EndUserSharePoint.com: In Defense of SharePoint Designer – Workflow

Author: Paul Galvin
Web site: Paul Galvin’s SharePoint Space 

As I wrote last week, there is something of a headwind blowing against SharePoint Designer.  I won’t rehash that discussion.   All I’ll add is that I am wearing my 2000 New Jersey Devils Stanley Cup Champions hat as I write this article.

Despite this headwind, SharePoint Designer is the workflow engine of choice for End Users.  However, it’s not the entire story.  Carpenters don’t show up on at a job site with a hammer and no other tool.   The same is true for End Users (or anyone) that want to create a workflow solution. 

The word “workflow” is an overloaded term in SharePoint.  At its most important level, a workflow is a business process modeled in SharePoint.  It’s not just a bunch of SharePoint designer rules or code written in Visual Studio.  Workflow encompasses many SharePoint features including sites, calendars, custom lists, document libraries, and other artifacts.  We combine these together with an engine that enforces the rules behind that process. 

By way of example, consider a “Starters” business scenario.  A Starter is a new employee scheduled to begin work at some future date (typically in the next few weeks). 

The example Starters business process works something like this:

  • HR launches the process by filling out a form with the Starter’s name, manager, work location, job title and role.
  • The financial department needs to set the user up on payroll.
  • The IT department needs to set them up with an internal network account.
  • Security needs to provide the new starter with a key and ID badge.

To automate that business process, we would configure SharePoint along these lines:

  • Create a site in HR called “Starters”.
  • Create a document library and content type that HR uses to enter information about the Starter (including name, role, etc).
  • A SharePoint task list to track who is responsible for which bits of work need to be finished for the Starter (e.g. Finance, IT, Security).
  • A calendar to show when the Starter will begin working and to drive a Key Performance Indicator (KPI).
  • And finally, a workflow engine component to glue all of these together into an automated, repeatable and error-free process.  This is the engine.

In SharePoint, there are three “engines.”

  • Out of the box workflow:  Pre-built functions that Microsoft embedded in the SharePoint product. 
  • Declarative workflow: Using SharePoint Designer, savvy End Users and developers create workflow solutions by declaring, sentence-like, which steps should execute in which order so as to support a given business process.
  • Custom coded .NET workflow: Using Visual Studio, skilled programmers write programs, typically in C#, to implement workflow solutions and integrate them into your environment.

Three Types of SharePoint EnginesEven though there are the three engines, we can discard one right away.  The prebuilt workflows are too limited to help much with a complex business process like Starters.  Those workflows focus on document approval.  This leaves us with a choice: declarative workflow or custom coded .NET workflow. 

For nearly all End Users, it’s an easy choice to make:  Implement the solution using SharePoint Designer or don’t implement it at all.  Custom .NET solutions are far beyond the technical skills of most End Users.  Given this choice, the next obvious question is: “Can I implement this workflow process using SharePoint Designer? “ And then, finally, we need to ask a less obvious question: “Should I implement this process using SharePoint Designer?” 

Next week, I’m going to address the “should I” question at greater length. In the course of that discussion, I’ll talk about some guidelines for answering it with an eye toward justifying the answer for ourselves, to our peers and management (and maybe even convince a hard core developer or two to give it a try).   Hint: we can implement the Starters business process using SharePoint Designer and that we have good reason to do so.

Paul Galvin
Paul is a Solutions Architect currently working most closely with Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007.

 

EndUserSharePoint.com: Thinking SharePoint Part 2 – The “Unconsciously Incompetent” Ikea Mecca

AustraliaGuest Author: Paul Culmsee
Website: CleverWorkarounds.com

Hi again. Sorry about the delay in continuing with this "how to think SharePoint" series, but in Australia, the month of June is the end of the financial year. I assume it works the same way in the rest of the world too.

What happens here is that IT Managers suddenly realise that they have some budget funds left over and therefore feel an irrepressible urge to spend it all. (They tend to be fearful that they will get less money allocated for the next year if they don’t spend all that is allocated to them this year).

Usually what they spend surplus budget cash on depends on whatever product or technology is at the peak of the hype cycle for that year. Therefore instead of something morale boosting like paying their hardworking staff a bonus or purchasing training vouchers for them, this year a lot of IT managers will wander around showing off their shiny new Apple iPhone and a lot of SharePoint consultants like me are very busy indeed.

