How Do You SharePoint?

clip_image002Maybe I’m missing a verb in the title, or maybe “to SharePoint” has meaning, suggests action of a sort or at least makes a few of us shake our heads. I left out the verb, because I’m not sure what the right one is. How do you “use” SharePoint, “get rid of” SharePoint, “stop bad SharePoint sites from spreading like kudzu?” “get the most out of” SharePoint, “teach people how to use” SharePoint, and so on. Do you have answers for any of those questions? Do you live in New England? Can you spare some time on Wednesday, November 13th? There’s a lot of questions, but if you can answer a few of them, join some of your New England neighbors in Cambridge, MA on the 13th – share a snack, share some coffee and share your answers, or at least your reactions.

On November 13th, the New England Chapter of AIIM (AIIMNE) will hold our second educational event of the program year and, no surprise, it’s focused on SharePoint. In case you aren’t aware, AIIMNE is doing events differently this year – well sort of differently. AIIMNE events have always been fairly lively, with a healthy amount of audience participation. This year, we decided to tap that energy and add some value for our members in the process. Each event is organized to encourage that audience participation and we are then publishing a white paper from the event. To get an idea of how this works, check out the white paper from our first event, where we focused on handling secure and confidential information amid an always connected always sharing workforce. Go ahead, download that report, it’s free and we aren’t even asking for your email address.

For this next event, we arranged for Marc D. Anderson, Co-founder and president of Sympraxis Consulting, Derek Cash-Peterson from Blue Metal Architects and Russ Edleman, president of Corridor Company to join us to get things started. Between them, these guys have seen just about every kind of SharePoint or SharePointery there is (hey, if we’re making up words). Steve Weissman, President of the Holly Group will be on hand to facilitate the discussion, should that be necessary; our audiences have a tendency to fire at will. Not to worry, our speakers are adept at crowd control.

What’s the goal? Well, besides gathering fodder for our next Event Experience report (as we call them), I hope to learn something. I hope to hear about ways of using SharePoint that I haven’t considered. I hope to return to work on Wednesday afternoon with a head full of ideas that will keep me busy until the next SharePoint event. I’ve heard some of these guys speak before, so if I’m going to get a head full of new ideas, I need you to be in the room. I want to hear your SharePoint Story (ooh, there’s a catchy name).

If you’re planning to join us, we will be at the Microsoft building at 1 Cambridge Center. It’s the one in the picture up in the corner. It’s not the building at 1 Memorial Drive. It’s a great facility and the Chapter truly appreciates being able to use it. We will also be using Microsoft’s Internet connection so if you can’t be in Cambridge, consider joining us on-line as we stream the event live. We stream a mix of presentations and video and we do our best to submit the comments and questions from our remote audience into the discussion in the room. You can read or share this event with others at the Chapter website, and if you are ready to sign-up, you can do that over at Eventbrite. But wait, there’s more. If you register by November 1st, enter the discount code “sharepointstories” and save $5. Thanks for reading!

For the Children

imageLast Tuesday, in a post on my AIIM blog, I described my effort to begin crafting an Information Policy that will apply to one of our most recent SharePoint solutions. Eventually, I hope to have a collection of these policies bundled into a comprehensive information policy for our company. That may not happen in the 5 to 7 years that remain before I retire, but I’ve heard that it’s good to have goals. This first attempt was presented to the department earlier this week and the draft was well received, even after I explained that most of the work that remains will fall to them. We moved onto the other agenda items, but we kept coming back to the information policy, and I began to realize just how important this document is going to be. The point where this became most clear was well into the meeting when one person asked

“…how is this [SharePoint site] really any different than the K: drive?

It’s not the first time we’ve been asked this question in the years that we have been trying to move our content from shared folders to SharePoint, but this was perhaps the easiest it has ever been to answer that question.

“It’s different because we can answer three questions for every document on this site that we can’t usually answer for content on the K: drive:

1) Why did we create this document?

2) Who was involved in its creation and disposition?

3) Why did we keep it?”

