All Part of Information Services

clip_image002In 2013, Peggy Winton introduced me for my presentation at the AIIM Conference by saying “Dan once said that he didn’t like the department name Information Services but recently he has come to embrace it.” I’ve shared that comment a number of times, mainly because it’s true.

I’m not sure when “IT” took over the terminology, but for the longest time, I wanted to be part of the IT-hype. Keep in mind; I’ve been doing this long enough to remember my department being called Data Processing. Information Services seemed so bland, so boring, as if it were on the edge of the technology. I came very close to asking my boss to change our department’s name before I realized that – it isn’t about the technology.

This past week, I chaired a meeting of our newly formed Communications Working Group. We were talking about curating content in advance of a somewhat formal launch of our long neglected Facebook page and a subsequent re-launch of our long-standing but tired website. Yeah, I didn’t provide the links for a reason.

We don’t drive income from either of those digital venues. They are both information only kind of sites. Still, they are important. The people who visit those sites appreciate the content that they find there, well at least the website. Revamping them will take time. It will take work. We’re going to spend a little money. We are going to make them better so that they better serve the people who visit them. As I was explaining our plans to my boss, he quipped: “It’s all part of Information Services.” He’s right of course and I’m glad I never asked to change that name.

Technology has changed since I began my career over 35 years ago, but technology has never really been the main attraction. All the time I sat there, concerned that I was missing out on the glory, I was missing the main event playing out right under my nose. Technology has changed – information has expanded.

When I began this journey, information was gleaned from assemblages of data. People were hardly telling us anything, it was the numbers that did the talking. Today, we are using technology to tame the volume and velocity of information streaming in from myriad sources. Over the years, information gained color, dimension, sound and action. Information used to arrive in our physical inbox (I still have one) and if we weren’t proximate to that inbox, we didn’t have the information. I can remember people calling me (because I am often one of the first people in the office) to ask me to find some file or binder and retrieve a salient bit of information for them. Information Services indeed.

On Monday, we will begin our curating process. We will use a library on SharePoint to store bits of information, links to information and ideas about the types of information we might share. The people in that Communications Working Group will check various boxes indicating their support or concern for sharing those artifacts to different constituents. The audiences range from small groups of key players whom we will target via email, to broad segments of the unidentified public at the end of a Twitter timeline. It’s all information.

The fact that we will be using SharePoint to support the categorization effort is a non-story, a back-story – it’s the technology story and it’s unimportant. A library, a few metadata columns, a series of alerts and maybe a few minutes of my admin’s time to make the library email-enabled and we’re done.

I can look back in this blog and find entries where that was the story that I was proud to tell. Technology is like that, it has the shiny-new-toy appeal that information never has had. But the shine wears off or a newer toy arrives or the toy breaks or you find that you can’t play with it everywhere you go. The notion that information surrounds us is truer today than at any time during my life. I manage information services within our small organization and I am proud of that.

Baby Steps

clip_image002What do SQL Server, Social Media and SharePoint have in common? They are all things that we are learning, or still learning and they are all places where we just might make some mistakes. Earlier this week, one of my team members had to make a change to the structure of a table that we are using while testing our connections between SharePoint and our backend database. The change triggered that queasy-feeling-generating message about having to drop and recreate the table:

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This young woman leans toward cautious; she started exploring the options for altering her approach. I’m not sure she appreciated my advice, which came wrapped in a question: “what’s the worst that can happen?” After all, it’s a test database. I tried to sweeten the deal by adding that “we might as well see if this works” and that even if it failed, it would “give our system administrator a chance to test his backup and restore process”.

While she was struggling with SQL Server, I was learning more about using social media in our business. I spent a good part of this past week at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference – Boston, now officially known as E2Social, listening to people talk about effectively using social media to promote or grow your business or using it to improve communication and collaboration within your organization. In all these sessions, one message came through clear – mistakes are going to be made. After reading this far, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that I’m not bothered by that fact; we’ve been making mistakes with SharePoint for years. The important thing to know about those mistakes is that none were very large, none cost our company any much money and every mistake was a learning experience. Nathan Bricklin, Head of Social Strategy at Wells Fargo summed it up in his keynote presentation at E2. I’m paraphrasing here, but the quote I loved was:

“if you take baby steps and fall, you can learn walk. If you plan a project for a year and fail, you won’t be able to figure out what you did wrong”

The other feel-good moment in his presentation was when he reminded us that: “…it’s like baseball, you can’t win or lose the game in the first inning” that quote might not have been all that well received at this point in Boston, but we all understood the underlying message.

