What – No SharePoint?

imageEarlier this week a group of volunteers gathered in Woburn, MA to chart the educational course of the AIIM New England Chapter. We’ve been working for several years to “put the program on rails” but we decided to derail a couple of old standards. One of those appears to be the notion that we should have one event every year dedicated to SharePoint.

This used to be a slam-dunk event for the Chapter; in its heyday, tossing the word “SharePoint” after anything was an immediate win.

Join the parishioners of the Triple Rock Baptist Church for a day of preaching and music, followed by a bake sale, potluck dinner and some SharePoint – Jake; get wise, you get to church

We always tried to give our SharePoint events an AIIM-ish twist. We explored ‘Usability’ in SharePoint. We explored ‘Governance’ in SharePoint. We teamed up with the folks over at ARMA Boston to explore ‘Records Management’ in SharePoint and we tried to figure out what people are really doing with SharePoint. We had some success, but two things seem clear. OK, one thing seems clear and one seems a little fuzzy. Clearly, interest in SharePoint as a subject is waning among our members. Fuzzily, (oh my goodness, that is a word), the direction in which SharePoint is moving, or trying to move, is getting hard to predict. I’m not suggesting a doom and gloom scenario, but if we try to build an event around a product, we need to have a clear picture of the road ahead.

So, rather that market a “message for SharePoint” that has benefit to the broader masses of Information Professionals, we are going to offer a series of messages for that broader group that we hope will attract people from the SharePoint community, too.

Now that I’ve let AIIM NE’s agenda co-opt my blog space for a few hundred words, I think I’ll give you a break and bring this to a quick end. I would ask for a little help though. As many of you know, I am the Program Director for AIIM New England. We are trying to chart a different course this year, partly because, like many professional associations, we are struggling to find the right mix of topics that you (information professionals) will find interesting.

If you have a few minutes, would you please fill out this survey? I promise you that it will only take a few minutes of your time and the results are very important to us. We, by the way, are a small group of like-minded information professionals (well, maybe not entirely like-minded) who volunteer our time to spread the word and provide meaningful educational events at a ridiculously low price to the broad community of (say it with me now) information professionals.

Note: if you have problems with that survey link, for example, if WuFoo asks you to open an account, paste the URL below into your browser. We don’t care if you become a WuFoo customer (although we like them) but we really do want your input – https://aiimne.wufoo.com/forms/aiim-ne-2014-program-survey/

Time is Money – Or Something

imageOne day back in the mid-80s, I was sitting at my desk at one of the Big 8 (or was it 6) audit/consulting firms when my boss walked in. He looked at my desk and saw that I was drawing a diagram (we didn’t have much in the way of graphics capabilities in those days). He asked me what it was. I explained that I thought a diagram would help our client (Bob) understand the work we were doing.

“How long have you been working on that?”

“About an hour”

“When will you be done?”

“Maybe 15 minutes”

“OK, when you’re done, fax it to Bob and ask him for $280”

“Whaaaat?

“That’s how much it cost him for you to draw that. That’s assuming that what I’m looking at is the presentation copy. Or were you going to ask the people in the report department to make that pretty? In that case, ask Bob for more money”

The picture vs. the thousand words thing wasn’t going to work. My diagram was worth 50 or 60 words at best. My boss was adamant that we spend our client’s money as if it were our own. I’ve never forgotten that lesson. I’ve shared that story with almost everyone who has ever worked for me. The wisdom in that story is one of several pillars supporting the notion that “just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you should do something.”

Since we decided to use SharePoint for content management in 2006, our goal had always been to expand SharePoint into the other areas where we could “make it work.” Our logic was simple – the more people used SharePoint, the more familiar they would be with its features. It was a good theory but expanding SharePoint requires effort if you want to maintain a quality user experience

Last year we decided to abandon our dreams of extending imageSharePoint via the Internet to work with our various business partners. We decided to reel our expectations for SharePoint back into the services that it provides out-of-the-box pretty – back into the SharePoint comfort zone. One of the things that SharePoint doesn’t do well is surveys, and although we have experience making the results of a SharePoint survey look good, a process that takes many hours, we don’t have the ability to make the survey itself look good…can you say WuFoo?

WuFoo gave us the opposite challenge that SharePoint does. We get a nice customer experience out of the box, but we don’t have the flexibility of wiring up some pretty Data View Web Parts to digest the results.

Here are a few things we were able to easily do with WuFoo that we couldn’t ever figure out with SharePoint:

  • Insert text comments into the survey to explain the upcoming questions
  • Add instructions to help people understand how to answer the questions (without making the question 10 miles long).
  • Make the survey pretty
  • Change the default text when it didn’t make sense
  • Exit the survey without completing required fields based on certain answers (without branching)

We had looked at online surveys before, but the price point that we needed to buy at, in order to get the features we needed, was too high. Also, there were a couple of features that we could make work in SharePoint that didn’t work with the online surveys. Fortunately, products evolve and WuFoo now offers all the features we need at a price that we would be silly to ignore.

