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/

For the Children

imageLast Tuesday, in a post on my AIIM blog, I described my effort to begin crafting an Information Policy that will apply to one of our most recent SharePoint solutions. Eventually, I hope to have a collection of these policies bundled into a comprehensive information policy for our company. That may not happen in the 5 to 7 years that remain before I retire, but I’ve heard that it’s good to have goals. This first attempt was presented to the department earlier this week and the draft was well received, even after I explained that most of the work that remains will fall to them. We moved onto the other agenda items, but we kept coming back to the information policy, and I began to realize just how important this document is going to be. The point where this became most clear was well into the meeting when one person asked

“…how is this [SharePoint site] really any different than the K: drive?

It’s not the first time we’ve been asked this question in the years that we have been trying to move our content from shared folders to SharePoint, but this was perhaps the easiest it has ever been to answer that question.

“It’s different because we can answer three questions for every document on this site that we can’t usually answer for content on the K: drive:

1) Why did we create this document?

2) Who was involved in its creation and disposition?

3) Why did we keep it?”

The inability to answer those three questions is why most of the content on the K: drive will end up staying there. Once the shared drives become read-only; it will take a lot of effort to explore the content and answer those questions. That task will get even harder when the people who were here as those documents were created retire. The loss of tacit knowledge has already begun to affect our ability to classify older documents, without reading them and without a little guess work, and it’s only going to get worse.

One of the tasks that this group has to accomplish is to move a lot of historic content into the site we created for them. This effort will be guided by the information policy, and the experience will help them refine the policy. A good example of how this will work came as we demonstrated Boost Solutions’ Classifier product for them. I’ve written about this product before, but in a nutshell, it lets you quickly tag and process a lot of content that has similar qualities. We stumbled upon two documents that looked like good candidates, a draft contract from a vendor and a list of changes that our staff had proposed. Before we could process these, the head of the department asserted that “we should not keep these, because, in this case we only care about the final contract” which we also had. This led to a short discussion of the kinds of documents where we want to keep drafts and review commentary and the kinds of documents where we don’t. This distinction mapped well to the library structure we had created and there was a placeholder section in the draft information policy for that kind of management decision to be documented.

Other elements of the policy are equally important for helping future employees answer those three questions. For example, there is a section titled Definitions. In the draft of that section, I included the words, library names and metadata elements that need to be clearly defined. Two library names that I included were Internal Communication and External Communication – why do we need to define these? Well, maybe we could live with one definition, but are we talking about external to the company or external to this function? Another definition was a word we have all seen too many times in business, “stakeholders” – when does someone we do business with become a stakeholder? That’s important because it’s a metadata term used in a lot of places, and if stakeholders are involved, the apparent importance of the document increases.

In our board meetings at the New England Chapter of AIIM, we often describe a documentation task as being necessary “for the children.” In other words, we are taking the time to document something that we figured out, but that future board members shouldn’t have to. That’s the difference between managed content and a bunch of files in a shared folder. That’s why you create information policies and that’s why you pay attention to the definitions, guidelines and clear instructions that people include in that very important document. Of course, the policies can change, so when they do, the document should be revised.

CIP – Attained

clip_image002In a recent conversation on LinkedIn, a member raised the question of whether or not a person could have too many certifications. Her concern was that one might start to appear as a “jack-of-all-trades”, and I assume she was hinting at the disparaging follow-on to that phrase “…and master of none.” Well, I can’t be accused of having too many certifications; in fact I just received my very first. AIIM’s Certified Information Professional designation has been on my wish list since I first heard John Mancini mention it at an AIIM New England Chapter event in Concord, MA, but it remained elusive until last week. I took the exam on Monday and I am happy to report that I passed.

