ECM is an Activity not a Product

imageLast week the AIM New England Chapter held an event with the goal of trying to figure out how people are using SharePoint. You can read about the event, the discussion and the wisdom the expert speakers shared in the Event Experience Report, but I want to talk about a note found on page 6:

One person described a decision to move a customer facing solution out of SharePoint because the customers were not interested in the features SharePoint has to offer. The solution has evolved into a ‘content publishing’ solution and management feels that there are better platforms than SharePoint on which to build such a solution.”

I’ll confess to being that person. Are we giving up on SharePoint? No. Is our content management program changing? Yes.

When we first began using SharePoint in 2006, we liked what we saw. While we were struggling to figure out how to best use the product in-house, someone asked if we could use SharePoint to exchange documents, information and perhaps collaborate with some of our customers and business partners. As you might expect, good little techies that we were / are, we jumped at the chance to add a second farm and build an Internet-facing SharePoint server.

We developed solutions. We formed pilot groups. We tested, tweaked, added and perfected features and we held training events. We met with our customers and we spoke with our coworkers and what we heard was that our customers don’t need SharePoint. Our customers want to share files, and share is 90% retrieve and 10% submit. Do the math, there’s nothing left for “collaborate on” or “construct a process around” or any of the other things we have been trying to get people interested in. That’s OK! We understand serving customers, and we don’t want to make customer service harder than it needs to be.

But wait a minute. If we already have SharePoint, why abandon it? SharePoint can certainly be used to share files with people over the Internet.

That’s true, but we’re not in 2006 any longer. SharePoint can be made to be a simple repository of shared documents and SharePoint can certainly handle segregating and protecting private documents while also providing access to public documents, but so can lots of other products. It is one thing to put some effort into SharePoint to create a solution that looks, feels and acts like a more expensive product. It’s quite another thing to put some effort into SharePoint to make it look, feel and act like a less expensive product. Sometimes, SharePoint just isn’t the right answer.

One of the problems with technology and the notion of businesses adopting technology, is that technology changes. One of the most important responsibilities of an IT group is to make and to keep other people aware of what those changes are and what those changes mean to the already adopted solutions. A critical element of that understanding is the fact that installed solutions are not free. We cannot look at something that was developed in and deployed on SharePoint and say “that’s done, let’s move on to something else” – systems, including the things we build in SharePoint, are never done.

SharePoint was the right platform in 2006 because it was just about the only affordable solution we had for securely sharing content over the Internet. We tried to take advantage of the platform, to offer more features and to entice people into turning file sharing into collaboration, but the demand isn’t there. I understand that, the underlying task isn’t a collaborative effort. The underlying task is a mature business process that doesn’t need to be “improved” by SharePoint or anything else. Now that there are simpler, less expensive solutions for securely sharing files over the Internet, it’s time to consider them. Guess what, they work and they work better than SharePoint.

They work better, and they are cheaper, because they are less capable and because they have been perfected toward a narrower goal. The solutions that we are looking at were born in the cloud; they don’t have to be migrated into the cloud. The solutions were born into a mobile world so they come with desktop apps and apps for every mobile operating system – good looking native apps! The people who built these solutions know what they are doing and they know what we need to do, so integration with Outlook is baked in, drag & drop integration with Windows is baked in, permissions, controls, auditing and reporting are all baked in. Yes, these are file-sharing only solutions, but when that’s all you need, that’s all you need.

We are still a SharePoint shop and this is still a SharePoint blog, but my focus has always been Enterprise Content Management. The title of this post is from a comment I made recently on a friend’s blog: ECM is not dead, but ECM is an activity, not a product. The ‘M’ in ECM is also a responsibility and it’s one that I take seriously.

FDMI

clip_image002I began driving in the era when Interstate highways were beginning to replace the convoluted network of US and State highways interconnected by local roads. One of the first major bits of Interstate to open up in western PA was I-79 between Bridgeville and Washington, PA a.k.a. “little Washington” so you didn’t confuse it with Washington, D.C. I-79 was an alternative to, but did not replace US Rt-19. Unfortunately for me, my father stood by Rt-19 as his first choice for any destination between our house and little Washington. I can remember his arguments, which varied between: “Rt-19 is actually shorter” to “by the time you deal with getting to and from the ramps, the highway isn’t that much faster” – I call results like that a Failure Due to Marginal Improvement (FDMI).

