Stories Yet to Come

This is my 250th SharePoint Story. I have to say that back in April 2009 I never imagined that I would write so often or that so many people would care to read what I had to say. I have received numerous comments, emails and tweets that indicate that people like the focus I try to put on “what we do and why we do it” and they seem to appreciate the fact that I share our mistakes. After last week’s post, it’s clear that I have ample fodder for that kind of post. As I look forward to 2014, I see some changes coming and this seems like a good time to talk about them:

Other Subjects – You may not have noticed, but at some point in 2013, I changed the tag line to include Information Management. I did that because I really do believe that it’s more important to understand why we do things than it is to know how to do them, and why we do things doesn’t always have anything to do with SharePoint. I had the privilege of working with several people during 2013 who reminded me that SharePoint is a technology with which we can improve business processes, but that the nature of those improvements often has nothing to do with technology in general, let alone this specific technology.

Other People – One of my major objectives at work is to prepare a new generation of employees to run my portion of this railroad after I retire. My retirement isn’t imminent, but our business is rather unique and learning about all the moving parts takes a long time. I’m not a minor player in our SharePoint cast yet, but I am becoming more of an end-user of SharePoint than I was in years past. So, in the future, when I say that “we” did something, keep in mind that I probably should have said “they” did something instead. Becoming a user of SharePoint might give me a different perspective from which to write about User Experience – that might be fun. Unfortunately, I’m not nearly as comfortable writing about the mistakes others make as I am writing about my own mistakes, so, “they” might have to continue to suffer my development efforts.

Other Software – One of the first posts of 2014 will be about a content management solution that doesn’t involve SharePoint. We remain a SharePoint shop and a Microsoft-centric shop, but it’s no longer an exclusive relationship – we’ve decided to see other people. It’s OK, I told SharePoint “it’s not you; it’s me.” In a sense, this is really just a small extension of a previous theme. I’ve written numerous articles about software that we have bolted onto SharePoint, integrated inside SharePoint or used in order to affect SharePoint. I’ve also written about the stuff that we have written or paid someone else to write that runs within SharePoint but didn’t come in Microsoft’s, or anybody else’s box. I will continue to write about those things, too. In fact, I look forward to writing about a project management solution we recently purchased that runs inside SharePoint.

Other Blog – This last bit is nothing more than a shameless plug. I chose the meme for this blog because I enjoy telling stories. If you enjoy the storytelling nature of this blog, you might like my other ongoing attempt at writing – No Facilities. That blog is rarely technical and almost never about SharePoint. The tag line over there is “Random thoughts, life lessons, hopes and dreams” and it grew in popularity quite nicely in 2013.

Thanks so much for visiting this blog. Have a happy and prosperous New Year!

ECM is an Activity not a Product

imageLast week the AIM New England Chapter held an event with the goal of trying to figure out how people are using SharePoint. You can read about the event, the discussion and the wisdom the expert speakers shared in the Event Experience Report, but I want to talk about a note found on page 6:

One person described a decision to move a customer facing solution out of SharePoint because the customers were not interested in the features SharePoint has to offer. The solution has evolved into a ‘content publishing’ solution and management feels that there are better platforms than SharePoint on which to build such a solution.”

I’ll confess to being that person. Are we giving up on SharePoint? No. Is our content management program changing? Yes.

When we first began using SharePoint in 2006, we liked what we saw. While we were struggling to figure out how to best use the product in-house, someone asked if we could use SharePoint to exchange documents, information and perhaps collaborate with some of our customers and business partners. As you might expect, good little techies that we were / are, we jumped at the chance to add a second farm and build an Internet-facing SharePoint server.

We developed solutions. We formed pilot groups. We tested, tweaked, added and perfected features and we held training events. We met with our customers and we spoke with our coworkers and what we heard was that our customers don’t need SharePoint. Our customers want to share files, and share is 90% retrieve and 10% submit. Do the math, there’s nothing left for “collaborate on” or “construct a process around” or any of the other things we have been trying to get people interested in. That’s OK! We understand serving customers, and we don’t want to make customer service harder than it needs to be.

But wait a minute. If we already have SharePoint, why abandon it? SharePoint can certainly be used to share files with people over the Internet.

That’s true, but we’re not in 2006 any longer. SharePoint can be made to be a simple repository of shared documents and SharePoint can certainly handle segregating and protecting private documents while also providing access to public documents, but so can lots of other products. It is one thing to put some effort into SharePoint to create a solution that looks, feels and acts like a more expensive product. It’s quite another thing to put some effort into SharePoint to make it look, feel and act like a less expensive product. Sometimes, SharePoint just isn’t the right answer.

