Business – not SharePoint Solutions

imageTwo recent projects have caused me to realize that SharePoint has finally arrived in our small organization. I don’t mean that it’s here and in use, it’s been here since 2006. I don’t even think I’m talking about “adoption” the way that word is often used with respect to SharePoint. It’s arrived in that it’s now part of the permanent landscape and that’s a good thing. It’s good because people aren’t fighting the idea of SharePoint. On the other hand, SharePoint has only managed to shove itself into the mix. It isn’t the dominant player. It isn’t calling the shots. It’s on the team but it has to play by the same rules as everything else.

One of the projects we are close to completing has SharePoint in the leading role. The application is a portion of our payables process and people are now creating payment requests in SharePoint. Other people are reviewing those requests, adding comments and still other people are approving those requests. If all of this lived in SharePoint, SharePoint would rule the day. However, the back-end of this process is a desktop application that takes those approved requests and prints checks. That application also creates ACH transactions and wire-transfers. Eventually SharePoint will be the starting point for all those transactions, but everything SharePoint does has to feed that system.

Other processes are involved too. For example, we can’t present a payable for payment without making sure that the person / company we are trying to pay isn’t a terrorist. In that case, the back-end process is actually the starting point. We check vendors before we authorize them to be paid and we continue to check to make sure they don’t become terrorists. I suppose the back-end stuff could be done in SharePoint but it’s easier the way we’ve done it.

Note: All of those processes involve data that is stored in SQL Server and my crew had to battle with every imaginable issue (all of them permissions) to get those connections working reliably.

The second system we are working on is a storage system for some very important information. In order to make sure this stuff is available when we need it, it will exist in SharePoint on premises, some of it will be replicated in SharePoint Online and some will be replicated on a bunch of iPads. In this case, SharePoint is cast in the boring supporting actor role. Yes, SharePoint is holding all the stuff in house and holding all the stuff online, but the iPad app is the cool kid. Accordingly, SharePoint has to try to fit in.

We decided that the way the content is organized in the iOS app will determine the way it is organized in SharePoint. In other words, the list and library structure in SharePoint will correspond to the structure of root categories and detail topics in the iPad app. The app design is intuitive, something that SharePoint struggles with out of the box. The design is simple enough that it won’t take much work to make SharePoint look and feel consistent with the iPad. Still, a few years ago, this wouldn’t have been a consideration.

SharePoint and SQL Server was an arranged marriage and like many of those, it works, but it’s weak on love. We are making the connections work, the connections do work, but they all seemed to have taken more effort than should have been required. SharePoint and iPads? I’m pretty sure that was never part of anybody’s plan, but it has to work. We have to build a solution that spans those platforms and looks like it was meant to be.

Welcome to the real world SharePoint.

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.

To: TheSharePointLibraryAcceptingSteps@ourDomain.com
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.

Thanks,
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.

Good Sales – No Surprises

clip_image002I’m so sick of the election coverage that I was actually happy the other day when the local NPR station switched to their fall fundraising during my morning commute. I also realized that it was time to change the audio source for my radio. The car is still sort of new, but I thought I was comfortable with the controls for the radio. I switched input devices a couple of times and Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Halley Came to Jackson” started playing. I knew that the song was on the mix-CD my daughter had given me, and that that CD was in the slot, so life was good again. A few minutes later, “Crippled Inside” by John Lennon was playing and since I knew that song wasn’t on the CD, I started to wonder what was going on. To my surprise, the Bluetooth connection between my car and my iPhone also includes the ability for the car radio to fire up the music library on my phone – what a great idea! If you haven’t guessed, Mary Chapin Carpenter is a favorite and lives in all libraries.

Earlier this week, I was talking with one of our newer employees. He said that he was really becoming convinced that SharePoint was going to play a key role in his department’s effort to turn the pile of documents and their tacit knowledge into accessible information for future employees. However, he added that he wished it was easier to work with. His particular concern was the disparity between the ease of access to email while traveling and access to SharePoint. I asked him if he had the Harmon.ie app on his iPad and when he said “no”, I knew that I had a surprise for him. I told him about the basic feature that caused us to buy Harmon.ie, the ability to integrate SharePoint content with Outlook, and then I explained how Harmon.ie works seamlessly when you move from your laptop/desktop to your iPad – what a great idea!

