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.

Will You Be Able to Tell Your Stories?

clip_image002I want to make this a short post. It’s a holiday weekend here in the US and I’m trying very hard not to do anything that reminds me of work. No SharePoint, no ECM, no AIIM. No metadata, governance and no search. OK, there’s going to be a tiny little bit of AIIM, but just as background material.

One of the friends of the AIIM New England Chapter is the National Archives and Record Center of Boston (NARA). We have had two recent events at their beautiful facility in Waltham, MA. Lately, they have been running a series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Cape Cod Canal. NARA shares various interesting bits of their archive (our archives) fairly regularly on their Facebook page. They have a ton of content and they have proven to be very good storytellers. Along with the story of the US, they have also shared a little history of the National Archives.

I’ve been fascinated by NARA’s presentation of US history but I’ve also been wondering if the future employees of our company will be able to tell our company’s story – our history. If your company is in and out of business in the span of 10 – 50 years, maybe nobody will ever care to hear your story. But, if you’ve been around a long time or if you’re planning to be around a while, someone will probably have to tell that story at some point. Do you know it? Will your successors know it? Will they be able to tell it accurately? Will they be able to make it interesting?

You know what you need to tell that story? You need the facts. You need the images. You need the people’s names and the key events. You need the video, the audio, and the presentations. In other words, you need the information.

For my readers in the US, I hope you’re enjoying a long weekend.

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.

Single Stream Information Governance

imageLately there are two information governance conversations going on. One is in the world around me and one is in my head. The one in the world is increasingly hyperbolic with threats of grave danger if we don’t get our collective act together soon. The conversation in my head is much more practical. Those voices are simply saying:

Do NOT bring this up at work – do NOT use the phrase information governance in a conversation with your boss!

The voice in my head is winning. I refuse to say that term in our office. Information governance has joined “records management” “platform” “metadata” and the myriad other terms destined to be met by the rolling eyes of my coworkers. Don’t ask me to champion this cause because doing so just strengthens their opinion that I don’t get it.

I do get it. Those people have a job to do, a business to run and the documents and information artifacts that are consumed and created by those jobs are simply that – artifacts. Artifacts to be curated by someone who cares. Do those artifacts have value? Of course they do, and they are paying my department to bring that value to the table.

During his opening message at the AIIM Executive Leadership Summit on Information Governance, John Mancini mentioned that one of the AIIM Board members had said “Information Governance is like my check engine light.” The comment invoked a mix of facial expressions that made me glad that John hadn’t identified me as being that Board member. I wrote about that comment on my other blog in a post called for the love of black boxes. I’m going to abandon that analogy here. I’m going to make one that the InfoGov folks will like even less. Information governance is like recycling.

Think about it:

When our little town in Connecticut started talking about recycling, it was a “save the planet” mission. There was lots of education, lots of discussion and lots of work for the precious few who tried. Recycling meant warehousing garbage collecting bags and boxes of neatly separated stuff before trucking it to bins behind our Public Works building. Very few people participated in the program. Most of the stuff just got hauled out to the curb with the rest of the trash. Tell me you haven’t seen an analogous situation in the information governance space.

Next, we moved to single-bin mode. We had our own bin, where we put newspapers in a bag, cardboard tied in bundles and cans and bottles loose in the bin. We had to carry the bin to the curb, and lots of stuff was left in the bin because the town only recycled certain plastics.

Then, a few years ago, we went totally single-stream – everything in one big wheeled bin. Oh yeah, I’m recylcin’ now baby.

It has to be this way. We all get it. We all know how important recycling is but if you don’t make it easy, most of us won’t do it or we won’t do it consistently or we won’t do it well enough. Information governance needs to get to the point where we have a big blue bin. This isn’t my area of expertise, but here are a couple of things that we’ve done that actually work:

Templates – We have a few solutions where we have tied templates to content types so that people can create documents in the library where the completed documents belong. The governance stuff is built in and nobody actually has to do much work.

ShareFile – Our decision to start using Citrix ShareFile was actually when this blog started to change its identity. Yes, ShareFile relies on folders and naming conventions to identify things, but I don’t see it as a step backwards. We are using it to share content with people outside of our organization. So, instead of people clandestinely avoiding SharePoint, they are happily embracing ShareFile. Give ‘em what they want! We have one set of documents, they are in our cloud and there are apps for everything. You could use any other cloud-based solution (Box, DropBox, Google Docs, OneDrive or iCloud). The point is, the solution has to meet the user where they work. Find a way to govern that solution and aid the business process instead of impeding it.