And this is relevant, why?

Okay so yes, I am busy and haven’t had much time to devote to writing. But the real reason that I bring this end of financial year stuff up, is to point out that if you took anything away from the first post, you would appreciate that I find it a warning sign. Despite best intentions, buying SharePoint because you have some budget left is not necessarily the best place to focus surplus funds. You are in effect perpetuating the whole issue of the "solution looking for a problem".

In this world of organisational politics, no manager or sponsor is going to purchase SharePoint without something with "wow factor" to show for it. So on top of a fixed deadline, it has to look great and solve a few pertinent business needs, so that the organisation endorses and evangelises it, right?

My SharePoint spider senses are tingling already…

The plight of the "Ikea guy"

IkeaIn the last post I implied that the prevalent world of folders (or directories) originated from two stoned Multix programmers in the 1960’s. I also likened folders to a wooden toybox and compared it to SharePoint as an uber-cool Ikea style modular storage solution. Of course, it all looked absolutely fantastic when you saw it in the display room in the suburban mecca that is an Ikea store.

So I want you to picture the plight of the "Ikea guy". He’s the guy who arrives at a house with a truck full of Ikea boxes who is going to install it for you. Now I want you to think about your organisation (in all its messed-up glory) and try and picture it as a family living at this house.

From the Ikea guy’s point of view, the house looks really nice as he walks up to the front door. The garden is neat and trimmed and the lounge room is clean and tidy. The family inside seem really polite. However, once pleasantries have been exchanged and he takes a look around the rest of the house, it takes about 10 minutes for the Ikea guy to know that it’s just not going to be a good day.

Why?

  • Mum and Dad are in marriage counselling and it’s not going well
  • The kids barely speak to each other and don’t respect their parents
  • Dad thinks he knows best and that everything should be strictly put away according to colour no matter which room
  • Mum doesn’t care how things are put away, so long as they are put away
  • One of the kids is a teenage goth/emo, and he wants it all painted black
  • One kid is anal retentive and has one of those label makers and likes to put "Property of xxx" on everything
  • Another kid is a greenie-stoner and "it all should be like.. whatever you want man…"
  • One of the kids is vain and self obsessed, wants more pocket money and wants to individualise everything with stickers all over the place
  • One kid is a toddler, needs nappies changed and leaves a mess everywhere he/she goes

Finally…

  • The husband never told the family that the Ikea guy was coming anyway and his measurements were out

So after much arguments between themselves, they turn to the Ikea guy and say "You tell us how should we do this?"

At this point the Ikea guy is completely screwed, no matter what he says, he is in trouble. It’s like when your wife or girlfriend asks if she looks fat in that dress. Even a pause before answering is going to be misconstrued in a way where you always lose.

Personalities, personalities…

In a lot of my writings I have fun with stereotypes. I tend to imply that IT managers are luddites or micro-managers, web designers and branding people are all vain metrosexuals and IT nerds have no people skills :-P. Senior managers all have a serious case of attention deficit disorder and the general user population is as varied as the kids I used in the Ikea example. The "human" side of SharePoint fascinates me greatly, as I have seen some people completely besotted with particular product features, such as wikis or blogs, yet have no interest at all in other features.

Not only are there different personalities, there are different leaning types. For people involved with SharePoint projects at any level, I recommend reading up on Myers-Briggs Indicators or the Marsden DISC quadrant model. I’ll blog in detail about these some other time, but the point here is that your version of the truth, if you’re lucky, will be shared by only 20% of your peers. So even if you put a bunch of SharePoint technical experts into a room and asked them to design a collaborative solution, the chances of them creating the same design is actually pretty low.

It’s like music taste. I’m sure that some readers thought to themselves "What’s wrong with the Backstreet Boys?", after reading my first post. Whilst I find that question too ridiculous to even contemplate, I recognise that part of the key to "thinking SharePoint" is recognising that Backstreet Boys fans do actually exist and therefore ensuring that their "special needs" are accommodated :-).

Moral? Chacun à son goût. Each to their own! Just remember that not everyone sees it the way you do and what will excite and interest you will not necessarily do the same for others.

