Automating People

iPhoneRecently, I was discussing process automation with a few friends – yes that is the kind of life that I have, at least during the NFL off-season. One subject that came up during the discussion is the problem that is caused by automation that goes into a holding pattern. When processes were manual and routing and storage were analog, something was physically on a pile on someone’s desk, an obvious constant reminder of the work that needed to be done. Once we suck the content into SharePoint and wrap the process up in a few workflows, the constant reminder is replaced by a single email – do you know how easy it is to ignore an email? Of course, the just-in-time nature of workflows means that while person A is ignoring the task, persons B through G don’t even know the task exists.

Since I am frequently cast in the role of person A, I might be a good example. One of my tasks is to approve expenses added to a cloud-based expense tracking system. This system notifies me of every charge I make, every charge I have to approve and every subsequent status change during the lifespan of an expense. This system has proven beyond doubt that the only thing easier to ignore than one email, is 100 emails on the same subject. Not only do I ignore the emails I receive, I’ve gone so far as to create a rule in Outlook to ignore the emails automatically on my behalf. Based on this unscientific study, I’ll conclude that having SharePoint send more notifications isn’t the answer. OK, what about a dashboard?

Despite not liking the buzzword, we are rapidly becoming fans of building meaningful dashboards around SharePoint managed content. It doesn’t take very long for list items or documents to pile up and turn a list or library into an unreadable mess. Since we have a few of these pages up and running, we have decided to add a personalized Data View Webpart to one of the pages that will show “Stuff you need to do”, but I’m not sure that’s going to help much. I say that because the rule that I created in Outlook wasn’t designed to ignore notifications, it was actually designed to help me pay attention to them. Based on the subject line, the rule puts the notifications into one of two folders for follow-up. The problem with that rule/folder combination is that it is a Pull operation – I have to go to the folder. Dashboards or status pages are also Pull operations, so those tasks will only get done if I go looking for them. Pull operations are forgotten, push operations are ignored – what’s a process to do?

As I think about this, I realize that there are only two types of reminders that I always respond to: calendar alerts and direct requests from people that I like. I recall Marc Anderson saying at the recent AIIM NE event, that he is more likely to respond to humorous notifications. I would agree with that, but there’s no guarantee. If I know that I need to stop for donuts on the way to work, I create a calendar item, set an alert time so that my phone beeps while I am driving; it works, I stop every time. When the nice woman from accounting calls or sends me an email reminding me that I have (n) expense reports to approve, I login and take care of them.

AutomatePeopleVisaCharge

On the other hand, I told my wife that I was planning to stop at the ATM earlier this week; she wrote my planned withdrawal in the checkbook, but I forgot to stop. I also forgot to tell her that I forgot to stop, putting our checkbook out of balance – my bad.

I think a combination of push and pull solutions might help. Something like an alert that says “You have to do something” where the link takes you to a DVWP that includes actionable items. I.E. if you need to review a document, the link will open the document for you. If you need to approve a process step, the Approval button is right there. Maybe calling a person’s attention to an item coupled with an easy-to-use option to act on the item, will be enough to even get busy people to respond. We are even looking into VPN on Demand, so we could send these notifications as directly actionable items to an iPhone. If I add a bit of humor, maybe I can even increase the success ratio.

Great Ideas Come From Customers

clip_image002We spend a lot of time and considerable effort managing an Internet-facing server for our members, customers and business partners. Usually, this is a “build it and they will come” type effort. We build out what we think is an effective site, we track a certain amount of usage that tells us it’s working, we pat ourselves on the back and move onto the next task. In the course of normal business, we don’t actually have contact with these important users. Recently, I attended our company policyholder meeting, and I got to spend some time in one-on-one meetings with a few of our customers. It’s one thing to send someone their user credentials and receive a “Thanks, this looks good…” email. It’s a whole ‘nother thing to sit next to that person and walk them through their site.

I always get a little nervous before these meetings, and I always come away realizing that the nervousness was unnecessary. We are providing a service to our customers, and they appreciate it. If they have problems, suggestions or questions, they really appreciate the fact that we are willing to solve, consider or answer them. We had a few of each to deal with this time, and I learned a lot in the process.

One of the things that I learned is how important it is to consider SharePoint from the point of view of the user. We look at this site as a multi-use portal; it serves our members, our policyholders, many of our important business partners and our employees. One of the things we did when we upgraded to SP 2010 was to create separate content databases along these various groups. That we had to do this is a good thing, it means people are using the site. Of course, it also means that the URLs changed. Navigation from the top level site didn’t change, and the main URL didn’t change, but these people want to start at a place that makes sense to them; they don’t want to enter the front door and then walk down to “Men’s Wear.” Fortunately, we anticipated this problem, and we secured a domain name that will link them to the front page of the policyholder site – forever!

One of the things that we didn’t anticipate is how our site can be both important and trivial, and how that dichotomy influences what our users want. Our site is important, because it is a source of information that our policyholders need. Our site is trivial, because they have a thousand other things to keep track of. They rely on our content always being up to date; they want to know when our content changes but they don’t want dealing with that content or those changes to be a big drill. They want us to improve notification.

We thought that notification was easy – users can set up alerts and get notified of everything that changes, and they can have as many users as they like. Well, some of their users don’t remember to set up alerts, and they want some people to be notified without having them be credentialed users on the site. They want to have a contact list that can include users and non-users, and they want a “more descriptive email notification” to go out when content changes, not simply the SharePoint alert. I know that we can handle that request for one policyholder sub-site, and I think we can handle it for all of them with a roll-up list, but suffice it to say, we have some work ahead of us.

Another challenge that lies ahead of us is training. One of the changes we made during the upgrade process was to eliminate folders in the various document libraries. Face-to-face, I was able to show the benefit of having all the content in one place, and being able to sort and filter on the metadata. Apparently, “face-to-face” was the important part of that sentence. I was asked if I could provide remote video training. The answer is “yes I can,” but now that task is on my plate; I don’t think anyone from my awesome staff is going to volunteer to be the trainer. At least this will give us a chance to put Lync to the test.

I am famous for looking for the bright side to every situation (and there always is a bright side). When I look at this situation, I think about how lucky I am to be able to meet with these folks and get their honest feedback. Of course great food, open bars and a hike through a San Diego canyon helped set the stage for a comfortable exchange, but the important thing is that the dialog will help us turn a good site into an awesome site.