This isn’t the first vehicle I’ve had that has had Bluetooth, but it’s the first time I bothered to pair my iPhone to the car; I was always happy with a Bluetooth earbud. Similarly, Harmon.ie has been available to our employees for over a year, but some have chosen to ignore the application. Behind both bad decisions is the fact that we often decide whether or not to use a particular technology based on what we think it will do for us. Part of the reason that we do that is the fact that there is a lot of technology, it changes fast and comprehensive solutions are no longer the norm.

Consider that most of the technology I have that deals with music is in the form of a single function iOS app. Before buying this car, the most complicated bit of music technology was the copy of iTunes on my Windows desktop (which Apple is gradually making irrelevant). By contrast, the radio in this car is so complex that its features require the bulk of the owner’s manual and a separate section of the car’s iOS app for description. I should mention that the car is a mid-range Jeep, and this is far from a tricked-out sound system. I am probably seeing an analogy with SharePoint here, because I see them everywhere, but I think it’s fair to say that very few people understand the full capabilities of SharePoint, especially where it has been tricked-out with a few add-ons. That’s where we (practitioners) have to get involved; we have to unveil the surprises.

The salesman who sold me this Jeep showed me the jack where I can connect an iPod. He should have said “I see that you have an iPhone, if you have music on it, you don’t even need a cable, and you will be able to control the music library using the radio’s features.” Similarly, when I’m selling SharePoint, I need to do a better job of pointing out its features, as well as those of Harmon.ie and Longitude Search. Whether that requires me to create more articles for that online newsletter I created, or schedule more training, or just walk around and talk to people; I need to peel back the cover a bit on SharePoint so people who won’t otherwise look get a glimpse of what lies inside.

In case anyone reading this feels that the real take-away from my surprise was that we have to build solutions that exploit their connections, stay-tuned – I’m still thinking about that.

This Will be Fine

clip_image002I want to thank Doreen for filling in for me last week. Judging by my stats, I should have her fill in more often. While she was introducing herself, I was enjoying some of the attractions near my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA and I am happy to say that I almost forgot about SharePoint completely. Coming back to work in the middle of the week is great (mentally) but it makes it hard to dig out and find something to write about. As often happens, something lands in my inbox that solves that problem. This time, it was an email from a different member of my team, pointing me to an article from Information Week, about the Microsoft Web Apps preview for iOS devices.

I have written several times about why Microsoft needs to support iOS devices better, and I am very happy to see this step being taken. I know they are racing to deliver their own hardware, and that’s great, but hardware and software should be treated as different markets; after all, it’s the application people want, and that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing for me too, because it supports the approach that we agreed to take in our company. Our goal is to enable our employees to do their jobs wherever they are, whenever they like and to utilize the computer hardware they happen to be carrying at the time. The current state of this offering isn’t perfect, but I see this glass as half-full and filling.

Implementation – There are a number of features that are missing from the web apps that I hope will eventually be included, and there are some annoying aspects to the user experience, but I don’t care. Microsoft has taken a big step in the right direction and I can deal with an evolving product. At this point, I can work on Office documents on my iPad, and with the help of the products like Harmon.ie and SharePlus, and SkyDrive, I can easily get documents from Exchange and / or SharePoint and back again and now I can edit them with relative ease. I have actually been able to do these things for a while, but it has been getting easier and it’s getting close to the point of being seamless. That’s good, because that’s what I told my users would happen eventually. As I look ahead to the planned integration between Office, SharePoint, Outlook and SkyDrive, I see nothing but blue skies.

Approach – I hope that I am correct in assuming that this approach indicates that Microsoft wants to be a player in the open market. Their platforms (Exchange, SQL Server, SharePoint, etc.) can sell on their merit. Their hardware, (Surface, phones, etc.) can sell on their merit and their software i.e. Office can leverage its dominant position and sell on its merit. Office shouldn’t have to prop-up sales of phones and tablets; those things should be successful if they are as good as or better than the competition. My decision to embrace Microsoft products shouldn’t make people hate me because they associate it with the reason that they have to give up the device they love. OK, I’ll never fully recover from displacing Word Perfect with Word, but I’ve gotten over that, even if some of my coworkers haven’t. Kudos to Microsoft for taking this approach.