The inability to answer those three questions is why most of the content on the K: drive will end up staying there. Once the shared drives become read-only; it will take a lot of effort to explore the content and answer those questions. That task will get even harder when the people who were here as those documents were created retire. The loss of tacit knowledge has already begun to affect our ability to classify older documents, without reading them and without a little guess work, and it’s only going to get worse.

One of the tasks that this group has to accomplish is to move a lot of historic content into the site we created for them. This effort will be guided by the information policy, and the experience will help them refine the policy. A good example of how this will work came as we demonstrated Boost Solutions’ Classifier product for them. I’ve written about this product before, but in a nutshell, it lets you quickly tag and process a lot of content that has similar qualities. We stumbled upon two documents that looked like good candidates, a draft contract from a vendor and a list of changes that our staff had proposed. Before we could process these, the head of the department asserted that “we should not keep these, because, in this case we only care about the final contract” which we also had. This led to a short discussion of the kinds of documents where we want to keep drafts and review commentary and the kinds of documents where we don’t. This distinction mapped well to the library structure we had created and there was a placeholder section in the draft information policy for that kind of management decision to be documented.

Other elements of the policy are equally important for helping future employees answer those three questions. For example, there is a section titled Definitions. In the draft of that section, I included the words, library names and metadata elements that need to be clearly defined. Two library names that I included were Internal Communication and External Communication – why do we need to define these? Well, maybe we could live with one definition, but are we talking about external to the company or external to this function? Another definition was a word we have all seen too many times in business, “stakeholders” – when does someone we do business with become a stakeholder? That’s important because it’s a metadata term used in a lot of places, and if stakeholders are involved, the apparent importance of the document increases.

In our board meetings at the New England Chapter of AIIM, we often describe a documentation task as being necessary “for the children.” In other words, we are taking the time to document something that we figured out, but that future board members shouldn’t have to. That’s the difference between managed content and a bunch of files in a shared folder. That’s why you create information policies and that’s why you pay attention to the definitions, guidelines and clear instructions that people include in that very important document. Of course, the policies can change, so when they do, the document should be revised.

CIP – Attained

clip_image002In a recent conversation on LinkedIn, a member raised the question of whether or not a person could have too many certifications. Her concern was that one might start to appear as a “jack-of-all-trades”, and I assume she was hinting at the disparaging follow-on to that phrase “…and master of none.” Well, I can’t be accused of having too many certifications; in fact I just received my very first. AIIM’s Certified Information Professional designation has been on my wish list since I first heard John Mancini mention it at an AIIM New England Chapter event in Concord, MA, but it remained elusive until last week. I took the exam on Monday and I am happy to report that I passed.

Why? – I have never put much stock in Certifications, mainly because I’ve seen so many bad practitioners who hold many, and because I have been privileged to work with some exemplary professionals who hold none. Of course, there are many, many people that fall between those extremes, but I’ve always felt that having the certification was at best an interesting side-note. The other thing that bothers me about most technology certifications is that they are tied to a specific technology. Information management – a.k.a. the stuff I’ve been doing throughout my career – has been merely supported by specific technologies. That’s what I like about the CIP; it’s an affirmation that the holder understands a broad body of knowledge that is agnostic of specific technologies. The CIP feels like the certification that represents the work that I do. I like the idea that there IS an accepted body of knowledge governing this industry and I feel good saying that I understand the fundamentals – in other words – I’m not making this stuff up.

Why now? – I guess there are two ways to answer this question. The cheeky way would be to point out that the CIP is relatively new, and I took the exam as soon as I could. There is some truth to that answer, but the second answer recognizes that it’s important to send the message that you’re never too old to learn, and it’s never too late to improve that which you have been doing “well enough” for years. My goal was actually broader than those answers. I hope that I can use this experience to help others understand that “information management” is not a technology, is not dependent on any one technology and handling information well is everyone’s job regardless of the technology in use.

