Plan Faster

imageThat’s the Jack Rabbit pictured at the right. It’s a roller coaster in Kennywood Park outside of Pittsburgh and it’s been rolling since 1920. It has changed over time, but it still offers the basic promise of a thrilling ride. It’s still a very important part of the overall joy of spending a day at Kennywood. I’m sorry, this isn’t my vacation blog, and I do have a point. The world of information management is changing very fast, but we can still keep the whole package viable, if we manage change correctly.

About a year ago, we made the decision to use Citrix ShareFile. I started to explain that a while back, and I promised a more detailed explanation, but I’m not going to provide that today. One reason is that the ShareFile we decided to use has changed. It’s changed quite a bit, as has every other file-sharing service. If I explained the features we liked about ShareFile this time last year, you might say: “you can get 10x that amount of file space today for free!” You would be wrong. You can get closer to 50x today for free if you look in the right places.

That isn’t the point, that can’t be the point.

That could never be the point. You could never make business decisions based solely on price, but you clearly can’t do that today when it comes to file sharing and online storage.

The point, my dilemma, the next IT problem, is that the pace of change is exceeding our ability to plan like we used to. Remember Roadmaps? Remember when the industry leading vendors would tell you what they were planning to do over the course of the next 3-5 years? I do. I remember being able to take those roadmaps, with a few grains of salt, and build our 1-3 year plans from them.

Forget that.

You can’t do that anymore.

We selected a product/service (ShareFile) in October 2013. By the time we explained our plans to use that service to a committee representing our customers in April 2014, it had changed significantly. Now, as we are getting ready to roll out the solution, it has changed even more. It’s OK. It still does what we want it to do. And, the changes are mostly good, or the kind that might be good someday. I don’t have this stuff all figured out, but here are a few things I think we have to keep in mind as we try to hang onto this ride:

Maintain control – You can’t run your business if you cede control to vendors who are fighting for their own survival. You might not be able to specify the details of your plan as it extends very far into the future, but you still have to have a plan.

Maintain focus – If you’re saying “how can I plan when technology is changing so fast?” you might be focused on the wrong thing. You might be focused on the tools. My plan is to support the business needs of our company. ShareFile is a tool that I am using to meet those needs.

Be the buffer – If you think your head is swimming in a sea of technological change, think about your non-technical coworkers. You might be able to (I’m dropping the metaphor before I have to talk about someone drowning) deal with the pace of change, but they can’t. They shouldn’t have to. Remember, they have a day job. Even if you are using a cloud-based solution, you can control the pace of change through the solutions you build.

Avoid kit solutions – I buy a lot of tools, but the ones I won’t buy are the 18-piece battery powered every-tool-you-ever-need kits. I don’t buy them because when the batteries die and the new-fangled batteries aren’t being made to fit that kit, I’ve lost 18 tools. SharePoint might be a kit. I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy it, but we have narrowed our plans to use SharePoint to stay closer to what we think are its core capabilities. ShareFile basically does one thing. It’s a thing we need, so we’re good.

Avoid capital expenditures – One side-effect of cloud-based solutions is a move to subscription fees vs. capital expenditures. That’s a good thing. Large capital expenditures have to work over a long enough time to provide the return on the investment that you made to acquire them. The return on investment ends when those 18 inoperable tools have to be carted to the curb.

Communicate – Even though you can’t introduce change to your coworkers as fast as it’s being introduced to you, you have to change things faster than they want you to. Let people know what you’re thinking and where you are heading. Let people know when your plans start to change. Let them know that you’re managing rapid and uncontrollable change on their behalf.

Buckle-up, keeps your hands in the car at all times and enjoy the ride.

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.