What – No SharePoint?

imageEarlier this week a group of volunteers gathered in Woburn, MA to chart the educational course of the AIIM New England Chapter. We’ve been working for several years to “put the program on rails” but we decided to derail a couple of old standards. One of those appears to be the notion that we should have one event every year dedicated to SharePoint.

This used to be a slam-dunk event for the Chapter; in its heyday, tossing the word “SharePoint” after anything was an immediate win.

Join the parishioners of the Triple Rock Baptist Church for a day of preaching and music, followed by a bake sale, potluck dinner and some SharePoint – Jake; get wise, you get to church

We always tried to give our SharePoint events an AIIM-ish twist. We explored ‘Usability’ in SharePoint. We explored ‘Governance’ in SharePoint. We teamed up with the folks over at ARMA Boston to explore ‘Records Management’ in SharePoint and we tried to figure out what people are really doing with SharePoint. We had some success, but two things seem clear. OK, one thing seems clear and one seems a little fuzzy. Clearly, interest in SharePoint as a subject is waning among our members. Fuzzily, (oh my goodness, that is a word), the direction in which SharePoint is moving, or trying to move, is getting hard to predict. I’m not suggesting a doom and gloom scenario, but if we try to build an event around a product, we need to have a clear picture of the road ahead.

So, rather that market a “message for SharePoint” that has benefit to the broader masses of Information Professionals, we are going to offer a series of messages for that broader group that we hope will attract people from the SharePoint community, too.

Now that I’ve let AIIM NE’s agenda co-opt my blog space for a few hundred words, I think I’ll give you a break and bring this to a quick end. I would ask for a little help though. As many of you know, I am the Program Director for AIIM New England. We are trying to chart a different course this year, partly because, like many professional associations, we are struggling to find the right mix of topics that you (information professionals) will find interesting.

If you have a few minutes, would you please fill out this survey? I promise you that it will only take a few minutes of your time and the results are very important to us. We, by the way, are a small group of like-minded information professionals (well, maybe not entirely like-minded) who volunteer our time to spread the word and provide meaningful educational events at a ridiculously low price to the broad community of (say it with me now) information professionals.

Note: if you have problems with that survey link, for example, if WuFoo asks you to open an account, paste the URL below into your browser. We don’t care if you become a WuFoo customer (although we like them) but we really do want your input – https://aiimne.wufoo.com/forms/aiim-ne-2014-program-survey/

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.

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.

This Has to Go – No Wait

imageOne of the amazing things you will frequently witness during the process of automating something is the transition from unconcerned consumer to connoisseur. People who were perfectly happy tossing a bunch of files into a folder on the K: drive suddenly become concerned with the induction, retention and disposition process. People, who were comfortable pawing their way through a bunch of similarly named documents, worry about the effectiveness of versioning. People who were un-phased by using email as the transport layer for collaboration question the reliability of alerts and people who have probably recreated content they couldn’t find obsess over the accuracy of search. The good news is that no matter how unfounded their concerns, the answer with SharePoint is usually “yes you can”, “yes it does” or “we can make that work the way you want!” Our most recent struggle with these questions revolved around the destruction of documents.

There are at least two points in the document life-cycle where a destruction policy is necessary. One is at the end of the retention period, when the document no longer has value. The other is during the creation of major version. We want to keep the major version, but we may need to delete the drafts and / or the prior version. This makes perfect sense, and is easy to understand for any given document, but it becomes difficult when you start thinking about hundreds of documents. SharePoint provides numerous tools to help us through this process, but it also complicates our policy making process. Library settings, alerts and workflows in SharePoint, enable us to implement retention, destruction, notification and even legal holds on content, but they apply to libraries. This means that we have to extend our analysis up-front to the decisions that lie in the future.

“Will all the documents in this library be disposed of according to the same policy?

If the answer is “no” then you need a different library.

The other problem we have to deal with is the standard double-edged sword that is SharePoint, namely that we tend to mix collaboration and content management in the same place. I truly love the fact that we can support a collaborative, iterative content development process inside the library where complex content will be stored. It reminds me of the new construction within the industry we insure, where fabrication and storage facilities have been built proximate to the emerging power plant. When completed, the construction remnants will be removed, just like the draft documents and many of the data sets and spreadsheets that supported the analysis and decision making along the way. However, just like with the documents themselves, these are decisions that have to be made up-front. How many drafts do we keep? How long do we keep them? Who decides when a draft document is published as a major version? How many major versions do we keep?

The real problem isn’t with SharePoint, and, to avoid the faux pas revealed in last week’s post, I will add that it isn’t really a problem. As we work to change the collective behavior of people, we are asking them to give up the control they perceive to be inherent in the current process. People have a sense, however false, that they are in control of the contents of a shared folder, and when we ask them to yield that control to workflows and policies, and they instinctively push back. The fact that I can point to 60,000 documents under a root-level shared folder as indication that the current process is out of control is irrelevant. The thought process says “I can take control of this content at any point” and we don’t see that capability in SharePoint. I can modify the parameters that control the automatic actions, but that is buried beneath the surface; I can’t touch those parameters as easily as I can the documents themselves. In addition, the decisions we make affect all the documents in a library. That is a great benefit, but it’s also a scary proposition.

Time to Build Something

AIIM Conference 2012 - Ready for KeynotesLate last week, I was discussing a SharePoint project with a group of coworkers, where I had to keep saying “that doesn’t matter” and “it doesn’t make a difference” following each with “from SharePoint’s point of view”. I was working with a newly assembled team in our company who, among other things, are trying to organize a big bunch of documents that they inherited. My first encounter with this group spawned a blog entry about the importance of context, over on my AIIM blog. This second meeting was the result of the experts having categorized the stuff they have and my first pass at how we might want to deal with those categories in SharePoint.

