One Stop Shopping Plus Mail Order

imageA few weeks ago, I received an email about an old post about managing a walking contest in SharePoint. Ironically, we are preparing to kick off the 2014 version of that contest in about 2 weeks and once again, we are managing it in SharePoint. I like to use these little side projects to demonstrate what SharePoint can do out-of-the-box. Some might ask “why focus on out-of-the-box? SharePoint can be so much more.

Their question is not quite correct and I am lying just a little bit.

The problem with their question is that “SharePoint can be made to be so much more” but the making can take a lot of time.

The lie that I’ve told is a lie of omission. I didn’t tell you that my box is bigger than Microsoft’s box. My box includes things like HarePoint Workflow Extensions and Nintex Workflows. HarePoint’s extensions add some very cool features to SharePoint Designer workflows and Nintex, well Nintex Workflows are like a slice of SharePoint Heaven here on Earth.

So, truth be told, I like to show people what we can do very quickly in SharePoint with the tools that we have available to us. That’s important for a reason that most IT departments don’t consider often enough.

Sometimes, people don’t ask for things because they think those things will be hard to build or expensive or that they will take too long.

They aren’t trying to save my time or my budget; they’re just trying to avoid being told “no, you can’t have that.

In the 2014 version of our SharePoint-driven walking contest, we have added two new features. Both are aimed at improving the user experience and both came at the request of my new young colleague Stacy. Stacy is not only the architect on this project, she’s the user. She’s managing the walking contest and she’s building the site with some help from me.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with a walking contest, it’s pretty much what you would imagine:

  • Our company is divided into teams.
  • Each person tracks and records their steps each day during the contest.
  • At the end of the contest, the team with the most steps wins a team prize and the person with the overall highest number of steps wins an individual prize.

Stacy wanted to make two improvements to the accounting process for the contest. She wanted to add options for mobile entry and she wanted a dashboard of sorts for reporting progress.

Mobile entry was easy but, again, it uses a few tricks from our bigger box. You can send your entry into a SharePoint Remote Entry library by including the subject line “10-11-2014 8,996” i.e. the date and the number of steps. A SharePoint Designer workflow, aided by HarePoint’s Regular Expression actions parses the subject line and adds the steps to your step count. A second workflow adds your step count to your team’s total.

We could do all the processing in one step, but I like breaking things into small chunks. That is a carryover from my history of coding in Smalltalk, but it’s a good practice for SharePoint. Small workflows are easier to test and they are easier to “debug” since there really isn’t a “debugger” available in SharePoint.

Employees with iPhones can also easily enter their steps via a mobile view of the Steps Entry form. Actually, anybody could do this, but “iPhone” is linked with “easy” because our MaaS360 mobile device management software allows us to push that mobile form through our firewall without the need for a VPN connection (which people hate to make on their phones).

Finally, we needed to build that dashboard, but we decided to make it functional instead of just informative – that’s where the “one stop shopping” comes from. We started with a Web Part Page and we added an Announcement part and an Instructions part in those top-of-the-page whole width zones. Then we added three useful parts. On the left, we have “My Steps” which is a view of the Steps list filtered on the current user. In the center, we added a view of Team Status that shows the current ranking of teams and on the right; we added a simple entry form for steps.

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I have to admit, this is the first time I have ever put an entry form on a dashboard. It works. Having the entry form on the page makes this page the only thing people actually have to look at. My Steps, My Team and, as I look at my steps and realize that I forgot to enter yesterday’s value, I can do it without leaving the page.

Stacy’s homework assignment is to add a chart to graphically display some of these statistics and to make the page a little prettier. Mine is to start walking.

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.

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.