Why? – I have never put much stock in Certifications, mainly because I’ve seen so many bad practitioners who hold many, and because I have been privileged to work with some exemplary professionals who hold none. Of course, there are many, many people that fall between those extremes, but I’ve always felt that having the certification was at best an interesting side-note. The other thing that bothers me about most technology certifications is that they are tied to a specific technology. Information management – a.k.a. the stuff I’ve been doing throughout my career – has been merely supported by specific technologies. That’s what I like about the CIP; it’s an affirmation that the holder understands a broad body of knowledge that is agnostic of specific technologies. The CIP feels like the certification that represents the work that I do. I like the idea that there IS an accepted body of knowledge governing this industry and I feel good saying that I understand the fundamentals – in other words – I’m not making this stuff up.

Why now? – I guess there are two ways to answer this question. The cheeky way would be to point out that the CIP is relatively new, and I took the exam as soon as I could. There is some truth to that answer, but the second answer recognizes that it’s important to send the message that you’re never too old to learn, and it’s never too late to improve that which you have been doing “well enough” for years. My goal was actually broader than those answers. I hope that I can use this experience to help others understand that “information management” is not a technology, is not dependent on any one technology and handling information well is everyone’s job regardless of the technology in use.

Why AIIM? – Because that’s where the certification is. Sorry but this reminds me of an episode of M*A*S*H in which Hawkeye was told by a woman that there was a well for water about 2 miles away. He exclaimed “how can you do that?” (Walk 2 miles for water) and she replied: “Because that is where the water is” – Seriously though – why not AIIM? Who better to decide what a represents a broad look at information than the people who do that for a living? I’ve disclosed on numerous occasions that I’m an AIIM Professional Member, a member of the Board of the AIIM New England Chapter and, as of 1/1/13, a member of the Board of AIIM International. You are free to draw lines between me and AIIM and the CIP and this blog post, but make sure you put the arrowheads on the right end of those lines. I have chosen to become more involved with AIIM because I support the mission of the Association and I appreciate the quality of the products and services produced by the highly talented AIIM staff. This isn’t like “I got my MCSE Certification because my employer requires it.” This is “when my employer asked me to take on this responsibility, I turned to AIIM for education. Now, I am proud to be able to say that I meet their standard.” In fact, I’ve been writing this blog for over 4 years, and that sentiment has always been in my profile – go ahead and look, it’s in there.

Should you get your CIP? – I can’t answer that, but I will say that I think it is going to be a meaningful certificate. It seems to be gaining traction. The Department of Labor recognizes it, and some employers have started to list it as a qualification. The more important question is “do you understand why there are document management features in SharePoint?” “Do you understand the difference between Content Management and Records Management?” Actually there are plenty of questions like that; 100 will be on the exam. Maybe you should see for yourself if this is a certification you would like to have.

Will This Be On the Exam

clip_image002Earlier this week, I took a CIP Exam Preparation class conducted by Steve Weissman of The Holly Group. At some point, I’ll swing around to the Certified Information Professional and my reason for pursuing this certification, but today I am busy being reminded of something Steve said during our class:

What problem are you trying to solve and who are you trying to solve it for?

I don’t think this will be a question on the exam, but Steve circled back to this concept about 50 times as he wove Content Management best practices into the exam preparation class. I was reminded of this notion as soon as I returned to work, where I had a SharePoint related request waiting for me. The request was a simple one; I was being asked to create a document tracking site for one of our claims. In the past, this request might have made me sigh a little, but upon reflecting on Steve’s wisdom, I actually smiled.

The reason I might have sighed in the past, is that we have gone to great lengths to make these sites easy to build. The sites are created from a template, and there are a few easy-to-create list entries that also have to be made. Once the lists are updated, time can be charged (this is a site for lawyers), reports can be produced (when you have lawyers, can accountants be far behind?) and events can be scheduled. Once the site is created, documents can be stored in about 13 different libraries. While not self-provisioning, we have long thought that this was a task our claims people could do themselves. On the other hand, as I have pointed out several times on this and other blogs, I have to remember that “they have a day job” and that it isn’t to administer SharePoint.