I have recently been reminded of those conversations with my dad, as I try to replace an Excel spreadsheet with a series of SharePoint lists. The issue is that we aren’t talking about replicating data; we are talking about changing, and hopefully improving the process that the data is associated with. The question is, are we doing enough.

The spreadsheet works – The current “system” in Excel doesn’t work well, but has the advantage that people know how it works. This is often the reason why people want to just move what they have into SharePoint, the thought is that they will still understand it. When we are replacing a list, we are often changing the way items are created, maintained and viewed. The result should be a better overall experience, but will it be good enough to offset the change?

Several weeks ago, Marc Anderson raised the question of whether form or function was more important. I suggested that the form-function ratio should never be less than 4:3, and this little project is an example why I think that is true. SharePoint lists are about as close to a database solution as you can get without invoking SQL, but we’re still talking rows and columns, and rows and columns are Excel’s forte. When you start moving Excel data into SharePoint, you create one or two (in this case three) Custom Lists. If you show the user an All Items view of their data in SharePoint, it’s going to look worse than it did in Excel. SharePoint doesn’t use its screen real estate as efficiently as Excel, and people who like Excel will pick up on that immediately.

The Excel-based solution I am replacing is a collection of observations and recommendations. Each row has details about the observations on the left, a huge column of text containing the observations in the center, and a series of recommendations on the right side of an A-X layout. The text is nearly unreadable and it is hard to stay on the same row as you scroll right to left, but the process is easy to understand. Read the details, read the text, write the recommendation.

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Moving to a data view web part of items, with options to expose the details in a second DVWP, the observations in another and the previous recommendations in a third, give us a composite view of each item in an easy to read format.

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I am planning to add an entry part to write the new recommendations, but that can wait. What we have so far is based on the initial discussion, and it’s time to check-in and show the results.

I’ve got one more concern as I get ready to touch base with the future owner of this solution. Since the stuff isn’t in the same “row” (it’s not even in the same list) he needs to have an increased level of trust in the underlying process. Sometimes it’s hard for people to accept that everything on that page is everything there is. Again, you gain that confidence in the spreadsheet visually; it’s not a pretty sight, but you can see it. I plan to walk the new owner through the process of building an entry from the ground up. By the time we come back to the composite page, he will know exactly what he should see. I’ve made that trip eight times, so I know it’s going to be a sweet ride. In addition to making it work, the user experience needs to be clearly superior to Excel if we’re going to avoid FDMI.

Is This Right

clip_image002Last week, I was talking about accuracy. This week, I learned that there is something more important than accuracy – confidence. We have been working on the design of a SharePoint solution that is both simple and complicated at the same time. Of course, we are concerned about accuracy, but the people using our system will have to feel confident that they have selected the information that they need. This isn’t a challenging SharePoint problem; this is a design issue, a usability issue and ultimately an adoption issue.

Our project involves a contact list. That’s simple, but it’s really about 10 contact lists, and since they need to be exposed on both an internal and an Internet-facing server, it’s really 20 contact lists. The “master” list is a group of people who serve on a variety of committees, and that’s the only list we want to maintain. The people come and go and the committee membership changes from year-to-year. We need to know who is on each committee today, we need to know who was on each committee 2, 3, 5 and perhaps 10 years ago, and we need to know this from multiple angles. For example, I might simply want to be able to contact the members of Committee A. On the other hand, if I’m about to meet one of the people on the list, I might want to know every committee he or she serves on. In yet another scenario, if a person is retiring, I might want to know every committee the person ever served on. We’ve cracked the list design issues, and with the help of HarePoint Workflow Extensions, we’ve cracked how to keep the lists in sync on the Internet-facing server. OK, so what is this confidence issue?

Let’s think about those scenarios again. In the first one, I want to see the names of the people who are currently serving on Committee A. Obviously, I could simply filter the list on a few columns to distill the contents down to right group. That would work, but while most people know how to do this, they don’t want to have to do it every time; that’s what views are for. Views, now this is where we start to get into trouble with usability.

