Un-Managed Metadata: A couple of gotchas

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As the SharePoint 2010 dust settles, gushing praise and inflated expectations are slowly replaced by the cold hard reality, as people come to grips with the limitations of the product. One such area is with the managed metadata service. Don’t get me wrong, I like managed metadata a lot and I can see a little ecosystem building around that functionality specifically. But it does have a couple of big gotchas that you should be aware of before making a big investment with it.

The sad irony is that these issues are actually not the fault of the managed metadata service, but the applications that are supposed to embrace and extend SharePoint and therefore accommodate it.

The reason I am calling out these two particular issues, is that I can see many people making assumptions that this will just work, make a significant investment in time and effort to develop an IA based around that assumption and then face the painful truth of having to work around them. After examining two issues that I suspect will cause some pain, we will then have a quick look through some of the implications and mixed messages that Microsoft are sending to organisations.

InfoPath Web Suckiness

The first issue that has gotten a bit of attention is the fact that the managed metadata columns cannot be used in browser based InfoPath forms. In other words, if you have a list with a managed metadata column and think that it would be cool to customise that list forms using InfoPath, you will be in for a nasty surprise. You will receive the following error message:

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"The following fields in the SharePoint list are not supported because of their data type and will not be available in InfoPath Designer:

MyColumn (TaxonomyFieldType)”

I have a screenshot pasted above – which actually has come from a nice explanation of the problem made by Alana Helbig (hope you don’t mind Alana). Alana shows that if you persist and open the form in InfoPath, the managed metadata field will be hidden away, never to be edited again (and therefore pointless). She also also demonstrates that the behaviour is even worse if the managed metadata column is marked as mandatory. In this case, SharePoint totally spits the dummy if you modify the form with InfoPath and then try to load it. You will get a message along the lines of: “The following required fields are missing from the form” and a ULS correlation ID for your trouble.

Paradocially, InfoPath does support managed metadata when forms are displayed natively (ie not web based). This is proven by the fact that the MSOffice Document Information Panel (DIP) contains a control to display managed metadata information (in case you are not aware the DIP is an InfoPath form). The screengrab below shows Word showing two managed metadata columns (one with the imaginative name of “aaa” which I have clicked on) allowing me to pick terms from the term set.

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Taking a closer look, if I edit the Document Information Panel settings in InfoPath, I can clearly see that there is a Managed Metadata picker control.

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I never bothered with the SP2010 betas because I was doing a lot of non SharePoint work at the time. But from my reading, it seems that at one point, InfoPath could display managed metadata in the browser but it was yanked from the RTM because of quality issues. Some forums suggest it won’t be corrected in any service packs soon. I certainly hope they are wrong.

Conclusion? I assume Microsoft knew the implications of this decision – yet still, I feel that this will cause a lot of frustration and grief.

SharePoint Workspace 2010 Suckiness

This is the same issue, just using a different Microsoft client application: SharePoint Workspace 2010. SPW2010, if you haven’t seen it, provides a client for SharePoint 2010 that enables real-time synchronization of desktop content with SharePoint documents and lists.

This gotcha is one I fear might be even more insidious than the InfoPath one in certain geographic locations. This is because offline access tends to be an area people will think about later in the project. Where I live (Western Australia), is remote and dominated by mining. As a result, Groove had considerable popularity when you are in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a poor satellite link with >1 second latency ;-). Many organisations will flock to SharePoint Workspace 2010 because of its much improved compatibility with synchronising SharePoint lists, libraries and views.

The problem is that managed metadata columns can be viewed in SharePoint Workspace 2010 but not edited at all. 

Below I show a custom list with a managed metadata column called Projects.  The next image shows the same list in SharePoint Workspace 2010.  Note how the Project column is displayed in the list of projects, but is not displayed in the view/edit item form below it.

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Now some of you might be thinking that this is fairly minor, and that not being able to modify managed metadata columns is not a problem. But check out what happens when the managed metadata column is made mandatory. SharePoint Workspace 2010 displays the error below when attempting to view the list.

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Ouch! When you click on the More Info link in the ribbon, you are presented with a scarily similar message to InfoPath.