I’m not sure if Steve meant for his mantra to be used in this manner, but I see it as containing a feedback mechanism. The first part of the question “what problem are you trying to solve?” is modified by the act of answering the second part. In fact, depending on who you identify as the solution-seeking party, the problem can take on a radically different form. In my case, if I were the person I was trying to solve the problem for; the goal would be to make the claim and site creation process more intuitive, more automated and to put it on rails for the end users. However, since the person in that position is one of our attorneys, he just wants the site to be created. The solution to that problem is much easier to provide, assuming that I am the one providing it. Since we work for the same company, the real question is “what is the most efficient way to create a new claim site?” For a variety of reasons, the answer is “…have someone in Information Services create the site.”

One of the other things that Steve emphasized in his class is that “none of this is technology!” This isn’t a SharePoint problem. This is a case management problem, an accounting problem, a scheduling problem and a compliance problem. SharePoint is the underlying technology on which we (information services) decided to build the solution(s) to these problems. SharePoint was a good choice, because it actually is capable of supporting all the collection, storage, management and distribution tasks (finally, something that will be on the exam) required to solve the business problem. Solving the business problem is the goal; we are solving the problem by using SharePoint so life is good. The fact that the SharePoint solution could be different, and that the tasks could be completed by other people is irrelevant – in this case.

If we were creating 10-15 sites a day, and if the availability of information service personnel to create those sites was in short supply, we might need to invest in making the provisioning process easier. If we did that, and 50% of the sites were being created incorrectly, we might need to make the process more exact. On the other hand, if no two claims were ever alike, we might have wasted our time building a template. In fact, since 2006, when we started building these sites, we have created six different templates. It’s not as bad as it sounds; each new template incorporated a simple modification to the site created by the previous template. The moral of the story is: “once you answer your questions, check to see that the answers are still correct.

It’s AIIM by a Mile

clip_image002It’s likely that I won’t be attending a SharePoint Conference in 2013. For those of you that like to get right to the point, it’s because I came to the AIIM Conference instead. If you care about the complex reasoning behind that, please keep reading. I have a limited amount of money in my training budget, my travel budget and I have a limited number of days that I can be away from the office. I have to be very selective when it comes to choosing which events I will attend.

In the interest of transparency, I feel I should point out that I recently joined the Board of Directors of AIIM. Why is that relevant? Well, there are four Board meetings that I have to attend, and even though those meetings are scheduled to accommodate parachuting in, staying overnight and scooting home, they still hit the budget. When I asked my boss if I could serve on the AIIM Board, I agreed that I would try to offset the days away from the office by eliminating other travel. Given all the moving parts in this equation, I was left with choosing between attending one of several SharePoint specific conferences or attending the AIIM Conference. Here’s a look at my analysis:

Which contributes more to me as a person? – This is a tough question to answer. I have participated in both SharePoint conferences and AIIM as an attendee and as a speaker, and both have been rewarding. I have made friends at both, and both give me the opportunity to connect with old friends and make new ones…hmm, this looks like a tie. Wait, there is a tie breaker, if I have to draw a line between ECM and SharePoint geekery, I would be standing on the ECM side. The how-to and wow-factor nature of presentations I’ve attended at SharePoint events appeals to me, but the geeky side of me. Sorry, I have to tip this ever-so-slightly to AIIM.

Which contributes more to my career? – I am in charge of Information Services in our company. AIIM is a Community of Information Professionals; is it that simple? Yes, it really is that simple. SharePoint is a tool that I use, that I endorse, that I selected and it’s a tool that I promote within our organization, but it’s one of many such tools. All the tools in my toolbox act upon our company’s information, so the better I understand information, the better I understand the myriad tools available and the better I understand what the future means to our information, the better I will be able to do my job. The better I do my job, the better my career will be – my employer is funny like that. When I look at the opportunity to listen to and learn from Seth Godin, David Weinberger, David Pogue, Michael Chul, Cheryl McKinnon, Thornton May, Laurence Hart and John Mancini (to name a few), I have to say “I don’t want to miss that!