Services – These are black boxes of a sort, nobody sees the content, they only see the results, the information that they need. The most recent example of this is a survey we are about to conduct. The people who are interested will see the results, organized the way they want, but that’s it. We’ll take care of the bits of metadata needed to organize the results. We’ll take care of the permissions, the retention, the privacy and security around the ‘personally identifiable data’ and we’ll take care of all that other stuff nobody else cares about.

They won’t know that their information is compliant with regulations and in keeping with the policies our company has established. They won’t know, and I won’t tell them.

Information Stories

clip_image002That will soon be the title of this blog. I’ve registered the domain. I’ve mulled it around in my head and that’s the best I could come up with. Well, it’s not the best but technologyStories.com is a premium domain and GoDaddy wants $2,588.00 for it. Sorry. Not happening. Besides, it’s not about technology, it’s about information. Really, it’s about people, but this isn’t where I want to write about people. The fact of the matter is that it’s about inflection points.

SharePoint is at an inflection point. It went from being a hot new product to a must have product to, or at least it’s approaching being a legacy product. I should have known better when I named this blog. I’ve been in this industry for my entire career and technology is ongoing, but no single technology really has the staying power worthy of a domain name. It’s OK, the name had a good ride and if I manage the transition well enough, I’ll keep a few of you as readers. After all, you didn’t come here for my SharePoint knowledge. My favorite comment ever on this blog is “I like that you explore the ‘why’ behind the solutions.” The ‘why’ by the way is people.

I write about ECM and content a lot, but Content Management is at an inflection point. Some people say that it is past the inflection point. But, those are marketing types. Marketing types are always ahead of the curve with regard to change. Marketing types want to use terms at the moment of peak hype and then relegate them to the dustbin of ‘legacy’. Marketing types have had SharePoint and ECM in the rearview mirror for quite some time. I can tell ECM is in the mirror because ecmStories.com is available for 12 bucks.

I also write about process. People, process and technology are the things I’m told we need to focus on, and specifically in that order. I know that. I’ve always known that. OK, I haven’t always known that but I was told that when I asked:

“Why do I have to take The Psychology of Business when I’m studying Operations Research?” The answer was: “Because you’re going to be dealing with people.

Operations Research, by the way, was all about process. I love process but the instructor was right, it really is about people. ProcessStories.com is available, but is has those 3 s’s in a row and it sounds dumb. And really, who wants to read about process. Process is boring and belongs behind the scenes where it can’t hurt anybody.

So, Dan, why don’t you call it peopleStories.com? Well, there are two reasons: 1) peopleStories.com is not available. peopleStories.info is but, again, dumb. 2) I’m not qualified to write about people. 3) Wait, you said there were two reasons. I know, but 3) I write about people and my thoughts and ideas as they relate to people on No Facilities. See, I needed a third point to plug my other blog.

I write from my experience. My most recent experience is being collected at ANI. ANI is at an inflection point. We are planning for the retirement of a bunch of senior folks who have information in their heads. We are simultaneously planning to support a bunch of younger folks who want to be able to find that information without having to live in it. But, I can’t really talk that much about ANI.

So then, Information?

Yes, information. Because that’s what people need most, and that’s what I do. That’s what I’ve always done. I have spent over 35 years finding ways to put data into context in order to create information and then to give people access to that information in a way that helps them to perform their business process.

Technology will continue to morph itself from file shares to SharePoint to a different kind of file share (DropBox, Box, ShareFile, OneDrive, iCloud – I have one of each of these) and onto other things once people discover (again) that file shares don’t really work and that search (alone) doesn’t really work. Dropbox and all the Dropbox wanna-be’s of the world will add metadata to their product, and the marketing folks will give it a clever sounding name and some dumb kid will create a blog using that word. A few months later, the marketers will tag the word as passé and a few years later, the industry will be calling it legacy and the dumb kid will be searching GoDaddy.

Thanks for reading this blog for over 5 years. I’ll be making the turn soon, and I hope to keep you on board.