The result of their examination of content in hand and content imagined included 29 categories of information and 46 topics within those categories. After the meeting, we agreed to build a site that will be comprised of 3 custom lists, 9 libraries and two sub-sites. The sub-sites will be created from templates as we will need to have many of each type over time. In addition to that, we will repurpose one existing custom list by pulling a special view of its content into this site using Marc Anderson’s SPServices library (something we learned last week). The distillation process during this week’s meeting was governed by 4 principles:

  • Finadbility – The first objective was for people to be able to come to this site in the future and find what they looking for without a lot of poking around.
  • Usability – The site should be characterized by a good user experience. That means, we should organize content in ways that support useful webpart views, dashboards and clear navigation based on the implied question “how can we help you?
  • Sustainability – Three of the four people in this group will retire in less than 10 years. Not only does this site store the content that the people who will take over our jobs will need, we don’t want their first task to be to rebuild this site.
  • Governance – There is some stuff on this site that needs to be protected, some that needs to be monitored and some that needs to be destroyed when it becomes out of date.

I was very impressed with the members of this group, and their ability to imagine how they would work with the site, how their content might evolve and how future employees, without the benefit of the 90+ years of tacit knowledge in the room, would look at this content. However, we finally reached a point where our discussion exceeded our collective imagination. In describing the way a library’s metadata might allow for a specific view to be rendered in a webpart, for example, I was asking them to build imaginary extensions to imaginary objects. In trying to help me design a better solution, they were describing hypothetical documents that might result from meetings with hypothetical stakeholders. It was time to actually build something. I don’t dance nearly as well as Marc Anderson so I suggested that I start building the site, in my office, on Monday.

There are two important lessons to take away from this meeting, they aren’t included here, and neither have anything to do with SharePoint. The first take-away from our meeting is something that I actually have to go around and fix in a few places. One of the topics we discussed was whether or not we wanted to have a place for historic documents that were related to this project. At first, we thought that was a good idea, but after a short discussion, the consensus was “no!” Even though I’ve seen this done in the past, I now realize that it makes no sense. A history library would contain “the stuff we didn’t want to read when we started this project in 2012.” It’s not like there was an epoch changing event last week. Nuclear power has been around for about 55 years – in terms of our civilization, that’s not a long enough period of time to start carving it up into ‘before and after’ sections.

The second point – the discussion we had was based on Information and Content Management principles that I learned through AIIM. I plug that association a lot on this blog, but without the help of the programs and people in AIIM, our SharePoint implementation would be nothing more than a web-based K: drive.

Learning How to Drive SharePoint

imageEarlier this week, I met with a group of people in our company who are gearing up to build a very important site on SharePoint. This is one of those times when I can’t share a lot of specific details, but I can talk about general elements, concerns, goals and problems. Well, hopefully we won’t have any problems. This site will have two major sets of requirements: some dealing with the need to be transparent and some associated with the need to enforce broad aspects of governance. Two examples include: the need to have official documents, but not draft material be visible, and the desire to control what people do with sensitive documents.

Managing the visibility of drafts is easy in SharePoint, but it’s one of those pesky things where the end-user really has to understand how to make SharePoint work. Versioning is one of the most powerful features in SharePoint’s arsenal of document management tools, but in my experience, it is often viewed merely as a backup and recovery tool. Versioning gives document creators the ability to retain distinct drafts of documents, decide which version of a document is currently available for public consumption and control who can see the versions that are currently being written. The most we can do as administrators is to talk with the project manager up front and help him or her configure the library settings to match the level of control they want to establish – we can’t do the work for them. This is when information management is like driver training. You can talk about it forever, but sooner or later, you have to hand over the keys, put the person behind the wheel and hope they remember everything there is to know.

Before you even get to the point of establishing the versioning settings, you have to address a different aspect of governance; “who should have access to the library?” SharePoint includes robust and extremely granular permission capabilities, but to avoid having to drive as if you’re on a Formula-1 course, you really want to avoid regular use of some of them. For instance, document level permissions should only be used on an exception basis. If I need to see a document in a library where I do not have access, temporary access to that document can be granted. On the other hand, I would never use document level permissions to accommodate people who only have access to some of the documents in a library. That situation calls for two libraries, or at least a restricted folder. The reason is simple; people will forget what has to be done. If I grant you temporary access to a single document, I will either remember to revoke the permission later or little harm will be done when I forget. If you only have access to certain documents in a library, I may easily forget to block access as new documents are added, and that mistake could be harmful.

Regarding the second challenge, restricting the actions people can perform, I think might be dealing with one of those situations where even if SharePoint could do the job or be made to do the job, it might not be a good idea. I talked about the conflict between security and usability in my presentation at the AIIM Conference, as did many of the presenters in the sessions I attended. The idea that we can absolutely control behavior is a fleeting notion these days. Instead, I like the idea of making sure people understand the issues and then helping them to make good choices. For example, we discussed using conditional formatting to highlight documents that we don’t want people emailing off-site. I know there are add-ons for SharePoint that say they can prevent attaching a document to an email, but I also know that if someone is bound and determined to send a document, I’m hard pressed to really prevent them from doing just that. Similarly, they may not want people making copies of the documents in certain libraries. We can audit activity against that content, but I’m not sure I want to try to prevent the action. I think we can live with a model of “education, facilitation and monitoring – repeat as necessary” as opposed to lock it down and throw away the key. Transparency, from both the consumer and curator point of view seems like a better fit with something that is supposed to be a collaborative environment.