Learning Styles

Another big contributor to effective "SharePoint thinking" is actually rooted in learning style theory. The theory says that when training people, there are different stages of awareness and competence. Personality types affect learning a lot, but here I present a bastardised SharePoint version of learning theory.

Unconcious IncompetencyStage 1 – SharePoint ‘unconscious incompetence’
 – The person is not aware of the relevance or considerations of the problem that SharePoint is being used to solve
 – The person is not aware that they have a particular deficiency in their knowledge of the applicability of SharePoint
 – The person might deny the relevance or usefulness of SharePoint
– Conversely, the person might oversell the relevance or usefulness of SharePoint

Training theory states that the person must become conscious of their incompetence before development of the new skill or learning can begin. The aim of the trainer is to guide the person into the ‘conscious competence’ stage. In most problematic SharePoint projects, it is common that participants are at this unconscious incompetence stage and training without recognition of this fact is misfocused and wasteful. While the majority of participants in a SharePoint project are at this stage in their learning, then you are on a dangerous slope to SharePoint project failure if you proceed too fast.

IncompetentStage 2 – SharePoint conscious incompetence’
– The person becomes aware of the existence and relevance of the problem that SharePoint is being used to solve
– The person is therefore also aware of their deficiency in SharePoint knowledge and skill, ideally by attempting or trying to use the product
– The person realises that by improving their skill or ability in SharePoint, their effectiveness will improve

Many people will feel that they are at this stage, but in fact they are still in stage 1. (It’s hard to put a quantifiable finder on how I personally determine this, but I think it is something that seasoned SharePoint professionals get a good feel for over time). Essentially any untested assumption on how SharePoint works or how it should be used to solve a problem is within the realm of stage 1!

I find that if I can get clients into Stage 2, then the nature of engagements change. The fixation on delivering the whole enchilada in a fixed time and fixed cost is replaced by dialogue, workshops, strategy sessions and the likes. At this point no scope of what is to be delivered has been fixed in stone as the client realises that they have to invest more in their learning and understanding for an ultimately positive outcome. The client has in effect made a commitment to learn and we proceed steadily to stage 3.

David Kisses Goliath: Confluence Connects to Microsoft SharePointStage 3 – SharePoint conscious competence
Note, In my opinion this period takes anywhere from two to twelve months, depending on the organisational size, culture, wickedness of the problem to solve, etc.

– The person achieves ‘conscious competence’ in SharePoint when they can use it without feeling fearful or intimidated
– The person will need to concentrate and think in order to understand the technical and organisational governance implications of a new SharePoint solution
– The person will not reliably perform SharePoint work unless thinking about it – the skill is not yet ‘second nature’ or ‘automatic’
– The person should be able to demonstrate SharePoint skills to another, but is unlikely to have the ability to teach it well to another person
– The person should ideally continue to practice their skills, and if appropriate, commit to becoming ‘unconsciously competent’ at the new skill

Practice is the single most effective way to move from stage 3 to 4

ExpertStage 4 – SharePoint unconscious competence.

Nirvana! Are any of us here yet???

– Applying SharePoint features and capabilities to business problems skill becomes so practiced that estimates of time, effort and cost are accurate and met
– Understanding of technical and organisational governance considerations of potential courses of action are implicitly understood

And then there was the Intranet

One of the reasons that folders have stuck for so many years would have to be its simplicity. For all of its suckiness, it has a somewhat constraining effect. Whilst folders can suck royally, it’s all you have available to use and therefore debates/arguments are not about whether to use folders or not, but how to use them. For most, there really was no alternative.

Then from around the mid nineties, there came the rise of the intranet. As a content delivery mechanism it proved hugely popular and suddenly corporate knowledge was made available via a much more accessible medium. But it was a different kind of content, and there was a significant "disconnect" with the corporate file system. Content authors would put their files onto the file-system and then on the intranet in a different format.

For the sake of article size and keeping it flowing, I am not going to talk too much about portals vs intranet’s because to the average end user, they are one and the same. I know people will beg to differ with me on this but I don’t think the distinction will be that relevant to this article.

Choices, choices, choices…

Even now more than a decade of "intranets" later, many clients who I talk to really struggle with the concept of a "SharePoint style intranet". The disconnection between the traditional intranet and the file-system is fairly ingrained, and in my experience, it is very common to find people initially unable to "connect" with the idea that your file-system, document management system and workflow system can be your intranet and visa versa.

