Pardon the Abused Analogy

It’s summer and for me that always means DIY home improvement projects. That translates to short work weeks and limited blog fodder. I told myself “if I have nothing, I’ll write nothing,” but sometimes little things crawl into my head and seem important. This week’s DIY project produced just such a moment. Take a quick look at the three photos below.image

These are from three home improvement projects. The little support structure on the right was required to replace a badly worn outside faucet. It should have been replaced years ago, but having to work in the corner of the burner room, tucked uncomfortably between the oil tank and the main water supply, caused me to put it off as long as I could.

All three are photos of “platforms” – used to literally support the worker. In the early days of SharePoint, we were often quick to point out that “SharePoint isn’t a product, it’s a platform!” Yes it is, but just as all platforms are not the same, we are witnessing the fact that all SharePoints are not the same. Platforms, as those three pictures illustrate, need to be well-matched to the activity that they are supporting. image

At the risk of stretching this analogy to the breaking point, consider that the makeshift scaffold that I stood on while removing and rebuilding this complex bit of plumbing was an “on premises” platform. It was fixed, limited in functionality and accessible only by the “privileged” few or one in this case who were in the room with it. The platform on the left invokes a “cloud” mental image and fits that image quite well. It was flexible, scalable and was easily abandoned when no longer required. The middle platform is clearly (OK, not clearly) a hybrid model; perhaps the best of both worlds but suffering the limitations of each.

Just as none of these physical platforms could be used in all three home improvement projects, no one installation of SharePoint will be well suited to all of our business needs. In some cases, no version of SharePoint might be the right version. In fairness, you can substitute any other product name for SharePoint. As platforms evolve or change or de-evolve by shedding features we used to like, their appropriateness needs to be reevaluated. It can’t be as simple as saying “we use SharePoint so we’ll do what we have to do to continue using it.” Microsoft may like that, but I’m sure my boss wouldn’t.

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.

Blah blah InfoPath blah blah

imageWow, has anything ever attracted as much attention as Microsoft’s decision to kill a mediocre product? My inbox is full of “InfoPath is Dead” and “Microsoft is Killing InfoPath” emails. I’ve seen Tweets, Facebook posts, invitations to join discussions on LinkedIn and invitations to attend Webinars practically every single day since the announcement was made. I get it! InfoPath will die in 2023. Guess what, I will retire before then.

The fact that I will be retired before then really won’t be considered as input to our decisions regarding InfoPath usage. As it stands today, we are making limited use of InfoPath in a fairly important project. In addition, we have plans to use InfoPath in a slightly larger, more important project later this year. I don’t see us changing these plans. Here’s why:

2023 – 2014 = 9 Years – Seriously, 9 years! That’s a long time. It’s not like “ding dong the witch is dead; click your shoes and go home.” The metaphorical Dorothy will be old enough to drink by the time she gets back to Kansas. We made an investment in InfoPath, and well before 2023, we will have achieved a return on that investment. That is what we are supposed to do isn’t it?

What’s on Other Roadmaps? – I realize that there are other ways to publish and process forms. Some of these alternatives are every bit as good as InfoPath, many are superior. If you made me choose a new forms platform today, I would probably start by taking a hard look at Nintex. We use Nintex’s workflow product and I imagine their form product works well too. That said, what’s Nintex’s plan for the future? Will Nintex Forms exist in 2023? Will the forms we produce with Nintex Forms today still run in 2023? Well, we really don’t know. In terms of vendors you can trust for the long haul, there really aren’t many. It’s not like they are untrustworthy, but what company can really say that they and their products will be here in 10 years? HP? Dell? BlackBerry (RIM)? Kodak? Go back 10 years and think about how those guys looked at the time and then consider how they look today. If you’ve been reading this blog, you might be surprised to see me say that I trust Microsoft, but when they say that they put something on a long, supported slide to the back door, I think we can believe them.

Now, let’s take a look at those scary emails. Here are some of the things they are warning me about and why I’m not concerned:

Support and Compatibility Questions Abound – Sure they do, but when haven’t they? Microsoft says that InfoPath 2013 will be the last version and support will end in April of 2023. As far as I know, they didn’t actually say that InfoPath 2013 and SharePoint 20nn will be compatible, but I’m not going to worry about that. Let’s assume that the next version of SharePoint is the 2016 version (I know they want to stop the “big release thing” but humor me). Chances are good that SharePoint 2016 will be compatible with InfoPath 2013. Chances are also good that we could run SharePoint 2016 until 2020 (we’re still running SharePoint 2010). Since we know that InfoPath is on a collision course with the trash bin in 2023, I’m pretty sure that my successors will have an alternative in mind before 2020. I don’t think they will be building any new InfoPath Forms in 2018-2020, but I think we can safely build them in 2014-2016 and still get that ROI.