By using WuFoo, we can give our customers a great user experience, and the woman in our office who is building the survey has figured out how to configure the web-based reports to give us all the information we need to manage the event. And, they look pretty good. Our coworker who is in charge of the event has already said that he thinks this year’s survey is the best that he has seen. You see, he’s the one who has to deal with the customers who fill out the survey.

WuFoo isn’t free. Well, it can be free, but the free version won’t do all the things we need. But, an employee’s time isn’t free either. When you do the math that my old boss taught me, WuFoo is, as he used to say, “A bargain at twice the price.

SharePoint vs. Excel – Round 2

imageIn December 2009, I pitted Excel vs. Custom Lists and Excel lost that battle. Recently, Excel asked for a rematch. When Marc Anderson was teaching my team about developing in SharePoint’s Middle Tier, he asked if he could work with some of our data and I pointed him to a survey we had run in 2010. Marc showed us a few techniques, but everybody agreed that analyzing a survey was a task probably best handled by Excel. We moved our attention to a different source for the more advanced examples.

After Marc left, I wanted to begin my own middle-tier journey, and the survey was a good-sized set of test data and the Excel-based reports served both as specifications and test results. I wired up a few Data View Web Parts in what I labeled a “Summary View” page. The survey had been for an off-site customer meeting; I was showing: the number of attendees; the number bringing guests; the number of hotel rooms needed, the number of people coming to dinner, breakfast, and various events and breakout sessions. I showed this fledgling analysis page to a few people; everybody had the same reaction – they wanted one for the 2011 survey. Why? What made the promise of a set of browser-based analysis pages more appealing than the reports we had in Excel?

Live Results – The SharePoint to Excel connection is easy, but somebody has to make it. Somebody has to download the results, refresh all the Pivot Tables and then print the pages for others to view. If you’re thinking that we could let everyone access the spreadsheet, read the next paragraph. SharePoint Data Views are live, they change when the survey changes and they are available 24/7. In addition, the summary page DVWPs link to deeper views of the same data. For example, the Web Part that summarizes the main dinner and reception shows the total number of attendees and guests coming for dinner. If you click on the title, we bring up a page that shows the name of each attendee, that of his or her guest and any food allergies or restrictions either may have.

No Errors – Excel is a great product and a fantastic analysis platform, but unless you go to a lot of trouble, it’s fairly fragile. It is remarkably easy for someone to forget to press Refresh All, to unclick a filter in a Pivot Table or worse, overwrite a formula. In prior years, when any of these things happened, we had to find the Excel expert who had written the spreadsheet. By comparison, the XSL behind the DVWPs is protected by SharePoint permissions; they can only be modified by people who know what they are doing (hey, I had two days’ worth of training).

Easy Access – We run this survey off of our Internet-facing server so our customers can get to it. The analysis spreadsheet was on our file system, behind our firewall. This meant that you could check those results in the office or over VPN, on a laptop with Excel installed. Of course this assumes that someone did the download, refresh and save operation first. Now, if you can access the survey, you can view the results. The people who run this event like the fact that they can check the survey results from anywhere, at any time, and the page even looks good on an iPhone. There’s an additional benefit to this last fact. During the event, our people have to know who is supposed to be at certain places, at certain times. Who is supposed to be at dinner, in a breakout session, on a bus to an event, etc? Now, any one of our employees can check any of this information from the event venue without carrying a bunch of paper around. Those last minute changes, the ones that were recorded after we boarded the planes; they will be accurately reflected on the result pages.

So far, I have completed the Summary View, and several detail views. I have figured out how to dissect all the bits and pieces of data held inside a survey response and how to spit them back out to a web page in an acceptable manner. Also, as of yesterday afternoon, the most important user of this information, the person responsible for the event, told me that he “really likes the fact that he can access these results whenever he wants to.” He realizes that the Excel Pivot Table reports looked better, but he wouldn’t go back if it meant giving up these new features – it doesn’t get any better than that. Of course, if Excel wants to go another round, I’ll bring Marc back and we’ll make those pages look amazing!

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.

Boredom Interrupted

This week marks the second time an unplanned event saved me from writing an uninspired blog entry. The first time this happened was on the heels of the Microsoft SharePoint Conference (which I could not attend). At that time, the NY Times inspired what turned into a popular rant about the future of Microsoft. This time, I’m not ranting, I’m honored. Last week, Mark Miller of EndUserSharePoint.com notified me that he was writing an article about this blog. He highlighted my entry on SharePoint Lists v. Excel and generated some of the highest views I’ve had. Now I have one more reason to appreciate the great work Mark does at EUSP.

The renewed attention on that post generated a few comments, tweets and emails. A few compliments tell me I’m on the right track with this blog, but it’s two challenging comments I want to talk about. One person pointed out that I left out a valuable feature of SharePoint Lists, that multiple people can make entries at the same time. The second person mentioned that the article was one-sided; well, it is SharePoint Stories, but it’s a point well taken; SharePoint isn’t the best tool for every task.

The result is that instead of writing a “look back on 2009” where I bore you with the course this blog has followed, I’m going to answer both comments with an update on a previous entry about a custom survey. The survey was briefly mentioned, ironically, in an article where I was thanking the SharePoint community, including ESUP.

