and be part of the conversation. Oh, did I mention breakfast? I think that means there will be bacon.

Thank You

imageEarlier this week, I was honored to receive AIIM’s Distinguished Service Award at their Awards Dinner in San Francisco. I can’t begin to describe how great it felt to receive this award, especially since I truly believe that I receive so much more from AIIM than I give back. I have enjoyed and benefited from AIIM programs, AIIM NE Chapter events, AIIM Education and the friendship and support of some of the nicest, most professional people I have ever met. I am particularly grateful to several people, and I want to thank them here today:

Ed LoTurcoEd nominated me for this award. Ed is retired now, but when I met him, he was the president of the AIIM New England Chapter. Ed’s accomplishments in the industry are too numerous to mention, and to be honest, I don’t know them that well. I know more about his tireless work to keep Lexington, MA a great place to live, his contribution to the lives of many hundreds of young track and field athletes that he coached, and his conquest of the grueling Pan Mass Challenge every year for as long as I can remember (if you want to join me in support for Ed, his rider ID is: EL0032). Mostly, I remember Ed from the first time I attended an AIIM NE meeting. I knew almost nothing about content management back then; I knew less about AIIM, and I felt out of place. But I only felt out of place for about a minute; Ed made me feel welcome. He explained the event, the chapter; the association and he introduced me to people who have been mentors and who have become friends. After Ed nominated me, the following three people supported my nomination with recommendations:

Jill Hart – I met Jill totally by chance at iPhone/iPad DevCon last year in Boston. Jill was attending with one of her clients, and it quickly became clear that Jill was knowledgeable and passionate about User Experience in everything. After a 30+ career in IT/Systems Development, I was only warming up to the notion that Usability Matters. I capitalized that because it’s also the title of an AIIM NE event where Jill and I gave a joint presentation last November. My coworkers should also thank Jill; without her infectious spirit, I would not be nearly as concerned about their experience in SharePoint and in the other systems we build.

Christopher Luise – I have known Chris for over 20 years. Like Ed LoTuco, Chris’s accomplishments in business are too numerous to mention. His accomplishments in the community are also almost too numerous to mention. He is serious about and seriously talented at making technology work in ways that add value to companies and benefit people. He is serious about mentoring the young people in a variety of fields, including one young person who is very important to me and my wife. Chris is Executive VP at ADNET Technologies, a company that has been instrumental in the success of technology at ANI almost as long as I’ve been working there. Chris and I are not related, but he shows up in my contacts and social media listings under the heading of ‘family’.

Jane Zupan – I met Jane at an AIIM NE event shortly after she had transferred to New England. In an attempt to emulate Ed, I reached out to Jane to try to make her feel welcome to our Chapter. I was fascinated by her marketing work with Nuxeo, and she and I have been friends ever since. Last fall, I was asked to make a presentation at the University of Connecticut on the subject of content management. The UConn audience was considering SharePoint, but also wanted to know more about Open Source solutions. This wasn’t a sales opportunity, it was only an opportunity to educate people, but Jane drove down from Boston to join me in that presentation.

George Turner – I would be remiss if I didn’t include George, President & CEO of American Nuclear Insurers. George assigned the task of content management to me back in 2001 which sent me to AIIM and Ed, and the start of this journey. Given our disparate backgrounds and responsibilities, George once suggested that I probably don’t learn much from him. To the contrary, I learn by his example, every day about decision making, the importance of planning and doing the right thing. Most important, I have grown while working for George; I hope the people in my department can say that about me.

Notice the connections, the common threads, the way these people seem like a close knit group despite the fact that most of them don’t know each other? I am blessed to have these people in my life, and I sincerely appreciate their support and friendship.

Two Days in the Dark

clip_image002I’ll start by saying that, all things considered, we were very lucky last week. Although our little state endured the effects from an earthquake and a hurricane in the same week, most of the people I know are faring pretty well. The worst thing that happened was a sustained loss of power in the town where our office is located. We lost power early Sunday and it wasn’t restored until late Tuesday afternoon. Glastonbury, CT is on the east side of the Connecticut River, and their power grid is supplied by an extension cord running across the Rt-3 Bridge to an outlet near the McDonalds in Wethersfield, CT. We lose power all the time in Glastonbury, but never for this long.

I mention the earthquake, even though the effects were insignificant by east coast standards and, apparently, laughable by west coast standards, for two reasons. One, we aren’t used to earthquakes here in the northeast. Two, we are an insurance company, so earthquakes are something we take seriously. Along that same line, this isn’t hurricane country either – the last hurricane to make landfall in CT was Hurricane Gloria in 1985. Ironically, Gloria landed about a week after I opened my cabinet shop; the first of many bad signs for that business venture. The earthquake came as a surprise; the hurricane came with adequate warning, so in addition to be spared significant damage, we were about as prepared as you could be. Still, the prolonged power outage was a surprise and there are a few things we learned that others might find helpful.

