What does it Mean to WorkSmart

clip_image002Sorry for the little play on words in the title but I spent an amazing day on Thursday at ADNET Technologies annual WorkSmart Summit. ADNET is a technology services and training company and WorkSmart is simply one of the best educational experiences of the year. Did I mention that it was free? Yeah, it was free.

Free usually means supported by vendors and that usually means that you have to sit through have the opportunity to attend a bunch of scripted commercials presentations by those vendors – NOT at WorkSmart. Some vendors did offer presentations, but they were focused on helping us (the customers) to understand a bit of technology, not to hear about their product. One of those presentations was by the morning keynote speaker, Bob Lincavicks who is a Technology Strategist with Microsoft. The title of Bob’s presentation was “The Evolving Future of Productivity” and although he gave himself numerous opportunities to talk about Lync and Exchange and SharePoint, he didn’t. Oh, he mentioned the product names, but no commercial. Bob talked about concepts, history, The Jetsons (and flying cars) and people (and flying cars), I think if Microsoft ever makes a flying car, Bob should be the head of sales.

clip_image004At one point in his presentation, Bob showed a Venn diagram relating People, Process and Technology. Two things came to my mind. First – I love Venn Diagrams. I do. I freely admit that if you can package your concept into a Venn diagram, you are going to have my attention. It goes back to the whole New Math thing; I was a sucker for New Math. Second – Think about it – people, process and technology – if there was ever a stepping stone to a SharePoint sales pitch, that was it. Bob stayed the concept course and he gained my respect by the moment. So, I’ll make the pitch for Microsoft.

Productivity requires that you pay attention to people, process and technology. Technology alone won’t do it. Despite the modest success I had early in my career as a Methods Analyst, process improvement alone won’t do it. People, even those who work hard to be productive, can’t get there alone. It takes all three. It takes all three, and when attention is paid to all three in SharePoint, you can deliver some serious support for productivity.

SharePoint can be made to work with people. That sounds obvious, but so often it isn’t. SharePoint out of the box isn’t always a people pleasing experience. On the other hand, with just a little attention to detail, SharePoint can move close enough to being an intuitive experience that people can thrive in the environment that the platform supports. I’m not talking about hundreds of hours of work to make SharePoint “not look like SharePoint,” I’m just talking about enough time and energy to increase the area of intersection between people and process. Sometimes all you have to do to accomplish this is to get rid of the links to stuff you’re not using and reorganize the links to the stuff that you are using.

Process is SharePoint’s happy place. Often, when I look at a SharePoint solution that has been in use for a while (without review) I can almost hear SharePoint saying “you know I could do that for you…” SharePoint can do so much, and just like with the look and feel of a SharePoint site, it doesn’t have to be national railroad scale process. We recently put a 5-action SharePoint Designer workflow in place to eliminate the need for people to remember a bit of process.

Too many people are forgetting to do this.” Ok, how many people are thinking about the “Dr. it hurts when I do this” joke? Seriously, somebody had that complaint and the apparently not-so-obvious answer was to let SharePoint do it.

Of course, you can’t have SharePoint without technology, but even the people who are comfortable with SharePoint forget that SharePoint exists within an expanding universe of technology. We are a relatively small company but I’ve written about SharePoint going mobile, SharePoint running on an iPad, SharePoint augmenting the process in otherwise fat-client applications and SharePoint providing the electronic shelving for critical document libraries.

SharePoint can support the intersection between people, process and technology and the resulting union (you’re going to have to look those up if you don’t remember) can be a very productive place.

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.

Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes

imageSometimes you get a little beyond peoples’ ability to imagine when you start describing what, as far as you’re concerned is a simple SharePoint solution. It’s not hard. Depending on how often your audience has been exposed to SharePoint, their ability to imagine might be quite limited.

That is not their problem

That is your challenge.

We are facing this challenge right now, and we are going to work through it by building a straw man solution. If we are lucky, we will roll a 7 (since many of you just returned from Vegas) and we will be able to continue building from our first result. If we are not so lucky, we will roll an 8 and we will be able to continue to roll and maybe work our way into another 8, at which point everyone wins. If we totally miss the boat, we crap out, we tear it down and we start over. If we don’t go nuts, if we don’t spend a lot of money, if we don’t invest a lot of time, none of those options are going to make me cry. Keep in mind that I am not the one building the solution that we might tear down so someone on my staff might cry a little.

Why would I do this? Why don’t we just ask people to trust us? Why don’t we draw a bunch of illustrations in Viso and PowerPoint and make them sit through a boring presentation full of buzzwords and jargon and technobabble that none of them will understand? That approach has worked in the past…hasn’t it? Oh, right.

