Pardon the Abused Analogy

It’s summer and for me that always means DIY home improvement projects. That translates to short work weeks and limited blog fodder. I told myself “if I have nothing, I’ll write nothing,” but sometimes little things crawl into my head and seem important. This week’s DIY project produced just such a moment. Take a quick look at the three photos below.image

These are from three home improvement projects. The little support structure on the right was required to replace a badly worn outside faucet. It should have been replaced years ago, but having to work in the corner of the burner room, tucked uncomfortably between the oil tank and the main water supply, caused me to put it off as long as I could.

All three are photos of “platforms” – used to literally support the worker. In the early days of SharePoint, we were often quick to point out that “SharePoint isn’t a product, it’s a platform!” Yes it is, but just as all platforms are not the same, we are witnessing the fact that all SharePoints are not the same. Platforms, as those three pictures illustrate, need to be well-matched to the activity that they are supporting. image

At the risk of stretching this analogy to the breaking point, consider that the makeshift scaffold that I stood on while removing and rebuilding this complex bit of plumbing was an “on premises” platform. It was fixed, limited in functionality and accessible only by the “privileged” few or one in this case who were in the room with it. The platform on the left invokes a “cloud” mental image and fits that image quite well. It was flexible, scalable and was easily abandoned when no longer required. The middle platform is clearly (OK, not clearly) a hybrid model; perhaps the best of both worlds but suffering the limitations of each.

Just as none of these physical platforms could be used in all three home improvement projects, no one installation of SharePoint will be well suited to all of our business needs. In some cases, no version of SharePoint might be the right version. In fairness, you can substitute any other product name for SharePoint. As platforms evolve or change or de-evolve by shedding features we used to like, their appropriateness needs to be reevaluated. It can’t be as simple as saying “we use SharePoint so we’ll do what we have to do to continue using it.” Microsoft may like that, but I’m sure my boss wouldn’t.

Single Stream Information Governance

imageLately there are two information governance conversations going on. One is in the world around me and one is in my head. The one in the world is increasingly hyperbolic with threats of grave danger if we don’t get our collective act together soon. The conversation in my head is much more practical. Those voices are simply saying:

Do NOT bring this up at work – do NOT use the phrase information governance in a conversation with your boss!

The voice in my head is winning. I refuse to say that term in our office. Information governance has joined “records management” “platform” “metadata” and the myriad other terms destined to be met by the rolling eyes of my coworkers. Don’t ask me to champion this cause because doing so just strengthens their opinion that I don’t get it.

I do get it. Those people have a job to do, a business to run and the documents and information artifacts that are consumed and created by those jobs are simply that – artifacts. Artifacts to be curated by someone who cares. Do those artifacts have value? Of course they do, and they are paying my department to bring that value to the table.

During his opening message at the AIIM Executive Leadership Summit on Information Governance, John Mancini mentioned that one of the AIIM Board members had said “Information Governance is like my check engine light.” The comment invoked a mix of facial expressions that made me glad that John hadn’t identified me as being that Board member. I wrote about that comment on my other blog in a post called for the love of black boxes. I’m going to abandon that analogy here. I’m going to make one that the InfoGov folks will like even less. Information governance is like recycling.

Think about it:

When our little town in Connecticut started talking about recycling, it was a “save the planet” mission. There was lots of education, lots of discussion and lots of work for the precious few who tried. Recycling meant warehousing garbage collecting bags and boxes of neatly separated stuff before trucking it to bins behind our Public Works building. Very few people participated in the program. Most of the stuff just got hauled out to the curb with the rest of the trash. Tell me you haven’t seen an analogous situation in the information governance space.

Next, we moved to single-bin mode. We had our own bin, where we put newspapers in a bag, cardboard tied in bundles and cans and bottles loose in the bin. We had to carry the bin to the curb, and lots of stuff was left in the bin because the town only recycled certain plastics.

Then, a few years ago, we went totally single-stream – everything in one big wheeled bin. Oh yeah, I’m recylcin’ now baby.

It has to be this way. We all get it. We all know how important recycling is but if you don’t make it easy, most of us won’t do it or we won’t do it consistently or we won’t do it well enough. Information governance needs to get to the point where we have a big blue bin. This isn’t my area of expertise, but here are a couple of things that we’ve done that actually work:

Templates – We have a few solutions where we have tied templates to content types so that people can create documents in the library where the completed documents belong. The governance stuff is built in and nobody actually has to do much work.

