One Stop Shopping Plus Mail Order

imageA few weeks ago, I received an email about an old post about managing a walking contest in SharePoint. Ironically, we are preparing to kick off the 2014 version of that contest in about 2 weeks and once again, we are managing it in SharePoint. I like to use these little side projects to demonstrate what SharePoint can do out-of-the-box. Some might ask “why focus on out-of-the-box? SharePoint can be so much more.

Their question is not quite correct and I am lying just a little bit.

The problem with their question is that “SharePoint can be made to be so much more” but the making can take a lot of time.

The lie that I’ve told is a lie of omission. I didn’t tell you that my box is bigger than Microsoft’s box. My box includes things like HarePoint Workflow Extensions and Nintex Workflows. HarePoint’s extensions add some very cool features to SharePoint Designer workflows and Nintex, well Nintex Workflows are like a slice of SharePoint Heaven here on Earth.

So, truth be told, I like to show people what we can do very quickly in SharePoint with the tools that we have available to us. That’s important for a reason that most IT departments don’t consider often enough.

Sometimes, people don’t ask for things because they think those things will be hard to build or expensive or that they will take too long.

They aren’t trying to save my time or my budget; they’re just trying to avoid being told “no, you can’t have that.

In the 2014 version of our SharePoint-driven walking contest, we have added two new features. Both are aimed at improving the user experience and both came at the request of my new young colleague Stacy. Stacy is not only the architect on this project, she’s the user. She’s managing the walking contest and she’s building the site with some help from me.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with a walking contest, it’s pretty much what you would imagine:

  • Our company is divided into teams.
  • Each person tracks and records their steps each day during the contest.
  • At the end of the contest, the team with the most steps wins a team prize and the person with the overall highest number of steps wins an individual prize.

Stacy wanted to make two improvements to the accounting process for the contest. She wanted to add options for mobile entry and she wanted a dashboard of sorts for reporting progress.

Mobile entry was easy but, again, it uses a few tricks from our bigger box. You can send your entry into a SharePoint Remote Entry library by including the subject line “10-11-2014 8,996” i.e. the date and the number of steps. A SharePoint Designer workflow, aided by HarePoint’s Regular Expression actions parses the subject line and adds the steps to your step count. A second workflow adds your step count to your team’s total.

We could do all the processing in one step, but I like breaking things into small chunks. That is a carryover from my history of coding in Smalltalk, but it’s a good practice for SharePoint. Small workflows are easier to test and they are easier to “debug” since there really isn’t a “debugger” available in SharePoint.

Employees with iPhones can also easily enter their steps via a mobile view of the Steps Entry form. Actually, anybody could do this, but “iPhone” is linked with “easy” because our MaaS360 mobile device management software allows us to push that mobile form through our firewall without the need for a VPN connection (which people hate to make on their phones).

Finally, we needed to build that dashboard, but we decided to make it functional instead of just informative – that’s where the “one stop shopping” comes from. We started with a Web Part Page and we added an Announcement part and an Instructions part in those top-of-the-page whole width zones. Then we added three useful parts. On the left, we have “My Steps” which is a view of the Steps list filtered on the current user. In the center, we added a view of Team Status that shows the current ranking of teams and on the right; we added a simple entry form for steps.

image

I have to admit, this is the first time I have ever put an entry form on a dashboard. It works. Having the entry form on the page makes this page the only thing people actually have to look at. My Steps, My Team and, as I look at my steps and realize that I forgot to enter yesterday’s value, I can do it without leaving the page.

Stacy’s homework assignment is to add a chart to graphically display some of these statistics and to make the page a little prettier. Mine is to start walking.

Last Weekly Post

imageAfter 5 ½ years of sharing a weekly story, the regular nature of this blog has to come to end. It’s OK, you and I will both benefit from this change.

I could go on about the state of the industry (which I might be able to accurately describe for a moment in time) or the state of SharePoint (sigh) but neither of those issues is driving this decision. This decision is being driven by the state of me. I am neither doing, nor managing enough activity around the subject of this blog to generate meaningful content on a weekly basis. I am still working. I am very busy, but not busy enough in this area. I am returning somewhat to my roots (systems development) and managing a small department as we prepare for the future. My stories are more abstract, more personnel (not a typo) and more nuclear (not a typo). Those combine to build a pile of ideas that are either hard to share or which can’t be shared without permission.