In our office, we have been playing this game all year as we have been experimenting with the various ways we can connect SharePoint to our backend data. We realize that if we can tie structured data to unstructured data, we can automate, or support through automation, a much more significant part of the target business process. Unfortunately, trying to make these connections has been underscoring why the word “frustrating” in in my tag line. We have managed to assemble successful proof-of-concept pages, parts, lists and workflows for almost every feature that we need to use. We have run into almost every error you can generate (they all seem to be related to permissions) and we have solved or worked around most of them. In short, we have fallen, but we are learning how to walk.

I never have much luck when I predict what next week’s post will be, but if things go according to plan, I’ll be sharing some of the specific experiences we have had with our connection quest. If things go according to history, I’ll be talking about something totally unexpected that will happen during the next few days.

By the way, if you want to know how to make it possible to let SQL Server drop and recreate those tables, see Geoffrey Emery’s excellent blog entry from 2009. I discovered that shortly after we began our migration from DB2 to SQL Server. DB2 warns you when a table has to be dropped and recreated, but it lets you decide whether or not you want to make the attempt. Unless you change your settings in SQL Server Management Studio, you get the warning shown above, but you can’t actually proceed. I will add for the faint of heart, that once you make the changes that Mr. Emery outlines, the drops and recreations just happen, no muss, no fuss, but no warning.

Notes from Info360

clip_image002The only time that I don’t like having a Saturday blog is when I have attended an event like Info360. By the time I get to write up my notes, it’s been blogged to death. So, I’m going to just pass along why I might be changing my thinking on two topics, as well as a couple quotes and two things that made attending personally rewarding.

I’ll start on a personal “good news for me” note. After 13 years of giving presentations at trade shows and conventions, I finally got to speak at the Javits Center. The bad news – it’s under construction, the rooms were temporary and noisy and the floors reminded me of the changing room at our town’s public pool.

For the record, I was part of a panel that was led by David Lavenda from Harmon.ie, and included Steve Brescia from American Water. Steve’s and my company both use Harmon.ie, although we have been drawn to it from different angles. That’s not surprising given how much power is packed into the Outlook add-on / iPad app.

One of the questions we were asked had to do with tracking what has happened to a document after it is moved into SharePoint. Steve and I talked about SharePoint Alerts, while David demonstrated Harmon.ie’s activity tracking feature, a social-style way to follow your document. Earlier that day, Adam Pisoni, CTO of Yammer, had been singing the praises of using social media within an organization during his keynote presentation. A few hours later, the rumors of Microsoft’s acquisition of Yammer were trending. Finally, on the following morning, during a half hour commercial for Chatter presentation by Michael Peachey, marketing exec with a long title, Salesforce.com, we saw statistics and heard testimonials on the value of using a private social media network. While I still feel that the use of social media in a small organization is over-hyped, I realize that it might appeal to some people.

The idea that we should consider offering something that might appeal to some people is an important point to consider. Our organization, like many is dealing with a series of transitions today. We are training the employees who will remain after many of my colleagues and I retire; we are dealing with various but increasing degrees of comfort with mobile technology, and we are trying to prepare for the significant changes that Microsoft is about to release. Clearly, one size no longer fits all and user experience and customer expectation are going to be the forces driving our IT decisions. David Kellogg, Chief Information Officer, Council on Foreign Relations summed it up during a panel discussion on the Consumerization of IT (ugh, buzzword) when he said: “why would you force people to use something they don’t want to use?” The answer used to be “because we can”, but we can’t get away with that attitude today.

Sticking with the theme: “you might need to embrace a mix of technologies”, a collection of speakers combined to convince me to leave the door only half closed toward the Cloud. Laurence Hart, CIO, AIIM, opened the conference with an updated practical view of ECM in the cloud. @Piewords, as he is better known, allayed my fears about security by pointing out that “…security is relative. They may get more attacks but they have full-fledged staff and big resources to deal with those threats” – a point echoed by several other speakers during the day. On the other hand, his comments about how cloud-based ECM solutions are at the low end of the maturity scale, gave me reason to enjoy my connection to SharePoint. I don’t remember if he used the word “legacy” when describing SharePoint, but other speakers did. It’s still hard for me to consider SharePoint a legacy system, but I guess that’s the price you pay for having mature ECM capabilities. I really liked the way Laurence illustrated one to five 9’s in a graph of downtime decreasing from one month to 5 minutes while the costs of achieving those levels of reliability soar up the Y-axis. By the way, “Three 9’s”, the advertised rate of reliability from most cloud ECM providers, equals 3.5 days of downtime; slightly less than the total time our building was without power in 2011 due to weather.

The best part of the week occurred after the show in the best Irish bar in New York, The Molly Wee. I finally heard the story behind the name of “The Word of Pie”, one of the most interesting and informative ECM blogs on Earth, and theTwitter handle @piewords. Of course, I can’t share that story here.