This disconnect needs to be addressed early in the piece. Failure to do so and expectations will be unmet. Differing versions of the truth will abound and then how can participants and stakeholders possibly cope with the veritable smorgasbord of choices offered by SharePoint?

We still have folders of course, but now we have other elements as well, such as document libraries, columns of various types, webparts, versioning, approvals, lists, workflows, sites, site collections, web applications (oh and full text indexing/search too). So rather than debate on how, we now also have to argue on the what as well.

Combine organisational culture factors, SharePoint conscious or unconscious competence levels, the different personality types, life skills and values of participants, each with different buttons to push. Is it any great revelation then that too many choices can be more destructive than none at all?

Sheesh! It’s a wonder we don’t kill each other trying to work this all out!

Conclusion

I suspect that many at EUSP reading this article would not be too offended if I suggest that they are "SharePoint consciously incompetent". It is actually where you need to start from, and in some ways I am preaching to the converted here. It is the people, not reading this article, who are likely to be in the unconsciously incompetent stage of learning. So, no matter what your role in your organisation is, one of the keys to "thinking SharePoint" as it were, is to move yourselves and your colleagues from stage 1 to stage 2.

In the next post I am going to tell you a tale of two clients, where one made the transition from SharePoint unconscious incompetence to SharePoint conscious incompetence and one who did not. I was the "Ikea guy" in both cases, and I think the stories offer some valuable insights.

Bye for now

Paul

EndUserSharePoint.com: Live, online Planning, Architecture and Design Workshop

Mixon TrainingBob Mixon is teaching an online version of his famous, or infamous as the case may be, Planning, Architecture and Design Workshop. He is trying a new delivery system by teaching it live, online.

If you haven’t worked with Bob or taken one of his workshops, his depth of understanding of the subject is phenomenal. You only get his level of knowledge through real world experience.

This workshop is normally $1700 but because of the new delivery system, he is offering it for $895. If you, your team, your readers or your clients need direction on how to plan the Information Architecture for a site collection, I don’t think you’re going to find a better value anywhere.

Thanks for spreading the news.

http://www.mixonconsulting.com/training/Pages/MasteringSharePointVirtuallyLive.aspx

EndUserSharePoint.com: Taming the Elusive “Calculated Column” – Customizing a Task List (Part II)

Dessie Lunsford
Points-of-Sharing

If you haven’t read through the previous article in this series and wish to follow along in the walkthrough, I encourage you to read it first, especially since we’ll be working with the Excel spreadsheet we created last time.

In the previous article on "Customizing a Task List", we created a "Date Completed" column using a reference to "Today" in its formula. In order to accomplish this and not get one of the dreaded error messages that SharePoint likes to confuse it’s users with, we created a temporary "Today" column which allowed us to build the formula and run it. Afterwards, we simply deleted the temporary column to "finalize" our calculation.

One thing to note when using the idea of this "temporary" column is that whenever there is a need to go back in and edit the formula that uses "Today", we will always have to re-create the temporary column first. This is needed for the exact same reason we created it in the first place – to fool the system into letting us use the name as a reference, and to bypass any of the errors that SharePoint will throw because of it. Thanks to Adam Davidson for pointing this out in a comment from last time. I had intended to mention this in the previous article, but wound up leaving it out due to the length of the post.

Picking up where we left off, the next column we’re going to create is our "How many days left to complete?" column. To shorten this a bit for the name of the column, we’ll just be using "Num of Days Left". This column is designed to display a simple count of how many days we either have left, or are overdue – a positive number if "day’s left", negative number if "days overdue".

Open up your Excel spreadsheet from last time and enter in the following formula for the new column:

Formula:
=IF(B4="Completed","",B7-TODAY())

EndUserSharePoint.com: A Beginner’s Guide to Content Types

Click to View the Beginner’s Guide to Content Types

This week’s screencast, A Beginner’s Guide to Content Types, walks through the process of creating Content Types to help manage a Documentation Library. This is a continuing series of screencasts that started with Doug Cornelius case study and another screencast, Overview of Content Types.

