4 Common processes that SharePoint can streamline

commsSo your organization has a SharePoint intranet. Your Communications team has done their best by creating and executing a communication plan including a teaser video, a naming contest (Check out this collection for inspiration), emails, intranet news articles and posters. They have given you a training and perhaps a nice gadget like a pen, a  mug or a USB stick. The intranet is here and it will be used for news, blogs, video, employee services, policies and procedures. Oh yes, and you can have Team Sites for collaboration. Good luck with it, folks!

But how often does an employee change their personal details online? How often do they go and find a policy? How many video’s will they upload? If they do these things only occasionally, they will never learn how SharePoint can help them in their daily work.

Few people know that SharePoint is very good at streamlining those annoying little processes that have been wasting your time for ages. Here is a list of processes that can be found in every organization, where SharePoint can add value by saving time and effort.

1. Recurring projects

Many projects occur regularly and follow the same procedures. Think about innovations, promotion campaigns, year plans and recalls.
You can create a tailor-made subsite and make a template out of it. If you use this in one site collection you will be able to create a ready-to-use team site for every project in almost no time, have all projects in one place and support consistency in your process.

Example: Crisis Management 

2. Requests with incomplete data coming from multiple channels

How often do people send you a request, by plain email, telephone, or Word/Excel document? And how often do you have to contact them again to ask for missing information?
Depending on the complexity, you can use a simple SharePoint list, an Office template in a Document Library, or an InfoPath form in a Forms Library, with mandatory fields. As additional advantage SharePoint stores all your requests in one central place, so you do not have to spend time on filing them. You can even add a filter to show only those requests you still have to process. The finished requests can be used to gain insights in your process.

Examples: Employee Directory  and Packaging Requests

3. Editing an online Excel file by many people at the same time

When several people are updating one Excel sheet in a document library, especially when this has to be done in a short period, e.g. at the end of the reporting period, you are asking for problems.

  • If you use mandatory check-out, editors may forget to check-in and you will have to chase people to check-in or to override the check-out yourself.
  • If you do not use mandatory check-out before editing, chances are that people edit the file simultaneously and overwrite each other’s changes.

Why not use a list, where everyone can update their own line items independently from others? Not only will it save problems, but you will also have much more transparency and better overviews if you do not “hide’ your data in a document.

Example: Telesales

checked-out document
Checked-Out Document

4. Collecting data by sending (Excel) files to a large audience

This is still a favourite process in many organizations. As the process owner who asks people to complete a form by the end of the month, you will have many files to chase and store. Then you have to spend your valuable time cutting and pasting the information into a report before the due date.
If you use a list to collect the information, you will have less inbox overload (just a small alert email when someone adds their information will do) and much more time to spend on analyzing your data and setting a strategy. That is what they hired you for, after all! And the results will be more transparent to your audience.
In fact, you may not even need that report at all…

Example: Travel arrangements in a Team Site

Do you recognize these situations? Could you please share some examples of how you have handled these processes with SharePoint? All tangible examples help us to help our colleagues save time and effort.

“Lady with megaphone” image courtesy of Stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Design Fault, Scope Creep, Moving Insight or Unexpected Success?

The design.
Once upon a time, I created a Team Site to facilitate a global project. It was based on a custom list where global and local people could enter project data, such as business unit, product, and a code from a choice column. The code represented a number. I suggested to the project owner that we add a column with the number corresponding with each code, to enable an automated calculation of the value of the item. *1)
The process owner did not think that was necessary. He wanted to keep things simple and would do the aggregated calculations via an Export to Excel.

Testing and feedback.
When the lists and specific views had been created, I asked the process owner to test and discuss this with a selected number of the 50 designated users. He came back with some good feedback and change requests. We ended up with 4 custom lists, each with the same structure, but with different values to select from.

So far, so good. We launched the site.

At first…
Shortly after introduction the site started to fill with entries. The only negative comment was when one person was flooded with Alert emails when someone  bulk-uploaded 500 entries. I showed him how to change the default “immediate” Alert into a “daily summary” and we happily agreed this was a sign of success.


But then…
After some weeks, I noticed that Excel files with the required information were being uploaded to the site and updated online. It turned out that many business units had been doing this same exercise already on the business unit level, and thought they would share and update their work (which had been done in Excel) in our site. I would have preferred them to add their data directly into the lists, but it was a good sign that the business units wanted to share.