Which is best for my employer? – That’s a fair question; after all they are picking up the tab. I think ANI is better served by my being exposed to a broad array of information management ideas, even though we currently use SharePoint. This is a point that some people have suggested that I’ve got wrong. Their argument is: “since you are using SharePoint, the best use of ANI’s money would be for you to learn how to use SharePoint better.” I say “maybe the best use of their money would be for me to question whether or not we should continue using SharePoint at all.” That might be a little cheeky, but we can’t assume that just because we made a decision, that it continues to be the best decision we can make. Maybe there is something that I’m missing simply because SharePoint doesn’t do it. Besides, it’s not always either/or, I can add tools alongside SharePoint.

Which contributes more to the success of our SharePoint implementation? – AIIM is the clear winner here, because the important thing that I need to master isn’t so much how to do things in SharePoint. The important thing is to do the things that I happen to be doing in SharePoint, better. Let me give you a couple quick examples:

It’s more important to know how to properly design metadata than it is to know how to configure a metadata column in SharePoint.

It’s more important to know when to call something a Record vs. Managed Content than it is to know how to create a Records Library in SharePoint.

These are answers I can get from people who may be using Box, or Nuxeo, or Alfresco, or Documentum. I can hear all these answers at AIIM, separate the concept from the product and apply the lessons to my SharePoint farm.

AIIM Conference 2013 was amazing, and I will sign-up for AIIM14 as soon as registration opens!

Information Management 101

clip_image002When AIIM decided to increase their emphasis on people, and spread their net beyond Content Managers to attract Information Professionals, I was thrilled. It may be minor semantics, but ‘information’ is easy to understand and ‘content’ – well content makes me think of ingredients. Ingredients are sometimes managed, like when a factory produces bread, or shampoo or beer, but ingredients are just as likely to be thrown together when you and your 6-year-old bake a pretty good cake. Ingredients sound like the stuff hidden in the fine print. Information sounds important, it sounds vetted and validated and downright useful. I decided to launch a series of training sessions around the concepts of information management because we are involved in a wide variety of systems development projects right now, and many more lie ahead.

The first training session was short, in fact I finished 5 minutes ahead of my 45 minute goal, but that may have been the only thing that the audience enjoyed. The message was simple but not entirely appreciated. That we are all ‘information professionals’ sounds flattering, but pointing out what constitutes ‘professional behavior’ isn’t so appealing. One of the slides that wasn’t accepted well at all was the one titled “What’s Not a System”. From the thousands of things that aren’t systems, I chose four that cause the most problems for me:

Templates – Word, PowerPoint and even SharePoint all make great use of templates, but the idea that building a solution from a template is enough to insure consistency, reliability and usefulness is folly. Templates are like the recipes that guide our use of ingredients. We can change templates, ignore portions, delete portions or put the wrong things in the wrong place. Saying “I used the template” isn’t really the equivalent of saying “I followed the rules” – It’s more like saying “I had the rulebook open at the time.

Spreadsheets – I like to think about spreadsheets the way I think about sports cars. In the hands of the right people, they are both fantastic. If the people are unskilled, unwilling to follow the rules of the road, on the wrong road or trying to do the wrong thing, the end result will not be pretty. You can move furniture in a sports car, but… Spreadsheets are good at so many things, but pretending to be an automated system isn’t one of them. Spreadsheets are fragile, hard to debug, hard to document, way too easy to copy (and then confuse the copies), and way too easy to be made to look official. Even worse than when people try to use spreadsheets as a data processing system, is when they try to use them as a content management system. The simple row-column interface of a spreadsheet encourages people to store, track and categorize stuff the way the top left kitchen drawer attracts gadgets. When you go back and try to sort and filter your list though, you realize that ‘Cars’ are not ‘Automobiles’ are not ‘Chevys’ are not ‘Vehicles’ and so on and so on.