Let’s look at the bright side: I benefit from not having to scurry to find something to say and you benefit by not having to read suspect quality material and my editor (wife) can relax a little on a few Saturdays.

I appreciate the time you have spent reading this blog. I hope that you will stay connected to it so you can swing by for the periodic updates that will be coming. The best compliment I ever received was when Marc D. Anderson said that “SharePoint Stories is a Saturday kind of read.” I will try to keep true to that concept.

I would be silly not to ask you to:

Follow me on Twitter – https://twitter.com/DAntion

Visit my other blog – http://noFacilities.com

This isn’t goodbye, it’s just a change. If we technology folks understand anything, we understand change.

Plan Faster

imageThat’s the Jack Rabbit pictured at the right. It’s a roller coaster in Kennywood Park outside of Pittsburgh and it’s been rolling since 1920. It has changed over time, but it still offers the basic promise of a thrilling ride. It’s still a very important part of the overall joy of spending a day at Kennywood. I’m sorry, this isn’t my vacation blog, and I do have a point. The world of information management is changing very fast, but we can still keep the whole package viable, if we manage change correctly.

About a year ago, we made the decision to use Citrix ShareFile. I started to explain that a while back, and I promised a more detailed explanation, but I’m not going to provide that today. One reason is that the ShareFile we decided to use has changed. It’s changed quite a bit, as has every other file-sharing service. If I explained the features we liked about ShareFile this time last year, you might say: “you can get 10x that amount of file space today for free!” You would be wrong. You can get closer to 50x today for free if you look in the right places.

That isn’t the point, that can’t be the point.

That could never be the point. You could never make business decisions based solely on price, but you clearly can’t do that today when it comes to file sharing and online storage.

The point, my dilemma, the next IT problem, is that the pace of change is exceeding our ability to plan like we used to. Remember Roadmaps? Remember when the industry leading vendors would tell you what they were planning to do over the course of the next 3-5 years? I do. I remember being able to take those roadmaps, with a few grains of salt, and build our 1-3 year plans from them.

Forget that.

You can’t do that anymore.

We selected a product/service (ShareFile) in October 2013. By the time we explained our plans to use that service to a committee representing our customers in April 2014, it had changed significantly. Now, as we are getting ready to roll out the solution, it has changed even more. It’s OK. It still does what we want it to do. And, the changes are mostly good, or the kind that might be good someday. I don’t have this stuff all figured out, but here are a few things I think we have to keep in mind as we try to hang onto this ride:

Maintain control – You can’t run your business if you cede control to vendors who are fighting for their own survival. You might not be able to specify the details of your plan as it extends very far into the future, but you still have to have a plan.

Maintain focus – If you’re saying “how can I plan when technology is changing so fast?” you might be focused on the wrong thing. You might be focused on the tools. My plan is to support the business needs of our company. ShareFile is a tool that I am using to meet those needs.

Be the buffer – If you think your head is swimming in a sea of technological change, think about your non-technical coworkers. You might be able to (I’m dropping the metaphor before I have to talk about someone drowning) deal with the pace of change, but they can’t. They shouldn’t have to. Remember, they have a day job. Even if you are using a cloud-based solution, you can control the pace of change through the solutions you build.

Avoid kit solutions – I buy a lot of tools, but the ones I won’t buy are the 18-piece battery powered every-tool-you-ever-need kits. I don’t buy them because when the batteries die and the new-fangled batteries aren’t being made to fit that kit, I’ve lost 18 tools. SharePoint might be a kit. I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy it, but we have narrowed our plans to use SharePoint to stay closer to what we think are its core capabilities. ShareFile basically does one thing. It’s a thing we need, so we’re good.

Avoid capital expenditures – One side-effect of cloud-based solutions is a move to subscription fees vs. capital expenditures. That’s a good thing. Large capital expenditures have to work over a long enough time to provide the return on the investment that you made to acquire them. The return on investment ends when those 18 inoperable tools have to be carted to the curb.

Communicate – Even though you can’t introduce change to your coworkers as fast as it’s being introduced to you, you have to change things faster than they want you to. Let people know what you’re thinking and where you are heading. Let people know when your plans start to change. Let them know that you’re managing rapid and uncontrollable change on their behalf.

Buckle-up, keeps your hands in the car at all times and enjoy the ride.