You can imagine what followed: “How can we upload the content in those Excel files into the lists?” It was not too difficult to create an extra Datasheet View with all mandatory columns, export it into a Template, and write a short manual on how to copy the content from Excel into the lists. *2)

And then…
Meanwhile, requests for access kept coming in from across the world. There were now about 200 people who wanted to share their data instead of 50. Great!
The site also got senior management’s attention. They wanted to show the real-time project results on the site’s Homepage so everyone would be stimulated to add to the numbers. Yes, I could understand that wish, but it meant that I had to add that extra numerical column in each of the lists after all (that the process owner had decided to leave out in the design phase) as well as a calculated field, and change all the views and templates. That was not too bad, but someone had to update all existing 1500 entries with the corresponding number.
A volunteer was appointed to do just that. 🙂

But wait…there’s more!
Just when I thought the whole setup was stable, the process owner approached me and asked me if we could capture two other values in the list while we were collecting data.
For me this was 30 minutes work, but for him it would mean that he had to communicate a change, re-educate everyone, and revise the input template and the manual. And for all business people it meant they would have to find out those values, revisit their entries (by now we had about 4000 entries) and update them. The “volunteer” could not do it this time, because the values were not as straightforward as the code.
He decided not to do it.

What do we call this?
It all worked out well in the end, but I have wondered what this is.

  • Is it Design Failure because we did not envisage properly how the site and project would develop? Should I have been more insistent on adding that numerical column from the start since I knew that would come up? Still, I could never have foreseen the wish to collect those two extra values.
  • Is it Scope Creep because the process owner had not set enough boundaries for what he wanted to achieve?
  • Is it Moving Insight because the organization learned what you can do with SharePoint as they went along and it was only natural that they wanted to make the most of it?
  • Is this an Unexpected Success because it worked well and we should be happy that it sparked so many new ideas?
  • Or is this just The Way These Projects Go?

This is something that I have experienced more often and I never know whether I should be happy about it (because it shows people learn about the possibilities of SharePoint) or sad (because it shows what we are not so good at project definition).

This is the reply when I asked the question on Twitter:

What is your experience and how have you dealt with this?

*1) The drop-down had too many items to enable an IF, THEN formula to calculate the number. Next to that, there was a “specify your own value” field if the project had a non-standard code.
*2) I thought connecting the Excel to the list would be too tricky for most users, and I also did not know how SharePoint or our system would react to so many simultaneous connections

Image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Machine Installations in a Team Site

Coffee machineWhile everyone in the SharePoint field is writing about the new features of SP2013, we may want to remember that the organizations we work for are just looking for a solution to a work-related problem. Whether that is on SP2003 or 2013 is not really an issue for them, since they can only work with the platform they currently have.  SP2013 has of course a couple of great new features, but I know that many day-to-day projects can be facilitated perfectly by an older version.
So I thought it would be time to show another example of a simple Team Site that has had a great impact on the business.

One of our most successful solutions of all time has been the Team Site we configured when we had won a large new customer in the US.

What was the situation?
A fast food chain with about 3000 locations had bought our machinery. Before the machines could be installed, a third party plumbing agency had to fit water and electricity at each location. The information needs were:

  • For the fast food chain: progress – in how many locations had the new machines been installed and when would the project be finished?
  • For the plumbing agency: planning and progress – where were the locations and how was plumbing proceeding – were there any issues?
  • For us: planning and progress – which locations were ready to receive the machines, and in which locations were the machines installed?

Until then, the normal process was to send an Excel sheet back and forth. Every party would update this every day and send around again. Of course all parties stored every version in their own archives.
For smaller projects it was workable, but it frequently happened that it was not clear if any document was the latest version.  This was a much larger rollout than we normally had, so our Sales Team asked us if we could create a more robust process to manage this project.

What is the solution?
An external Team Site was set up for all 3 parties.

The customer added a list of all locations, including address details, telephone numbers and local manager. This Location List could only be edited by the customer.

The plumbing agency used this list as a pick list to schedule their work in the Work List. This list was the backbone for progress reporting and it could be edited by the plumbing agency and ourselves.
Each location had one of the following statuses:

  1. Waiting for inspection
  2. Ready for installation
  3. Inspected-minor issues
  4. Inspected-major issues
  5. Machine installed

When the status was “2. Ready for Installation” our Sales Team could install the machinery. The Work List therefore also served as our work supply and our status update.

Editing the Work List by the plumbing agency and ourselves


We created various views to enable every party to see the items they needed in an optimal way. Several managers set an Alert to the Work List to know how the project was progressing.
Different views of the Work List

We also added some real-time graphs to show progress. Every day the 3 parties had to update the list before a certain time. A daily conference call followed to discuss any issues.

What are the benefits?

