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.

Welcome 2012…Reprise

clip_image002As far as years go, 2011 wasn’t one of the best. Personally, I started the year in the care of a physical therapist struggling to mend a shoulder injury. Turning to business, and keeping in mind the business that we are in (insuring nuclear power facilities), 2011 brought us a little bit of everything. Topping the list were the devastating events in Japan, and as the year comes to a close, our thoughts and prayers remain with the hundreds of thousands of people affected by the earthquake and tsunami in March. Closer to home, our domestic insureds had brushes with tornados, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Our offices were closed due to snow on three occasions and dark for a total of 5 days from storms Irene and Alfred. 2011 was also a year in which we seemed to make a technological bet against Microsoft. We agreed on a strategy that put an iPad in the hands of about one third of our key users and saw us solidify our support for iPhones. As I write this blog entry, I am watching my MacBook Pro receive files from my MacBook Air and those files include my XCode development environment. So, what is it that has this SharePoint guy looking forward to 2012? In a word, everything.

If you follow any of my blogs, you know that we made a lot of progress on several SharePoint projects in 2011. We are entering 2012 on a roll, and one of the first things we will do is showcase some of that success to others in our small company. In addition, when we placed our bet on Apple, we counted on Microsoft to see the light and support iOS too. On Christmas Eve, I had a conversation with a friend from his iPhone Lync client, four days later, that client was running on my iPhone too. Rumor has it that Office apps are not far behind, and that’s a good thing for me, for Apple and for Microsoft, at least according to my own informal research – the top story on this blog in 2011 was “SharePoint on My iPad!”

My optimism is bolstered by the awesome performance of my team. My Systems Admin took everything we had learned about SharePoint and the way we use this powerful tool, and built our SP2010 environment from the ground up to fit our needs like a well-made glove. The woman on our team, who has been responsible for the user experience of SharePoint, stepped forward from the confidence-infusing session we had with Marc Anderson, and crafted some awesome features for our engineers. More importantly, she helped demonstrate that SharePoint has a role in our future development. Again, my informal statistics would indicate that SharePoint as a development platform is a good thing for others as well – “Symply the Best” my post about our training session with @Sympmarc, sits nicely in the top-10 SharePoint Stories posts of all time.

For the non-SharePoint fans in my world, we will be hiring a new developer in 2012, and he won’t be focused on SharePoint. His (or her) job will be to replace an aging generation of applications that run our niche business. On the other hand, he won’t be able to escape SharePoint’s reach entirely. Our users have already told us that they want the things that SharePoint does well to reside in SharePoint. So, contacts, tasks, and documents will be in SharePoint; while workflow and reporting will walk the lines between fat-client, client server and a browser powered by SharePoint.

2011 started with what seemed to be a series of sharp divisions between Apple and Microsoft, SharePoint and desktop, and documents and structured content. 2012 is starting with all of those worlds beginning to coalesce around the concepts of information and solutions. That brings me to AIIM, the organization that has been predicting, nudging, supporting and cheering this merger on for years. Rounding out the list of (my) popular blog entries is a collection of stories that are grounded in the concept of Content-Centric Applications, the term introduced to me by Jane Zupan of Nuxeo that I have embraced as the model for my future. As we start to define and build our next generation applications, structured and non-structured data will share center stage. AIIM has anticipated this development and seems well prepared to help lead the way with a new certificate program, a new conference and, at least in our corner of the world, a renewed interest in chapter events. I won’t quote Mr. Scrooge and claim to be “as giddy as a schoolgirl”, but I am looking forward to 2012 and I wish you all a Happy and Prosperous New Year.

Is SharePoint Too…?

clip_image001Two great things happened this week. Thing one was that I managed to get my first iOS app deployed to my iPhone. Thing two was receiving an email from a satisfied SharePoint user. I can’t demonstrate the app here, but I can share the entire email with you:

     “Thanks, it’s looking good and easy to navigate

You have to admit, that is one sweet message. Here’s the thing though, the SharePoint solution that is looking good and easy to navigate is a large collection of Data View Web Parts, wired up with a bunch of custom XSL code. Why am bringing these two issues up in the same context? Because of the irony; let me explain.

Both solutions were hand-crafted, and both required about the same amount of code. The reaction I received when I completed the SharePoint solution is the first time one of our employees has used the words “easy” and “navigation” in the same sentence when speaking about SharePoint. On the other hand, I showed five people the iPhone app, and all five simply said “cool!” The iPhone app worked exactly like they expected it would. There are hundreds of thousands of iOS apps out there, and they all share a common and intuitive look and feel. That’s no accident, when I was writing the iOS app, I was following the iOS Human Interface Guidelines as provided by Apple on their Development Support Resource page. It is a well-known fact that if you stray too far from those guidelines, your app will never see a slot in the App Store. My app doesn’t have to be sold in the store, or vetted by Apple, but my users certainly expect an “iPhone experience.” My users never know what to expect from SharePoint.