Views are a fantastic feature within SharePoint, but neither lists nor views scale very well. That’s not to say that you can’t put a ton of items in a list, or create a bunch of views, but sooner than later the results are untrustworthy. Once you get a couple of pages of items in a list, you have to resort to sorting or filtering to make it useful. Similarly, once you have 15 or 20 views on a list, the selection is equally unmanageable; in fact, a large selection of views might even be worse than a large collection of items. When I am setting sort and filter parameters, I know what I am doing; the trouble is that I have to be able to imagine the results as I proceed. When I choose a view, I am relying on someone’s ability to name a list intelligently. If I make the user figure out how to get the information they want, I put the burden of accuracy on them and it becomes a confidence issue.

There’s a very fine line between wanting my users to understand SharePoint and forcing them into a situation where they are uncomfortable. When they get to that point, they are going to ask someone else (maybe me) to get them the information they need, and at that point SharePoint and I have failed.

We have to find a way to tame a large list that can be rendered in a large number of ways. I can’t just substitute a bunch of input fields for a search or data view web part, that’s really no different than asking them to configure the raw list. I need to give them links and simple binary selections, coupled with a standard output format so they remain confident that they are getting what they want. Links like “Committee A Members” with a choice for “Current members only” or “Most recent five years” or “2000 – Present”. The output should be simple: Contact name (with a link to details), his or her role on the committee and the company they work for. I would argue that this kind of solution is the poster child for “perfect is the enemy of good enough” – making this process more elaborate, or the making the results fancier will only erode the confidence of the average user.

The simplest contact list that we have ever prepared, is rendered from our annual Policyholder Meeting survey, it’s a dirt-simple list: “Who’s Golfing on Thursday”, and it’s an absolute favorite among my coworkers.

Good Sales – No Surprises

clip_image002I’m so sick of the election coverage that I was actually happy the other day when the local NPR station switched to their fall fundraising during my morning commute. I also realized that it was time to change the audio source for my radio. The car is still sort of new, but I thought I was comfortable with the controls for the radio. I switched input devices a couple of times and Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Halley Came to Jackson” started playing. I knew that the song was on the mix-CD my daughter had given me, and that that CD was in the slot, so life was good again. A few minutes later, “Crippled Inside” by John Lennon was playing and since I knew that song wasn’t on the CD, I started to wonder what was going on. To my surprise, the Bluetooth connection between my car and my iPhone also includes the ability for the car radio to fire up the music library on my phone – what a great idea! If you haven’t guessed, Mary Chapin Carpenter is a favorite and lives in all libraries.

Earlier this week, I was talking with one of our newer employees. He said that he was really becoming convinced that SharePoint was going to play a key role in his department’s effort to turn the pile of documents and their tacit knowledge into accessible information for future employees. However, he added that he wished it was easier to work with. His particular concern was the disparity between the ease of access to email while traveling and access to SharePoint. I asked him if he had the Harmon.ie app on his iPad and when he said “no”, I knew that I had a surprise for him. I told him about the basic feature that caused us to buy Harmon.ie, the ability to integrate SharePoint content with Outlook, and then I explained how Harmon.ie works seamlessly when you move from your laptop/desktop to your iPad – what a great idea!

This isn’t the first vehicle I’ve had that has had Bluetooth, but it’s the first time I bothered to pair my iPhone to the car; I was always happy with a Bluetooth earbud. Similarly, Harmon.ie has been available to our employees for over a year, but some have chosen to ignore the application. Behind both bad decisions is the fact that we often decide whether or not to use a particular technology based on what we think it will do for us. Part of the reason that we do that is the fact that there is a lot of technology, it changes fast and comprehensive solutions are no longer the norm.

Consider that most of the technology I have that deals with music is in the form of a single function iOS app. Before buying this car, the most complicated bit of music technology was the copy of iTunes on my Windows desktop (which Apple is gradually making irrelevant). By contrast, the radio in this car is so complex that its features require the bulk of the owner’s manual and a separate section of the car’s iOS app for description. I should mention that the car is a mid-range Jeep, and this is far from a tricked-out sound system. I am probably seeing an analogy with SharePoint here, because I see them everywhere, but I think it’s fair to say that very few people understand the full capabilities of SharePoint, especially where it has been tricked-out with a few add-ons. That’s where we (practitioners) have to get involved; we have to unveil the surprises.