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It gets better (mixed messages)

Office 2010 has finally gotten past the use-case I described in my “folders are bad and other urban legends” post. In Office 2010, application centric users have the option to browse document libraries not just by folders, but by metadata as shown below. Note how we are browsing a managed metadata term store in the File>Open dialog box in Word 2010.

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The rub with this functionality though, is it only works for managed metadata columns. You might have configured a choice field for metadata navigation and in the browser, you can sort, slide and dice via those columns as well. But in Office 2010, you can only use managed metadata or folders. No views, and no other column types. This will inevitably lead organisations to invest time and effort to create an information architecture around the managed metadata construct. Yet by utilising managed metadata in this way, we consign ourselves to not being able to edit any of this data when we take it offline using SharePoint Workspace 2010.

*sigh* So basically, the more you try and move to a metadata driven, taxonomy approach, the more you make yourself rigid and inflexible.

But there is more…

By the way, managed metadata is not the only column type that suffers this fate. If you enable ratings on a list or library you will see the same problem. The first screengrab below is InfoPath and the next two are SharePoint Workspace 2010.

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Conclusion: Violating the laws of motion

More than ever, SharePoint is a minefield of caveats. These examples conclusively disprove Newtons laws of motion because for every possible action, there are just not equal and opposite reactions, but potentially many more opposite reactions. More then ever, practitioners have to understand these complex dependencies, and then somehow explain them to stakeholders without giving them a brain explosion. Is it little wonder that there is commonly a big gap between the slick demos and the reality on the ground?

 

Thanks for reading

 

Paul Culmsee

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Improve your stakeholders “Crapness Calibration ™” for SharePoint Information Architecture success

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Hi All

Here is my simple, patent pending method to use to help users design good SharePoint sites. It combines two very effective IA methods into one and its amazing how it turns people from wanting 1990’s era sites complete with horizontal scrolling banners with animated GIF’s into usability and IA gurus within minutes.

The tools of the trade you need for this method is:

So now you know the ingredients, let’s run through the recipe

  1. Put key stakeholders into a room (ensure the ones with poor taste are there together)
  2. Visit websitesthatsuck.com and review the 2010 contenders for worst websites of the year. (For what its worth, my personal vote is Yale School of Art)
  3. Have a good laugh and discuss all the crappy aspects to those sites – make particular note of the write-up on websitesthatsuck for each contender
  4. With the group’s sucky website radar now primed, have them load up their existing intranet (if they are really big organisation, go around to various departmental sites around the intranet). This time they will not laugh, due to the effect of your “crapness calibration” ™ exercise, they will see many faults in the existing site straight away.
  5. At this point, crank out Balsamiq and start to wireframe what the site should look like while you have the fleeting moment of clarity (crapness calibration fades with time and needs to be re-primed). The wisdom of the crowd should ensure that most of the common mistakes will be avoided there and then.
    • Statistically, one of every three times you do this, there is always one user who’s taste is so bad that calibration will take another round of deprogramming. So if you have someone that persists with crap taste or has ideas that 99% of the user base would balk at, move to the 2009 hall of shame for sucky sites. Faced with the reaction from their peers, as well as the parallels that can be drawn between their current site and the contenders, it usually does the trick.
    • Also be sure to draw attention to sites that have similar underlying concepts, but where one works well and the other has agonising lameness. For example, the New York Times compared to Havenworks. Discuss the layout, colours, fonts, images, navigation, search and the like and relate back to the site being envisioned.

In about 30-90 minutes, one of two things will happen.

  1. You will have a pretty good wireframe or three
  2. The group will realise that they have more soul searching to do.

Although your business development manager will whine at you if outcome 2 happens, consider it a good thing. You will be saving yourself and the participants a mountain of stress later and have them thinking more holistically about the outcomes they are trying to achieve.

(Final serious bit at the end alert)

What you will notice when performing this process, is that with a recent and clear frame of reference, some of the biases that people carry with them can be temporarily lifted. In some ways, this exercise is very similar to the “down the pub” calibration of estimates exercise that I wrote about previously. The trick is to find ways to change the lens people look through to see other aspects or facets to the problem at hand.

