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.

As Easy as 1-2-3

clip_image002Last week, I talked about how we built a prototype site in order to demonstrate some of the features we were thinking about using in a project for our legal department. The prototype site was well received, and even though we’re going to delete it pretty soon, it was worth building. In addition, it didn’t take that much effort to build. Part of the reason we were able to build the site so fast is because SharePoint is designed to be built fast; let’s face it, that’s one of the reasons we bought it. The second reason we were able to work fast is because we used a few of the tools we have bolted onto SharePoint. I’ve talked about each of these before, but it’s summer so I think we can stand a few reruns. Here are three of the things we have added to SharePoint that I am happy to have:

Muhimbi PDF Converter – This product not only lets our users convert Office and a wide variety of other documents to PDF from the library drop-down menu, we can call on these services from a SharePoint Designer workflow. The best part is that last little bit about workflows. We can save our coworkers the time it takes to create the PDF, but we can also manage the process. That means that we can put the PDF in the library it belongs in, and because we can kick the workflow off when an item is uploaded or changed, we don’t have to worry about people forgetting this important step.

SharePoint Classifier – We added this product from Boost Solutions last year. Working from an intuitive interface, this lets us bulk edit metadata for a large number of selected or uploaded files quickly. We can set metadata to a specific value across the entire group or we can skip through the list of documents, setting some bits of metadata to a single value but setting others to unique values. We used this to quickly populate the demonstration libraries on our prototype site. Classifier can also copy or move the selected items from one library to another, set tags and check the documents in if necessary.

Lightning Conductor – This is our most recent add-on, but it’s one that I am really going to enjoy using. One of the features we wanted to demonstrate was the ability to pull items together from the various libraries based on certain metadata. The example we used was to show all the documents that had been tagged as the “Current Version” in a single web part on the main page. This illustrated a critical capability that our users wanted, the ability to store documents where they belong, but present them as if they are in the same place. What I like so much is the fact that we configured the web part in a matter of minutes.

These tools make SharePoint easier to use and much more powerful by augmenting the inherent strength of SharePoint’s out-of-the-box power. Whether our users are working directly with these tools or asking us to configure a solution for them, these (and other) tools are saving us precious time.

Lightning Conductor Web Part

New Haven RailroadA while back, I suggested that I wasn’t worried about the changes that Microsoft was making / has made to SharePoint because the market would come to our rescue. The pronoun here is referring to those of us who had gotten used to wiring up Data View Web Parts and customizing pages in SharePoint Designer. The collective changes in SharePoint 2013 will make building those solutions a different exercise and one that brings us closer to programming than my staff wants to be. I’ll save until later the philosophical debate(s) around whether script-coding is programming; whether programming is evil and to be avoided or a necessary skill that should be required, and whether JavaScript is the official language of the new world order and we should all just suck-it-up. Today, I want to point out one vendor that has stepped into the role I outlined last October.

We have been previewing the Lightning Conductor Web Part from Lightning Tools and I am happy to report that it looks like it can easily help us provide one of the solutions that we used to turn to XSL to provide – the custom view of data from places our users don’t want to go. OK, it’s not that they don’t want to go there; they just don’t want to be on the road forever. The people using SharePoint in our company don’t really want to use SharePoint to conduct business; they want SharePoint to work for them. We made a promise to those people years ago when we (Information Services) chose SharePoint; we said that we would invest time and budget into making SharePoint easy to use. I take that promise very seriously. If I start telling people “you have to learn a lot more about SharePoint in order to have it help you with that task…” I’m practicing bait and switch. This new tool is pretty cool, and it appears to be a really good use of my budget. So, what does this tool actually do? Well, I can’t describe this any better than the Lightning Tools website, but here’s what we like about it:

Using the tool, we can quickly put a web part on a page that aggregates content from multiple libraries on the site, from within the site collection, from within multiple site collections or from across our entire farm. We can filter this content, we can sort this content and we can decide what columns to include. We can do all of this from within the browser, without opening SharePoint Designer and without even leaving the page that we want to put the web part on. Configuration is fast, and the results are immediate. And, if we screw it up, we can simply delete the part without having messed up the entire page.

For example, we will be able to gather policies, underwriting correspondence, inspection reports, engineering metrics, previous claims and presentations given to any one of our customers, on any page on our farm. These documents (someday will) all reside in the sites where they belong, but I (will be able to) pull them together – without waiting for a search to complete – wherever they might be useful. Parenthetical expressions aside, we already have content in multiple locations that needs to be aggregated to be more useful.