The salesman who sold me this Jeep showed me the jack where I can connect an iPod. He should have said “I see that you have an iPhone, if you have music on it, you don’t even need a cable, and you will be able to control the music library using the radio’s features.” Similarly, when I’m selling SharePoint, I need to do a better job of pointing out its features, as well as those of Harmon.ie and Longitude Search. Whether that requires me to create more articles for that online newsletter I created, or schedule more training, or just walk around and talk to people; I need to peel back the cover a bit on SharePoint so people who won’t otherwise look get a glimpse of what lies inside.

In case anyone reading this feels that the real take-away from my surprise was that we have to build solutions that exploit their connections, stay-tuned – I’m still thinking about that.

No Train Wrecks Allowed

clip_image002Earlier this week On several occasions this past week, we were trapped inside a Mobius loop of inactivity due to failures of network equipment that resulted from the failure of some AC equipment as well as ill-timed changes to our DNS servers. Having tossed most of our technology eggs into the network basket, we limped along without phones, email, SharePoint and even access to our shared folders. Of course, we have contingency plans, but at what point do you pull the trigger on a change that requires relocating people? I can’t answer that, but I know it isn’t an amount of time that is measured in hours, unless something has been destroyed – enterprises, even small ones, just don’t move that fast.

I am counting on Microsoft to understand this fact about enterprises. Consumer pressure to respond to social, mobile and usability issues aside, they can’t expect to drag corporate America behind them at warp speed. The enterprise will turn about as quickly as the Enterprise. As we sit here today, looking at Windows 8, SharePoint 2013 and the next version of Office, we are in no hurry to adopt any of them. Sure there are machines here that are already sporting the Metro soon-to-be-named interface, but they are R&D items. In the past, we have been among the early adopters of new technology, but this time, we are likely to drag our feet – here’s why:

Mass – Despite the recent wave of annoying technical problems, our current configuration works pretty well. SharePoint, Lync, Exchange, SQL Server, and a whole bunch of systems that use those technologies are humming along. Those systems are talking to each other, and people are getting work done. Most of the job descriptions in my department include references to “staying current” and “researching emerging technologies” but the core requirement of every position’s job description is one that deals with “maintaining technology that is critical to company operations.” Watching over the past week as people lost phones, Internet access and email, I was reminded as to just how important that requirement is. The next generation solutions don’t only have to be released to manufacturing, I need to know that they all work, that they all work together well, and that they support our installed base of software and solutions. Given the speed at which Microsoft is remaking everything, I’m thinking we might not get to that one-big-happy-family state until a bunch of Service Pack 1’s are released.

Motion – Projects don’t stop when new releases are announced, even when the new technology will impact the solution being developed. For example, we are working on a SharePoint-based solution that is using the Mickey-Mouse method of enlisting workflows associated with multiple lists to iterate over the items in one list. SharePoint 2013 is said to support loops in workflows, but that doesn’t mean that we are going table this current project until we are on SP2013. One reason is that I don’t know if the way SharePoint will support loops will do us any good. A second reason is, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the feature get yanked out at the last moment. Finally, I have users waiting to use this solution. We may tweak our design to make it easier to change our workflows once looping is available, but for right now, it’s full speed ahead.

Here’s an example of how mass and motion combine to create momentum: prior to Microsoft announcing their upcoming slate (no pun intended) of tablets, we standardized on iPads. By standardize, I mean we put one in the hands of 2/3 of our employees, so that’s the mobile platform we have to work with through 2013. We have promised those same people a very specific app later this year, and I am still planning to build that app in xCode.

Planning – Microsoft might be reluctant to give me a roadmap that extends past the end of this year, but I have to give my boss one that stretches well into the future. In addition, I have to complete my 2013 budget request within 45 days. It was this time last year that we decided to buy those iPads, and when I think back, I didn’t see any reason why I should have made a different decision. So, looking ahead, I see continuing progress on using SharePoint to help us manage digital content and to improve the effectiveness of certain business processes. Our plans are based on what we know we can deliver during 2013. I stopped writing lists of accomplishments that begin with “due to the later than promised release of…” a long time ago. Our hardware, software, storage and bandwidth budgets will all be predicated on what we know (in September 2012) will happen in 2013.