One of the problems with technology and the notion of businesses adopting technology, is that technology changes. One of the most important responsibilities of an IT group is to make and to keep other people aware of what those changes are and what those changes mean to the already adopted solutions. A critical element of that understanding is the fact that installed solutions are not free. We cannot look at something that was developed in and deployed on SharePoint and say “that’s done, let’s move on to something else” – systems, including the things we build in SharePoint, are never done.

SharePoint was the right platform in 2006 because it was just about the only affordable solution we had for securely sharing content over the Internet. We tried to take advantage of the platform, to offer more features and to entice people into turning file sharing into collaboration, but the demand isn’t there. I understand that, the underlying task isn’t a collaborative effort. The underlying task is a mature business process that doesn’t need to be “improved” by SharePoint or anything else. Now that there are simpler, less expensive solutions for securely sharing files over the Internet, it’s time to consider them. Guess what, they work and they work better than SharePoint.

They work better, and they are cheaper, because they are less capable and because they have been perfected toward a narrower goal. The solutions that we are looking at were born in the cloud; they don’t have to be migrated into the cloud. The solutions were born into a mobile world so they come with desktop apps and apps for every mobile operating system – good looking native apps! The people who built these solutions know what they are doing and they know what we need to do, so integration with Outlook is baked in, drag & drop integration with Windows is baked in, permissions, controls, auditing and reporting are all baked in. Yes, these are file-sharing only solutions, but when that’s all you need, that’s all you need.

We are still a SharePoint shop and this is still a SharePoint blog, but my focus has always been Enterprise Content Management. The title of this post is from a comment I made recently on a friend’s blog: ECM is not dead, but ECM is an activity, not a product. The ‘M’ in ECM is also a responsibility and it’s one that I take seriously.

Is My SharePoint Done?

imageWe have all talked about, read about and many have written and presented about the fact that every SharePoint question can be answered with “it depends.” Well, I’m adding another question to the heap, the one in the title. As I look around the pile of SharePoint notes on my desk, I find references to several systems that are done. They are done, or they were done, or they are never going to be done, I’m not really sure, but I’m also not adding a sad-smiley here. There are several reasons that SharePoint is kinda-sorta never done, and they’re all some of them are good ones.

SharePoint Changed – We have features in SharePoint 2010 that we didn’t have before, and this made us want to change some sites. A good example is Document Sets. We waited until we had SP2010 to build one site, because we knew Document Sets were coming. After building that, we found a few other places where Document Sets would work well, some have been changed; some are on that list on my desk. Managed Metadata is something else that is spreading like Kudzu. As we look ahead to SP2013, we’re happy to hear that loops are allowed in workflows, but we’re also thinking about bigger changes, like moving some sites to the cloud.

The fact that SharePoint has changed, is changing and hopefully will continue to change is a good thing. As long as Microsoft doesn’t forget that people are using the features they baked into the earlier versions, there should be all kinds of happiness in the future of SharePoint.

Content Changed – Considering that we are a business that does one thing and that we’ve been doing it for almost 60 years, you wouldn’t think that much changes in the world of our content. Well, change is relative. Our content might be changing at a glacial pace, but some things are different. I mean we are no longer filing onion-skin copies of endorsements (you young kids go Google that). More important are the changes in the way we look at content. Some of these changes are driven by new people who are more comfortable with information. Some are driven by new priorities that make us want to ask harder questions. Some are driven by the connect-the-dot effect of SharePoint. As we put more content into SharePoint and add metadata that lets us find it easily, we start to see connections between what we first imagined to be disparate silos, and we start to see value in making more connections.

We Bought Something – We haven’t upgraded to SP2013 yet, but we did purchase Nintex Workflows, and that product gives us the ability to loop through a list. Initially, I didn’t think we would go back and tear down any of those three-part bank shot multiple lists and workflow combination solutions that force SharePoint to iterate over a list, but maybe we will. Earlier, we bought HarePoint, which made it easier to connect to our workflows to data in SQL Server (among other things). This means we can expose more data on a SharePoint site, including some sites that are were done.

Something Broke – Yeah, this is the one I added that caused the strike-out in the first paragraph. I know Microsoft hates it when people talk about problems, but things do go wrong in SharePoint. One of the biggest things that went wrong for us is a site that thinks 90% of its metadata is defined twice. We aren’t sure what caused this, but all indications (as well as all Googling) tell us that the only solution is going to require us to rebuild this site from scratch. Microsoft isn’t the only source of  things going wrong, we have a couple of utility add-on products that no longer seem to want to play well with others. For now, we have had to deactivate these solutions while the vendor scratches their head – hopefully this won’t lead to changes in our solutions.

SharePoint solutions evolve, improve, get extended and sometimes SharePoint solutions break. It’s not all good, but it certainly seems to be something we have to get used to. Is my SharePoint thing done? “It depends on what the meaning of done is”– apologies to Bill Clinton.

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.