This particular survey was designed to gather feedback from people attending a customer meeting we had just held. As the author of one of the comments pointed out, the beauty of using SharePoint for this task was the fact that I didn’t have to care when people responded. Using a Custom List instead of the standard SharePoint Survey let me attach a workflow to the survey which allowed us to automate the processing of the survey results. Now we all know, SharePoint is limited in its ability to present survey results – but, that’s where Excel shines. We exported the SharePoint survey results to a spreadsheet and gave that spreadsheet to one of my coworkers who does magical things with Pivot Tables. The result was a series of short, highly informative reports, easy to read charts and tables summarizing the survey data. Once the “survey”, the workflow and the spreadsheet were in place, the reporting process was just short of automatic. As one of the comment authors mentioned, the key is to “use the right tool for the job.”

Thanks again to Mark Miller for all he brings us through ESUP and for all the people who contribute to the SharePoint community; you make it easy to succeed. In fact, I just noticed that ESUP has a recent article on processing SharePoint Surveys without using a workflow. I look forward to all the interesting stories that are bound to be part of 2010 – Happy New Year!

This Place Has Everything

It started with lunch at the House of Blues in Downtown Disney. A few days later there was an endless Twitter exchange with my daughter of lines from the movie. Yes, “The Blues Brothers” has been on my mind lately. If you’re familiar with the movie, you recognize the title of this post from Jake and Elwood’s destructive cruise through the mall. The “place” I’m referring to is the SharePoint community and it does indeed have everything.

Let me share an example with you. Earlier this week I needed to attach a workflow to a survey and I quickly discovered that you can’t do that. I added that tidbit to the long list of things I don’t like about SharePoint surveys and decided to replace the survey with a Custom List. Then I remembered that the Column Name in a Custom List doesn’t wrap. If you think about it, for the Custom list to look like a survey, the question has to be the Column name. Otherwise the question would have to go under the answer field in the Description. But, if the Column Name doesn’t wrap, respondents would have to scroll side to side to complete the survey. Sigh… these are moments when I’m reminded that SharePoint’s potential often lies just beneath the surface.

I know enough about SharePoint to know that I wanted to change the CSS associated with the Column Name. I know I can do that a number of ways and I know that some of those ways are bad. A simple search for “sharepoint css wrap list column names” led me to the SharePointSolutions blog where I found an incredibly detailed description of the steps I needed to take.

If you follow this blog or read the Welcome message or you know that this is not a technical “how-to” blog. I want to focus on the ways SharePoint is used but sometimes, in order to use SharePoint we need to mess with it. Every time I need to mess with SharePoint, I find that someone has faced the same problem, solved it and taken the time to share the solution.

Today, I want to thank those people. From the Microsoft SharePoint team to SharePointSolutions to EndUserSharePoint and all the individual and company supported blogs I don’t have space to list. Thanks also to the people tweeting away, pointing us to outstanding or interesting blog entries and helping us stay sane by sharing their frustrations and discoveries. Add to the list the people who organize, make presentations at and report from events and user groups. All of you combine to make my life easier and I want you to know your efforts are appreciated.

Timeless Lessons

Back in the 1980’s, I left a promising consulting career to open a cabinet shop; I like to say I had my mid-life crisis early. Last week, I reconnected with my boss from that consulting firm. One of the things he asked me was if running a cabinet shop made me a better woodworker. Ironically, working as a consultant made me a better woodworker and owning a cabinet shop made me a better businessman. Sounds like two blog entries – let’s start with the two lessons from my consulting experience that I still rely on today: creating a work plan and the curious habit of reading the “proposal” every day.

Every one of our consulting engagements had a written proposal, and at the heart of every proposal was a work plan. The work plan outlined every aspect of the project: the goals, the key players, the individual tasks, and the dependencies between tasks. Urging us to “read the proposal every day” was the way my boss made sure we followed the work plan and didn’t step out of scope. The written proposal ensured that we and our clients had the same expectations. Following that work plan ensured that we did what we said we were going to do.

When I look at our SharePoint farm, I realize that the worst sites we have are the ones we threw together quickly; usually “Team Sites” built with little input from the user. The best SharePoint sites we have are the ones that were well planned. It sounds obvious but SharePoint makes it so easy to just start building something that we sometimes minimize planning. The good news is that SharePoint also includes the tools to make planning and project management just as easy.

As we build our most important sites, we start with a SharePoint survey where our customers tell us what they want. We have a document template in Word that helps us create a custom work plan based on the survey. As we build the site, we keep that survey in front of us alongside that work plan. Every feature, permission and bit of content to be uploaded is written down, waiting to be checked off. As the site is being prepared, a Custom List is updated showing the status of the site and other lists are being updated with the details that we need to administer the site after it’s in production.

25 years after leaving that firm, I realize that building a sustainable SharePoint Farm is not unlike building a successful consulting practice – it’s all about understanding and meeting client expectations. Later, I’ll talk about the lessons from the wood shop; hint: it’s all about patterns, jigs and tools.