This week’s screencast should give you a basic idea of how you might consider implementing Content Types in your SharePoint project. Beginning End Users have a hard time with this concept, so if you have a case study example of a use for content types, it would be very much appreciated.

Please let me know how you liked the screencast. — Mark

EndUserSharePoint.com: What is Send To Destination used for?

The question of the day comes from Shannon:

Can someone explain to me just how Custom Send To Destination option in the Advance Library Settings works and perhaps give me an example?

Shannon – The Custom Send To Destination allows you to create a link to a specific location for moving documents.

As an example, you might want to be able to manually archive documents to an archive library. Using the Custom Send To Destination, you can hardcode the Archive Library link and have it available as part of the Send To flyout menu. See the screenshots below for the default flyout menu and then a customized Send To Destination flyout linking to an Archive Library.

Send To Destination - Default

Send To Destination - Customized

EndUserSharePoint: Adding SharePoint As A Network Location

My SharePoint SitesThe question of the day comes from Joe K:

On my computer in office documents I have the option when I save to save directly to SharePoint. It is a button on the left side. I cannot replicate this for other users, and have no idea how I got it to show up on my machine.

Users would really like this option, so finding out how to enable it would be great.

: 

Chris Poteet responds:

Open Windows Explorer

  1. Right-click on "Computer" and select "Add Network Location"
  2. Select "Chose a custom network location" and hit next
  3. Type the URL to your SP site and click next
  4. It will ask you to authenticate
  5. Name it as you wish and click finish

Chris Poteet
Siolon.com

Chris has been developing web applications in increasing complexity over the last 8 years. He has a degree in Management Information Systems with an emphasis on Information Architecture.

EndUserSharePoint.com: Neuchatel and Content Types

Neuchatel, Switzerland

I’m teaching a site collection workshop in Neuchatel, Switzerland this week so I have plenty of time in the evenings to work on screencasts. Wednesday I’ll rollout a 50 minute screencast on how to create your first content type. This is part of a series made available through the Weekly Newsletter.

After Switzerland, I’m back in the States, taking off next week for some beach time in Maine with my family. After that, I’m in Manchester, NH for two weeks of workshops and then California to deliver three weeks of SharePoint training.

While I’m on the road, a few people will be guest posting to keep things going:

I’ll jump in with screencasts as they become available. Hope your summer is going well.

Mark

EndUserSharePoint.com: Custom Columns and Connecting to Outlook

The question of the day comes from Chris P:

Is there anyway to connect a task list with custom columns to Outlook?

Chris Quick responds

I haven’t found any way to do this OOTB, but it might be possible for a developer. Project server has an add-in for Outlook that allows tasks from Project Server to be modified using Outlook, so it is probably possible — just out of the hands of end-users.

EndUserSharePoint.com: Trials and Tribulations with Meeting Workspaces

Meetings and WorkspacesOne of our regular readers, Mike in the Netherlands, sent me an email describing his trials and tribulations with Meeting Workspaces. I’ll quote the email here and look forward to your comments and war stories with Meeting Workspaces.

:
:

From Mike:

In my effort to help users to step into “The new world of work”  I encourage them to use team sites and organize their meetings with the use of a meeting workspaces.

Since each team member has member rights on the site they can add items to the calendar list. With that they also get the option to create a meeting workspace with a new (recurring) calendar item, and that’s where it gets wrong… since they are members they don’t have the right to create sites, however a meeting workspace is a site and therefore a user needs at least Manage Hierarchy rights.

The result: The team member is presented with a page: Error: Access Denied. Now he/she has two options, log in as another user or return to the site.

  1. Give the site member rights to create only meeting workspaces and no other type of sites
  2. Remove the option “Create meeting workspace” for site members, not preferable imho.

Users don’t get feedback from the system that the calendar item is actually created, although this is done without a meeting workspace.

Another remarkable thing is the breadcrumb path that is rendered at the top of the page of a meeting workspace.

In my view a meeting workspace is always created in the context of a (team)site. When looking at the URL this is indeed the case, however, looking at the breadcrumb you will see [Site Collection Name] -> [Meeting Workspace Name]. The whole context is gone and a user doesn’t have an option to navigate directly back to the team site from which the meeting workspace was opened.

Two things I can’t really sell at any client at all. Maybe I’m missing the concept behind it?