SharePoint Joinery

clip_image002One of the challenging things about working with wood is learning all of the different ways that wood can be joined together. As I said a few weeks ago, it’s not like you can weld it. Joinery is fascinating, labor intensive and meticulous work. The goal is to maximize the surface area for glue and if possible, include a mechanical connection for added strength. I know how to make almost every type of joint, but sometimes I cheat.

If you look at the picture to the right, you will see that it features an interesting joint. With a little fancy cutting, I can create the illusion of a door and a face frame in what is really a solid panel. But, if you look down and to the right, you’ll see a pocket screw.

Pocket screws are a wonderful little cheat. No fancy cutting involved. Drill a hole by running a special kind of bit through a jig, add a bit of glue and whirr whirr whirr, screw the thing together. Fast, easy and ridiculously strong, they only feel like cheating to the guy who knows how to cut the other kind of joints. Email is the pocket screw of SharePoint (see, I do know which blog I’m writing).

Apparently, the fitness freaks in our Human Resources department want us to get healthy. We are going to have an exercise contest where we will form teams, count steps and track calories and the winners will get something like a gift certificate at Dick’s Sporting Goods. Personally, I think that’s like dieting in order to win a case of Tofu, but that’s beside the point. The point is, they want to track this all in SharePoint, which is very cool. Even better, the young woman running the contest wants to build the tracking solution herself. Now that’s exercise I can support.

She will be using a couple of custom lists, some connecting gear and a widget or two:

Team Members – I.E. those of us inclined to walk, run, bike, swim or climb our way to a healthy heart.

Teams – Because some people need a better reason to exercise than living longer. For those people, we introduce peer pressure and the fear of letting your friends down.

Steps – Who, when and how many.

Workflows – She has one that enrolls a person onto a team, and one that adds an individual’s steps to the team total.

Widget – Sooner or later, she’s going to want to make this pretty.

Before we get to making this pretty, she wants to make it easy. I like that. SharePoint should be easy. The problem is that she wants us to walk every day! If we have walk on Saturday and Sunday, we have to have a way to record the steps. We have several:

VPN – Fire up your laptop, connect with VPN, go to the SharePoint site and enter your steps.

Mobile Browser – She’s going to make a nice looking mobile version of the entry page and we will publish that through the MaaS 360 browser. That way, people with iPhones or iPads can enter their steps without having to log in. That’s easy.

Email – Email? Yes, email. SharePoint can receive email. SharePoint workflows can “read” emails and I can enter my steps in a dirt-simple process.

From: Me
Subject: Steps 06/01/2014 12,500

I’m going to walk a lot in June.

clip_image004That’s easy to do, and with the help of those HarePoint Extensions for SharePoint workflows, it will be easy to build. HarePoint is like the jig that helps me angle those pocket screws into position.

We use email in several processes where connecting something to SharePoint would otherwise require the equivalent of a hand-cut dovetail. For example, we have a process where SharePoint needs to know about a status change that results from a SQL Server stored procedure. Connecting SharePoint to SQL Server is possible, but running workflows on External Lists is not – the data isn’t in SharePoint. Fortunately, SQL Server can send SharePoint an email and we can read that email.

Of course, SharePoint can send email too. So, if one of our employees doesn’t include enough information on the subject line of that email, our workflow can write them back:

Yo, Stepper. We’re thrilled that you’re getting some exercise, but we do need three things to make those steps count. Please include the word ‘step’ (or steps, or Steppenwolf), an mm/dd/yyyy formatted date and the number of steps on the subject line of your email. They can be in any order, but we need all three.

Step counting robot

Sure, there are other ways to connect SharePoint to the rest of the world, but email works well enough in this case. People like email. People understand email. People can send email from almost anywhere using almost any device. Besides, the goal isn’t to show off our SharePoint prowess, the goal is to make life easy. I think I’ll go walk me some steps.