No Certain Migration Path – In other words what if Microsoft creates a new Forms product and we can’t convert our InfoPath forms to that product. Well, that would be dumb. If Microsoft wants to play in the forms arena, they would be silly to alienate their previous forms customers. Still, since we know that Microsoft is capable of doing dumb things, I’ll accept this as a possibility. On the other hand, you have to ask: is there a way to migrate one forms product today to another forms product today? I am assuming that if we wanted to move to Nintex Forms today, we’d be recreating the functionality of our InfoPath forms on that platform. That’s OK. Also, that’s really the worst thing that can happen to us, that in 5-7 years we will have to recreate a form that probably will be due for a major update anyway.

A member of my team will be at the SharePoint Conference. We will hear about the future of InfoPath from the horse, and we will plan or adjust our plans accordingly. In the meantime, I’m not losing any sleep.

Stories Yet to Come

This is my 250th SharePoint Story. I have to say that back in April 2009 I never imagined that I would write so often or that so many people would care to read what I had to say. I have received numerous comments, emails and tweets that indicate that people like the focus I try to put on “what we do and why we do it” and they seem to appreciate the fact that I share our mistakes. After last week’s post, it’s clear that I have ample fodder for that kind of post. As I look forward to 2014, I see some changes coming and this seems like a good time to talk about them:

Other Subjects – You may not have noticed, but at some point in 2013, I changed the tag line to include Information Management. I did that because I really do believe that it’s more important to understand why we do things than it is to know how to do them, and why we do things doesn’t always have anything to do with SharePoint. I had the privilege of working with several people during 2013 who reminded me that SharePoint is a technology with which we can improve business processes, but that the nature of those improvements often has nothing to do with technology in general, let alone this specific technology.

Other People – One of my major objectives at work is to prepare a new generation of employees to run my portion of this railroad after I retire. My retirement isn’t imminent, but our business is rather unique and learning about all the moving parts takes a long time. I’m not a minor player in our SharePoint cast yet, but I am becoming more of an end-user of SharePoint than I was in years past. So, in the future, when I say that “we” did something, keep in mind that I probably should have said “they” did something instead. Becoming a user of SharePoint might give me a different perspective from which to write about User Experience – that might be fun. Unfortunately, I’m not nearly as comfortable writing about the mistakes others make as I am writing about my own mistakes, so, “they” might have to continue to suffer my development efforts.

Other Software – One of the first posts of 2014 will be about a content management solution that doesn’t involve SharePoint. We remain a SharePoint shop and a Microsoft-centric shop, but it’s no longer an exclusive relationship – we’ve decided to see other people. It’s OK, I told SharePoint “it’s not you; it’s me.” In a sense, this is really just a small extension of a previous theme. I’ve written numerous articles about software that we have bolted onto SharePoint, integrated inside SharePoint or used in order to affect SharePoint. I’ve also written about the stuff that we have written or paid someone else to write that runs within SharePoint but didn’t come in Microsoft’s, or anybody else’s box. I will continue to write about those things, too. In fact, I look forward to writing about a project management solution we recently purchased that runs inside SharePoint.

Other Blog – This last bit is nothing more than a shameless plug. I chose the meme for this blog because I enjoy telling stories. If you enjoy the storytelling nature of this blog, you might like my other ongoing attempt at writing – No Facilities. That blog is rarely technical and almost never about SharePoint. The tag line over there is “Random thoughts, life lessons, hopes and dreams” and it grew in popularity quite nicely in 2013.

Thanks so much for visiting this blog. Have a happy and prosperous New Year!

How Do You SharePoint?

clip_image002Maybe I’m missing a verb in the title, or maybe “to SharePoint” has meaning, suggests action of a sort or at least makes a few of us shake our heads. I left out the verb, because I’m not sure what the right one is. How do you “use” SharePoint, “get rid of” SharePoint, “stop bad SharePoint sites from spreading like kudzu?” “get the most out of” SharePoint, “teach people how to use” SharePoint, and so on. Do you have answers for any of those questions? Do you live in New England? Can you spare some time on Wednesday, November 13th? There’s a lot of questions, but if you can answer a few of them, join some of your New England neighbors in Cambridge, MA on the 13th – share a snack, share some coffee and share your answers, or at least your reactions.

On November 13th, the New England Chapter of AIIM (AIIMNE) will hold our second educational event of the program year and, no surprise, it’s focused on SharePoint. In case you aren’t aware, AIIMNE is doing events differently this year – well sort of differently. AIIMNE events have always been fairly lively, with a healthy amount of audience participation. This year, we decided to tap that energy and add some value for our members in the process. Each event is organized to encourage that audience participation and we are then publishing a white paper from the event. To get an idea of how this works, check out the white paper from our first event, where we focused on handling secure and confidential information amid an always connected always sharing workforce. Go ahead, download that report, it’s free and we aren’t even asking for your email address.

