Will We Ever Get This Right

Almost every IT shop has an inventory of projects. imageSome have been on the shelf for a long time and curiously, some pop into inventory and immediately get addressed. What causes one project to leap ahead of 10 or 20 others? Well, it might be an executive sponsor. It might be a pressing regulatory need. It might be a staffing change. Sometimes, it’s not logical. We are reexamining our priorities this summer for all these reasons. I’ve been at this a long time so I take change in stride. So far, nothing has ever stopped the show from going on.

Ironically, I started thinking about what drives technology projects not from the perspective of a producer of technology, not even as a consumer, but as an innocent bystander.

I had to see a doctor this week. I hurt my shoulder and I needed the advice of an Orthopedic specialist. My primary care physician has recently added an Orthopedic PA (Physician’s Assistant) to his staff so that made scheduling easy. No referral required. Unfortunately, when I sustained a similar injury to my other shoulder several years ago, I was under the care of a different PA who was working with a different physician. Those records were “transmitted” verbally by me during my exam. Later, my wife quizzed me – “did you tell her about the…?” How nice it would have been for all of that information to have been available during my exam. “Oh, it’s in the works” I’m told, but it’s probably a long way off.

Fortunately, this PA did have access to my medical allergies and knew better than to prescribe any form of NSAID in the Propionic Acid class, to which I am allergic. She prescribed a topical gel from a class that those records indicated that I am not allergic to. Yay for accurate and complete, albeit isolated records!

An hour later, I was at the drug store trying to get that prescription filled. The ointment she wanted me to use is not an approved medication according to my medical insurance provider. The drug store has that information because they have access to my insurance provider’s database. They have access because having access allows them to charge me the right amount and get paid faster. My doctor, who might have prescribed something different had she known what was approved, has no such access.

I explained why my doctor had prescribed this medicine. I explained my allergies and how this stuff is in the Acetic Acid class rather than the Propionic class. They, the clerk and the pharmacist, both felt that that explanation would convince my insurance provider to agree to pay for it, but only if it came from my doctor. Not wanting to wait for the wheels of medical deliberation to turn, I agreed to pay the “retail” price instead.

Once the clerk confirmed the price and my willingness to pay the price, she handed the script to the pharmacist who had been at her side during the entire discussion. Before I got to the waiting area, the pharmacist called me back to the window.

Our records indicate that you are allergic to NSAIDs.

Without being snarky to the last human being standing between me and relief from pain, I recalled the conversation we had just finished. I explained again that I appear to tolerate a specific class of NSAIDs and that this gel was in that class. He apologized and then he explained.

I heard your explanation and it makes sense. Our system doesn’t differentiate by NSAID class; I wish it did because this is common. As for making you provide the information again, I am only following protocol. I have to check a box that says you provided this information to me in response to my question about your allergy.”

Oh, it’s a liability issue. If I were to end up in an Emergency Room, this drug store doesn’t want to be in court having their employee say “well, I overheard him say to our clerk that…” I get it.

I get all of this:

Having accurate and complete information helps people make better decisions.

Having access to information can sometimes save money.

Information is good but authoritative information is better.

Protocols are important and should be followed.

I also understand that the systems that exist and the connections that have been made are the ones that either save money or reduce liability. The ones that would merely benefit the people involved are still sitting in inventory. ROI, whether you prefer ‘return on investment’ or ‘risk of incarceration’ can’t be the only driver when deciding what system to build. Sooner or later, we have to find a way to place value on the information that would simply help people do a better job.

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.

Business – not SharePoint Solutions

imageTwo recent projects have caused me to realize that SharePoint has finally arrived in our small organization. I don’t mean that it’s here and in use, it’s been here since 2006. I don’t even think I’m talking about “adoption” the way that word is often used with respect to SharePoint. It’s arrived in that it’s now part of the permanent landscape and that’s a good thing. It’s good because people aren’t fighting the idea of SharePoint. On the other hand, SharePoint has only managed to shove itself into the mix. It isn’t the dominant player. It isn’t calling the shots. It’s on the team but it has to play by the same rules as everything else.

One of the projects we are close to completing has SharePoint in the leading role. The application is a portion of our payables process and people are now creating payment requests in SharePoint. Other people are reviewing those requests, adding comments and still other people are approving those requests. If all of this lived in SharePoint, SharePoint would rule the day. However, the back-end of this process is a desktop application that takes those approved requests and prints checks. That application also creates ACH transactions and wire-transfers. Eventually SharePoint will be the starting point for all those transactions, but everything SharePoint does has to feed that system.

