Apparently I am a Dumbass

imageEarlier this week, I gave two presentations in Orlando, FL. One, at the AIIM Conference was well received; it was about SharePoint and ECM and will take a few blog posts to sort out.

The second presentation was to the Service Provider Executive Forum (SPEF) and unfortunately, it’s very easy to describe. The vendors attending SPEF are the ones who sell scanning services, document storage, printers, copiers and scanners. SPEF was one of those conference-within-a-conference deals, and my presentation was part of a ‘User Feedback’ panel.

I worked hard on this presentation. It was a good presentation. It just wasn’t the message this group wanted to hear. I’m sorry for that, but I don’t have a great history with this industry. My message wasn’t a feel-good story. I talked about why we don’t use many of these services, and how our most recent encounter has gone somewhat off the rails. I had hoped that the organizer was right when she told me:

They will appreciate your candor

Here’s a tip: if you ever hear those words, run. Drop everything, don’t tweet about it, don’t snap a picture, don’t think twice – just run.

Our story in a nutshell – we are small. This industry’s story in a my-opinion-nutshell – they are commodity brokers seeking a sale at any cost.

The best analogy I can come up with is that buying these services or products is like buying a digital camera; they all take pictures, they all have good battery life and they all let me move pictures to my PC, tablet, Cloud storage, etc. Once I decide the few, somewhat unique features (zoom, video, and form-factor) that I want, it comes down to picking the one that’s most comfortable.

The problem – that we have experienced – is that some salespeople want to be the mystic swami in your life. They don’t want informed customers. They don’t want to hear your story; they want to tell you theirs.

My presentation carefully presented our position, our real-life experience and then I took “questions” I put that in quotes because most of what I heard were not questions per se.

Why didn’t you buy a scanner? Scanning to SharePoint from dedicated scanners seems to provide more robust options than scanning from multi-function copies (MFCs)…who knew? More importantly, who cares? The fact of the matter is that we don’t have a space for a dedicated scanner, nor do we have the volume to justify one. In addition, we only want to have to learn how to use one device.

Why didn’t you do an RFI first?  Seriously, an RFI for two MFCs?

You’re ignoring the money you could save by outsourcing all the scanning to us. I reminded this person that I had explained the very, very high cost of teaching someone how to classify and index our documents.

Finally, a white knight emerged. Addressing the audience, he said:

What I’m hearing is that you guys are saying that Dan is a dumbass

Ah…well…thanks?

His point was that I failed to engage with them according to their preferred sales method. Apparently, from their perspective, that was my mistake.

One woman came up to me afterwards and said “I don’t think you’re a dumbass, but this managed metadata thing sounds like a unique requirement.” I reminded her that it’s a mainstream feature of a major product. I didn’t invent it; I just want to use it. More importantly, it was a written requirement that we were willing to explain.

One guy followed me to my next presentation, all the way telling me that if I had done an RFI he would have been able to explain why we needed a scanner. I explained, again, why we chose MFCs over a dedicated scanner.

He turned up again later as I was boarding the bus to the conference social event. He started telling me about the features of the scanner. The one we don’t want – as if he thought that if he gave the same pitch often enough I might just buy one. My friend (who sells a high-end ECM product) said:

This guy sells hammers. You have a screw, but he still has to try and sell you a hammer.” He added, “It’s a sales technique we call show-up and throw-up.”

I’ll leave you with the message in my final two slides. When we look for vendors to help us, we look for a vendor who will:

  • Be a business partner with us
  • Let us do the portions of the project that we feel we need to closely control
  • Accept that we know our business and know enough about yours to evaluate you/your product or services as compared to others that are available
  • Think long term; think beyond this sale and this commission.

Oh, and don’t lie to me. I can handle the truth.

Scanner Solution

We are currently in between phone systems, and depending on whether you dial my direct number or find me through voice mail, I see or do not see your Caller-ID. That means that I am answering more cold calls than I usually do. Very often, my answer to the brave sales person is somewhere along the line of: “no, we’re actually a pretty small company and I could never justify your (software, hardware, salary, rate/hr).” As we move toward the center of the ECM roadmap, we encounter Technologies and Classification; this is where being small becomes interesting.

