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/

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.

Proximity Revisited

imageEarly in the life of this blog, I wrote several posts about ‘proximity’ and how important that attribute is to the user experience. I was recently reminded of that fact, and I realized that I my previous examples were too limited.

I was talking about designing a home page or a site page with all the appropriate web parts and without any of the inappropriate web parts. So, if you need to see a task list and a calendar, both of those should be represented on the page, not just sitting over in the quick launch area. Conversely, if you don’t want to have a picture on your site, then you should delete the one of those pretty people.

I also mentioned proximity in association with building dashboards. Having everything that you need being available at a single glance is the key benefit of a dashboard, so I guess my emphasizing proximity wasn’t much of a revelation. I also talked about proximity in terms of business process automation. As our engineers work though the recommendations resulting from their inspections, we tried to give them a view of each recommendation’s life-cycle that was meaningful.

It sounds like I covered all the bases. But, you know that I’ve never written a blog post with less than 250 words, so I must have missed something.

Earlier this year we built a payables process in SharePoint. People can select a vendor, enter a payment request (invoice) and spread that invoice around (allocate) to all the various GL accounts that are affected by it. For example, when we buy a new laptop for someone, we might buy them a case. Those are different types of expenditures.

I have always looked at accounting from a “money in” or “money out” perspective but our accountants seem to be in agreement with my Management Accounting professor – you have to pay attention to stuff like this.

Anyway, the system does all of that stuff reasonably well but there are a few things that the accountants wanted it to do better. Fortunately, one of the women in accounting is also working part-time with my team. One of the things she told me that they want isbetter views of the transactions at all of the various points. They have a view that shows payment requests that are pending, requests that still need someone’s approval, payment requests that are approved but not processes, as well as requests that have been paid and requests that were voided. Seriously, money in / money out works a lot better.

When I sat with her to find out what they wanted, Iimage experienced that old familiar feeling. The presence of that gap – the gap between what people can imagine and what they can’t. In this case, that gap separated the end users from what we SharePoint folks know as Data View Web Parts. As we work together, we are bridging that gap.

She said that they need more detail in the view(s). When I asked “why?” she said “sometimes, we need to know things about the vendor, or we need to know what GL accounts had been affected by this payment.” That made sense, except for the “sometimes” part. I don’t like views that show things that are only needed sometimes. I prefer views that show what you need ‘all the time’ but can be made to show what you need ‘sometimes’ on demand.

I wired up a imagelittle example of one view with the addition of two Data View Web Parts. One web part contained more detail about the payment request and one contained more detail about all of the allocations. I connected those web parts – OK – I really want web part to be one word…webpart, why can’t we just call them webparts – Sorry, I just had to say that. I connected those web parts to columns in the view. SharePoint easily let me show those columns as links, and now when they want the additional detail, they can click on the link and populate the web parts. If they click on the payment request ID, they get its details and its allocations. If they click on the amount, they just get the allocations. Easy-peasy.

To keep all this stuff proximate, we also have to constrict the original view by limiting the number of rows it contains. Most people hate paging, so I gave her an array of options to consider. All Payments, All Payments This Month, All Payments this Quarter, and then of course, this year, last year, etc. I showed her how we can set the page limit and how we can dynamically filter the list to render things like All Payments for a specific vendor. Then, I gave her a homework assignment – go back and sketch out the perfect view. Next week, I’m going to help her build that perfect view. Maybe then I’ll have a better illustration.

Delete is a Form of Edit

imageIt’s summer, and despite the serious pile of work to be done and serious blog posts to be written, I’m finding more evenings filled with old movies, old songs, and old episodes of favorite shows. Unfortunately, due to that serious pile of work, the various threads get crossed. So, when I found myself in a meeting making the statement expressed in the title, I knew I was having an Office Space moment.

“I must have put a decimal point in the wrong place or something. I always do that. I always mess up some mundane detail.”

Oh! Well, this is not a mundane detail, Michael!”

If you say something like that, you’re either trying to avoid doing something that is difficult or you’re trying to avoid admitting having done something stupid. In my case, as of Friday afternoon, I was trying to avoid a difficult thing that might result in my doing something stupid.

I spent some time last week working on a series of workflows to delete entries in a payables process that we wired up in SharePoint. The problem with payables is that they have to be allocated and any one payable entry (invoice) can be allocated across several accounts. All of the allocations have to be deleted before the payable item can be deleted The inability to iterate over a list in SharePoint 2010 makes that impossible without a Rube Goldberg-type solution involving multiple shadow lists that allow you to work around the “a workflow can’t do anything that would cause itself to start” limitation. Fortunately, Nintex workflows can handle this limitation quite well.

In the case of ‘delete’ I have a simple workflow that checks to see that a payable item can be deleted (has been submitted but hasn’t been approved) and can delete payable items and the related allocation items. “Can” being the operative word – for now, the workflow is simply updating a text field with the string “this item would be deleted.” That’s a safe way to start, because I don’t have the luxury of a test environment with Nintex workflows running in it. I’m changing breakers with the power on, as it were. If I make a mistake, I could do some damage.

After I deploy the delete workflow, I have to modify it to create a delete workflow that the accountants can run even after a payable has been approved. After that, we need one final version that can delete an item even after the accountants have approved it. We are serious about not accidentally paying someone. Still, all forms of delete are just variations on a theme. The only differences are that some stop in the presence of a specific status flag and some don’t. After I get all the delete options working, I have to create an ‘edit payable’ option.

Deleting a payable is easy compared to preparing a payable for edit.

Preparing for editing requires making a payable entry, and its associated allocation entries look like they are at the point before they were submitted, or perhaps the point before they were approved or perhaps the point before they were cleared for payment. Since the approval process can involve multiple people, the items involved get quite messy. There are several workflows involved and they all set some value(s) and they all read some value(s) and they all work or don’t work based on those values. Get one value wrong and, if you’re lucky, something isn’t going to work. If you’re not lucky, you end up singing along with Jerry Lee Lewis “…she rolls but she don’t roll right.”

Michael Bolton (in Office Space, not the singer) and Jerry Lee hint at those mundane details causing problems, but John-Luc Picard encounters them directly. One of my favorite Star Trek Next Generation episodes is “Clues” and it’s based on the complexity of undoing the past to a point where you could start over. The episode involves a chance encounter with an alien race – a powerful alien race who would rather destroy the Enterprise than have the universe know that they exist.

As I crawl through the various workflows, looking for all the status indicators, I realize that resetting the status to a prior point is way harder than deleting it. I can see why those aliens would have been happy just deleting the Enterprise.

I decided to wait until Monday to wire up the delete option. In the meantime, I’ve been studying how to reset the items for editing and I think I’ll watch “Clues” this weekend.

I hope your summer is going well.