Why AIIM? – Because that’s where the certification is. Sorry but this reminds me of an episode of M*A*S*H in which Hawkeye was told by a woman that there was a well for water about 2 miles away. He exclaimed “how can you do that?” (Walk 2 miles for water) and she replied: “Because that is where the water is” – Seriously though – why not AIIM? Who better to decide what a represents a broad look at information than the people who do that for a living? I’ve disclosed on numerous occasions that I’m an AIIM Professional Member, a member of the Board of the AIIM New England Chapter and, as of 1/1/13, a member of the Board of AIIM International. You are free to draw lines between me and AIIM and the CIP and this blog post, but make sure you put the arrowheads on the right end of those lines. I have chosen to become more involved with AIIM because I support the mission of the Association and I appreciate the quality of the products and services produced by the highly talented AIIM staff. This isn’t like “I got my MCSE Certification because my employer requires it.” This is “when my employer asked me to take on this responsibility, I turned to AIIM for education. Now, I am proud to be able to say that I meet their standard.” In fact, I’ve been writing this blog for over 4 years, and that sentiment has always been in my profile – go ahead and look, it’s in there.

Should you get your CIP? – I can’t answer that, but I will say that I think it is going to be a meaningful certificate. It seems to be gaining traction. The Department of Labor recognizes it, and some employers have started to list it as a qualification. The more important question is “do you understand why there are document management features in SharePoint?” “Do you understand the difference between Content Management and Records Management?” Actually there are plenty of questions like that; 100 will be on the exam. Maybe you should see for yourself if this is a certification you would like to have.

Will This Be On the Exam

clip_image002Earlier this week, I took a CIP Exam Preparation class conducted by Steve Weissman of The Holly Group. At some point, I’ll swing around to the Certified Information Professional and my reason for pursuing this certification, but today I am busy being reminded of something Steve said during our class:

What problem are you trying to solve and who are you trying to solve it for?

I don’t think this will be a question on the exam, but Steve circled back to this concept about 50 times as he wove Content Management best practices into the exam preparation class. I was reminded of this notion as soon as I returned to work, where I had a SharePoint related request waiting for me. The request was a simple one; I was being asked to create a document tracking site for one of our claims. In the past, this request might have made me sigh a little, but upon reflecting on Steve’s wisdom, I actually smiled.

The reason I might have sighed in the past, is that we have gone to great lengths to make these sites easy to build. The sites are created from a template, and there are a few easy-to-create list entries that also have to be made. Once the lists are updated, time can be charged (this is a site for lawyers), reports can be produced (when you have lawyers, can accountants be far behind?) and events can be scheduled. Once the site is created, documents can be stored in about 13 different libraries. While not self-provisioning, we have long thought that this was a task our claims people could do themselves. On the other hand, as I have pointed out several times on this and other blogs, I have to remember that “they have a day job” and that it isn’t to administer SharePoint.

I’m not sure if Steve meant for his mantra to be used in this manner, but I see it as containing a feedback mechanism. The first part of the question “what problem are you trying to solve?” is modified by the act of answering the second part. In fact, depending on who you identify as the solution-seeking party, the problem can take on a radically different form. In my case, if I were the person I was trying to solve the problem for; the goal would be to make the claim and site creation process more intuitive, more automated and to put it on rails for the end users. However, since the person in that position is one of our attorneys, he just wants the site to be created. The solution to that problem is much easier to provide, assuming that I am the one providing it. Since we work for the same company, the real question is “what is the most efficient way to create a new claim site?” For a variety of reasons, the answer is “…have someone in Information Services create the site.”

One of the other things that Steve emphasized in his class is that “none of this is technology!” This isn’t a SharePoint problem. This is a case management problem, an accounting problem, a scheduling problem and a compliance problem. SharePoint is the underlying technology on which we (information services) decided to build the solution(s) to these problems. SharePoint was a good choice, because it actually is capable of supporting all the collection, storage, management and distribution tasks (finally, something that will be on the exam) required to solve the business problem. Solving the business problem is the goal; we are solving the problem by using SharePoint so life is good. The fact that the SharePoint solution could be different, and that the tasks could be completed by other people is irrelevant – in this case.