  • Because the Work List was the only version of the truth there was no discussion about versions or status. This made the calls very focused and effective.
  • The views allowed all parties to see only the relevant items.
  • The Alerts and the real-time graphs kept everyone informed, so there was no need for additional progress reporting to management.
  • At the completion of the project, our customer complimented our team with the effective way they had handled this. We later heard that they requested the same process when they had a rollout with another supplier.
  • But also internally the success of this process was clear. It became standard procedure to use a similar setup for every large implementation. And because we learned with every rollout, the Team Sites were created better and faster each time.

I can not say this often enough: it does not require a rocket scientist to do this. All it needs is a bit of straightforward process thinking, creativity and two SharePoint lists. It did not even need SharePoint 2013 :-).

Image courtesy of Sura Nualpradid at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

DoMoreWithSharePoint – Promote your services

It has been some time since my last post about the process we used to “DoMoreWithSharePoint” so let me do a short recap:
All businesses have a strong need to streamline processes, use workflows, manage requests and collect complaints. Not everything is in scope, or in scope yet, for the company’s ERP system. There is always a need for facilitating those simple processes that will never make it into your ERP system. Yet SharePoint is there, but most people do not know how it can help them, except for sharing documents and using the odd Calender or Announcement list.

So there is a big opportunity for everyone who can bridge the gap between the business needs and the SharePoint offerings. We have done that with a solid process for custom Team Site configuration. In earlier posts I have discussed people, process, project and priorities, and now it is time to talk about promotion. Because you will have to do some evangelisation work and communicate your happy message to your employees!

How do I get my message across?
We found that examples work very well. Try to find a few people who want to pioneer, or who have actually asked you how to use SharePoint for their purpose. Those first projects will provide the first materials.
I have used a presentation with screenshots and a few bullet points of the problem, the solution and the benefits (as I do in my examples on this Blog).

Who are my main target persons?
People who may be interested in this are generally various business heads and IT, but also managers of specific projects your organization is involved with at the moment. And there will always be other employees looking for ways to work more effectively.

1. IT Service Managers
Your local IT service managers can be your biggest fans and customers. (They can also be rather hesitant, because they are not always fully aware of the capabilities of SharePoint, or are used to look for solutions elsewhere) They will generally receive the questions from the business for “new functionality”. Employees may have seen something, or they just want to do something in a better way, without knowing exactly what they want.  They often “have a friend who has just started up and works cheaply”. Your IT service manager would do better by running all these requests by you, so you can pick out all projects where SharePoint can do the trick. Advantages? Plenty! Think about

  • no investment in new functionality
  • consistent navigation and look-and-feel if you use a Team Site
  • integrated support
  • updates and migration incorporated in your intranet/SharePoint plans.

2. Business Heads
We conducted a yearly “roadshow” and targeted a different audience each year. One year we focused on general managers of the different business, another year we went to logistics managers, the next to sales managers, etc. We created a new deck of examples every year, selecting those solutions that we thought would appeal to that group. In a face-to-face meeting we asked them

  • what their business targets and priorities were for the coming year
  • if they were happy with the way they were sharing information with their teams and peers
  • if there were any processes that could do with some streamlining

Generally, these questions combined with our presentation led to a couple of opportunities, which we would then prioritize. Sometimes they would forward us to someone in their team for the exact information, but that was OK since it meant they were sponsoring that project.
And even if this round did not bring opportunities, at least they were aware that our services existed.

3. “Special Project” Managers
Whenever there was a new cost reduction program, an acquisition or divestiture coming up,  an environmental awareness campaign started; whether this was global, regional or local, we always tried to find the program or project manager. We offered him or her to set up a Team Site where they could manage the information and/or the progress. (See my earlier example of a PMO Team Site.) After a few of our “PMO solutions” the business started to ask for a PMO-site before the official kick-off of the project!

4. All employees
To ensure that other employees were also aware of our configuration  services, we  used all our channels to get our message across

  • Publishing examples in our intranet blog
  • Presenting at get-togethers
  • Asking Communications to publish articles when we had delivered a particularly interesting solution (such as the Incident Log)
  • Suggesting SharePoint alternatives for every “mistake” we saw people make, such as sending commercials via email to a large audience, using internet survey tools rather than a SharePoint survey, collecting data in Excel files, etc.
    I must have irritated a couple of people over the years by always giving them unsolicited feedback about their working methods  🙂
  • Whenever they asked for help or requested a Team Site, we gave them the option to configure the site for them, especially if we thought it would be beneficial (and they were prepared to make that small business case we needed)

Despite all our efforts there were always people who did not know, or did not want to know, what SharePoint could do for them. But we never tired of trying to get our message across.