Of course there are a lot of other ways to accomplish these tasks. I have watched lots of people demonstrate various techniques at seminars and, inspired by those demos, I urged my team to learn these techniques. These days, I want my team building solutions. I want them to show off their content and information management prowess, not their syntax skills. The people on my team can imagine great solutions by merging their understanding of SharePoint, content management and the unique attributes of our crazy little business. If I can buy tools like this to let them quickly build what they can imagine, it seems like a good move.

I think we are moving forward with this purchase We just purchased this product! We had a few questions during our evaluation, and they were quickly answered by the responsive service group at Lightning Tools.

Let me dwell on that last thought for a second. I love it when a vendor lets you work with the actual technical support group during a sales evaluation. Not only did we get our answers, we were able to evaluate the support as well. BTW, the support is as good as the product.

The Lightning Conductor looks like a nice fit for us, but I’ll fill you in on our actual experience after we put it to use. Maybe I’ll get one of my team members to write about and I’ll get a week off – this is sounding better and better.

HarePoint

clip_image002One of the things that I like most about managing a small technology shop is the agility with which we can operate. We are constrained by the usual suspects, i.e. the limits of technology, budgets and time; but most decisions are easy. If we like something, we can look at it. If we like it after we look at it, we can buy it (we usually don’t look at the stuff we can’t afford) and if we have to install something to a server or change a database, we can do that too. Long term readers of this blog know that I like to write about the good people we work with, whether they have developed an add-on product or have rolled up their sleeves and helped us to build something. One of the companies I have wanted to write about is HarePoint, but I wanted to wait until we could use their product to solve one of our most vexing problems – that day has come!

I learned about HarePoint several months ago when I was looking for better ways to work with dates in SharePoint workflows. While poking around their website, I discovered this list of Workflow Extensions. Some of the extensions looked pretty cool, including the ability to work with arrays, and those for manipulating lists, libraries and individual documents and images. By the time I read about the ability to execute a SQL Query from within a workflow, I was starting to drool a little. All of the extensions seemed cool, but one that really piqued our interest was the ability to move a document to a different library. That feature may sound like kid stuff, but it’s not as simple as it appears. We wanted to copy a document, along with some of its metadata from a document library on our internal farm, to a library in a site on our Internet-facing farm. We asked the people at HarePoint if their extensions could do that and they thought that they could. Unfortunately, our first attempt failed.

Some of the best vendors we work with have distinguished themselves when things didn’t work – HarePoint is now a member of that club. We told them what we were trying to do. We told them that it didn’t work, and we anticipated being told that, in retrospect, the feature wasn’t designed to move documents between farms. Instead, the support crew at HarePoint told us that they thought this would be a good feature to have, and they worked with us to make it work. It took a couple of attempts, but last week we were able to create a workflow that moves a document from a library in our engineering site to a library on our Internet-facing SharePoint server.

This isn’t just an interesting technical challenge; this is the final piece of an intricate puzzle that was mostly assembled over a year ago. You can read a ton about that project by searching this blog for ‘inspection’, but the short story goes like this: When our engineers write an inspection report, a series of SharePoint workflows marshal the reports through various reviews, updates a variety of metadata and stores a final copy of the report in a Records Library. The final step was always supposed to have been to create a copy of the report for our customers to access in a SharePoint site we provide for them, but that has remained a manual process – until today. We successfully tested moving one of these inspection reports from our library to a target library on our test farm. The problem seems to have been solved, and the implementation couldn’t be easier:

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I want to publically acknowledge the technical support and development groups at HarePoint. The company has a great product, and these people went the extra-mile to make it even better. I’d also like to acknowledge the members of my staff who did battle with the ever present nemesis in SharePoint (permissions) to put these awesome capabilities to work. If you’re looking for ways to extend the functionality of your workflow-driven SharePoint solutions, you might want to take a hard look at HarePoint.