We have delivered dozens of SharePoint solutions over the course of 5 or 6 years, and almost all of them have been well received by the users who rely on them. We have worked hard to make those solutions effective, efficient and acceptable to our users, but this might be the first time we tried to make a SharePoint solution look cool. SharePoint is big, capable, scalable and largely undefined. I once described SharePoint as vacant office space waiting to be built out the way the new tenants desired. If I had to rewrite that blog post today, I would extend the construction metaphor and add that “sadly, there is no building inspector on duty.” Let’s face it; it is very easy to make SharePoint look like crap. The fact that most of our solutions are out-of-the-box boring is my fault, but Microsoft has been my accomplice. SharePoint, like everything Microsoft owns and offers, has been growing in size, scope and complexity since it was released. Apple drives solutions to the simplicity side of the “Ease of Use” scale while Microsoft seems Hell-bent on extending the difficulty side of the scale.

Somebody recently asked me if I would be switching our users over to Windows Phone7. Seriously? Most of my coworkers jumped at the chance to trade in the Windows Mobile phone I was providing them for free for an iPhone for which I only reimburse them between $15 and $60 a month – oh, I’m one of them! When I asked the person “what possible reason would I have to switch them to Phone7?” they mentioned how well it works with SharePoint. The last thing my users want is to navigate out-of-the-box SharePoint pages on a miniature device. Ironically, the solution that garnered me that awesome email looks great and works perfectly on an iPhone; it looks awesome on an iPad; it just doesn’t look like SharePoint.

When I think about the future of SharePoint, I seriously doubt that any other company will come out with a comprehensive platform (there’s that word) that will dethrone SharePoint as king. That said, I could see a combination of easy to use solutions like Box.net running on phones and tablets putting a serious dent into SharePoint’s market share. We have a vested interest in SharePoint, and in Microsoft, as my reseller likes to point out: “I drank the Kool-Aid years ago.” We use Microsoft solutions for networking, email, voicemail, phone, Office, database and we have recently switched from the software development environment I love (Smalltalk) to Visual Studio. Every solution we have is more complicated than the solution it replaced, but every one offers enough benefit to make the effort worthwhile. Unfortunately, “Simplicity” isn’t in Microsoft’s vocabulary, but I worry that it will be the word of choice of our next generation users. In an attempt to prop up the value of Microsoft solutions, my team and I will continue to work to make those solutions look better than they want to look.

There’s an App for That

clip_image002Actually, there isn’t, at least that’s my opinion. I spent the bulk of the past week attending iPhone/iPad DevCon in Cambridge, MA. If this is sounding familiar, it’s because the conference was organized by BZMedia, the same wonderful people that bring us SPTechCon. When I attended SPTechCon last October, I decided I would skip this year’s eastern version in June, and begin my journey toward developing iPad apps by attending this conference instead. You see, we will be deploying iPads to several of my coworkers, and I think that we are going to want put some custom applications on those iPads at some point.

As you would expect, IPDevCon was amazing; great content, excellent speakers and a well-designed and well-orchestrated program. I attended classes on beginning programming in xCode, debugging, designing and (it seems) a thousand points in between. There were several consistent themes that were mentioned by many instructors. Given the nature of the iPhone, this really didn’t come as a surprise. One specific message that came through, loud, clear and often was “don’t fight the framework!” Apple provides some remarkable class libraries for handling everything from managing a table view to gesture recognition, and we were often being asked “do you really think you can write that code better than they did?” Another common question was “do you think you can create a better iPhone experience than Apple?

Since this is my SharePoint blog, let me try to adapt this lesson to SharePoint development. I could start by saying that Microsoft provides awesome tools and we would be silly to try to make SharePoint better than Microsoft made it. I could ask, in my best intimidating style “do you think you can provide a better SharePoint experience than Microsoft?” – OK, I guess I really shouldn’t start that way. On the other hand, Microsoft has given us a lot to work with; we could gain a lot by thinking of SharePoint as our iPhone, and applying an ‘App’ metaphor to the solutions we build. Here are a few guidelines we are trying to follow:

Use out-of-the-box stuff – There are a large number of great native features in SharePoint. Every time a user sees one of those in use, and says “I want something like that”, an easy answer follows. This is especially important if you want your users to be able to serve themselves. Either use features that they can build quickly or make your features self-provisioning. I know there are a lot of power users who want to push the envelope, but as I’ve written before, there are many, many more who simply want to do their day-job.

