Time is Money – Or Something

imageOne day back in the mid-80s, I was sitting at my desk at one of the Big 8 (or was it 6) audit/consulting firms when my boss walked in. He looked at my desk and saw that I was drawing a diagram (we didn’t have much in the way of graphics capabilities in those days). He asked me what it was. I explained that I thought a diagram would help our client (Bob) understand the work we were doing.

“How long have you been working on that?”

“About an hour”

“When will you be done?”

“Maybe 15 minutes”

“OK, when you’re done, fax it to Bob and ask him for $280”

“Whaaaat?

“That’s how much it cost him for you to draw that. That’s assuming that what I’m looking at is the presentation copy. Or were you going to ask the people in the report department to make that pretty? In that case, ask Bob for more money”

The picture vs. the thousand words thing wasn’t going to work. My diagram was worth 50 or 60 words at best. My boss was adamant that we spend our client’s money as if it were our own. I’ve never forgotten that lesson. I’ve shared that story with almost everyone who has ever worked for me. The wisdom in that story is one of several pillars supporting the notion that “just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you should do something.”

Since we decided to use SharePoint for content management in 2006, our goal had always been to expand SharePoint into the other areas where we could “make it work.” Our logic was simple – the more people used SharePoint, the more familiar they would be with its features. It was a good theory but expanding SharePoint requires effort if you want to maintain a quality user experience

Last year we decided to abandon our dreams of extending imageSharePoint via the Internet to work with our various business partners. We decided to reel our expectations for SharePoint back into the services that it provides out-of-the-box pretty – back into the SharePoint comfort zone. One of the things that SharePoint doesn’t do well is surveys, and although we have experience making the results of a SharePoint survey look good, a process that takes many hours, we don’t have the ability to make the survey itself look good…can you say WuFoo?

WuFoo gave us the opposite challenge that SharePoint does. We get a nice customer experience out of the box, but we don’t have the flexibility of wiring up some pretty Data View Web Parts to digest the results.

Here are a few things we were able to easily do with WuFoo that we couldn’t ever figure out with SharePoint:

  • Insert text comments into the survey to explain the upcoming questions
  • Add instructions to help people understand how to answer the questions (without making the question 10 miles long).
  • Make the survey pretty
  • Change the default text when it didn’t make sense
  • Exit the survey without completing required fields based on certain answers (without branching)

We had looked at online surveys before, but the price point that we needed to buy at, in order to get the features we needed, was too high. Also, there were a couple of features that we could make work in SharePoint that didn’t work with the online surveys. Fortunately, products evolve and WuFoo now offers all the features we need at a price that we would be silly to ignore.

By using WuFoo, we can give our customers a great user experience, and the woman in our office who is building the survey has figured out how to configure the web-based reports to give us all the information we need to manage the event. And, they look pretty good. Our coworker who is in charge of the event has already said that he thinks this year’s survey is the best that he has seen. You see, he’s the one who has to deal with the customers who fill out the survey.

WuFoo isn’t free. Well, it can be free, but the free version won’t do all the things we need. But, an employee’s time isn’t free either. When you do the math that my old boss taught me, WuFoo is, as he used to say, “A bargain at twice the price.

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.

Would I Still Choose SharePoint

imageLast Tuesday, I felt a little like I was in enemy territory. Despite having attended Big East (for now) rivals WVU and Pitt, I spent the afternoon on the University of Connecticut campus. Fortunately, this wasn’t a sporting event, this was Content Management. A friend had invited me to share some of our experience with a group of people who are working to implement ECM and WCM solutions, and SharePoint is one of the options they have to choose from. It was a diverse group, and some of the people had also expressed interest in Open Source solutions, so I invited Jane Zupan (right) from Nuxeo to join me. In my presentation I touched on a collection of things I wish someone had explained to me before I started our SharePoint-ECM journey in 2005. Jane talked about Open Source in general with an emphasis on ECM and WCM, and a bit about Nuxeo.

Despite the fact that neither presentation had been a sales pitch, when we finished, the woman who arranged the meeting asked me if I would consider Open Source if I were making my decisions today. That was a fair question, and my answer is “yes – when you’re spending someone else’s money, you should always consider what might be a viable lower cost option.” If that wasn’t my answer, I might be looking for a new job. Considering a lower cost solution doesn’t just mean looking at price though, we selected SharePoint because the combination of features and cost appeared to represent a good value for our company. If I were making the decision today though, I would consider the following:

There’s cost and then there’s cost – We eased our way into SharePoint via WSS (2003) and gradually moved up the food chain through SharePoint Portal Server 2007 and on to SP2010. During that journey, my budget was stretched to accommodate many things that I hadn’t considered at the outset, like the extra licenses to “properly” deploy SharePoint. On top of licenses, there are CALs and on top of those, we have Enterprise CALs. We discovered that some vendors selling add-on software, license their product by user, some by web front-end, some by farm and some with variations on top of those variations. We have a wide variety of products both for administration and to improve SharePoint’s user experience and those license fees add up. In fairness, there are analogous real costs to open source software as well. I am not saying that SharePoint is too expensive, but it is taking us longer to afford the SharePoint environment that we want, than I thought it would.

IT Support – When we started working with SharePoint, we imagined a world with greater participation by our end-users. Web-based, easy to configure, intuitive process based on a series of similar offerings (once you realize that everything is really a list) led me to believe anyone could master SharePoint. Well, that may be true, but it hasn’t been our experience. One of the most popular blog entries I ever wrote was “Remember, They Have a Day Job” and over a year later, it still describes my world. SharePoint needs and should have IT support. For example, our best SharePoint users are our attorneys, they went to law school, they understand res ipsa loquitur – they don’t want to learn JavaScript. Clearly, any open source solution would have this same requirement. Also, I don’t think that this is a negative consideration for either solution. I think it’s time IT organizations realized that unstructured data is a company asset worthy of their time and budget. IT has (or should have) the skill set to make ECM an awesome experience, and I think that making it awesome should be one of their goals.

Extensibility – While it’s fair to say that I wanted SharePoint to be less expensive and easier to support than it turned out to be, it’s also fair to say that I have been surprised by the scope of requirements SharePoint can satisfy. Our SharePoint implementation expanded, in the number of servers, products, person-hours and hard dollars beyond our plan, but there has been a commensurate expansion of value provided to our organization.

If I were selecting an ECM solution for our company today, I would absolutely take a hard look at Nuxeo. I learned during Jane’s presentation that it’s a well-designed, modern and capable ECM solution. I am sure that Nuxeo would appeal to the systems developer in me, but SharePoint would still probably be able to leverage greater value for us. We are a small, Microsoft-centric shop, and SharePoint works well for us. I do like the fact that there are solutions like Nuxeo to choose from though – competition in the ECM marketplace is ultimately good for everyone.