Alternate Access – We have access to our incoming email, via a cloud-based archive, but there is a delay involved that renders email useless for rapid communication. We used a company contact feature on our public website to exchange personal email addresses, which did speed things up quite nicely. In the future, we will maintain those email addresses. Our public website has always been hosted off-site, specifically so we can communicate during a “building emergency.” The requests submitted via the “Contact Us” form go to a hosted email address, so the whole process is separate from our domain network and infrastructure. In retrospect, that seems to have been a good decision. We also maintain a conference calling and web meeting service in addition to the ones we manage on our own.

IM – Text messaging was the communication tool of choice for many people. Short messages are easy to handle, force you into being succinct and don’t use a lot of that precious commodity – cell phone battery life. In a serendipitous twist, we had just released an iPhone app that included personal cell phone numbers for most of our employees and the option to initiate an SMS message. We decided to store the data locally in this app, just in case travelling employees find themselves without access to our network. That decision also seems to have been validated this week.

Vendors You Can Rely Upon – I have written many blog entries where I espouse the concept of having a good relationship your critical vendors. We have a great relationship with our infrastructure vendor, and this was the kind of event where that pays off. I emailed my contact at 4:14 am on Tuesday, when I realized that the power might be out long enough to consider making alternate arrangements. By 6:03 am, I had a preliminary set of options to consider. By 7:28 am, arrangements were being made to acquire and pre-stage off-site backups so they could set up a remote office for us. A room had been set aside, computers had been tagged and people had been notified that we might be building a network Tuesday night. We ended-up not needing that option, but it was a huge relief knowing that it was available!

SharePoint Workspace – Suffice it to say, some of us will be taking a second look at this product in the near future. The idea of carrying critical SharePoint content around with me seems like it might be worth considering. If you’re thinking “I bet he wished he had moved to Office 365,” take a look at my thoughts from last year on cloud computing. Several things have changed since I wrote that post, but I’m still comfortable with my conclusion. Our Internet speeds are higher; our leverage with cloud vendors is the same or worse. I mention that last bit, because when Amazon’s cloud services were down for two days, I’m guessing that the little guys got a partial refund instead of an “all hands on deck” response.

We made it through two natural disasters in less than a week, and we are not really any worse for the experience. We have learned some lessons, and we have several things to attend to. Lessons learned; it’s more than a catchy buzz-phrase; it’s how you prepare for the next big event. Because the sidebar story will disappear with the next blog post, I’m including a shout-out to ADNET Technologies today. These guys are flat-out awesome!

According to Plan

I had the perfect idea for this week’s blog. I was going to segue from my comments about SPTechCon into a discussion of the other places at which I will be speaking about SharePoint, as well as the reasons that people using SharePoint need to help sell SharePoint. Well, it turns out, one of those speaking engagements needed to be cancelled. My message, about how much you can do with SharePoint out-of-the-box, didn’t mesh with the event sponsor’s product line. I wasn’t bothered by this, my job does not depend on my selling SharePoint or selling my SharePoint expertise or experience – my job depends on making SharePoint work. That brings me to my second idea for this blog entry.

Over the course of the last three weeks, I talked about a solution I “developed” for our internal SharePoint server’s main page. The collection of calculated columns, instructions and workflows places our Recurring Calendar Entries at the ragged edge of acceptable solutions. One of my problems with the “answer” we came up with is the difficulty in replicating and documenting SharePoint Designer workflows. Once again, I thought that I would build on that concept and talk about the way SharePoint Designer 2010 solves some of those problems. That did not go according to plan either, but it is still an important topic.

One of my favorite features in SharePoint 2010 is the addition of Visio Services. The ability to display Visio diagrams, especially diagrams linked to live data for people to view in a browser is awesome. The ability to combine the power of well designed diagrams with the data they represent can lead to some powerfully informative pages. Separating the Model from the View not only reduces the number of Visio licenses required, it is the right approach to development. The thing I like most about Visio services in SharePoint 2010 is the ability to design workflows in Visio and the ability for SharePoint Designer 2010 to import/export workflows to Visio. This solves one of the problems I have with workflows – documentation. Not only does exporting a workflow to Visio create instant documentation, it allows you to maintain the workflow. Well, it would, if it worked. I have to look up and remind myself that this blog includes things we “attempt” and things we “find frustrating”, this is one of those things. I am not sure if the problem is with the Release Candidate version of SharePoint Designer 2010 I downloaded, or my laptop, but when I export a workflow to Visio, Visio cannot open the file.