Tools of the Trade

A recent discussion on the LinkedIn group Weekend Woodworkers asked members to talk about their favorite hand plane. Right away I knew the person starting the discussion was a real woodworker. A real woodworker knows better than to ask “what’s your favorite tool?” There are simply too many favorites. And, a real woodworker knows the attachment woodworkers have for planes. My favorite, shown here, is a Stanley Low-angle Block Pane. When it comes to the work I do with SharePoint, choosing a favorite tool is hard. In fact, I don’t really use that many tools. Even though I’ve been working with SharePoint for five years, there are still a lot of things I like to do by hand, to fully understand the options, features and capabilities. After I have this understanding, if the task is difficult or tedious, then I decide to buy a tool to help. One such tool we recently purchased is MetaVis Architect Suite.

MetaVis presents you with a graphical view of your SharePoint environment and lets you manipulate that view. The cool thing is that you can do the manipulation in a modeled environment and, if you like what you have, you can push it out to your SharePoint server. You can compare sites to make sure they have the same elements (lists, libraries, content types, etc.) and you can create new elements in the model instead of at the server. One very nice benefit of this feature is the ability to build and configure sites, in front of a user, without waiting for SharePoint to build actual pages and, even better, without having to tear it all down when they realize they want something else. Still even better is the ability to show the user other sites and, when they see something they like, be able to copy it to their site. Another thing I like about MetaVis is their pricing. Architect Suite is priced by seat. So the one copy we have cost us 1x their License fee. They offer discounts for more than one copy but, our one copy can be used to work on our internal server, our Internet facing server and our test server. I like pricing that makes sense, pricing that matches use, and, in my opinion, MetaVis got it right.

We’ve only recently started working with MetaVis so the things I’ve accomplished with the product don’t do justice to its capabilities. I hope to share some interesting stories in the future but I wanted to write about it now for two reasons. One, it’s a really cool product! Two, I want to answer some backchannel e-mail I’ve received titled “Who pays for SharePoint Stories?” Who pays? – I do. OK, I don’t pay much, this is on Blogger so the blog is free, but I did pay $8 for the domain name. The company I work for bought MetaVis along with SharePoint, a few other tools and a bunch of web-parts. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have taken a free copy, but if I did, I would let you know at the beginning of this post and I’d still post the truth about the product. You might also note that there aren’t any ads here. If you’re going to be distracted while reading my blog, please read my recent Tweets, my previous posts or check out the links to people I find interesting.
Now that the fine print is out of the way, let me say that if Stanley Tools wants to send me another low angle block plane, I’ll take it.

Timeless Lessons – Part II

Following up on my previous post, I want to share an example of how woodworking has helped make me a better SharePoint practitioner? Take a look at the table to the right; nice legs, wouldn’t you agree?

Making those legs was a complex process requiring patterns, jigs, tools, and some skill. Patterns probably make you think about templates and, if you have ever used a jig, you will equate jigs to workflows. Today, in the interest of space, I’m going to focus on tools.

As a woodworker, I never underestimate the value of tools – as a SharePoint practitioner, I sometimes do. I look at the requirements of a site and I am drawn to “I can build that with (substitute favorite technique here) ”. But, I’m reminded that I’m being paid to complete the site, not so much to enjoy doing it. When you consider the time it takes to build, test, document, deploy and maintain hand-crafted solutions, you might see newfound value in tools. The tool on the right is a Pattern Maker’s rasp which has a random tooth pattern that makes it easier to control and produce smoother results. When I started making the legs for that table, I didn’t own a Pattern Maker’s rasp and, compared to the rasps I did own, this one was expensive. But without that tool, you can forget about making those legs.

Buying tools vs. building your own tools vs. hand-crafting solutions without tools is a complicated decision. Once you know the total cost to buy a tool, compare it to the cost to complete your project without the tool (number of hours * your rate per hour), then, in the spirit of the AIIM blog series, ask yourself these eight questions:
  1. Can I meet the requirements without that tool?
  2. Can I reuse what I build in a different site with the same requirements?
  3. Does the tool offer other features that would help meet other requirements?
  4. Will my solution be as easy to deploy?
  5. Will I be able to alter my solution as requirements change? As SharePoint changes?
  6. Will my solution be easy to use or will it require my time each time it’s deployed?
  7. Am I planning to document my solution? If not, will my solution be of any use if I’m not here to maintain it?
  8. Is the cumulative weight of all my hand-crafted solutions sustainable i.e. can I maintain them all?
Building solutions is rewarding and often results in a “perfect fit” solution. Along the way, you can sometimes save your company money. On the other hand, adding tools to your collective toolbox can improve the broader SharePoint experience. A balanced approach is required if the goal is a robust and sustainable SharePoint installation.