Face to Face

clip_image002About 5 years ago we launched a project to give our customers access to certain key documents via an Internet-facing SharePoint site. We worked with a small group of beta users as we developed the site(s) and I gave a short presentation at our Policyholder Meeting later that year. The following year I conducted a training class at our Policyholder Meeting. For the past three years I have offered to meet, one-on-one with our customers to walk them through their specific site. These have been great meetings, but suffice it to say, they are different than giving a presentation, or conducting a class.

When we develop solutions on SharePoint internally, we have our coworkers to bounce ideas off of to help us perfect the design and to test the solutions with us. When we develop for our customers, we have to get it right without a lot of input, without the collaboration features of Lync and sometimes, without the benefit of their having an understanding of SharePoint. An interesting twist this year was the fact that every member of the original beta group is now retired.

I met with about 10 different people. Some were new to their role, taking the place of those retirees and some were relative old-timers. As I walked them through the features of the Policyholder Portal (yeah, I know…portal… well, it’s what we called it 5 years ago, so) they were generally impressed. My goal was to come away from these meetings with three things: happy customers, food for thought and happy customers. I put that in twice because I want them to be happy and my boss wants them to be happy. I also tried to pay attention to their general reaction, particularly the people who were seeing our site and perhaps SharePoint for the first time. I’ll save the specific enhancements I agreed to have my team make for later posts, but let me share the general observations.

Content – We have generally focused our development effort on improving the quality of the content available to our customers. This seems to have been the right play. They were impressed by the fact that they can directly access information that they used to have to ask for. Not that we were ever unresponsive in handling those requests, but the difference between the time it takes to send and receive a response to an email and immediate access is huge. Also, new people don’t always know what to ask for. If you don’t know what content is available, asking for it will consume several email cycles – browsing a site lets you figure it out on your own and that seems to be a very important benefit. In addition, two of our customers expressed an interest in working toward the goal of getting content out of email altogether.

Food for thought – add some guidance to the site to help people know what content is available and how to get to it.

Security – “How are you protecting my information?” That’s a question I was asked several times, and that’s a question that I am asking vendors in my supply chain. After months and months of watching leaks, breaches and spying being rolled out on the news, people are concerned about who has access to information about them. I explained what we do to protect their content, and I explained what we plan to do to improve that next year. They were happy to hear that this has always been a concern of ours and they were happier to hear that we aren’t resting on a five-year-old solution. When I explained that our plan for next year involves moving to SharePoint 365, they were less happy. Regardless of how secure a cloud-based solution is, it involves incorporating more people in that supply chain, and these days, nobody is happy with that thought.

Food for thought – Make sure the SharePoint 365 host we choose understands that security and confidentiality are important critical.

Process – One of the things people seemed to appreciate most was our effort to automate the transfer of content from our internal business process to the Internet-facing site. Automated processes insure that current content will be available in a timely manner. It’s not that our customers don’t trust our staff to do that job, but they like the idea that the process is on rails, so to speak.

Food for thought – Make sure that we can extend that process into SharePoint 365.

I wish I could have beamed a few people from Microsoft into these meetings. I wish I could put them face-to-face with my customers so they could see how important it is for SharePoint to grow in terms of those fundamental capabilities that caused us to buy it in 2006. Marching forward into “new ways of working” is important, but not if it comes at the expense of content, security, and process capabilities or improvements in those critical areas.

Maybe, Just Maybe

clip_image002I’ve been on vacation this past week, trying to put great distance between my thoughts and thoughts of SharePoint. I have spent most of the week doing what I love to do – woodworking and construction. Both hobbies give me the opportunity to build things and to use some pretty cool tools. Ironically, the opportunity to use some pretty cool tools brought my thoughts back to SharePoint. The manager of our small group has installed a trial of Nintex Workflow and due to some budget magic we might actually be able to afford this product this year. Our tasks are to determine two things: 1) can we get by without the Enterprise Edition (if you’re new to Microsoft or SharePoint, ‘enterprise’ is the word they use in Seattle when they mean ‘expensive’) and 2) is there enough utility in this product to justify the expense.

We have been drooling over this product for a long time, but our desire rose dramatically after listening to Marcel Meth talk about it at an AIIM New England event last November. We like products like this because we like adding functionality to SharePoint but we don’t like writing a lot of code. I have only started poking around (I am on vacation) but I’ve seen ‘Calculate Date’ and ‘Regular Expression’ categories and I have wanted those for quite some time. I also noticed ‘For Each’ and ‘Loop’ and that makes me think I can stop writing those three-cushion bank shots to force SharePoint to iterate over a list by updating an unrelated ‘index list’. I know that Microsoft has added looping to SharePoint Designer 2013 but we’re still using 2010, and I’m guessing Nintex’s implementation will shine a little brighter than Microsoft’s.

In addition to looking ahead to SharePoint 2013, we are also looking at the possibility that we will one day want to move SharePoint to the cloud. As we invest in tools, we want to be careful to work with vendors who are also looking to the future. Nintex seems to have that same view, so I think we are safe in that regard.