When considering technologies, being small can be beneficial, but only if you are willing to spend some money. For example, I don’t need to spend five or six figures on a high speed scanner or OCR solution. However, I do need to provide hardware for scanning, and I do need to be able to scan things to a text-searchable result. You might be tempted to remind me that I could have people walk to a multi-function copier, scan to an image PDF and then open Acrobat and use it to recognize the text. Yes, I could do that, but that is going to cost more money over time than the investment in few desktop scanners with scan-to-searchable-PDF built in. Small companies often make the mistake of saving money at the expense of time – ultimately a fool’s game. Actually, in a follow-up to my earlier series on desktop scanners, we just purchased a small pile of Fujitsu ScanSnaps. We selected these scanners since the ScanSnap software that comes with the scanner, can create searchable PDFs directly in SharePoint. We have two capable workgroup scanners, and they are great for large jobs, but giving people the ability to scan to SharePoint without leaving their desk helps insure that documents get into repositories instead of to-be-scanned piles.

The only other element of the Technologies box that we are using is e-Forms, and we don’t use it much. In fact, I am not even sure most people would consider our activity to be an e-Form. Our activity in this area is the use of Surveys to gather information prior to events, to be used for planning; and surveys after the event to gauge the event’s effectiveness. Prior to SharePoint, we used web-based forms, PERL and .asp scripts and a fair amount of manual processing to collect this information. SharePoint surveys allow us to easily collect the information, and export it to Excel. Unfortunately, SharePoint out-of-the-box surveys are dull. On the other hand, we aren’t looking for a sexy process here, we simply want reliable utility and SharePoint give us that. When we relied on web-based forms, we lost countless submissions due to email failures at our hosted server. Since switching to SharePoint, we have collected 100% of the surveys completed. When you use technology to collect information, reliable outweighs sexy all day long.

Capture – Human Content

When I first saw the AIIM roadmap, I was in a class that I wasn’t sure I belonged in, AIIM’s ECM Master Class. When I looked closely at this illustration, I started counting the number of things that our little shop has to deal with and I knew that even small businesses can benefit from proper ECM. The topmost entry point to the roadmap is Human Created Information, and that’s where I am going to start today. A quick look at the four lanes of the on-ramp reveals a lot about our organization:

  • Office Documents – This is the single largest piece of our content pie. The content in this piece has varied over time, from typewritten documents that were filmed to Word documents to email; but it remains the leader of our content creation world.
  • Forms – This is always astonishing to the cold-call salesmen and people on the show floor at AIIM Expo, but we have very few forms. We insure Nuclear Power plants, not Volvos; you don’t walk into our lobby to get a policy. What few forms we do have are related to internal accounting, and personnel, e.g. expense processing, benefits and such.
  • Rich media – Depending on your definition, we have a little bit of rich media or no rich media. Like most organizations, our “documents” include more rich content today than 10 years ago, but they are still documents. We also make use of richer mediums like video conferencing, shared collaboration spaces, etc. I would argue that wikis, white boards and presentations shared around the country are rich media, but perhaps it is poor, lean, dull media transmitted though a rich pipeline. In any case, only the results are being treated as content today.
  • Microfilm – Ugh, yes, we have microfilm. Most of what we have on film, is reference material; documents, tables, charts, drawings that couldn’t be carried by any other medium at the time they were needed. Occasionally, we need to recover some of this stuff, but it does not represent an ongoing flow of content.

How well does SharePoint support this side of capture? Office documents, and in this case I mean “Office 2010”, are riding with an E-Z Pass stuck to the windshield. That is, unless you consider email to be a part of Office. There still seems to be a bit of a turf war going on between the SharePoint and Exchange groups within Microsoft. Public Folders were going away in Exchange 2007, but they are still supported in Exchange 2010. In fact, it appears that in the 2010 versions, it might be easier to render views of public folders in SharePoint than move email into SharePoint. I find this troubling because we have a pressing need to integrate email with documents stored in SharePoint. We have looked at several email archiving solutions for SharePoint, and none really stand out as something we want to use. For now, we are using public folders for organizing email and collaborating around email and then moving email in bulk to SharePoint for archive purposes. I don’t like the solution, but it works.