Folders – My target here wasn’t just the myriad file folders on the remaining share drives in use on our network. I also took aim at the SharePoint libraries that were created, from some of those file folders. Folders and unmanaged libraries are not systems, and they provide minimal (at best) support for managing information. Yes, folders do help us to organize information, but they can’t enforce rules, they can be moved, renamed, and they can hold so many things that don’t belong in them that they are the top left kitchen drawer. Folders are a good starting point, if you have better places to put the things that are in them and if you are willing to throw some things away.

People – Actually, in a failed attempt to be cute, I said “You” are not a system. I went on to explain that people are pretty unreliable when it comes to managing information. People make the rules, but they also forget the rules they make. People take short-cuts through the processes they define, ignore the procedures or convince themselves that rules and procedures were meant to apply to “other” people. The most dangerous thing about people is that they think, and when they think, they convince themselves that changes should be made and then they make them. Systems can change, but only when the changes are confirmed to be appropriate by everyone who will be affected and then only under the control of the same process by which the systems were built. I wish people wanted to manage information the way some want to play football, then I could try something like this.

What Advice Do You Have

clip_image002Our SharePoint projects are teetering between steps right now, so I thought I’d move away from the core subject of this blog to talk about and to solicit some feedback from you on the subject of mentoring. I’m bringing this up now, because in a few days, one of my coworkers and I will be participating in a Career Fair at an area high school. Between us, we will be talking to six different classes full of 10th, 11th and 12th graders about careers in our industry.

The questions we are supposed to answer are:

  • How did you end up in your profession?
  • What is the training?
  • What is the job outlook?
  • What do you do in a typical day?
  • What do you like and dislike about your career?
  • What skills are needed?
  • What advice would you have for High School students interested in entering your profession?

When I started to consider that list, I found myself scratching my head. I mean “do I even have a typical day?” I can point to a host of lessons and skills I learned in college that I rely on every day, but I also have to recognize that much of what I do didn’t exist until recently. There are fundamental threads that lead to success in this industry, but I don’t know if there’s a sure-fire road to follow. An interesting twist to those questions comes from a different mentoring experience. Another coworker and I are mentoring a senior MIS Networking and Communication class at a CT state university. As part of that assignment, we had to build a case study for them to work on during the semester. We took a working aspect of our business, our foreign reinsurance, and cast it as a new business opportunity that we have to gear up to support within a short amount of time. So their assignment involves imagining how we would do our business differently, if we started today and had to be ready to operate within this budget year. I am curious to see if the solutions they come up with would be something we should actually think about.

If you have the opportunity to work with students, at any level in the education system, I would urge you to do so. First, it’s rewarding – both the students and the teachers, instructors, professors you will work with will truly appreciate hearing from people who are doing this stuff in real life. Second, when you sit down to prepare to help these students, you will likely find yourself reflecting on your current situation. “How did you get here?” and “is this where you / your company should be?” are tough questions that we should all ask from time to time.

Swinging back to SharePoint, is there any danger that we have become trapped by our investment of time and money? Is SharePoint still the right choice for your business? I had to answer that question last November, and although I answered in the affirmative, that question also was a head-scratcher. I don’t ever want to stand up in front of a bunch of 18 year olds and say “well, I’ve been doing the same thing for 10 years, because I didn’t feel like changing, growing or questioning the value of the products I work with.” I am certain that SharePoint is still a good choice for our company. I recognize that if I had to choose today, the process would be more involved and I’d have more products and services to consider. I also realize that there is no guarantee that SharePoint will remain the best choice forever, in fact I like knowing that, because that should keep the pressure on Microsoft to keep SharePoint moving forward. I don’t plan to tell the high school students that “I work with SharePoint” – I’m going to go with “I’m an information professional” and tell them that products come and go and that they should get used to that.