To keep my customers happy and prevent my people from crying, we had a meeting to discuss the approach. We reached an agreement with the manager of the business unit that we will be working with and we established a few key assumptions about the solution and our approach:

Assumptions – The process will require support in the form of a site on our on-premises SharePoint server that will house critical support content and historic content and business records. The content deemed critical for operational support will be replicated in a SharePoint Online site. The stuff that is so critical for operational support that we just can’t risk ever being without will be included in an iPad app.

If you’re wondering why we don’t just move the whole shooting match to the cloud, there are two reasons: 1) Bits of the historical information processing relies on add-on products that aren’t fully in the cloud yet, and 2) We’re scared. OK, we’re not scared but some people are and we think that asking them to take baby steps is better than asking them to run a marathon.

If you’re wondering why we don’t just point the iPad at the SharePoint online site, there are two reasons: 1) Bad things happen. During the snowstorm in 2011, we lost power for 10 days and cell service for 3 (we did have a working land-line phone), and 2) We want a dirt-simple process and nothing says simple like pushing a few buttons on an iPad.

If you’re wondering why we aren’t using a different brand tablet, one that might work better with SharePoint for example, well lets’ just say that we aren’t and leave it at that.

Straw Man – We have agreed to focus on one library that we know will be included in any solution that anyone involved could dream up. We will replicate that library in SharePoint Online and we will wire up a quick and dirty workflow to keep the in-house library in sync with the online version. We will also create a one or two tab iPad app that will include the information that is related to the content in that one library. The manager of the customer department likes the approach. We will show the straw man to everyone else involved in the project to help them better imagine the nature of the full solution. We have an agreement, we will tear this down and start over if we have to, but we don’t want to do that twice.

If you know me, this post might seem a bit out of character. I like prototypes, but in the past I have always said that prototypes should be disposable. This won’t be a prototype, this will be a gamble but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

It’s Alive

iPad Screen shotWell I guess the phrase is actually “it’s now gone live” but that just doesn’t invoke the same emotional response. We have a business process that is now partially running in SharePoint. Even better, the right portion is running in SharePoint and the stuff that shouldn’t be in SharePoint is running somewhere else.

The business process is “payables” – something everybody has to do but something most people do differently than we do. See, we’re small, we don’t have a lot of vendors, we don’t have a complicated (no you can’t have that) procurement process and we don’t have a receiving dock. We buy things. We hire contractors. We incur professional fees. We refund premium on occasion and we reimburse people for things. We do this a bunch of ways. We have Concur (shudder and cue the foreboding music) which I actually kinda like. We do ACH transactions. We do wire transfers and we write checks. We also periodically reimburse people for small purchases with something called cash. I’m sure some of the younger readers are Googling that term.

The payables process, in addition to resulting in many financial outcomes, begins with a variety of financial transactions. Eventually, we will lasso all of these transactions and pull them into the same ring, but we decided to start with Check-Requests and checks. The process is pretty simple. We buy something from a vendor. They send us an invoice. We send them a check. In between step 2 and 3, someone studies the invoice, makes sure it’s legitimate, prepares a check request and then somebody else approves that request. That whole process, the stuff between step 2 and 3, is now done in SharePoint. Below are some of the cool things we (remember ‘we’ now means ‘they’ and stands for the shy people on my team) were able to include:

  • Maintaining a list of vendors that are automatically checked to make sure they aren’t on the US Treasury’s list of bad guys, and then approved by someone in authority in accounting.
  • Create a check request for an invoice(s) from an approved vendor.
  • Attach the image(s) of the receipt(s) to that check request.
  • Allocate the amount of that/those invoice(s) across multiple departments or multiple accounts within a department. For example, I buy a server, but some portion of the invoice is for the warranty.
  • Route the check request to one or more people for approval.
  • Do all the little checks and balances like making sure that the total of the allocations equal the total of the request.
  • Approve individual check requests for payment.
  • Allow the approvers to send the request back to the previous person to correct an error.

The tools used to make this happen include:

  • SharePoint external lists and the ability to impersonate users when working with them
  • InfoPath forms
  • Custom lists and views
  • Data View Web Parts to put the forms, lists and view on a single interactive page.
  • SharePoint Designer workflows to respond to the various activities a user did and to validate the transaction while it is in process
  • HarePoint’s Workflow Extensions to do some of the tricky stuff that SharePoint Designer doesn’t seem to do, like execute SQL Statements or use Regular Expressions to evaluate a sting.
  • Nintex Workflow’s “for each” capability to cycle through each Paid request in an external list to update our detailed custom list with the payment details.
  • All the various widget to widget connections you can establish in SharePoint Designer to get web parts to respond to other web parts.