What do you do?
Have you been doing this in your organization? Until now I have never come across an organization where custom-configuration is done in a consistent manner, so I would like to hear from you!

The Business is the Bottleneck

Bottleneck“Ellen, could you have this site up and running in about 2 weeks?” my clients often asked. “Yes, I could, but can you?” I always answered, “my experience is that the business, and that is YOU, is usually the bottleneck.”
The client always looked a bit annoyed when I said that :-). And that was a good starting point for a conversation about roles and responsibilities.

Why was it sometimes not ready in 2 weeks?

Of course it is understandable that someone wants to use his or her new site quickly. They have a problem or a good idea, and they want to take advantage or solve the problem as quickly as possible. And when you are the business owner of a problem or an idea, and you brief someone else to do the configuration of a site that will address the idea or problem, you will want to know when it will be ready. We have all done Project Management, haven’t we?

But the business owner has his or her regular work, and that always has priority. Products must be developed, manufactured, promoted and sold, customers or suppliers must be visited, and reports created.
In addition, the business owner does not always know what is expected of them when they ask for support. “I give a briefing, you understand exactly what they need and want, so it should be ready for use in 2 weeks” is the prevailing thought.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

  • I may have misunderstood something
  • Functional requirements may need to be translated in a different way than expected, which may have unexpected consequences which have to be dealt with
  • It may turn out that in real life the process is a little different than briefed.

In short, you will need regular alignment with the business owner.  And he or she needs to test whether the site meets their requirements and fits their actual process.

How have we managed expected timing issues?

1. We told our business owners in advance what their responsibilities were, such as:

  • Providing us with the information  that we needed to determine the business case and priority of the project
  • Testing
  • Introducing the site to their target audience.

2. We created as many alternative solutions as possible up front, so they could test and compare multiple solutions simultaneously

3. We told them what and how they were expected to test

4. We agreed when they had to schedule time for testing

5. We told them that, after a missed deadline on their part, we could give no guarantees on the timing of final delivery

Especially the last 2 points usually moved the deadline to a later date :-).

How much time did a site configuration actually take?

Of course this varied with priority, complexity and the responsiveness of the business owner. We have delivered a site in 2 days (it was a very important, very urgent project and not too complicated) and CRM-in-a-TeamSite took about 6 months, almost fulltime. That was a very complex configuration, a very important process with a huge business case, and with a business owner and target audience in Australia.
And of course there were projects which took a year or more but those were generally the ones with an “Unwilling” business owner. These sites were often deleted after a year or so, never having been used.

In general, the time we spent “clicking” was a couple of hours, but the total turnaround time about 8 weeks.

What are your experiences?

How have you worked with the business to manage expectations about timing? Your tips are welcome!

How do I spring-clean my intranet?

