Head Bone Connected to the Neck Bone

imageRemember that song, Dem Bones? All those connections, from toes to head and back again; it was a fun way to think about our skeleton, and as long as I don’t hear my doctor humming it, it’s a fond memory. As it turns out, connections have continued to play an important role in my life. With respect to my skeleton, it’s the connections that caused the problems that sent me to physical therapy. With respect to people, it’s the connections that allow me to enjoy life, and get my job done. With respect to SharePoint, well, sometimes connections in SharePoint help us do remarkable things, and sometimes they send me looking for therapy.

Recently, we have been experimenting with the various ways we can connect SharePoint to the structured data in our SQL Server. There are two primary reasons for wanting to exploit this capability. One, we can enhance the value of our content-centric applications on SharePoint when we can add bits of data to the picture. Two, sometimes, processes in SharePoint grow until they reach the threshold of being an application; nudging them over that threshold saves us the effort of developing another application. Here are two examples of the connections we are working on right now, and why:

One of our most complex content-centric applications is the solution that helps our engineers manage the documents associated with their loss-control inspections. The solution relies on a few supporting custom lists. For example, one list includes, among other things, the URL of the document library in the customer’s site on our Internet-facing server so we know where to put their copy of the report. Recently, a manager in our underwriting department asked if the underwriters can be notified when inspection reports are distributed. Of course, they could set alerts on these libraries, but they only want to know when one document reaches its final stage in the process. Since there is a workflow running, and a lookup-list, we could easily add the underwriter to that list and shoot him an email. Then again, underwriter assignments change, and those assignments are already being maintained in our policy rating system. Instead of manually duplicating that information in the look-up list, the workflow, with a little help from a function library that we are testing, can look up the underwriter in the rating system. If this library doesn’t work, the workflow can look up the underwriter in an External List rendered from the table in question; that would be duplicate data but not duplicate work, SharePoint would be doing the heavy lifting.

The second example features one of our earliest (and ongoing) workflow driven success stories, a time tracking solution that our attorneys use. Our first step was to automate the time entry, which relies on a series of related custom lists. For example, we use a custom list to let the attorneys identify which projects are active. By toggling that status, the pick lists in the entry forms are modified to only show valid choices. The evolution of this solution included a hand-crafted set of Data View Webparts to let the attorneys enter their time from their iPads and integrated SSRS reports to provide the summary data to the accountants. Of course, the accountants need to turn that summary data into journal entries. The time-honored method has been to read the report and type the entries into our General Ledger system. Starting next month, SharePoint will be making those journal entries, courtesy of some fancy script work by Marc Anderson, aided by the woman on my team who has guided this solution through its various stages. The last stage was not without a certain amount of drama. We ran into trouble trying to update an External List from the script. Perhaps the capability doesn’t exist, perhaps the feature is broken, perhaps we still didn’t manage to get the permissions right. However we can update the External List from a workflow. So, Marc put his journal entries into a SharePoint list and a workflow puts them into SQL Server via the External List. It sounds like a kludge, but it works well and it doesn’t require any additional input during the process. I do hope that at some point, Marc describes the details behind his middle-tier magic over on his blog; I’ll leave it at “it works, and we love it!

Web Parts, Data sources, External Lists, related SharePoint lists; it’s not as easy as “the toe bone connecting to the foot bone”, but it’s actually not that hard. As I mentioned last week, we keep these solutions moving forward by taking small steps – sometimes we fail and learn, but sometimes we succeed.

Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker

Marc, Chris and RogerA few days ago, the AIIM New England chapter held its final event of the program year. The event title suggested three disparate topics: “Cloud, Mobile content management and BYOD”, but we quickly were made to understand that these topics are deeply intertwined. In addition, it became apparent that the panel we assembled for this discussion understood the ways in which the challenges these topics present are not new, not different and that this is not the last time we will see them.

Our panel included Roger Bottum – VP of Marketing, SpringCM; Christopher J Luise – Executive VP, ADNET Technologies and Marc D. Anderson – Co-Founder and President of Sympraxis Consulting. Regular readers of this blog know that Marc trades under the Twitter handle of @sympmarc and Chris’ business thoughts can be found under @ITwithValue although I prefer the bacon-laced tweets from @cluise. Roger’s insight can be tapped at @springCM, a recent add to my daily twitter feed. We chose this group with the thought that a vendor, an integrator and a consultant would be able to give three different views on the subject. I’m not sure if it was the combination, or the fact that these guys were not actual competitors (like some of our previous panels) or perhaps that we just got lucky and picked three brilliant speakers, but this was an awesome panel.

I scrawled notes and quotes across 10 pages while trying to juggle a comment and question feed from a streaming audience that was almost the size of the group gathered in the room. I can’t recap everything, but just the opening thoughts were enough to tell me this panel wasn’t going to stay on the rails:

Roger: “Mobile is not an option, it’s here. The cloud isn’t a question of ‘if’; it’s a question of ‘when’ and ‘how’”.

Chris: “Connecting to the enterprise has always been possible, it’s just been clunky. Now, scale has come to the market and most companies have been caught on their back foot.”

Marc: “This technology has always been around, just not everywhere – now it is” Marc also added my favorite quote of the event “By the way, the ‘D’ in BYOD stands for device, not disaster.”

These and a few other common threads dominated the technical current running through this meeting. The notion that we have been dealing with the problems of integrating new devices, securing new devices and adapting to new technologies forever, was prevalent throughout the discussion. The thing that made this discussion so fascinating was the absolute pragmatism that was evident in their collective point of view. When a question was asked about controlling a cloud-based solution or controlling a cadre of mobile devices, the answer was fast and sharp – “to assume that you have control today is a false assumption!” It’s not some brave new world that we are entering into; it’s the next phase of an evolutionary process that involves a broader audience.

One of the most spirited portions of the discussion came after a question from a member of our streaming audience, asking about the fact that people are now carrying a laptop, an iPad and a smartphone instead of a single device. The attendee wondered how corporate IT was going to make this a better experience. Ironically, I was sitting there with those three devices, and the question kicked off a series of responses that ranged from the suggestion that my laptop was inadequate to the fact that today’s solutions have to driven by a combination of Capability, Form Factor and User Experience. That seemed to be enough to light the fuse on the philosophical side of this meeting, which was a powerfully refreshing discussion. Again, I can offer a few quotes:

Roger: “If someone doesn’t think it (your solution) works better than the old solution, it’s not going to be supported.”

Marc: “IT is not spending enough time asking users what they want and what they need to do their job. IT is more concerned about writing a BYOD policy than they are about getting people the data they need.

Chris added some thoughts that seem to indicate that the key vendors in this space are fueling the fire toward a trend that supports their own objectives.

Apple wants to sell devices, Microsoft wants to sell applications that are going to work on all (wink) devices and Oracle (yes, he said Oracle) wants you to believe that only the data really matters.

The event ended with a major challenge to companies and particularly those of us in IT:

Give your users the tools they need to meet the increasing demands you are placing on them.

I don’t know who offered the suggestion that problem facing practitioners is to find a way to meet technical, cultural, and procedural challenges in an integrated manner – and to meet those challenges quickly. Of course, the panel members quickly added that meeting those challenges isn’t really a new task.

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.