Helping Out for the Holidays

clip_image002This is always a tough time of year to write about SharePoint. Monday was the first day of our fiscal year which means it was also the first day of the process known as year-end. We also have a lot of activity associated with the policy renewals that happen on January 1st, so there usually isn’t a lot of time for SharePoint. Fortunately, a bunch of holidays occur in between our year-end and those renewals.

Last year, one of my coworkers decorated her office door. She did a great job, but there are a lot of doors and hers was the only pretty one. This year, she wanted to try and encourage others to join her. A few ideas bounced around a few heads, and a contest was born. The cool thing is that the winner gets to choose a charity to benefit from the proceeds of the contest. Of course, we’re going to use SharePoint to handle the contest. The process is pretty simple, but I learned a bunch of things about SharePoint that I didn’t know, and they might come in handy if you ever have a similar need. I didn’t figure any of this out; I just searched and picked one of many available answers. I’ve included the links here, in case they’re interesting to you.

Photos can be rated – We don’t deal with photos very often, in fact this might be the first time we are “dealing” with photos. Other photo libraries that we have are holding logos, pictures from business events we have held and pictures of things we want to put in a report. Not exactly stuff anyone cares to rate. We decided not to use this feature because we want a more direct way of choosing a winner and we don’t want to make people assign a value to every picture, but it’s pretty cool none the less.

There are Thumbnails – Well, of course there are thumbnails, that’s what we are looking at when we look at the standard library view, but those thumbnails aren’t directly available, or are they? Well, I found a short article from Stephen Wilson at Rackspace for accessing the thumbnails in SharePoint 2013. I tried his technique and it worked in our 2010 libraries as well. I spent a little time trying to wire up a related list that would show the thumbnail and let people make a choice (like a survey would be if SharePoint surveys worked better), but that didn’t pan out. The reason we’re doing this in SharePoint is because we have some remote workers who can’t see the actual doors. We don’t want them to have to go to the list, click on the thumbnail to see the photo and then go back to the list to vote. This needed to be simpler.

You can make workflows easier to use – One of the things people hate about workflows is that you have to do the whole right-click – select Workflows – select the workflow – start the workflow thing. Now you can make a really pretty page where this stuff all happens behind the scenes, but it’s year-end, and this is a simple contest. One way to simplify the workflow process is to add an HTML column that provides the shortcut to the workflow right in the item. I’ve used this method a number of times in other lists, but Varinder Singh wrote a nice blog entry on how to do it.

I’m going to opt for the workflow solution. People can look at the pictures, choose the one that they like and run the “Select as Winner” workflow. The workflow is pretty simple – it will add the name of the picture and their name to a list. A workflow in that list will throw out any previous entries that person made and a view will take care of the counting and sorting. Nothing fancy here, but it feels good to be able to say “yeah, we can do that in SharePoint” whenever somebody asks for a solution. Give us a few weeks, and I’ll post a picture of the winning door and the winner’s choice of charity.

ECM is an Activity not a Product

imageLast week the AIM New England Chapter held an event with the goal of trying to figure out how people are using SharePoint. You can read about the event, the discussion and the wisdom the expert speakers shared in the Event Experience Report, but I want to talk about a note found on page 6:

One person described a decision to move a customer facing solution out of SharePoint because the customers were not interested in the features SharePoint has to offer. The solution has evolved into a ‘content publishing’ solution and management feels that there are better platforms than SharePoint on which to build such a solution.”

I’ll confess to being that person. Are we giving up on SharePoint? No. Is our content management program changing? Yes.

When we first began using SharePoint in 2006, we liked what we saw. While we were struggling to figure out how to best use the product in-house, someone asked if we could use SharePoint to exchange documents, information and perhaps collaborate with some of our customers and business partners. As you might expect, good little techies that we were / are, we jumped at the chance to add a second farm and build an Internet-facing SharePoint server.

We developed solutions. We formed pilot groups. We tested, tweaked, added and perfected features and we held training events. We met with our customers and we spoke with our coworkers and what we heard was that our customers don’t need SharePoint. Our customers want to share files, and share is 90% retrieve and 10% submit. Do the math, there’s nothing left for “collaborate on” or “construct a process around” or any of the other things we have been trying to get people interested in. That’s OK! We understand serving customers, and we don’t want to make customer service harder than it needs to be.

But wait a minute. If we already have SharePoint, why abandon it? SharePoint can certainly be used to share files with people over the Internet.

That’s true, but we’re not in 2006 any longer. SharePoint can be made to be a simple repository of shared documents and SharePoint can certainly handle segregating and protecting private documents while also providing access to public documents, but so can lots of other products. It is one thing to put some effort into SharePoint to create a solution that looks, feels and acts like a more expensive product. It’s quite another thing to put some effort into SharePoint to make it look, feel and act like a less expensive product. Sometimes, SharePoint just isn’t the right answer.

One of the problems with technology and the notion of businesses adopting technology, is that technology changes. One of the most important responsibilities of an IT group is to make and to keep other people aware of what those changes are and what those changes mean to the already adopted solutions. A critical element of that understanding is the fact that installed solutions are not free. We cannot look at something that was developed in and deployed on SharePoint and say “that’s done, let’s move on to something else” – systems, including the things we build in SharePoint, are never done.