ShareFile – Our decision to start using Citrix ShareFile was actually when this blog started to change its identity. Yes, ShareFile relies on folders and naming conventions to identify things, but I don’t see it as a step backwards. We are using it to share content with people outside of our organization. So, instead of people clandestinely avoiding SharePoint, they are happily embracing ShareFile. Give ‘em what they want! We have one set of documents, they are in our cloud and there are apps for everything. You could use any other cloud-based solution (Box, DropBox, Google Docs, OneDrive or iCloud). The point is, the solution has to meet the user where they work. Find a way to govern that solution and aid the business process instead of impeding it.

Services – These are black boxes of a sort, nobody sees the content, they only see the results, the information that they need. The most recent example of this is a survey we are about to conduct. The people who are interested will see the results, organized the way they want, but that’s it. We’ll take care of the bits of metadata needed to organize the results. We’ll take care of the permissions, the retention, the privacy and security around the ‘personally identifiable data’ and we’ll take care of all that other stuff nobody else cares about.

They won’t know that their information is compliant with regulations and in keeping with the policies our company has established. They won’t know, and I won’t tell them.

A Week Off

clip_image002I took this past week off to build a combination entryway landing and walkway at our house. I figured that by the end of the week, I’d have a nice analogy between a small construction project and building a SharePoint site. Of course my construction work was delayed by Hurricane Sandy, and when our office lost power, I started thinking about the value in having certain essential content available in a Cloud-based ECM system. Fortunately, if I ever move in that direction, I have a good start courtesy of a timely article by Cheryl McKinnon on CMS Wire. Getting back to the construction analogy, I think that there are some clear common threads between building a physical structure and building something in SharePoint.

Foundation – Every construction project builds off of a good foundation. In the case of our landing, it was a series of six 10” concrete piers, each extending 42” down to get below the frost line. I could have saved myself some back-aching labor and tried to connect the structure to the roof piers that were already there and the side of the house, but that would have meant possibly compromising the piers and affecting the design (see below). We made similar decisions when building our SharePoint site. We could have handled both our internal and Internet users with the same server. That would have saved time and money, but it might have compromised security and it would have meant that trade-offs would have to be made for many internal solutions. We opted for the more expensive approach of having two farms, one internal and one Internet facing, and that has proven to be a very good solution for us.

Proper construction techniques – Although this landing isn’t supporting anything other than a few people, and perhaps a package delivered by UPS, it has to be built according to the building code. Sometimes I wish there was a building code for SharePoint, because people shouldn’t be allowed to build SharePoint badly. When we meet with people to discuss the site they want, we often propose building more than they wanted. We want them to include metadata, we want them to utilize managed metadata when it exists or build it when it would help others. We want them to think hard about whether they need a site, or a library or a folder. We ask them to think down the road to the point where their site has an abundance of content and try to imagine how future users will find what they need. We help them decide what out-of-the-box parts to use the same way the guy at Kelly-Fradet helped me decide what fasteners to use for the Trex decking. When there isn’t anything in the box that meets their needs, we help them build the part that meets their requirements – if they aren’t capable of building that part; we supply or bring in a professional.

Appropriate design elements – The early (and easy) plan to use the existing piers and anchor the landing to the house would have meant cutting into the vinyl siding for about 8’. Whenever you do that, you expose your house to the elements. Of course there are ways to guard against infiltration, but the best way is to not make that cut. When visiting my brother earlier this year, he showed me how his deck comes close to his house, but doesn’t penetrate the siding. That means that although in the course of 25 years a few deck boards rotted, the siding of his house didn’t. Not only does that make sense, it looks much better. When building a SharePoint solution, you have to think about the design while you’re building the foundation. I’ve seen many sites where, after the solution is built, people say things like “I wish it looked better” or “I wish we could look at this…” The time to make those wishes is before you start building.

Sandy cut 3 ½ work days off of my 8-day schedule. Not only did that leave me with a few long days, it meant postponing the walkway section of the project. That’s OK; we can work around that by deploying the two sections in two phases. Our work in SharePoint often follows a similar path. For example, we built a document repository, put it into production and then went back and built a management dashboard several months later. Like home improvement, SharePoint is easier to build right than it is to change later. Getting it right the first time, even if it takes longer and costs a little more is well worth the effort.

Notes from Info360

clip_image002The only time that I don’t like having a Saturday blog is when I have attended an event like Info360. By the time I get to write up my notes, it’s been blogged to death. So, I’m going to just pass along why I might be changing my thinking on two topics, as well as a couple quotes and two things that made attending personally rewarding.