For this next event, we arranged for Marc D. Anderson, Co-founder and president of Sympraxis Consulting, Derek Cash-Peterson from Blue Metal Architects and Russ Edleman, president of Corridor Company to join us to get things started. Between them, these guys have seen just about every kind of SharePoint or SharePointery there is (hey, if we’re making up words). Steve Weissman, President of the Holly Group will be on hand to facilitate the discussion, should that be necessary; our audiences have a tendency to fire at will. Not to worry, our speakers are adept at crowd control.

What’s the goal? Well, besides gathering fodder for our next Event Experience report (as we call them), I hope to learn something. I hope to hear about ways of using SharePoint that I haven’t considered. I hope to return to work on Wednesday afternoon with a head full of ideas that will keep me busy until the next SharePoint event. I’ve heard some of these guys speak before, so if I’m going to get a head full of new ideas, I need you to be in the room. I want to hear your SharePoint Story (ooh, there’s a catchy name).

If you’re planning to join us, we will be at the Microsoft building at 1 Cambridge Center. It’s the one in the picture up in the corner. It’s not the building at 1 Memorial Drive. It’s a great facility and the Chapter truly appreciates being able to use it. We will also be using Microsoft’s Internet connection so if you can’t be in Cambridge, consider joining us on-line as we stream the event live. We stream a mix of presentations and video and we do our best to submit the comments and questions from our remote audience into the discussion in the room. You can read or share this event with others at the Chapter website, and if you are ready to sign-up, you can do that over at Eventbrite. But wait, there’s more. If you register by November 1st, enter the discount code “sharepointstories” and save $5. Thanks for reading!

Is My SharePoint Done?

imageWe have all talked about, read about and many have written and presented about the fact that every SharePoint question can be answered with “it depends.” Well, I’m adding another question to the heap, the one in the title. As I look around the pile of SharePoint notes on my desk, I find references to several systems that are done. They are done, or they were done, or they are never going to be done, I’m not really sure, but I’m also not adding a sad-smiley here. There are several reasons that SharePoint is kinda-sorta never done, and they’re all some of them are good ones.

SharePoint Changed – We have features in SharePoint 2010 that we didn’t have before, and this made us want to change some sites. A good example is Document Sets. We waited until we had SP2010 to build one site, because we knew Document Sets were coming. After building that, we found a few other places where Document Sets would work well, some have been changed; some are on that list on my desk. Managed Metadata is something else that is spreading like Kudzu. As we look ahead to SP2013, we’re happy to hear that loops are allowed in workflows, but we’re also thinking about bigger changes, like moving some sites to the cloud.

The fact that SharePoint has changed, is changing and hopefully will continue to change is a good thing. As long as Microsoft doesn’t forget that people are using the features they baked into the earlier versions, there should be all kinds of happiness in the future of SharePoint.

Content Changed – Considering that we are a business that does one thing and that we’ve been doing it for almost 60 years, you wouldn’t think that much changes in the world of our content. Well, change is relative. Our content might be changing at a glacial pace, but some things are different. I mean we are no longer filing onion-skin copies of endorsements (you young kids go Google that). More important are the changes in the way we look at content. Some of these changes are driven by new people who are more comfortable with information. Some are driven by new priorities that make us want to ask harder questions. Some are driven by the connect-the-dot effect of SharePoint. As we put more content into SharePoint and add metadata that lets us find it easily, we start to see connections between what we first imagined to be disparate silos, and we start to see value in making more connections.

We Bought Something – We haven’t upgraded to SP2013 yet, but we did purchase Nintex Workflows, and that product gives us the ability to loop through a list. Initially, I didn’t think we would go back and tear down any of those three-part bank shot multiple lists and workflow combination solutions that force SharePoint to iterate over a list, but maybe we will. Earlier, we bought HarePoint, which made it easier to connect to our workflows to data in SQL Server (among other things). This means we can expose more data on a SharePoint site, including some sites that are were done.

Something Broke – Yeah, this is the one I added that caused the strike-out in the first paragraph. I know Microsoft hates it when people talk about problems, but things do go wrong in SharePoint. One of the biggest things that went wrong for us is a site that thinks 90% of its metadata is defined twice. We aren’t sure what caused this, but all indications (as well as all Googling) tell us that the only solution is going to require us to rebuild this site from scratch. Microsoft isn’t the only source of  things going wrong, we have a couple of utility add-on products that no longer seem to want to play well with others. For now, we have had to deactivate these solutions while the vendor scratches their head – hopefully this won’t lead to changes in our solutions.

SharePoint solutions evolve, improve, get extended and sometimes SharePoint solutions break. It’s not all good, but it certainly seems to be something we have to get used to. Is my SharePoint thing done? “It depends on what the meaning of done is”– apologies to Bill Clinton.