As I mentioned before the mini-rant, the integration between Office applications and SharePoint is sweet. The applications are aware of the structure, understand check-in/check-out and support the metadata of SharePoint document libraries. The integration between Office and SharePoint that was introduced with MOSS 2007 saved SharePoint in our company. If we had to rely on the manual check-out, do your work, save and check-back-in cycle, SharePoint would have sunk under its own weight. We still have to work like that with the applications in Adobe Creative Suite, but thankfully we don’t create much content there.

Our limited need to capture microfilm has been satisfied by one of the best bits of hardware I ever found, a Scan Pro1000 microfilm scanner. I met these folks at AIIM Expo several years ago and I was blown away by the device. We can view and scan individual pages to PDF (at about 1pg/sec) or we can automatically scan entire rolls of film. We operate by a simple rule: if we scan it to PDF, we save it. Of course, we save it in SharePoint.

Even in our little world, capture presents some challenges and some bright spots. At this point of the roadmap, SharePoint hasn’t started to help us, but the fact that Office is well integrated with SharePoint makes capturing the bulk of our on-going human created information easy enough. Not as easy as the K: drive, I’m told, but easy enough. That brings us to the subject of backfilling; which, in this case study is a success story, but one that can wait to be told.

No Excuses (None Necessary)

The reason that I started following Team Wilkerson was because of the pure, 100% no excuses attitude of driver / crew chief / owner (that would be Tim). After a race, whether he goes out in the first round (as happens to all racers from time to time), or he gets the win light, Tim offers a no-nonsense, no excuses explanation of what happened. Two weeks ago, Tim lost in the final round against John Force, due to a parts failure. No whining, no finger pointing, no blame game; that was an opportunity lost, plain and simple. This past week, when Tim beat John Force in the final round, it was pretty much the same story. John asked Tim if he had “hopped it up” for him. Tim said “I sure enough did because that’s what it took…” John owns the most successful operation in drag racing, he sits at the top of the points and he is always the man to beat. Tim knew that, and he planned for the race, he prepared himself and his car, and he WON!

So, what’s my no-nonsense story with respect to the problem we are having with our desktop scanners. Simply put, I didn’t follow through. When our current scanners started to exhibit their now chronic double-feeding problem, I should have fought harder with the manufacturer’s tech support. When I bought the wanna-be replacement scanner, I should have worked up-front with my sales rep, as she could have warned me about the issues that caused me to return it. When we leased our current MFC’s, I should have pressed for more details as to how they accomplish scanning to SharePoint. These are mistakes I will not make a second time. I am back in the market for desktop scanners, and I am focused on four things:

Paper Handling – No matter what we want these scanners to do with the images they produce, they first have to be able to get the paper from the feed tray to the output tray. I am keenly aware of the “rated speed” we want, and I understand what “rated speed” means. 15-ppm sounds good, but not if that’s only for black & white, single-sided, crisp clean 20lb paper at 200 dpi. I plan to load it up with the worst stuff we have, including those invoices we get that seem to be printed on tracing paper. I’m going to fill the hopper, scan in duplex mode at 300 dpi, time the job and count the jams.

Capture – We are not scanning forms, but we do switch from documents to images. We also scan documents that come in a variety of sizes. In any given week, my invoices range from 8 ½ x 11 to 5 x 8. We also have to scan old documents for archive and / or discovery purposes. The issues we face include: Can the scanner capture edge-to-edge? Can it scan off of a colored background? Can it capture notes and marks on the page? Can it be made to ignore those same marks?

Process – This is the biggest rat’s nest of scanner technology because so much of the scanner’s capabilities depends on software, either desktop or embedded that actually processes the image. Blank page removal, de-skewing, auto-rotation, PDF creation, OCR and searchable PDF creation, etc.; I could go on, but you know the song. What I will know this time before I buy a new scanner is, how many of these functions are implemented through software and what will it cost to license and keep that software up to date during the life of the scanner.