I’ll start on a personal “good news for me” note. After 13 years of giving presentations at trade shows and conventions, I finally got to speak at the Javits Center. The bad news – it’s under construction, the rooms were temporary and noisy and the floors reminded me of the changing room at our town’s public pool.

For the record, I was part of a panel that was led by David Lavenda from Harmon.ie, and included Steve Brescia from American Water. Steve’s and my company both use Harmon.ie, although we have been drawn to it from different angles. That’s not surprising given how much power is packed into the Outlook add-on / iPad app.

One of the questions we were asked had to do with tracking what has happened to a document after it is moved into SharePoint. Steve and I talked about SharePoint Alerts, while David demonstrated Harmon.ie’s activity tracking feature, a social-style way to follow your document. Earlier that day, Adam Pisoni, CTO of Yammer, had been singing the praises of using social media within an organization during his keynote presentation. A few hours later, the rumors of Microsoft’s acquisition of Yammer were trending. Finally, on the following morning, during a half hour commercial for Chatter presentation by Michael Peachey, marketing exec with a long title, Salesforce.com, we saw statistics and heard testimonials on the value of using a private social media network. While I still feel that the use of social media in a small organization is over-hyped, I realize that it might appeal to some people.

The idea that we should consider offering something that might appeal to some people is an important point to consider. Our organization, like many is dealing with a series of transitions today. We are training the employees who will remain after many of my colleagues and I retire; we are dealing with various but increasing degrees of comfort with mobile technology, and we are trying to prepare for the significant changes that Microsoft is about to release. Clearly, one size no longer fits all and user experience and customer expectation are going to be the forces driving our IT decisions. David Kellogg, Chief Information Officer, Council on Foreign Relations summed it up during a panel discussion on the Consumerization of IT (ugh, buzzword) when he said: “why would you force people to use something they don’t want to use?” The answer used to be “because we can”, but we can’t get away with that attitude today.

Sticking with the theme: “you might need to embrace a mix of technologies”, a collection of speakers combined to convince me to leave the door only half closed toward the Cloud. Laurence Hart, CIO, AIIM, opened the conference with an updated practical view of ECM in the cloud. @Piewords, as he is better known, allayed my fears about security by pointing out that “…security is relative. They may get more attacks but they have full-fledged staff and big resources to deal with those threats” – a point echoed by several other speakers during the day. On the other hand, his comments about how cloud-based ECM solutions are at the low end of the maturity scale, gave me reason to enjoy my connection to SharePoint. I don’t remember if he used the word “legacy” when describing SharePoint, but other speakers did. It’s still hard for me to consider SharePoint a legacy system, but I guess that’s the price you pay for having mature ECM capabilities. I really liked the way Laurence illustrated one to five 9’s in a graph of downtime decreasing from one month to 5 minutes while the costs of achieving those levels of reliability soar up the Y-axis. By the way, “Three 9’s”, the advertised rate of reliability from most cloud ECM providers, equals 3.5 days of downtime; slightly less than the total time our building was without power in 2011 due to weather.

The best part of the week occurred after the show in the best Irish bar in New York, The Molly Wee. I finally heard the story behind the name of “The Word of Pie”, one of the most interesting and informative ECM blogs on Earth, and theTwitter handle @piewords. Of course, I can’t share that story here.

Q & A – Reflections After a Week on Stage

clip_image002This week began with me playing straight-man to Jill Hart in a presentation on User Experience to the CT Project Management Institute’s conference. The fun part of presenting as an employed end-user is that I get to talk about the things we did wrong, or in this case, the things we didn’t get right until the second attempt. I told my story and Jill talked about what I did wrong (at first) and what I did right (eventually). Although I was trying to get off the stage to let Jill work the room, I got a question about the process we had worked to automate. If you’re familiar with this blog, I’m talking about our loss-control inspections. A young woman asked me “why do people have to create agendas? Couldn’t your process start by generating a suggested agenda of inspection items?” I explained that while we do have inspection guidelines, the nature of our business doesn’t lend itself to a fully-scripted process, but I honestly thanked her for the question. That’s an example of the kind of questions we simply have to ask – “is there a way I could make this process even better?

The very next day, I gave the presentation I talked about last week, the Career Day presentation to our local high school. We didn’t have a big crowd, but I verified that every guy and each of the two girls all wanted a technology-based career. One of the questions that I was asked was “what do you like most about your job?” This came after I had shown a slide of about seven things I like about my job and a slide of the single thing I hate – meetings – but the answer I gave the young man wasn’t on the slide. I like learning new things, I like that I was able to build an app for my iPhone, I like playing conducting research with new technology, but the thing I like most is solving problems. A love of problem solving is what originally sent me to college to be a chemist. Solving problems with technology is what I appeared to be better at than chemistry, and for 35 years, that’s what I’ve been doing for a living. SharePoint is simply the latest in a long list of technologies that I have been able to bring to bear on the problems presented to me.