To that end, if you are in the UK or nearby, consider coming to my Governance and Information Architecture Master Class in London with Andrew Woodward and Ant Clay. Lots of other (more serious and rigorous) methods for developing shared understanding will be covered.

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

www.sevensigma.com.au

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A different kind of SharePoint Governance Master Class in London and Dublin

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The background

Over the last three years, my career trajectory had altered somewhat where I spent half my time as a SharePoint practitioner, doing all of the things that us SharePoint practitioners do, and the other half was spent in a role that I would call sensemaking. Essentially group facilitation work, on some highly complex, non IT problems. These ranged from areas such as city planning, (envisioning and community engagement) to infrastructure delivery (think freeways, schools and hospitals), to mental health, team and relationship building, performance management, board meetings and various other scenarios.

Imagine how much of a different world this is, where a group is coming together from often very different backgrounds and base positions, to come to grips with a complex set of interlocking problems and somehow try and align enough to move forward. We cannot simply throw a “SharePoint” at these problems and think it will all be better. By their very nature, we have to collaborate on them to move forward – true collaboration in all its messy, sometimes frustrating glory.

As a result of this experience, I’ve also learned many highly effective collaborative techniques and approaches that I have never seen used in my 20+ years of being an IT practitioner. Additionally, I’ve had the opportunity to work with (and still do), some highly skilled people who I learned a huge amount from. This is “standing on the shoulders of giants” stuff. As you can imagine, this new learning has had a significant effect on how Seven Sigma now diagnoses and approaches SharePoint projects and has altered the lens through which I view problem solving with SharePoint.

It also provided me the means to pinpoint a giant blind spot in the SharePoint governance material that’s out there, and what to do about it.

The first catalyst – back injury

In January this year, my family and I went on a short holiday, down to the wine country of Western Australia called the Margaret River region. On the very first day of that trip, I was at the beach, watching my kids run amok, when I totally put my back out (*sigh* such an old man). Needless to say, I could barely move for the next week or two after. My family, ever concerned for my welfare, promptly left me behind at the chalet and took off each day to sample wines, food and generally do the things that tourists do.

Left to my own devices, and not overly mobile I had little to do but ponder – and ponder I did (even more than my usual pondering – so this was an Olympic class ponder). Reflecting on all of my learning and experiences from sensemaking work, my use of it within SharePoint projects, as well as the subsequent voracious reading in a variety of topics, I came to realise that SharePoint governance is looked through a lens that clouds some of the most critical success factors. I knew exactly how to lift that fog, and had a vision for a holistic view of SharePoint governance that at the same time, simplifies it and makes it easy for people to collectively understand.

So I set to work, distilling all of this learning and experience and put it into something coherent, rigorous and accessible. After all, SharePoint is a tool that is an enabler for “improved collaboration”, and I had spent half of my time on deeply collaborative non IT scenarios where to my knowledge, no other SharePoint practitioner has done so. Since sensemaking lies in all that ‘softer’ stuff that traditionally IT is a bit weaker on, I thought I could add some dimensions to SharePoint governance in a way that could be made accessible, practical and useful.

By the end of that week I still had a sore back, but I had the core of what I wanted to do worked out, and I knew that it would be a rather large undertaking to finish it (if it ever could be finished).

The second catalyst – Beyond Best Practices

I also commenced writing a non SharePoint book on this topic area with Kailash Awati from the Eight to Late blog, called Beyond Best Practices. This book examines why most best practices don’t work and what can be done about them. The plethora of tools, systems and best practices that are generally used to tackle organisational problems rarely help and when people apply these methods, they often end up solving the wrong problem. After all, if best practices were best, then we would all follow them and projects would be delivered on time, on budget and with deliriously happy stakeholders right?

The work and research that has gone into this book has been significant. We studied the work of many people who have recognised and written about this, as well as many case studies. The problem these authors had is that these works challenged many widely accepted views, patterns and practices of various managerial disciplines. As a result these ideas have been rejected, ignored or considered outright heretical, and thus languish (largely unread) in journals. The recent emergence of anything x2.0 and a renewed focus on collaboration might seem radical or new for some, but these early authors were espousing very similar things many years ago.