Focus on the user experience – I can already hear @JillBrainLogic laughing at my including this topic. Jill founded Brain Logic, and she is all about #UX, and IPhoneDevCon was all about the “user experience” and, to be honest, that’s not what I am known for. I like my users, but providing a good user experience doesn’t mean giving them everything they want. Most people can only imagine a world that is based-on, but a little better than, the world they live in. If you are introducing a disruptive technology like SharePoint, you have to be bold enough to suggest things that are right for your users. You have to work to understand their business process, and then use the tools that Microsoft gave you to improve that process. You have to bring to the table the things your users don’t yet know about. You probably can’t do that as well as Steve Jobs, but you can do all of that, with the User Experience in mind.

Advertise success – I didn’t attend many of the iPhone App marketing sessions, because I am hoping to write apps for our employees, but I realize that marketing is still involved. Implementing Content Management, or Business Process Management solutions involve changing behavior and my boss frequently reminds me that I have to be an agent of change. The best way to change peoples’ collective attitude toward SharePoint is to show-off how well it works. Show them “this really cool app” and get them to want it.

SharePoint isn’t an iPhone, but it is wildly successful, it has a large and passionate group of power users and practitioners and it can change the lives of the people who work with it. Microsoft isn’t Apple, we aren’t locked into a static, albeit awesome look and feel; we don’t have to seek approval for our solutions and we are not limited to a small number of (awesome) platforms. We can make SharePoint into anything we want, but I think we should temper our desire to make it our individual brand of SharePoint. As Owen Baern said here, let’s not reintroduce the problems SharePoint solved

Customer Service Rules

Yesterday, as I was riding our exercise bike at 4:30 AM, I noticed an offer to download the new Twitter iPhone app. I’ve been a little disappointed with TweetDeck lately so I thought I’d give this a try. At first, I was impressed that Twitter’s link took me right to the App store and initiated the transaction to download the app. A few seconds later, my free transaction was derailed by a demand from Apple that I accept the “new Terms and Conditions”. I said “OK”, since that was the only way I could continue. Then, I arrived at Page 1 of a 35 page agreement. My first thought shouldn’t be published here, but my second thought was “what if I treated my users like this?” No, this isn’t fantasy day, I realize my little two farm SharePoint installation is several orders of magnitude smaller than the iPhone App Store. Still, they have users, I have users. Each of our groups of users represent past, present and hopefully future business, so I think some level of comparison is valid.

Ironically, later in the day, one of our policyholders called me with a question about the SharePoint site that we established for her company. She described what she considered to be a problem with a document library on her site. I promised to research the issue and get back to her. What I discovered was a situation that was not actually a problem, but I could see how it could appear to be a problem. I explained this to our user, and then began thinking about how we could add some information to all of these sites, so other users would not be similarly confused. Had I began our conversation with “before we start, I’m going to have to ask you to agree to our new Terms & Conditions”, I might be looking for a new job today.

Obviously, I would never consider throwing a 35-page collection of self-serving terms in front of this, or any other user. That Apple, Facebook and other companies do take this approach illustrates their arrogance, and it hints of an attitude that says we must want their product or service bad enough to let ourselves be treated shabbily. That they get away with this treatment is both sad and temporary; I have already stopped trying to expand my presence on Facebook. The App Store is the only option for iPhone apps but the iPhone, once a game changer, is no longer the only game in town. My customer service experience with these businesses do not make me feel good. That makes me think about why I choose to do business with these companies and it makes me consider what I am asking my own customers to accept.
We all know the movie line “if you build it, they will come” but I am reminded of what my boss said during my annual review “now that you have built it, you have to maintain it” – he was referring to our customer portal on SharePoint. We need to consider customer service when we create SharePoint sites. It doesn’t matter if the “customers” are our coworkers, our business partners or actual paying customers. As SharePoint becomes our lobby, our information desk, our project war room, and our archive; people have to feel comfortable using it. Part of the task of making people comfortable deals with layout and delivering the features that support business requirements. That’s the most important part, and I can honestly say, that’s the part I’m good at. The other part, the part I struggle with, is what to do when there is a problem.
Normally, I rely on one of my staff members to provide excellent customer service. In fact, when I gave a training presentation last year in Florida, two people in the audience seemed like members of his fan club. He is good, but SharePoint is up 24/7/365 and he isn’t. For those other hours, we are working to build a first class self-help site. We are in the early stages of design for this site, but I am encouraged by the energy surrounding this project. My staff and the consultant we are working are committed to creating an excellent user experience. We don’t want this to be the last resort in a frustrating search for answers; we want our Help Desk to be a welcoming environment that leads to a rich array of self-help resources. I think SharePoint is up to the task, I know we are. As we move through this project, I’ll share our results here.