Thursday, AIIM New England held its first event in Connecticut in recent memory. Steve Weissman led a spirited discussion around the mission of AIIM and the local chapter. We had so many interested people in the room, that we are already planning a CT meeting in the upcoming chapter year. I was batting clean-up in this meeting by reprising a presentation I made at the AIIM Conference titled “Expand, Unlearn and Ignore.” I am not going to go through that here, but if you want to see it, I think it’s part of the Virtual Best of AIIM Conference on June 7th. The memorable question I received after that presentation is “what did you try before SharePoint (for content management)?” I get that question a lot, and I love answering it. I point out that I’ve been a systems developer throughout my career, so my first thought was “I can build that!” Then I explained how we did build a system for storing documents, and that we did include some cool features, including a controlled upgrade process (PDF(n) to PDF(n+1)) but that when it came to access and retrieval, we struggled to meet the needs of our coworkers. Whenever I do think of SharePoint’s weaknesses, I remind myself that SharePoint 2003 was better at navigation, search and web-based access than the system I built.

The question that I really enjoyed was when a woman asked about controlling content management in things like cloud-based solutions that our employees can download for free, or controlling the proliferation of smart phones and tablets that have spawned the term BYOD (bring your own device). You might think that I planted that question, because the answer was “I am so glad you asked that!

On May 23rd, the AIIM New England chapter is staging our final event of the 2011-2012 chapter year, and the topic of conversation is going to be “The Cloud, Mobile Content Management, and BYOD” – seriously, how cool is that? When I say conversation, I mean conversation. We have assembled a panel that includes: Roger Bottum – VP of Marketing, SpringCM; Christopher J Luise – Executive VP, ADNET Technologies and Marc D. Anderson – Co-Founder and President of Sympraxis Consulting. I have seen these guys give presentations on their own, and I can’t wait to see them together! This event will be held at the Marriott in Newton, MA, so if you’re in the greater Boston area (that includes CT, just sayin), join us and be part of the conversation. Oh, did I mention breakfast? I think that means there will be bacon.

Making it Work In-house

In the previous two posts, I wrote about why we aren’t interested in Cloud-based storage for SharePoint/ECM and why we have not yet been impressed with SaaS solutions. One of the marketing points of both those offerings is that small companies can’t afford to take care of the myriad requirements of properly operating something as sophisticated as SharePoint for ECM and collaboration. Obviously, we disagree. So, how do we do it? Simple; good people, good attitude and good people, and when necessary, good people. Seriously, I am talking about four things, read on.

The first group of good people is our in-house staff. I am not going to brag, but I will say we are serious about understanding the technology we use. We know what SharePoint can do, and if you read this blog, you know we understand our business. The key to SharePoint success is aligning capabilities with business requirements. We design solutions that work and we only let capable people build those solutions – no sprawl, no deserted sites, and no quick and dirty answers. While this approach speaks to our attitude, it does not define it. Unlike the “IT Folks” getting bashed at AIIM Expo, we are not trying to be “Mordac, the Preventer of Technology” from Dilbert. we are committed to delivering the software and services our company needs.

Of course, good people with a good attitude can only do so much. When we reach the limits of our knowledge, our time, or our experience, we call ADNET Technologies. ADNET is a consulting firm, but we consider them an extension of our staff; what we can’t do, they can. We have been working with these guys forever. We were their first customer, and they have supported us through DOS, OS/2, Windows, Exchange, OCS, everything else Microsoft and more. In fact, one of the few cloud-based services we use, electronic backup, is a service they provide. We don’t use it because we do business with them; we use it because it is a great model, and they customized the service to meet our requirements. The really cool thing about ADNET is the way they work with us. For instance, one of my staff members wanted to be more hands-on with SharePoint; he wanted to build-out our test server. They are fine with that, but if something happened to it, they would still support it.

Wait, what about those other people? Well, there are several; we augment the capabilities our staff and ADNET with other vendors and specialists as necessary. I wrote about one of these a few weeks ago. TotallyObjects is helping us develop an interface to SharePoint’s web services, from our development environment. We also use a myriad of services from AT&T. So, why am I willing to partner with outside vendors but reluctant to recommend partners in the cloud? Simple, our partners are real, local people! These aren’t vendors chosen at random, they were carefully selected and they have worked hard to establish mutually beneficial relationships with our company. We work with ADNET, but I call Bill, or Chris, or Tim. We are small, and we are a small client of theirs, but we never feel that way. I don’t suffer the lack of leverage with them that I do with cloud-based vendors. I don’t suffer that with AT&T either, because I have an Account Representative who treats us like we have 10,000 lines.