Disposition – Any scanner can put the resulting JPG, TIFF or PDF in a folder on my desktop. I want to incorporate the scanner into a business process, perhaps into a workflow, so I will be paying more attention to these capabilities. Obviously, scanning to SharePoint is key to my success, and I am going to be very critical of how that process really works.

These are simple things we should all do, all the time when we are spending money, especially when we are spending someone else’s money.

So there, I have a job to do, and I have to make sure I do it the way I know I should. Tim Wilkerson has a much more difficult job ahead of him, the Western Swing. Team Wilkerson is preparing for back-to-back-to-back races in Seattle, Sonoma and Denver, a triad that will test their stamina and their ability to pack that trailer with parts and supplies. I hope to have to re-write more blog entries during that short series – Go Tim!

Scanner Rant

I want to start this post by saying that most of the vendors we deal with provide quality products and services and are pretty good about maintaining a mutually beneficial relationship between us and them. That said, there are some things that are bothering me right now. I am going to pick on one subject, Desktop Scanners, and I am going to describe some of the things that drive me nuts. Later in this series, I’ll discuss how I think both vendors and customers could help avoid these problems (yes, I am going to throw stones at myself). For a variety of reasons, I am not going to mention specific vendors, venues or products.

My scanner battle began a few years ago with the purchase of about a dozen desktop scanners. We selected a brand that had a good mix of features, performance and software, and people generally loved having these units on their desk. In almost every case though, these scanners developed a serious double-feeding problem in a relatively short time frame. We contacted the vendor’s tech support, we contacted the company we bought these from, and neither was able to fix the problem. Parts were purchased, instructions were followed, double feeding continues to this day. Now, we are getting ready to replace these scanners.

I had an opportunity recently to meet with representatives of this vendor. Before looking at their current product line, I mentioned the problems we are having. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that our case was unique. The sales rep, claiming to be familiar with the tech-support logs, told me there is “no indication of widespread multiple feed issues” with the scanner model we own. He questioned whether or not I had followed the instructions properly, whether I had purchased OEM or after market replacement parts and whether or not I had properly pursued each service claim. He dismissed my affirmative responses and said “well, it’s probably time that you replace these scanners anyway” as several new models have been released since we purchased our scanners.

What happened next was simply bizarre. He directed me to a product demonstration area and proceeded to show me the current replacement for the scanner we own. He explained the new features in this model, including a feeder mechanism that has been redesigned to prevent double-feeding. Of course, I asked: “why would you bother to redesign the feed mechanism if double-feeding wasn’t a problem?” The answer, “we are constantly upgrading our scanners.” – You don’t say…

The next problem, involved purchasing a desktop scanner from a different manufacturer. We scoured the product descriptions and selected what appeared to be a great replacement. It listed all the same features, including an ability to scan directly to SharePoint. We bought one, only to find that many of the features were available only after the purchase of the professional version of the scanner software (at a cost almost equal to that of the scanner). Also, scanning to SharePoint failed on all but the smallest documents due to an ‘http put error’ even though we have previously changed that setting in SharePoint and we can upload the documents manually. Without hesitation, we returned this scanner. We have also had problems with workgroup scanners that were advertised as being able to scan to SharePoint. We found, during setup, that they needed much more robust permission levels than a human user would need to put documents into a SharePoint library.

Obviously, we made some mistakes in evaluating and purchasing these products. As mentioned above, I’ll talk about our “lessons learned” in a follow-up post. For now, I want to end with a short list of features that every desktop scanner should have:

  1. Automatic removal of blank pages when scanning in duplex mode.
  2. The ability to easily create a searchable PDF.
  3. The ability to send PDFs created in step #2 to any location on SharePoint where the user has permission to contribute.
  4. The ability to scan up to the rated capacity of the sheet-feeder without jamming.
  5. The ability to detect variations in paper size and “just deal with it”.

Note: All of these features should be available when scanning in Black & White, Grayscale, and Color modes. And just so you know, my definitions of “automatic” and “easy” do not include programming a workflow or creating a complex processing job.