If we were creating 10-15 sites a day, and if the availability of information service personnel to create those sites was in short supply, we might need to invest in making the provisioning process easier. If we did that, and 50% of the sites were being created incorrectly, we might need to make the process more exact. On the other hand, if no two claims were ever alike, we might have wasted our time building a template. In fact, since 2006, when we started building these sites, we have created six different templates. It’s not as bad as it sounds; each new template incorporated a simple modification to the site created by the previous template. The moral of the story is: “once you answer your questions, check to see that the answers are still correct.

Since the Mayans Were Wrong

clip_image002I guess I need to write another blog entry. Actually, this is an easy one, unless I want to try my hand at interpreting the signs around me. I’m not good at recognizing the obvious, let alone the future, but I can predict one thing; this is the last blog entry for 2012. The world didn’t end, but I am giving myself and my editor (wife) a week off. So you can check back on January 5th 2013 for the next update. Coincidently, the post on January 5th will be the 200th SharePoint Story – that’s pretty cool. I may not be a prognosticator, but maybe I can make some sense of history.

When I started this blog, I was planning for others to contribute the stories. I thought that might be interesting, and I didn’t think I had 200 stories to tell, I wasn’t sure I had 6 stories to tell. Apparently, I underestimated myself, and the interest level in ordinary stories about SharePoint in use. As I look at the statistics about this blog, the #1 story of all time remains SharePoint of My iPad, and it represents just under 5% of all the stories ever read! Ironically, the second most popular post is No iPad For Me, a.k.a. the worst prediction I ever made. The timing of those two posts, (Feb 2010 and April 2011) would indicate that Microsoft was about two years too late to the market with Windows 8 (I bought my iPad in Oct-Nov 2010). My Top-5 posts include another curious pair, one deriding the value of email (Task vs. Email vs. Task) and one of several posts ridiculing the use of Excel as a means of tracking a list of items (Excel v. Custom Lists). I have attacked email and Excel multiple times, and I still think SharePoint will ultimately defeat those two stalwart competitors, but I think I will be retired before that day arrives. Rounding out the Top-5, sitting comfortably at #4, is a story about our first formal encounter with Marc D. Anderson (Symply the Best).

I guess if I really wanted to ramp up my stats, I’d make that 200th post “Why Marc Anderson thinks Excel and email will ultimately be replaced by SharePoint running on an iPad.” Fortunately, I don’t care about stats (but if Marc ever said that, I’d pay attention). Every now and then, someone says something nice about this blog, and that’s usually enough to keep me writing. If you are wondering what you can expect to find here in 2013, the answer is: “more of the same.” I once described SharePoint as an empty building next to a highway ramp, and in our case, there is still room for a lot of new tenants. During the last quarter of 2012, we made plans and promises for several new projects and we are receiving some very good feedback on the initial activities around those solutions. I will continue to share the things we learn from our attempts to bring those projects to fruition, including the misadventures when we or Microsoft get things wrong.

You can also expect me to mention the people, products and organizations that we like. Most of those can be found on the “Who We Like” page, but I realize that I left BA Insight off that list. We use their Longitude Search product and it was a pleasure dealing with them when we made that decision. I hope to make that page a little more attractive (that shouldn’t be hard) because people do ask me about products, services and vendors, but I am still trying to avoid advertising on this blog.

I will periodically make a promotional comment about AIIM, and I will blatantly support, endorse and encourage you to participate in the events of the New England Chapter of AIIM. As always, I want to be transparent here. As you can see at the top of this page, I am the Program Director for AIIM New England. What you may not know is that as of January 1, 2013, I will also be serving on the Board of AIIM International. I’m psyched about that opportunity because I strongly believe that the educational opportunities provided through AIIM, the AIIM Conference, the AIIM Community and the network of Chapters is the best and most cost-effective way to build a proper foundation for the things we build on SharePoint.

Thank you for visiting this blog and for sharing your comments here and on the various social media outlets where we interact. I hope you are having a wonderful holiday season and I wish you the very best in 2013!

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.

AutomatePeopleVisaCharge

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.