Cloud-based services brag about scalability and flexibility, but my experience is that they define those terms before talking to their customers. The people we work with talk to us, learn about our business, understand our business requirements and then begin defining terms. You may have noticed a consistent theme as you read this – requirements. Understanding, and satisfying business requirements is the key to success, not only with SharePoint, but whenever you are providing business services. That’s why we have chosen to avoid the cloud-based solutions; quite simply, we have better options available locally.

Partly Cloudy

Cloud-based ECM and SharePoint was quite the buzz at AIIM Expo 2010. During a panel discussion, I had a brief opportunity to explain why I won’t be recommending this solution. I thought I would elaborate on those thoughts today.

Access – A key benefit to cloud-based solutions is accessibility. Always on, no VPN required, got Internet – got ECM! Well, I have that now. The content we want to access or share with employees or partners anytime, anywhere, is on an Internet facing SharePoint server. The stuff we have behind a firewall is the stuff we want behind a firewall. But, even the content behind the firewall can be retrieved without VPN, via Microsoft Exchange’s Outlook Web Access client. In addition, I keep remembering two numbers: 6 and 1,000. Those are the nominal relative speeds of the Internet (from our office) and our internal LAN. I recently had to move several thousand documents to our Internet facing farm, I shudder to think how long that would have taken over the web.

Security – One of the marketing ploys used by cloud vendors is to contrast our ability to keep things secure vs. theirs. I’m not sure anything available over the Internet is truly secure, but given the recent news about Google and China, I am not convinced that bigger necessarily means better. I think the real issue here is cost – security is expensive – but I’ll talk about cost in a minute.

Scalability – Clearly a benefit of cloud solutions is the fact that they can scale from nothing to everything and back to nothing again. That sounds great, but my experience is that contracts actually end up containing minimum fees, price breaks and block pricing terms. These make what sounds like a line, gently sloping up from the origin; look more like a stair-step graph starting somewhere north of the x-Axis. If I were a start-up, or a company experiencing rapid growth, maybe this would be attractive. But, I can project that I’m unlikely to outgrow a 4 TB storage array during its useful life, and that isn’t a very expensive option. Oh, there’s that cost thing again.

Cost – Ultimately, cloud-based solutions are supposed to be cheaper when considering total cost of ownership / operation. The only cloud based solution that we looked at that is really lower cost, is the cloud-based email and Web filtering service we use. Even there, I had to work hard to dump personnel cost for signature upgrades and service agreements on the servers into the equation to make it work. We also augment tape and disk-to-disk backup with cloud-based backup – easier, yes, cheaper, not so much. If you are considering cloud-based ECM options, make sure you are honest about your content. For example, last year, we uploaded the proceedings from a technical conference for our engineers to read. We do not plan to keep it forever, but it is there, taking up space today.

Agita – Truth be told, I can twist and manipulate all the above to look good or bad; the things that keep me up at night have nothing to do with those topics. We’re pretty small, too small in fact to exert any real leverage with cloud vendors. That means, that I get standard terms, unless we fight hard. Our cloud-based server backup vendor’s standard terms called for a refund of monthly fees in the unlikely event of lost files. Great, you lose my files and I get $162 – that won’t pay for the pizza while we try to rebuild over the weekend. Also, who are my cloud vendors? I know that the backup service we use is being resold by my VAR. AT&T Secure Email Gateway is based on Microsoft Hosted Exchange technology. I think the Connected Backup for PC on my laptop is actually an Iron Mountain service, but who really knows? These may seem like petty questions, but what happens when we get an eDiscovery request, a subpoena or some other legal entanglement? Is my cloud vendor (or their cloud vendor) going to respond like I would? Are they going to comply on time? Are they going to allow us to control the process? Are they even going to tell us what happened? Also, what about those non-disclosure agreements we get from content providers? I once had to answer 15 detailed questions about our storage, backup and security to get a set of documents; how do I answer those questions with a cloud-based service?

I am not saying cloud-based services are bad, but they are not proving to be a panacea for me. Next week, I’ll follow-up on this with my thoughts on SaaS. If you have thoughts on this, please let me know, I’d be happy to post a counterpoint view.