springcleaning2In my last post, I mentioned why it is important to review and remove your intranet content on a regular basis. This time I will share some guidelines on how to organize and execute a cleanup action.
There are systems that automatically send messages to content owners if their content expires.If the owner does not respond in time the content will be hidden, archived and/or deleted. There is an Information Management option in SharePoint for instance, which may be depending on your implementation – I have seen it in on-premise SP2007 but not in online SP2010.  But in many organizations this is not (yet) automated, or not for all types of content. So I thought I’d share my experiences on this topic dear to my heart.
What do you need?
  • Usage statistics, such as visitors of certain content, an overview of publishers, list of sites and their last change date etc. If this is your first time, collect everything you can find. You will learn what is useful and what not, and what you are missing.
  • A document retention policy. This is essential in determining what really must be kept, such as contracts and dossiers. Your Legal, Communication or Archive Department will be able to help you with this.
  • Criteria. What is an “old or unused group”? One that has not been used for more than 2 years or do you think that 6 months is already long enough to qualify? (Most organizations work with 6-12 months).  And does “used” mean that someone has visited the site or that content has been published?
    You may set different criteria for different types of content. A blog with the latest post from 3 months ago may be more outdated than a list of company policies that has not been changed for 6 months.
  • Objectives. How much “ROT” (Redundant, Outdated, Trivial) content do you allow? How much content do you want to remove? And “As much as we can” is also a valid objective!
  • Time. It takes really a few weeks (lead time) to do this, certainly if this is your first time and you will have to create the complete procedure as well.
  • Help content for your content owners: how to archive content, how to remove users, how to delete a site.
What are you going to do?
  1. Analyze your data and statistics.
    How many team sites, working groups, pages do you have? How many have not been used for more than 1 year? Do you spot content owners who have left? Do you still miss data and statistics that you can find somewhere?
  2. Set priorities and targets.
    Is only 1% of your documents older than 1 year, then you can focus on another area. Does your list of publishers contain 50% people who are no longer with your organization, you may want to start there! Once again, you will learn what your weakest spots are after a few of these exercises.
  3. Create an action plan.
    How will you communicate your cleaning plan? How long do people get to take action? When are you going to actively delete content? How aggressive are you going to be? If this is your first time, you may want to be a little “sweeter” than when you are doing this for the third year in a row. By then we had found out that a slightly more aggressive approach resulted in more content being deleted. “We are going to hide your blog from April 15,  and remove it on April 30,  unless you let us know why you want to keep this blog”  has been more effective than “would you please inform us if this blog still used?”
  4. Execute your action plan.
    Assuming you will do most of your content owner communication by email, you will receive out-of-offices of publishers who have left your organization, are on sabbatical or with maternity leave. You will have to search for back-up content owners. There will be questions about what exactly should be stored, how you can delete or archive information, who is the successor or how you can remove content from being indexed in search. Be prepared and keep some slack in your planning for unexpected things. Also see this as an opportunity to connect with existing and new content owners.
  5. Evaluate, learn and celebrate.
    What went well and what could be improved next time? Do you want to make adjustments to your criteria, targets or action plan for next time? Where are you going to store your communication so you do not have to re-invent the wheel next time?
    How much content have you been able to remove? Did you meet your targets?  This is a nice example of another succesful cleaning action.
    Are you going to communicate the results and to whom?
  6. Plan your next cleanup action now!
Obviously, the criteria, priorities and targets are specific for each intranet, but I hope these tips are useful to get you started. And as with everything, you will learn by doing!
If you have your own good story on this topic, please share!
Image courtesy of scottchan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The 80-120 rule for IT Projects.

As you will  know, I have helped many colleagues with setting up SharePoint Team Sites. These could be simple project sites, mainly used for sharing documents, but also sites where important processes were facilitated. (See tag DMWS-Examples)

My clients were very diverse. Each initial interview was therefore exciting. What kind of person would be  in front of me?

  • The Hesitator, who is actually quite satisfied with sending large documents by email, who does not mind to send around an Excel form every month to collect data from his colleagues, and to cut and paste the results manually into a report, and who can not  imagine that a meeting’s agenda and meeting minutes can be done online and not in a document. Yet there is the realization that things could be done more effectively, but how?
    Taking them by the hand, staying close to the existing process, and creating a comprehensive manual and training is the motto here.
  •  The System-Lover, who knows a lot of different IT systems, has attended SharePoint Connections meetings, and who now suddenly needs everything he or she has seen there. The moment you ask for a description of the current process and the issues to be resolved,  things go wrong because this person thinks in technical solutions rather than in business processes. Instead of thinking “how could we make this process simpler and better and reduce the issues”,  they say “this step needs Nintex workflow”.
    When working with the System-Lover, you need to stay focused on the process, and avoid the automatic deployment of new shiny functionality. Focus on using your existing toolset. You have to have that “business sense” I wrote about earlier.
  • The Ideal Partner who is able to discuss her / his problem process clearly and with openness, who is not afraid to commit to a business case  (“this task requires 2 hours work per person per week”) and who knows things can be done more effectively, and leaves me to come up with the best solution.  Who learns quickly, tests immediately and is a good sparring partner. This is a wonderful person to work with, because they always come back whenever they embark upon a new project or encounter a new inefficient process.

But there is also a client that is not so pleasant to work with, and that is the Resister. They have often been asked by their manager to improve a process, but they are not interested in or even afraid of technology, say that “SharePoint is not intuitive,” or do not believe that anything that you have done for 25 years, should be changed. Once you have finally defined the process, and have configured the site, suddenly new requirements appear, causing extensive rework. They never have  time to test, and each time there is another reason that the new process can not yet be implemented.
In short, these projects take a long time and are rarely finished or implemented.

By asking some flexibility from the client, some clever thinking and being creative with the available functionality of SharePoint we have always been able to approach the ideal situation pretty well. We therefore felt confident to promise at least 80% of the desired functionality, and generally to the full satisfaction of the client. But that does not apply when you are dealing with the Resister.

And that finally brings me to my 80-120 rule:
For someone who really wants something, or who really has a problem, 80% of the desired functionality will be sufficient.  But for someone who does not want to change, 120% is not enough.

Do you know better words for the different clients? Please let me know…I am not a native English speaker/writer.