Too Simple

imageI recently ran into a problem trying to replace the chain on my chainsaw. There were really two problems. First, there are almost no chains to be had in the state of CT after Storm Alfred dropped a few gazillion tree limbs on fences, roads and power lines. Second, Husqvarna changed the style of chain that my chainsaw uses without changing the model number of the saw. I purchased what the guide in the store indicated was the correct chain, only to have it not contour to the tip of the cutting bar. Standing in Home Depot, I started browsing through websites looking for tooth design, chain width, pitch, etc. when it finally occurred to me that if I simply bought a replacement bar and chain kit, my problem would be rendered mute. In addition, I would have Oregon’s model number for the replacement chain in the future.

The fact that I was heading down the more complicated path at first, is no surprise to me; sometimes I skip right past the simple solution because I’m looking for something elegant. Give me a minute; I can spin that last statement into something that sounds more noble than idiotic. I’m not sure if it’s the developer in me or the fact that I like to make my job interesting, but I will often start out pursuing a solution that could probably be considered overkill. In spite of that, we have had three bits of success lately with very simple solutions. Note that there isn’t anything remarkable about these solutions, other than, perhaps, the fact that I ignored or forgot about using them at first.

$9 Answer – When we upgraded our Internet-facing server from SP 2007 to 2010, we reorganized our content to make installation, backup and restoration easier. An unfortunate side-effect of this effort was that the URLs changed for the sub-sites. Since the main server home page is just the front door to services being provided to our members, policyholders, employees and a wide variety of vendors, nobody ever really starts there. They go there one time, click the link that applies to them and then they bookmark the page they land on. We started thinking of all the ways we could make those old URLs work, when we realized that we could simply buy a domain name for each sub-site. Now, no matter what we do with their content, even if we take it out of SharePoint, they know how to get to it.

A Library is as Good as a Site – OK, sometimes a library is as good as a site. We had a policyholder contact us looking for help uploading a bunch of large files. As I’ve written before, our first choice is to direct them to the site we have set up for their company on our server. In this case, the company doesn’t have a site yet. Our first thought was that we had two choices: 1) we could make them wait a bit while we built a site for their company, or 2) we could send them through the generic “drop box” library that we have. Then we remembered that libraries in SharePoint are permission-trimmed content. We didn’t have to build them a site (yet), we simply created a library on the main page of our Policyholder site that only they have access to. That way, they end up heading to the place we want them to get used to, and they have immediate access to all the common documents available to policyholders.

SharePoint Libraries are Email Enabled – As you’re probably aware, this isn’t a new feature, but it is one that I tend to forget about. In a meeting last week, a group of us realized that in order to resolve a problem we were having with a vendor, it would be necessary to review the emails we have received from this vendor. Most people admitted to routinely deleting these messages but since I file them in a folder, I offered to move them into SharePoint. Later in the day, when I went to create the library to move them to, I realized that I had already done that. In fact, the message distribution rules we established in Exchange, already route these messages to the library via the library’s email address. Note: for those of you that are about to chastise me for not having documented this composite solution, I did, I just forgot to look at the documentation.

Albert Einstein supposedly said “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” In reading up on that, it is not clear to me that he actually said that, or that he meant “everything” in the way we mean everything when we refer to SharePoint. Still, he was Einstein, so…

Remembering Design

One of the comments I remember from AIIM Expo was by James Whitlock, Lt. Col., U.S. Air Force Medical, during a CIO panel discussion. He was talking about an Air Force portal and he said “if your site isn’t useful, people won’t use it”. That struck me; I mean Air Force – people have rank, they give orders, they carry weapons – if they can’t make people use things, who can?

Making it useful is one goal of the effort to give our SharePoint site a facelift (see previous post) but I forgot that even the little things need a comprehensive design. I mentioned adding a Photo-of-the-Week, a Poll-of-the-week and a Tip-of-the-Week to our main page. People tell me they like those things but the first thing they asked was “how do I submit my photo?” – D’oh.

Of course, the photos, tips and poll questions are in document libraries but they were behind the scenes. Now, they are visible in the Quick Launch area and they can each receive email.