Future – I don’t want to suggest that Microsoft is invincible, but I think things look pretty good for the future. I’m not sure that I agree with all of the plans for Windows 8 and I certainly hope that they reverse the decision to drop the Design View from SharePoint Designer, but the community will keep them from failing. We will engage with the new products, we will continue to build solutions on SharePoint and Windows, and third-party vendors will continue to fill the holes, smooth off the rough edges and extend the vision as required. As I’ve already pointed out, I have been working with Word documents, stored in SharePoint, on my iPad for over a year. I didn’t need a solution from Microsoft because others were quick to fill that void.

OK, so those are all the comforting thoughts I’m focusing on today. In addition, I’m enjoying editing a couple of old documents and my AIIM Conference Presentation from earlier this year, on my iPad. This week has ended on a very good note and I’m optimistic about the future.

Form vs. Function

imageWhen we get firewood delivered, I usually poke around the pile to see if there are any interesting bits that might work better in my woodshop than the woodstove. The piece pictured below seemed to want to be a bowl. Unfortunately, as you can see it was difficult to expose the natural features and make it round. In turning it, I had to decide where to stop, as I was opening up more of the missing 80° gap with each pass. I stopped just before plowing through the undercut side, and ruining the piece. That left me with something between a functional piece and an artistic statement. Of course I’m sharing this because I see parallels to the discussion we are having at work.

Our current challenge is to decide which systems or parts of systems are going to be hand-crafted fat-client desktop applications (the stuff Microsoft has labeled ‘legacy’), which are going to end up in SharePoint and which will land on a phone or tablet. This is heady stuff, but like my bowl, I think our results will be defined by balancing our goals between form and function.

imageDesktop vs. Browser – Despite the legacy stamp, I can’t imagine anyone choosing to run transaction processing systems in a browser. I might enjoy the novelty of processing a transaction in a browser, but I can tell you from my experience with our expense reporting system, performing multiple transactions in a browser is painful. On the other hand, viewing certain reports in a browser as opposed to on paper has definite appeal. Of course we still need printed reports in some cases, but fewer than we have had in the past. Fortunately SharePoint and SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) lets us give that choice to the user. In between those extremes will be the functional elements that we can break away from the full-blown transaction. For example, allowing an underwriter to mock-up and request one of a few changes to a policy would make sense for several reasons:

  1. To add at these features to our rating system would be difficult
  2. These types of transactions occur less than 1/10 as often as complete rating transactions
  3. The component transactions appeal to several people and those people travel

Browser vs. Mobile – Notice that I’m not starting with Desktop vs. Mobile and for clarity, when I say mobile, I mean native mobile apps, not simply exposing a browser-based application on a mobile device. Until we get well beyond the point of the tablet replacing the laptop, I don’t see tablets or smartphones being the domain of transaction processing. I’m sorry, as much as people are all hyped up about being able to run full-blown Windows on a tablet, they aren’t going to replace laptops or desktops for processing transactions. You might be able to get everthing running, but who wants to work like that? For the foreseeable future, there will be a distinct difference between apps and applications. Apps will be rifle-shot accurate programs that allow for handling specific tasks from anywhere. Applications will remain shotgun style programs that cover a lot of ground from the comfort of a desk. Starting an automobile claim from an accident site, with a picture and a minimum of on-scene information is easy. Processing a complex cash receipt covering multiple transactions in multiple currencies isn’t going to happen while I am:

  • Using a handheld device, or any device that prevents simultaneously viewing several legible windows/widgets
  • In the absence of a horizontal work surface
  • Using a tenuous or unsecure Internet connection
  • More than 50’ from a printer

As with browser-based solutions, there are tons of opportunities to break out specific functions to mobile apps. The approval process is a great example. Approval is a rifle shot function, and it has to happen when it has to happen – a perfect match for a mobile device.