Pardon the Abused Analogy

It’s summer and for me that always means DIY home improvement projects. That translates to short work weeks and limited blog fodder. I told myself “if I have nothing, I’ll write nothing,” but sometimes little things crawl into my head and seem important. This week’s DIY project produced just such a moment. Take a quick look at the three photos below.image

These are from three home improvement projects. The little support structure on the right was required to replace a badly worn outside faucet. It should have been replaced years ago, but having to work in the corner of the burner room, tucked uncomfortably between the oil tank and the main water supply, caused me to put it off as long as I could.

All three are photos of “platforms” – used to literally support the worker. In the early days of SharePoint, we were often quick to point out that “SharePoint isn’t a product, it’s a platform!” Yes it is, but just as all platforms are not the same, we are witnessing the fact that all SharePoints are not the same. Platforms, as those three pictures illustrate, need to be well-matched to the activity that they are supporting. image

At the risk of stretching this analogy to the breaking point, consider that the makeshift scaffold that I stood on while removing and rebuilding this complex bit of plumbing was an “on premises” platform. It was fixed, limited in functionality and accessible only by the “privileged” few or one in this case who were in the room with it. The platform on the left invokes a “cloud” mental image and fits that image quite well. It was flexible, scalable and was easily abandoned when no longer required. The middle platform is clearly (OK, not clearly) a hybrid model; perhaps the best of both worlds but suffering the limitations of each.

Just as none of these physical platforms could be used in all three home improvement projects, no one installation of SharePoint will be well suited to all of our business needs. In some cases, no version of SharePoint might be the right version. In fairness, you can substitute any other product name for SharePoint. As platforms evolve or change or de-evolve by shedding features we used to like, their appropriateness needs to be reevaluated. It can’t be as simple as saying “we use SharePoint so we’ll do what we have to do to continue using it.” Microsoft may like that, but I’m sure my boss wouldn’t.

Liking Nintex

imageSummer is a funny time in most small shops. Projects start and stop as people take time off and attentions get diverted to the periodic crisis or to fill-in for an absent coworker. The downside for someone trying to craft a blog entry at the end of each week is that there isn’t much to work with. Those of you that come here don’t come to hear about the meetings I attended or the fires I put out. The upside is that this post will be short.

One of the interesting things I did this week was to build a SharePoint Workflow using Nintex Workflow. I’ve used Nintex before, but this time, I was teaching someone else how to build a “proper” workflow. The workflow is another part of our Payables process and it allows our accountants to delete a payable that has been submitted and approved for payment. Yeah, sometimes people make mistakes. To prevent someone from making those mistakes worse, this workflow needs to verify that a series of conditions are true. The payable hasimage to be at a specific status. The person running the workflow has to be a member of accounting. A bunch of people have to be notified, the activity has to be logged and we also have to let people know if any of those conditions aren’t met and the workflow has to be stopped.

All of those things can be done using a SharePoint Designer workflow. So, why does the title point out that I like Nintex Workflows? Well, that’s the point of this post. Here is my list of the things I like about Nintex Workflows:

I can add multiple logical conditions into the kick-off point of a single “Run if” block. You can see that illustrated in the image at the top.

I can act against multiple list items in one step. For example, I can say “go find all the allocations that have the same payment_request_ID as this imageitem and delete them.” You can’t do that in SharePoint Designer in SharePoint 2010

I can give an intelligent name to each workflow step. So, the above example step can be called “Delete Allocations” – I like that.

I can copy steps. We need to create a log entry regardless of the imageend-state of the process. Since some of those states cause the workflow to stop, I need to have the “Create Log Entry” step in multiple places which is very easy to do. Copy. Paste. Configure. Done.

I can drag and drop steps in and out of Condition blocks and Impersonation blocks which is very helpful when you realize that you have the right action but that it’s happening in the wrong place.

I can export and import entire workflows. In fairness, I think I can do this in SharePoint Designer, but I have had problems with that process and this worked like magic. I built the basic structure of this workflow from an earlier workflow that lets the person who submitted the payable to delete it before it’s approved.

And, my favorite thing – you work in a browser as opposed to a somewhat finicky, somewhat unpredictable and somewhat predictably bad stand-alone product.

That’s it for today. Not much of a product review, but I think you can understand why I like Nintex. And, I said it in fewer than 600 words.

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/