Other processes are involved too. For example, we can’t present a payable for payment without making sure that the person / company we are trying to pay isn’t a terrorist. In that case, the back-end process is actually the starting point. We check vendors before we authorize them to be paid and we continue to check to make sure they don’t become terrorists. I suppose the back-end stuff could be done in SharePoint but it’s easier the way we’ve done it.

Note: All of those processes involve data that is stored in SQL Server and my crew had to battle with every imaginable issue (all of them permissions) to get those connections working reliably.

The second system we are working on is a storage system for some very important information. In order to make sure this stuff is available when we need it, it will exist in SharePoint on premises, some of it will be replicated in SharePoint Online and some will be replicated on a bunch of iPads. In this case, SharePoint is cast in the boring supporting actor role. Yes, SharePoint is holding all the stuff in house and holding all the stuff online, but the iPad app is the cool kid. Accordingly, SharePoint has to try to fit in.

We decided that the way the content is organized in the iOS app will determine the way it is organized in SharePoint. In other words, the list and library structure in SharePoint will correspond to the structure of root categories and detail topics in the iPad app. The app design is intuitive, something that SharePoint struggles with out of the box. The design is simple enough that it won’t take much work to make SharePoint look and feel consistent with the iPad. Still, a few years ago, this wouldn’t have been a consideration.

SharePoint and SQL Server was an arranged marriage and like many of those, it works, but it’s weak on love. We are making the connections work, the connections do work, but they all seemed to have taken more effort than should have been required. SharePoint and iPads? I’m pretty sure that was never part of anybody’s plan, but it has to work. We have to build a solution that spans those platforms and looks like it was meant to be.

Welcome to the real world SharePoint.

Short and Sweet

imageAs I indicated earlier in the year, I am doing less of the heavy lifting around our SharePoint space lately. I think I mentioned that this would have an impact on this blog, and well, I think that starts today. I’m not planning to stop or to go to a less frequent editorial schedule but I do have less to say.

I’ll wait for the applause to stop.

Seriously, I can wait.

OK, here’s the first short and sweet SharePoint Story.

One of the things I’ve been doing lately is helping a young woman build a site to store, track and display the results of our upcoming Wellness Contest. I say helping her build, because she is doing all the work. I’m looking over her virtual shoulder (via Lync) but she is navigating the browser, creating the lists and libraries and she is constructing the SharePoint Designer workflows. My contribution is a lot of:

oh, I see why that didn’t work” and “ok, now go back into the browser and try that workflow again…

So far, the most memorable moment for me is when she was terminating a workflow gone haywire and, looking at the workflow results page, said:

These error messages don’t really tell you much do they?

No, no they don’t – Welcome to SharePoint.

This post is about two bits of my personal style that I felt were important enough to pass onto her, and I’m going to refer to one that I’ve already mentioned. Let’s get the reuse out of the way first.

As I said a few weeks ago, I like building multiple small workflows instead of single large ugly workflows. Yes, adding the word “ugly” is a literary technique to skew your opinion toward agreement with mine. I don’t want you to think I’m trying to subtly manipulate you – the manipulation attempt is blatant.

I had a new reason for sharing this technique today though. Having short, single-purpose workflows helps a person build their reference library. Everybody forgets how to do some of the wonderful things they did in an earlier moment of greatness. It’s nice to be able to say “oh, I remember doing that when we did the Wellness contest back in 2014” and to be able to open that workflow and study it. If you open a workflow that scrolls on for several pages, you’ll likely be too confused to gain much benefit.

By the way, in addition to reusing the old thing, that counts as one of my two new things, so I’m almost done.

The second new thing has to do with clarity. Simply put, use more variables. For instance, in the workflow we were working with today, we are processing a step count that arrives by email. If there is an error, we are going to send an email back to the person who sent in the steps. That bit of information is in the Current Item From field, and we could reference it from there. However, I’d rather store it to a variable called “vFrom” and then send the error message to ‘vFrom’ if / when we have to. When we look at that workflow, the variables are visible, readable and the workflow makes a certain amount of sense.

When she finishes this project, I’ll provide a full description here; maybe I’ll even be able to coax her into writing that post. Until then, maybe I’ll actually do some work of my own, or I’ll offer up another short and sweet observation.