SharePoint Designer 2010 exports a *.vwi file (essentially a Zip file), or a Visio interchange file containing yourWorkflow.vdx and a few xml files describing the guts of the workflow. Unfortunately, when I export a workflow, the resulting *.vwi file does not include the *.vdx file. As a result, the diagram of the workflow I developed for replicating Calendar entries is not available to show in this blog 😦 .

While this glitch may have helped derail that perfect blog entry, I’m not worried. Either my tech guy or Microsoft will figure out the problem I am having with SharePoint Designer, and this feature will be ready for prime-time when we go live with SharePoint 2010. We will be able to document, maintain and replicate our workflows. Also, since SharePoint 2010 supports Reusable Workflows, I may be compelled to expand greatly the places where we use workflows instead of turning to a developed solution – that is good news!

While I am sharing good news, I’ll briefly mention two things I like that I discovered about SharePoint Designer 2010 while recreating the workflow I spoke about in the previous series. Workflow variables are now explicitly typed. Being a Smalltalk developer, you would think I would argue against explicit typing, but if your development environment doesn’t really deal with dynamically typed variables, you should have the opportunity to specify that ‘NewDays’ is a Date/Time variable. The other thing I noticed is that you now have the ability to control your selection of list items. If you read my earlier series, you may recall that I found it easier to continue working with the Current Entry than to try to find the entries that my replication workflow was creating. SharePoint Designer 2010 gives you several ways to select the entry from the list you are working in during the course of the workflow.

Back to the original idea for this blog, later this week, I will be speaking at an event called WorkSmart 2010, a day of educational sessions and technology demonstrations presented by ADNET Technologies. ADNET is our VAR and I have spoken about them before in this blog. If you are in the New York – New England area, they are a vendor you definitely should check into.

Making it Work In-house

In the previous two posts, I wrote about why we aren’t interested in Cloud-based storage for SharePoint/ECM and why we have not yet been impressed with SaaS solutions. One of the marketing points of both those offerings is that small companies can’t afford to take care of the myriad requirements of properly operating something as sophisticated as SharePoint for ECM and collaboration. Obviously, we disagree. So, how do we do it? Simple; good people, good attitude and good people, and when necessary, good people. Seriously, I am talking about four things, read on.

The first group of good people is our in-house staff. I am not going to brag, but I will say we are serious about understanding the technology we use. We know what SharePoint can do, and if you read this blog, you know we understand our business. The key to SharePoint success is aligning capabilities with business requirements. We design solutions that work and we only let capable people build those solutions – no sprawl, no deserted sites, and no quick and dirty answers. While this approach speaks to our attitude, it does not define it. Unlike the “IT Folks” getting bashed at AIIM Expo, we are not trying to be “Mordac, the Preventer of Technology” from Dilbert. we are committed to delivering the software and services our company needs.

Of course, good people with a good attitude can only do so much. When we reach the limits of our knowledge, our time, or our experience, we call ADNET Technologies. ADNET is a consulting firm, but we consider them an extension of our staff; what we can’t do, they can. We have been working with these guys forever. We were their first customer, and they have supported us through DOS, OS/2, Windows, Exchange, OCS, everything else Microsoft and more. In fact, one of the few cloud-based services we use, electronic backup, is a service they provide. We don’t use it because we do business with them; we use it because it is a great model, and they customized the service to meet our requirements. The really cool thing about ADNET is the way they work with us. For instance, one of my staff members wanted to be more hands-on with SharePoint; he wanted to build-out our test server. They are fine with that, but if something happened to it, they would still support it.

Wait, what about those other people? Well, there are several; we augment the capabilities our staff and ADNET with other vendors and specialists as necessary. I wrote about one of these a few weeks ago. TotallyObjects is helping us develop an interface to SharePoint’s web services, from our development environment. We also use a myriad of services from AT&T. So, why am I willing to partner with outside vendors but reluctant to recommend partners in the cloud? Simple, our partners are real, local people! These aren’t vendors chosen at random, they were carefully selected and they have worked hard to establish mutually beneficial relationships with our company. We work with ADNET, but I call Bill, or Chris, or Tim. We are small, and we are a small client of theirs, but we never feel that way. I don’t suffer the lack of leverage with them that I do with cloud-based vendors. I don’t suffer that with AT&T either, because I have an Account Representative who treats us like we have 10,000 lines.

Cloud-based services brag about scalability and flexibility, but my experience is that they define those terms before talking to their customers. The people we work with talk to us, learn about our business, understand our business requirements and then begin defining terms. You may have noticed a consistent theme as you read this – requirements. Understanding, and satisfying business requirements is the key to success, not only with SharePoint, but whenever you are providing business services. That’s why we have chosen to avoid the cloud-based solutions; quite simply, we have better options available locally.