SharePoint was the right platform in 2006 because it was just about the only affordable solution we had for securely sharing content over the Internet. We tried to take advantage of the platform, to offer more features and to entice people into turning file sharing into collaboration, but the demand isn’t there. I understand that, the underlying task isn’t a collaborative effort. The underlying task is a mature business process that doesn’t need to be “improved” by SharePoint or anything else. Now that there are simpler, less expensive solutions for securely sharing files over the Internet, it’s time to consider them. Guess what, they work and they work better than SharePoint.

They work better, and they are cheaper, because they are less capable and because they have been perfected toward a narrower goal. The solutions that we are looking at were born in the cloud; they don’t have to be migrated into the cloud. The solutions were born into a mobile world so they come with desktop apps and apps for every mobile operating system – good looking native apps! The people who built these solutions know what they are doing and they know what we need to do, so integration with Outlook is baked in, drag & drop integration with Windows is baked in, permissions, controls, auditing and reporting are all baked in. Yes, these are file-sharing only solutions, but when that’s all you need, that’s all you need.

We are still a SharePoint shop and this is still a SharePoint blog, but my focus has always been Enterprise Content Management. The title of this post is from a comment I made recently on a friend’s blog: ECM is not dead, but ECM is an activity, not a product. The ‘M’ in ECM is also a responsibility and it’s one that I take seriously.

Brave New World of Capture

clip_image002Hopefully the salesmen who have tried to sell me Capture solutions over the years aren’t reading this blog; if any are, I’m sorry. I have been telling those guys for years that:

We don’t use forms and we really don’t have a need for hardware or software to scan into SharePoint.”

I lied. OK, I really didn’t lie, I just couldn’t properly imagine the truth – we do have a need for a scan-to-SharePoint. Well, actually we don’t but we will for a while.

Sorry for the confusing lead-up to this post, but it has been very confusing for us as well. Despite the fact that we are an insurance company, we really don’t use hardly any forms in our business process. What we do need a scanning solution for is backfilling some important document libraries. We could simply take the approach of having a network scanner, or even desktop scanners  (since we have so few insureds) but I don’t think that will work. What makes me say that? Well we’ve had desktop scanners and high-speed Multi-function copies on our network for the entire time that we’ve had SharePoint but very little content has been added to SharePoint via those devices. The reason for that result is something that Marc Anderson mentioned recently and Steve Weissman has been saying forever – simply having the technology scanners or SharePoint) in place is not enough.

If technology is not the answer, then why am I excited about the arrival of these MFC’s and the configuration of the scan-to-SharePoint options next week? The answer is technology is only part of the answer this time. This time, we are going to attempt to address the business process side of the equation and the human side of the business process.

The copiers that we just replaced were “capable” of scanning to SharePoint, but only if you gave the copier Full Control the SharePoint sites that you wanted to scan to. That meant that people could scan documents into libraries that they couldn’t actually reach from their desktop. We trust our employees, but that’s dumb. The dumbest part of that would occur when someone accidentally scanned a document to the wrong library – then they couldn’t even delete it. In addition, the copiers needed to be on the Internet so the vendor could access the copier for maintenance and meter readings. Call me silly, but that sounds like a potential security risk. With that feature never activated, we were left scanning to a network drive and getting documents in the form of “Scan_20080616121254.PDF” – very helpful. Of course, there were better capture options around when we bought those MFC’s but we didn’t need them; remember? We also couldn’t afford them – we still can’t.

What we can afford is the following combination of hardware, software, workflows, training and administrivia:

The MFC’s communicate with server-based software that can map user rights and privileges back to the menu system of the copier.

The MFC’s are capable of rendering the scanned documents as PDF or PDF/A into the desired library and they are capable of producing metadata from barcodes or other scanned artifacts.

We are capable of creating SharePoint Designer workflows to process the scanned documents upon arrival in the library. In some cases, we may have the scanner deliver documents to a staging library so that the workflow can perform other operations first. For example: our policies are what are known as “continuous form” policies, meaning that we renew by endorsement. In non-insurance speak, that means that each year, we have to add 10-12 pages to an existing document / PDF. These MFC’s in conjunction with software from HarePoint and Muhimbi can stitch the incoming PDFs onto the back or front of an existing PDF.

Once we can demonstrate these capabilities, we can ask department managers to accept the assignment, on behalf of their staff, to make backfilling a requirement during the lease-term of these copiers. If our Policy Management software can be made to print to PDF in those libraries, we can eliminate the need for the scan-to-SharePoint option with the next generation MFC’s (see, I didn’t lie).

By the way, just to prove that “we get it,” rather than make people login at the copier using an on-screen keyboard, we paid extra for a reader that can accept the proximity badges we use for our security system as input – how cool is that?

The copiers just arrived. The software has not been configured. The workflows haven’t been written and the people haven’t been trained. But we have engaged a training partner to help us get our coworkers up-to-speed and we are starting with “Content Management Fundamentals” – We are going to start at the beginning, cover all the bases and build solutions that will help us treat “Backfilling” like the important business process that it is in real life.