As I have mentioned in recent blog entries, we have been investigating SharePoint’s capability to fill the “in browser” circle of the Venn diagram I am imagining, and I am very happy with those capabilities. The key to SharePoint’s awesome potential is its ability to connect to the back-end data and the myriad ways it can manipulate and render that data. The person marshaling the transactions may want to be at a desk, the person approving a single transaction can use their phone, but the person who has an interest in the initiation or the results of those transactions will be very happy in a browser.

Welcome 2012…Reprise

clip_image002As far as years go, 2011 wasn’t one of the best. Personally, I started the year in the care of a physical therapist struggling to mend a shoulder injury. Turning to business, and keeping in mind the business that we are in (insuring nuclear power facilities), 2011 brought us a little bit of everything. Topping the list were the devastating events in Japan, and as the year comes to a close, our thoughts and prayers remain with the hundreds of thousands of people affected by the earthquake and tsunami in March. Closer to home, our domestic insureds had brushes with tornados, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Our offices were closed due to snow on three occasions and dark for a total of 5 days from storms Irene and Alfred. 2011 was also a year in which we seemed to make a technological bet against Microsoft. We agreed on a strategy that put an iPad in the hands of about one third of our key users and saw us solidify our support for iPhones. As I write this blog entry, I am watching my MacBook Pro receive files from my MacBook Air and those files include my XCode development environment. So, what is it that has this SharePoint guy looking forward to 2012? In a word, everything.

If you follow any of my blogs, you know that we made a lot of progress on several SharePoint projects in 2011. We are entering 2012 on a roll, and one of the first things we will do is showcase some of that success to others in our small company. In addition, when we placed our bet on Apple, we counted on Microsoft to see the light and support iOS too. On Christmas Eve, I had a conversation with a friend from his iPhone Lync client, four days later, that client was running on my iPhone too. Rumor has it that Office apps are not far behind, and that’s a good thing for me, for Apple and for Microsoft, at least according to my own informal research – the top story on this blog in 2011 was “SharePoint on My iPad!”

My optimism is bolstered by the awesome performance of my team. My Systems Admin took everything we had learned about SharePoint and the way we use this powerful tool, and built our SP2010 environment from the ground up to fit our needs like a well-made glove. The woman on our team, who has been responsible for the user experience of SharePoint, stepped forward from the confidence-infusing session we had with Marc Anderson, and crafted some awesome features for our engineers. More importantly, she helped demonstrate that SharePoint has a role in our future development. Again, my informal statistics would indicate that SharePoint as a development platform is a good thing for others as well – “Symply the Best” my post about our training session with @Sympmarc, sits nicely in the top-10 SharePoint Stories posts of all time.

For the non-SharePoint fans in my world, we will be hiring a new developer in 2012, and he won’t be focused on SharePoint. His (or her) job will be to replace an aging generation of applications that run our niche business. On the other hand, he won’t be able to escape SharePoint’s reach entirely. Our users have already told us that they want the things that SharePoint does well to reside in SharePoint. So, contacts, tasks, and documents will be in SharePoint; while workflow and reporting will walk the lines between fat-client, client server and a browser powered by SharePoint.

2011 started with what seemed to be a series of sharp divisions between Apple and Microsoft, SharePoint and desktop, and documents and structured content. 2012 is starting with all of those worlds beginning to coalesce around the concepts of information and solutions. That brings me to AIIM, the organization that has been predicting, nudging, supporting and cheering this merger on for years. Rounding out the list of (my) popular blog entries is a collection of stories that are grounded in the concept of Content-Centric Applications, the term introduced to me by Jane Zupan of Nuxeo that I have embraced as the model for my future. As we start to define and build our next generation applications, structured and non-structured data will share center stage. AIIM has anticipated this development and seems well prepared to help lead the way with a new certificate program, a new conference and, at least in our corner of the world, a renewed interest in chapter events. I won’t quote Mr. Scrooge and claim to be “as giddy as a schoolgirl”, but I am looking forward to 2012 and I wish you all a Happy and Prosperous New Year.