The third catalyst – 3grow

Some time later in the year, 3grow asked me to develop a 4 day SharePoint 2010 Governance and Information Architecture course for Microsoft NZ’s Elite program. I agreed and used my “core” material, as well as some Beyond Best Practice ideas to develop the course. Information Architecture is a bloody tough course to write. It would be easy to cheat and just do a feature dump of every building block that SharePoint has to offer and call that Information Architecture. But that’s the science and not the art – and the science is easy to write about. From my experience, IA is not that much different to the sensemaking work that I do, so I had a very different foundation to base the entire course from.

The IA course took 450 man hours to write and produced an 800 page manual (and just about killed me in the process), but the feedback from attendees surpassed all expectations.  This motivated me to complete the vision I originally had for a better approach to SharePoint governance and this has now been completed as well (with another 200 pages and a CD full of samples and other goodies).

The result

I have distilled all of this work into a master class format, which ranges from 1 to 5 days, suited to Business Analysts, Project and Program Managers, Enterprise and Information Architects, IT Managers and those in strategic roles who have to bridge the gap between organisational aspirations and the effective delivery of SharePoint solutions. I speak the way I write, so if the cleverworkarounds writing style works for you, then you will probably enjoy the manner in which the material is presented. I like rigour, but I also like to keep people awake! 🙂

One of my pet hates is when the course manual is just a printout of the slide deck with space for notes. In this master class, the manual is a book in itself and covers additional topic areas in a deeper level of detail from the class. So you will have some nice bedtime reading after attending.

Andrew Woodward has been a long time collaborator on this work, before we formalised this collaboration with the SamePage Alliance, we had discussed running a master class session in the UK on this material. At the same time, thanks to Michael Sampson, an opportunity arose to conduct a workshop in Ireland. As a result, you have an opportunity to be a part of these events.

Dublin

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The first event is terrific as it is a free event in Dublin on November 17, hosted by Storm Technology a Microsoft Gold Partner in Dublin. As a result of the event being free, it is by invitation only and numbers are limited. This is a one day event, focussing on the SharePoint Governance blind spots and what to do about them, but also wicked problems and Dialogue Mapping, as well as learning to look at SharePoint from outside the IT lens, and translate its benefits to a wider audience (ie “Learn to speak to your CFO”).

So if you are interested in learning how to view SharePoint governance in a new light, and are tired of the governance material that rehashes the same tired old approaches that give you a mountain of work to do that still doesn’t change results, then register your interest with Rosemary at the email address in the image above ASAP and she can reserve a spot for you. We will supply a 200 page manual, as well as a CD of sample material for attendees, including a detailed governance plan.

London

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In London on November 22 and 23, I will be running a two day master class along side Andrew Woodward on SharePoint Governance and Information Architecture. The first day is similar to the Ireland event, where we focus on governance holistically, shattering a few misconceptions and seeing things in a different light, before switching focus to various facets of Information Architecture for SharePoint. In essence, I have taken the detail of the 4 days of the New Zealand Elite course and created a single day version (no mean feat by the way).

Participants on this course will receive a 400 page manual, chock full of SharePoint Governance and Information Architecture goodness, as well as a CD/USB of sample material such as a SharePoint governance plan, as well as IA maps of various types. Unlike Ireland, this is an open event, available to anyone, and you can find more detail and register at the eventbrite site http://spiamasterclass.eventbrite.com/. In case you are wondering, this event is non technical. Whether you have little hands on experience with SharePoint or a deep knowledge, you will find a lot of value in this event for the very reason that the blind spots I focus on are kind of universally applicable irrespective of your role.

Much of what you will learn is applicable for many projects, beyond SharePoint and you will come away with a slew of new approaches to handle complex projects in general.

So if you are in the UK or somewhere in Europe, look us up. It will be a unique event, and Andrew and I are very much looking forward to seeing you there!

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

www.sevensigma.com.au

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