We decided to use InfoPath instead of other techniques because we wanted a more functional form with less code buried behind it. I’m not sure that we saved on the coding effort, but I like the mix we are left with. We are trying to stay very close to the level where we can establish the action we want by “configuring” parts instead of writing code. It’s a fine-line kind of balancing act, but it works for us.

This just in, yes I know that Microsoft has put InfoPath on the short-line track to obscurity, but it will be around for a while and I feel that we risk very little by using it the way we do.

The reason I said that the right stuff is and isn’t running in SharePoint is central to our use case for having SharePoint and it is something that I think people often overlook – SharePoint runs in a browser. By building the front-end of this application in SharePoint, I can let people who are traveling submit invoices to be paid, approve payment requests and manage their budgets without having to write any web stuff. Also, since we have that Mass360 browser I talked about, I can approve payments on my iPad without a VPN connection.

The stuff that’s not running in SharePoint are those back-room accounting processes that nobody sees and everyone is content just knowing that they get done. Nothing to see here, move along.

Make SharePoint Simple

imageToward the end of 2012, I read several messages on Twitter, a few blog entries and even a couple of supportive eNews articles that were talking about how the year had been a turning point for Microsoft. Some were factual, some analytical and at least one proclaimed Microsoft to now be “cool” again. My contribution was to ask the question: “will 2013 be the beginning of the end for SharePoint?” Why so glum? Well, you would have to read that article, but I have a suggestion that would help prevent my question from being answered in the affirmative – make SharePoint simple!

During the course of 2012, I had to work with six different groups outside of the company that I work for. Four of these groups were comprised of business people collaborating, two for short-duration projects and two for the long haul. The others were the two groups of students I mentored at a state university during their senior MIS class. Despite my offering to create a SharePoint for some of those groups, all six chose Box or DropBox for collaboration and for long-term document storage. Not everyone offered a reason, but those who did said that “SharePoint is too complicated.”

Last week, I had an experience with SharePoint that caused me to feel the same way. I was updating our Annual Report, a process that I have managed (and blogged about) on SharePoint for years. This year, it went off the rails. I would select the menu option to “Edit in Microsoft Word,” make my changes and then be slowly driven to frustration when I was unable to check the document back in. If I opted to use my local drafts folder, I was told that “the document is checked out on a different computer.” If I chose not to use the local drafts folder, I was told that the document was checked out to Dan – as if I were someone else. The site where I wasn’t able to work is on our Internet-facing SharePoint server, where it has been for 6 years, and with which our internal domain is trusted. I was able to upload new documents, new versions of existing documents and I was able to check-out, open, edit, save and check-back-in a PDF file, using Acrobat Professional. I could email these documents to myself, and use Harmon.ie to save and check the documents into the server from Outlook. I could even open a document on my iPad with Harmon.ie’s app, edit it in Office HD2, replace it and check it back in – the only way I could not edit and replace the Word document was from within Microsoft Word!

The cause(s) of the problem remain elusive; the work-around was to check the document back in from Word’s File menu, without clicking Save first. I searched the Web on a variety of terms, including “Word cannot save document to SharePoint” (which returned over 2,000,000 results), but I failed to find a definitive solution. Suggestions included the usual suspects, like permissions, which I knew was not the problem and services that either were or weren’t running on either my laptop or the server. I tried all of the suggestions that looked viable, but none solved the problem. The leading contenders for reasonable explanation were a series of responses that point out the difference between “check-out” and “lock”, and attempt to explain the way that Office interacts with SharePoint. The most bizarre was one which alleges that check-in can be affected by where your cursor is within a Word document – I’m serious, you can read that here. It’s ironic that SharePoint would probably be off the hook if it wasn’t for the guilt-by-association with Office.

This experience didn’t make me feel like one of the cool kids. I felt like the geek who can comprehend the nuances of a strange work-around, even though it makes no sense. I’ll take a minute to remind you that this is a process that worked before. I am not sure whether it was the introduction of Windows 7, IE-9 or the various Microsoft upgrades that have been applied client-side and on the server since I last worked off this site. Perhaps, as one blog suggested, the culprit is one or more corrupt cookies on my laptop. I don’t care; like the other people trying to use SharePoint, I just know that it used to work, but it doesn’t work today. When basic things stop working and when making them work again takes numerous steps, configuration changes or different versions of software, we lose the battle for simplicity, and by the way, simplicity is what people really want.

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.