The main reason we look at solutions like this is because we want to be able to move activity into SharePoint. Content management is more than storing documents. Documents often get created through a collaborative process. Once created, documents sometimes cause other processes to start. The notion of content-centric applications is one that we are very keen on seeing come to fruition, and we want that to happen within SharePoint. We have had some success building solutions that let documents get created, be processed through a basic life-cycle and move to become company records, but we want to be able to handle complex processes as well.

I’m not sure if we’re going to pull the trigger on this purchase, the price is high. Being in the insurance industry, we are grounded in the concept of necessary volume or critical mass – a.k.a. there has to be enough premium income to cover the potential risk. Similarly with this product, we have to see enough utility to justify the cost. In making that determination, we will consider:

How much time will this product save? Let’s face it; we could probably do most of this in client-side code so this product has to make accomplishing our goals easier.

How often will we use it? This is really the volume question. Even if owning Nintex will reduce our development effort by 75%, if we only use it twice a year it won’t be worth the investment.

Is Nintex critical to anything? Some products are justifiable simply because, when you need to do “X” it’s the only way to get it done. I doubt we are going to find anywhere where Nintex is the silver bullet, but we should look.

If the evaluation is positive, I’m sure that I will write about our experience with the product.

Have a great Labor Day weekend; I’m going back on vacation now.

SharePoint FM

clip_image002I spent my freshman year at the University of Georgia (go Bulldogs) and thanks to some friends on my dorm floor, I was able to visit some beautiful parts of that state. Once while driving around some desolate south-Georgia back roads, we stumbled across a Pirate game on the radio. I recognized KDKA AM 1020 Pittsburgh immediately by the announcer’s voice. We could hear that game in Georgia due to the ability for AM radio waves to skip across the planet, bouncing off the Ionosphere. FM radio waves, due to the different way they propagate, are limited to line-of-site reception. Hmm, if this is an analogy to SharePoint, wouldn’t I want to be AM? No; we chose an FM model because it’s more narrowly focused, but capable of delivering a higher quality signal (think classical music vs. political talking heads). If we extend this analogy just a little closer to the breaking point, we like operating in a narrow band of the “development spectrum” within SharePoint so we can:

Focus on Quality – This is very important to my team. We don’t want to simply be a company that uses SharePoint; we want to implement Content Management in SharePoint. That requires adherence to the standards and best practices associated with ECM, not just the creation of a bunch of libraries. In addition, we want to improve the business process associated with the creation, use and distribution of the information that we store in SharePoint. In the current project that I’m working on, I have worked with the owner of the process to build a better way of entering data, segregating data and presenting data for review. In the course of defining the requirements, we are expanding the use case from one where we keep track of stuff to one where we keep track, manage, analyze and share this stuff with our coworkers and our customers.

Stay close to home – We keep our solutions close to “out-of-the-box”, because we want our users to be able to understand, combine, extend and reuse the work we’ve done. We also don’t want to invest too heavily in development because we have better things to be developing. No offense to ECM, but out-of-the-box SharePoint can look pretty good, and if it’s easy to use and satisfies the customers, we don’t need to make it overly snazzy. Plus, I keep coming back to the notion that, in using SharePoint, people learn how to use SharePoint, and that knowledge is cumulative. I have also found that my coworkers are more interested in how the solution works, than appearance. I think there’s a fine line between adding functionality to have the page look tricked out and modern, and adding functionality that improves the user experience – we’re working hard to find, but not cross that line.

Be a wee bit anal – I know that some of you might be asking “why not just let your users develop their own solutions from the ground up?” The answer is simple and a bit selfish; I don’t want to join some friends of mine who have been left with half-finished or half-baked SharePoint solutions when some department level guru decides to leave. I want our solutions to be documented. I want to know what needs to change if we move the solution to a new server, or to our Internet-facing farm, and I want to be able to maintain the “systems” that our employees have come to rely upon. I also want our solutions to follow some standards. For example, where we have managed metadata in use, I don’t want to see a solution that is using a Choice column that has (at the moment) the same information as what is in the term store.

The system that I mentioned above organizes data from a series of inspection reports and follow-up meetings in three related lists. In order to review that data, we built a Web Part Page that contains about 5 Data View Web Parts to pull the related bits from those lists and present them in a useful format. To setup the page, we pass a bunch of parameters in with the URL. For example, based on source parameters, the page can be grouped by Facility, or by Engineer, or by Category. We construct those URLs in a workflow and store them with each item in the master list so they can be exposed as links in a wide variety of views. The Facility link, for example will configure the page to be grouped by Facility. We could have just built a second DVWP page to drive the sort and filter process and then build the URL on-the-fly, but that would put us in maintenance mode. SharePoint Views look pretty good, and many of our users can build them. Letting them add the URLs to their own views, lets them extend our solution. It’s still a line-of-sight system, but it has a little better reach.